On Death 3: Crime and Punishers

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Everything involving race, police, and guns in America is now officially insane.

Black Lives Matter has helped illuminate an apparently neverending series of unprovoked executions of young black men by police– most recently Philando Castile, whose death was livestreamed on Facebook and… may have actually made a difference. On top of this, another horrifying twist. There have now been 2 separate cases of riflemen targeting police officers– one at a Black Lives Matter protest, the other in a town where such protests have been ongoing after police killed yet another black man, Alton Sterling, while he was restrained and on the ground.

Both the Dallas sniper, Micah Xavier Johnson, and the Baton Rouge shooter, Gavin Long, were military veterans. We’re running out of good guys with guns.

So, naturally, I’m going to talk about Netflix and comic books.

The Punisher is one of Marvel comics definitive badass characters. Introduced in 1974, he was a plain villain at his inception. A “bad guy with a code,” to be sure, but still just a hit-man with some very confusing moral stances. As I understand it, his character killed people for money– you know, like a violent criminal?– but drew the line at disrespecting an honorable opponent by cheating at murder. Unexpectedly, but unsurprisingly, the character was a huge hit. So he kept appearing, making his journey towards the Dark Antihero end of the spectrum. In the process he acquired a sympathetic “working class Batman” backstory, an alter-ego (bereaved war veteran Frank Castle), 4 different comic book series– one written by Mike Baron, whose psychotic comedy hero The Badger is a perfect parody of Dark Antiheroes– 3 generally despised feature films, and now he’s a major character in season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil. He’s about to have his own Netflix series as well.

90% of the time, I hate this guy. He’s really not my kind of superhero– mainly because HE’S A VILLAIN. MURDERERS ARE VILLAINS, OKAY?

When we base our ideas of right and wrong on which team someone plays for– The Avengers, the cops– then we are seriously on the edge of losing it. And based on how much Americans love revenge stories– like Death Wish, like The Punisher’s core story, like the bizarre number of Taken films– we’ve been on the edge of losing it for a while.

So I don’t like The Punisher because I think he’s a symptom of a larger problem. I also don’t like him because he is made of guns. Even when he became a demon-hunting angel– yeah, that happened– The Punisher was made of guns and that’s a basic fact that will never change.

If you’ve ever read a superhero comic then you know that guns are badguy weapons– I know “badguy” isn’t a real word, stay with me here. Worse, guns are used almost exclusively by henchmen and thugs– nuisance badguys that even street level heroes like Batman and Spider-Man mow down in double-digit quantities while thought ballooning or cracking jokes. They’re literally irrelevant to Superman and only an interesting problem for The Flash. A brief history of guns in comics is probably worthwhile– but also a different essay. So here’s the gist: unless it’s hidden inside of an umbrella or something ridiculous, guns rarely even injure superheroes, and as a kid I understood why.

Guns aren’t cool enough to hurt superheroes. My dad owns guns– lots of guns. My dad’s also a 6′ 4″ black belt in kung fu, you understand, but as a teenager I couldn’t imagine him taking down Bouncing Boy, much less Batman. Literally almost any adult in the U.S.–including the people who infuriate you because they can’t comprehend 4-way stop intersections, including the guys in the fail videos who jump off their roofs with skateboards like it’s a good idea that will definitely work out– can own a gun. They’re not cheap, but they’re not prohibitively expensive. Compared to laser gauntlets and mind-control gas, guns are obviously way down the list.

They may not even be as cool as this guy

They may not even be as cool as this guy.

Until The Punisher, of course. Once that door was opened, the grim and gritties got out. Lady Justice, Crimson Avenger, Grifter– the homicide heroes, almost always wielding guns.

It wasn’t new, not really. Comics have their roots in pulp fiction– again, I really need to do that brief history of guns in comics– and heroes like The Shadow and The Spider loved guns. But still, for several decades, comic book guns were decidedly not cool.

It plays out a lot differently in the real world. As I learned at a fairly young age, shooting guns in the real world is a lot like having a super power. You aim, squeeze and *BOOM* a milk carton on the other end of a field explodes! Birds fall out of the sky! Old bowling pins keel over, steel targets make a very satisfying ‘ding!’ It’s fun and exciting and… powerful. It makes you feel like you’re in command of something profound. Because you are. In the real world it’s hard to imagine something as deceptively easy to use but still as deadly as a gun.

In movies and on TV having a gun has become even more like a mutant ability than in real life. Movie heroes famously don’t have to worry about things like aiming and reloading– if the script says you get the badguy, you get the badguy. They don’t have to worry about the deafening noise from anything larger than a .22– they can fire a 12 gauge in an enclosed space and just keep conversing or interrogating like everyone still has their sense of hearing. Range, wind, maintenance– these are rarely issues for anyone on a big or small screen. I could talk a lot about the treatment of guns in the Daredevil series specifically– worth noting, disappointingly uneven give the level of realism the series strives to lend to actions, consequences, and violence as a whole– but I think The Punisher is again more relevant here.

