Was pumping gas today when I saw yet another dude with a Punisher T-shirt. I’ve been seeing a lot of those around lately; I assume it has something to do with American Sniper — although nobody in the film refers directly to it, the Punisher logo is featured repeatedly throughout the movie. I took it to mean that Chris Kyle’s SEAL team used it as their unofficial emblem.
The Punisher is an interesting comic book character — he was very much a product of his time, which was roughly the late 70s to the early 90s. He first appeared in a Spider-Man comic in 1974 — auspiciously, the very same year that Charles Bronson’s Death Wish was released, and the same year that fanboy comic favorite and quintessential “morally problematic good guy” Wolverine made his debut.
As originally conceived, The Punisher was basically a direct ripoff of Mack Bolan, star of the popular series of men’s adventure novels first written by Don Pendleton. (Mack Bolan was probably also the inspiration for Remo Williams, a somewhat quirkier hero who has also found his way into movies and comic books.) The Punisher was the alter ego of mild-mannered Frank Castle, an elite special forces Vietnam veteran whose wife and child were accidentally (or deliberately, depending on the in-universe continuity adopted by various iterations of the character) killed by a shady organized crime syndicate. To avenge his family, Castle dedicated his life to using his finely-honed military skills to “punish” criminal wrongdoers who managed to elude the established justice system. (This, in fact, was how he managed to show up in a Spider-Man comic: Spider-Man’s enemy tricks The Punisher into believing that Spider-Man is a criminal — which made The Punisher determined to kill Spidey.)
What’s really fascinating about The Punisher is how much he was a product of his particular time and place. Just like Captain America (or Dazzler), if you came to a comic publisher today with a proposal for this character, you’d be laughed out of the office.
We live in a world of intense anxiety about police forces exhibiting a quasi-military character — a world where Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman is widely seen as a villain for shooting Trayvon Martin. In this context, a hero like The Punisher seems insane — even racist. A private citizen who uses his cutting-edge military expertise to prowl the mean streets at night and execute lawbreakers? That sounds like an invitation for an Al Sharpton press conference and a Justice Department civil rights investigation.
But here’s the thing: As you can see from the chart at right (which I got here), crime rates in the United States jumped sharply in the years after 1960, then started to decline significantly in the 1990s. It seems like a ridiculous fantasy to us today, but there was a time when a wacky gang epic like The Warriors seemed at least semi-plausible. The trashy hellscape made famous by 1970s New York cinema was not a screenwriter’s invention — that world really existed.
To people who lived through this, it must have seemed like the whole world really was descending into chaos. It must have been especially disorienting for folks who experienced the sharp initial increase after living through the relatively tranquil 1950s. In this context, it’s easy to see how a guy who rather brutally takes the law into his own hands might become a kind of folk hero.
Looking at that graph of crime rates, you can actually pinpoint significant cultural moments — the first peak happens around 1971, which was the year Dirty Harry was released. At that point, people were still ready to believe that a tough-as-nails lawman working inside the establishment (but ready to bend the rules under the right circumstances) might be capable of getting a handle on the problem. There’s a second peak around 1974 — around the time of Watergate, when the public finally lost all faith in the establishment. That’s when Death Wish became a monster hit — featuring a hero who worked outside the establishment to impose the sort of rough frontier justice that the authorities couldn’t provide. The biggest peak happens around 1981, about the time of the cocaine wars made famous by Scarface on one side and the cops of Miami Vice on the other. One of the running themes of Miami Vice was how the cops and the criminals were often indistinguishable in terms of appearance — everybody wore the same stylish clothes and drove the same flashy cars.
This could perhaps be seen as another reflection of the public’s changing attitudes — crime was now so bad that working outside the establishment like Charles Bronson wasn’t enough; the good guys now had to start adopting the looks and tactics of the bad guys in order to succeed. There’s a slight dip in crime during the prosperous Reagan years, then a broader rise peaking around 1991, coinciding roughly with the crack-cocaine wars and the rise of gangsta rap — a new cultural genre in which a large section of the public seemingly threw up its hands and made the criminals into the heroes.
This early-1990s peak was also, incidentally, the heyday of The Punisher comic book, when millions of eager fans lapped up tales about a white guy storming into the ghetto armed to the teeth with serious military hardware, using it to lay waste to poor, disenfranchised minorities. Some of these old comics, such as the one at left, look fantastically racist today, but it’s important to remember that this was a time when it truly did look like the lunatics were taking over the asylum. Look again at that graph of violent crime rates, and compare where things were in the 1990s to where they are today. You can maybe begin to appreciate why this sort of thing was not seen as objectionable at the time.
Still, it’s fascinating how weird The Punisher looks in the post-Trayvon Martin, post-Michael Brown world. I think it also partly explains why the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases attracted the attention they did. Crime in general, and black criminals in particular, are increasingly foreign to the experience of Americans of all races. A society where crime is relatively low is a society that will tend to care about the rights of Michael Brown — who, whatever else you might say about him, appears to have been at least a petty criminal.
I guess my broader point here is that politics and culture seem to follow something roughly analogous to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If established authorities aren’t meeting basic needs, such as safety and security for the general population, we tend to fetishize people who we imagine will meet those needs — even if those people are objectively behaving in a criminal fashion. It’s only when our basic needs are relatively satisfied that we turn our attention to more abstract concerns, such as seeking justice for a marginal character like Freddie Gray — a man whose police record seems to indicate little regard for his fellow citizens. I’m not trying to put the guy down by noting that — simply pointing out that his case would have elicited far, far less sympathy from a public whose nerves were frazzled by out-of-control crime rates. In a different, more dangerous era, the cops who allegedly killed him might have been popularly regarded as heroes.
Which brings me back to that Punisher T-shirt: I really, really hope that’s just an American Sniper thing. Because it’s a bad omen if a character like that is coming back into fashion of his own accord.