First of all, a quick confession. Frank Castle is probably my favourite Marvel… character. I nearly wrote hero, which seems intentionally the wrong word, and yet also anti-hero is never quite right for me. The Punisher has been more frequently reviled as praised for being a series that glorifies violence. Yet for me, reviews such as Matt Kamen’s take on the recent Netflix series as an example of toxic masculinity are not quite correct (although to be fair to Kamen, his review is much more subtle than a one-phrase comment does justice to). Frank Castle occupies a position for me somewhere closer to Don Hieronimo in The Spanish Tragedy (which does, after all, deal with the events of the Duke of Castile and his son) and, as in all good Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, there will be blood. Lots of it. Articles discussing the gruesome nature of violence in the series also seem to miss the mark: the violence is gut-wrenchingly unpleasant, and this is as it should be – if we enjoy violence, then there is, simply, something wrong with us (one of my fundamental problems with the Deadpool franchise). Frank Castle is as much punished as punisher and in the end I think he is a hero more for what he could have been, what he wants to be – a husband, a father – than what he is.
I’m also a sucker for the fact that Frank (born Frank Castiglione) had originally intended to become a priest before joining the marines. As with that other lesson in the dark morality of comics, Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, it seems that one ex-Catholic can’t quite get enough of his heroes always being willing to fall a little further while yet somehow never quite reaching the bottom of the abyss. This post, however, deals with an exceptional edition of The Punisher, published in February 2006 as part of the Max Comics imprint aimed at adult audiences. Entitled The Tyger, it is an origin story that also contains one of the most extensive expositions on Blake that I believe exists anywhere in the comic universe, but Garth Ennis, the writer alongside John Severin, who did the art for this issue, have attracted considerably less attention that other figures such as Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman.
The issue begins with Frank on a rooftop in the 1970s, waiting to commit an assassination and pondering on how his violent actions will be explained away as a convenient narrative based on the post-traumatic stress of combat in Vietnam. Yet the real cause of his transformation took place in 1960 when he was ten years old, and its origins lie in two figures – Lauren Buvoli and Vincent Rosa (a son of a local mafia boss) – as well as, we are told very explicitly, “the tyger”. The scene cuts to Frank as a young boy witnessing a man on fire, running through a navy yard, like a terrible parody of Orc. We will later discover that the man on fire has been set on fire by the others at the navy yard for being a strike breaker and complicit in an accident which left one of the men permanently injured. This brutal example of lex talionis is apparently justified by Frank’s father, but his mother decries such mindless violence.
It is Frank’s mother, we learn, who at this point influences him more than his father, inspiring in him a love of poetry that Catiglione senior cannot understand and dismisses as queer and unmanly. Ten-year old Frank, however, is very much his own boy, and a boy in love at that: Lauren Buvoli is beautiful and kind, a song of innocence in Frank’s neighbourhood and one of several indications throughout the series of the very different life that he could have led before he was forced to embrace experience. We also briefly encounter Lauren’s brother, Sal, a marine who will occupy a very important place in the story. It is partly to get closer to Lauren, but more to encourage his own sense of imagination, that Frank visits Father David who teaches poetry to kids in the neighbourhood. Father David introduces the class to Blake’s “The Tyger” and, as Frank observes, the priest and Blake “had me from the get-go”.
The follows, after the reading of the entire poem, an original and (the first time I read it) entirely unexpected disposition on reader response theory. Having let his imagination loose to conceive the tyger in his mind’s eye, a “force made flesh” that knows neither remorse nor mercy, Frank, Lauren and Father David discuss who it was that made this creature. It seems entirely credible to me that Ennis is familiar at this point with Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in this Class?, in particular Fish’s discussion of how critics answer the question in Blake’s poem according to their own preconceptions as to the nature of good and evil. Frank believes that the tyger must be made by something other than God, while Father David – responding to Lauren’s wonderfully liberal assertion that “can’t Frank read the poem the way he likes?” with a fatal assertion: “In this instance he really can’t.”
Ennis’s use of Blake is not as subtle and allusive as Alan Moore’s in part V of Watchmen, nor indeed Grant Morrison’s playful rejoinder in Zenith (more on both of these soon), but this discussion is an exceptionally intelligent series of observations on the role of interpretive communities in reading Blake and follows with another remarkable example of the role of the reader in interpreting the text. While on his second tour in Vietnam and out searching for a pilot lost behind enemy lines, Frank encounters a tiger. Rather than shooting in fear – for by this point, Frank Castle really doesn’t do fear – he and the tiger (or is it a tyger) reflect each other’s dangerous, stoic stare. As Frank remarks: “To this day, I have no idea if it was real. Or imagination filling in the gaps.”
The remainder of the grim roots of the origins of the Punisher involve rape, suicide and a dreadful, burning revenge by Sal who is, we realise, the “tyger” invoked by Frank at the beginning. In contrast to Frank’s father, who operates a kind of vigilante law of revenge that does, in the end, know fear and pity, Sal is remorseless and without mercy. He is also, as Frank discovers very quickly in Vietnam, walking towards his own death wish. The scene in which Sal takes his revenge on Vincent Rosa, burning him alive, is another demonstration of how Blake’s poem is used throughout the issue, being an act of fearful symmetry. By the end of the issue Frank reveals that he has made his choice, fixed his reading of “The Tyger” to become one who shows “the world a face not made by God”.
Ennis and Severin’s reading of Blake via the eyes of ten-year old Frank Castle is, quite simply, remarkable. I do not actually agree with Frank’s interpretation, and that is ultimately (for me) his loss, of innocence for experience. Yet Frank himself, throughout the various issues of The Punisher, knows this, and that is why – for me – he is such an interesting character. When The Punisher: The Tyger was published, Blake’s poem had already entered popular culture as one of the images – alongside the Great Red Dragon – in the Hannibal Lecter series. Yet unlike Francis Dolarhyde, with whom we are invited to at least empathise, if not sympathise, Frank stands apart from us: ultimately, his actions require a different kind of judgement. The invocation of the tyger is particularly interesting because this is not, in Ennis’s words and Severin’s art, a creature of Dionysian joy but, rather, a figure of stoicism – and, as in the works of that other famous stoic, Seneca, violence and pain are a punishment to be endured in a brutal, uncaring universe.