As I’ve already noted, The Punisher’s first appearance– he wouldn’t be Frank Castle, wouldn’t have a human-type name for years– was in 1974, the same year Charles Bronson’s most famous film Death Wish came out– a revenge film about a family man who turns into a vengeance machine with guns. Dirty Harry had come out in 1971; Taxi Driver was yet to come in 1976. The latter is more a criticism of the cult of the gun-toting hero, but given Deniro’s charisma in the role of Travis Bickle, it’s also easy to mistake Bickle for an admirable guy. Not good, but… attractive. In 1970s cinema men with guns were cultural icons, heroes; they got shit done. In a case of totally not coincidence, the mid-70s is also when gun ownership peaked in the United States— more than 50% of all homes owned at least one functioning firearm. Not surprising– domestic terrorism was on the rise, the US had a historic number of prominent serial killers– plenty of whom used guns. People wanted to feel safe… and powerful. It was natural, if not necessarily intentional, that this would bleed into the violent world of superheroes, especially Marvel comics, which were known for giving their heroes “relatable” problems like poverty, alcoholism and Hulkism.

Ugh. My hair does that when I Hulk out, too.

Ugh. My hair still does that when I Hulk.

A past steeped in violence and trauma, a present based on rage and fear and guns– it was a natural progression for the character. It’s not like Americans have stopped loving their guns– well, a noisy quarter of us, at least. The Punisher’s popularity as a character has waned as well. I kinda hope that the Netflix series’ competent handling of the character doesn’t lead to any sort of revival for him. I don’t think it bodes well for the real world when Frank Castle is in ascension– or for comics for that matter. In real life over the last several years we’ve seen a lot of “good guys with guns” turn out to be… complicated. Cops, soldiers, neighborhood watch… some seem like kids who’ve been conditioned to be afraid. Others seem a lot like The Punisher, but with a lot more racism and without the code of honor. Even when he was a pure villain, The Punisher wouldn’t have shot a helpless man in the back while someone else straddled him. Young black men dying just because they happened to have a taillight out makes less sense than any comic book plot– makes less sense than the sudden deployment of murderbots by police, which also now somehow a thing. I can’t speak to the motives, of course, but I don’t think that matters– we still have too many black men shot by cops, and in just the last two weeks the reverse suddenly very publicly became true as well.

How do you stop a burgeoning shooting war? Police in other countries have declared war on their own citizens many, many times. How do we keep things from getting worse before they get better?

Here’s my radical question: does it make sense that every cop carries a gun into every situation? I know what happens when an untrained idiot at a nightclub pulls out a gun. It’s the same thing that happens when New York police opened fire on a shooter in 2012— bystanders get shot. That’s starting to look like a best case scenario. Maybe, since having a gun in a holster doesn’t keep anyone from getting shot, cops need to start leaving their guns in their trunks when they’re on patrol. Maybe there should be special gun-trained elites within the police force, like in Ireland.

Huh. The Washington Post is also asking the same question. Huh.

On my end, this is a half-baked idea. I know this. I also know Congress has forbidden the CDC from researching gun violence upon penalty of having its funding cut– basically the death penalty if you’re a scientist. Plus, there are no rules or requirements for local police departments to turn in reliable numbers on police shootings. The only way we can get an idea of whether this might work is by looking at other countries. We literally can’t do any kind of cost-benefit analysis without bringing down the wrath of both law enforcement and the NRA, so the job gets even harder. What I do know is that cops having guns on their hips didn’t save lives in Dallas or Baton Rouge.

And so many civilians– I can’t say this enough, mostly black men– are dying on a whim.

I’ve known a lot of police, sheriff’s deputies, campus cops. They’d come to our house nights and weekends when they needed a search warrant. We’d chat at the circulation desk and close down the library together. NCSU’s campus police investigated every single stolen book bag diligently without complaint, and when I couldn’t identify a thief based on mugshots they didn’t say an unkind word. The off-duty officer– memorably and legitimately named Sergeant Slaughter– who used to help me close down the country club– among other things, I tended bar– would shoot the shit with me for about an hour every night I worked. He was and doubtless is a good guy; when my apartment building burned down I was incredibly happy to see him on the scene. My exposure to police has led me to a simple conclusion: cops are people.

People mostly do the jobs we ask them to do. If we ask them to help we get helpers. If we tell them to punish the unjust we get punishers. Dating back to at least 1492– the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition– the punishers haven’t worked out so well.

As a society, as a world, we need police. We need safety and justice. Life is punishment enough. We need to say farewell to the punishers.

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