Punisher #19 is intended as a revenge fantasy comic. The plot, such as it is, is that psychotic killing machine Frank Castle is contacted by an elite special ops group known as the Howling Commandos. The commandos are asking for Punisher’s help to take out a terrorist cell in the Middle East. From there the comic is just a slurry of sequences as the Punisher shoots, explodes, and tortures his way through various terrorist cannon fodder. Additionally, nothing about this issue actually works. There’s a plethora of reasons why the book falls apart but its simple existence has made me keen to discuss revenge fantasies in general along with the idea of highly fetishized vicarious violence, using Punisher #19 as a contrasting example of what not to do to craft these kind of stories in a cathartic and satisfying manner.
The first major problem with the issue is the disconnect between Frank Castle and the targets of his “revenge.” This is where we get into some strange territory about the nature of a revenge comic, specifically in terms of what group is meant to be vicariously living through the protagonist’s violent actions. Here the Punisher is meant to represent some level of catharsis for Americans bitter over the lack of a sense of tangible resolution to over a decade of military conflict in the Middle East. This ends up making the most direct parallel to Punisher #19 is Rambo: First Blood Part 2. The problem is that the Punisher is left without a tangible goal, direct relation to the issue, or achievable objective. In Rambo: First Blood part 2 the lead character John Rambo returns to Vietnam in an attempt to locate P.O.W.s who had been written off and abandoned by the American government. It works on the continuing theme of neglected veterans that informed Rambo’s character in the first film and intrinsically ties him to the plight of those currently being harmed. Additionally it gives Rambo a direct and achievable goal that actually has tangible results, saving these abandoned P.O.W.s does immediate good and provides instant gratification of a goal. This way even though Rambo can’t defeat all of Vietnam by himself and even though we, the audience, know that as soon as Rambo leaves terrible forces will replace the ones he’s killed there’s still a sense of success and victory.
Conversely the Puisher’s whole goal is simply to kill this one particular terrorist cell. It leaves us with the inescapable fact that even if Punisher kills the entire cell another group will inevitably move in to take their place, leaving his victories inherently hollow. Additionally Castle is intrinsically removed from the marines who are at risk of the terrorist cell. There is the connection of Frank Castle’s past as a marine but that doesn’t really work because it’s been thoroughly coded into his character that part of why he’s so psychotic and violent is due to his mistreatment during and after his military service. The Punisher doesn’t define himself as a marine. He also never engages with fellow marines on the ground or even the local people who are being ground under the heel of the terrorist cell. This traps Punisher #19 in a terrible twilight zone of motivation, especially compared so many other revenge fantasies that balance personal connection and motivation so well. Going back to Rambo: First Blood pt2 part of the story revolves around Rambo befriending several local Vietnamese villagers who are being oppressed by the Vietcong, eventually even choosing to stay among them. Their cause becomes his cause, he ends up wedded to both the POWs and civilians that are the victims of the villains.
This isn’t an anomaly either, in Django Unchained Django has suffered the horrors of slavery himself, his wife is still enslaved giving him a personal connection, and we see him help other slaves at multiple key scenes. Without that personal connection the issue of the Punisher not being able to stop the entirety of this terrorist activity becomes even more problematic. There are cases where a character can have a strained relation to the victimized group but their actions are so impactful in stopping the central subject of revenge that it becomes acceptable. While neither Django or Rambo end their respective revenge targets as a cause they resolve their personal connection to them, alternatively in Inglorious Basterds the titular characters end the entire Nazi regime. This helps overcome the fact that most of the bastards are functionally removed from the subject of revenge, they’re all Jewish certainly but that’s not a central focus of their scenes or personalities beyond simple motivation. The idea of connection and personal revenge is better exemplified through Shosanna Dreyfus, the French-Jewish women whose family was killed by the Nazis at a young age and who eventually helps kill the entire Nazi elite.
The other key way revenge fantasies can work as a way for the audience to enjoy visceral and often stylized violence in a guilt free context. For example, in Kill Bill vol. 1 the Bride cuts down swaths of henchmen who she has no personal quest for vengeance against but it’s forgiven because the manner of the violence is deeply stylized and well choreographed. The idea here is to use the revenge plot as way to frame hordes of individuals as non-people that to absolve the audience of guilt from reveling in their deaths. This is similar to the approach taken by films like Kingsman during its famous Church Scene, Raiders of the Lost Ark in its climactic moments, as well as the central gimmick of Zombieland. This even extends to stuff like Bioshock Infinite where the villains are coded as a legion of mindless, racist, monsters so the various creative ways you have of murdering them can be fully enjoyed without introspection. I’m in no way opposed to this idea as it actually takes a lot of skill and creativity to create an engaging and imaginatively gorey action sequence, it’s just that Punisher doesn’t do that.
Rather than use the alleviative framing of “terrorist monsters” as an excuse for Frank Castle to creatively murder his way through the entire insurgency the tone of the comic is oppressively dark, dour, and ponderous. The only memorable moment violence wise is a scene in which Punisher tortures a man with a car tire. The rest of the comic is full of very boring shooting deaths without the slightest bit of tension, all of which ends up slathered in the most meaningless and pretentious narration that simply repeats words like war, death, and pain ad nauseum without imbuing them with any deeper meaning. As a result the entire comic ends up very similar to American Sniper, a vacant and meaningless story draped in the artifice of current politics and events to feign deeper meaning. It’s a comic that wants to lure you in with the promise of cathartic violence and wish fulfillment but delivers a hollow and empty shell of a story that’s as disconnected from its audience as the Punisher is from heroism.