Punisher: Symbols and Violence

Punisher is an anti-hero, a dark character even within the known-for-edge Marvel universe. The Punisher has employed torture, blackmail, kidnapping, and good old-fashioned murder as part of his ongoing attempt to wreak violent ends on criminals. Like a problem child (or a superstar, depending on your point of view), Punisher was assigned a special place within the Marvel universe as part of the Max series. The current run of Punisher is mainsteaming the character by bringing him into the main Marvel lineup with a new issue #1 and a new writer, Queen & Country‘s Greg Rucka. The comic is still violent, no question about that, but the creators have gone to some effort to turn that violence toward interesting story and artistic ends.

In the comics continuum, there’s a world of difference between the iconic violence in Garfield and the more literal violence of a dark mainstream comic like Punisher. In addition to the literal violence depicted, Punisher #1 provides occaisional forays into more symbolic violence.

Symbolized Violence in Punisher #1
Symbolized Violence in Punisher #1

In the example above, from a wedding interrupted by armed gunmen, the violence of the scene is depicted symbolically as well as literally. The prominent red rose on the groom is shown bursting as he’s shot. The spray of blood, the same color as the petals, flies up in a similar fashion to those petals in the next panel. Finally, when the bride is shot, the red of the panel’s background color, the red of the victim’s blood, and the red of the prominent, floating rose images link the violence of the scene with roses for a third time. A traditional symbol of love and affection, the rose, becomes emblematic of the horrific violence of the scene. The art is as associative as it is literal, in other words, and those symbols evoke the emotional effects of the action as much as they depict the action.

Darkness of Light in Punisher
Darkness of Light in Punisher

Later, when the Punisher attacks the criminals who disruted the wedding, the art again moves into association. Here, after several panels of explicit violence, the Punisher’s form becomes lost in the darkness. His face is hidden by shadows, and the normally crisp skull of his costume blurs in unsteady light. Flecks of blood stand out in bright contrast to the blacks and blues that dominate the panel, and those are the only moments of red color on the whole page. The contrast between darkness and light is a play on the character himself, whose actions, the next section makes clear, would be praised as “righteous” if he were a cop.

The vengenace cycle of the comic’s plots echo ancient sagas (or recent sagas — I couldn’t help but think of the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones during this issue), but I’ve found that without the comforting distancing effect of a thousand years or a whole other world’s setting, I’m too disturbed by the events to enjoy the comic’s effects. In the Punisher’s narrative, violence is a brutal kind of truth, and however much I might be a fan of truth, the price paid here feels far too great. Still, the new Punisher series is a strong showing, and the work of these creators is exemplary.

Additional Reading

The Punisher #1. Greg Rucka (writer). Marco Cheecchetto (artist). Matt Hollingworth (color artist). VC’s Joe Caramagna (letterer). Marvel Comics, 2011.

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