[In March 1941, DC Comics published Captain America Comics #1. So for Cap’s 80th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy him and a handful of other comic superheroes, leading up to a post full of student responses to one of our most complex comics.]
On the character whose ambiguous heroism illustrates a fundamental American duality.
Each of the comic book heroes I’ve written about this week is complex in one way or another, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’re all, at the end of the day, heroes (outside of those individual storylines where Superman goes bad or the like, which only reinforce the character’s general goodness in contrast). But the same cannot necessarily be said of Marvel’s The Punisher (Frank Castle); since his 1974 debut in The Amazing Spider-Man, as a man out to kill Spider-Man both because he believes him to be a criminal and because he seemingly enjoys killing, The Punisher has blurred the lines between hero and villain as much as any comic book character. On the one hand, Castle first became The Punisher after his wife and children were massacred and the killers escaped justice (until he delivered it to them); on the other hand, he has continued to kill ever since, a vigilante often skirting and breaking the law while at the same time claiming to honor and uphold it.
There are salient late 20th century contexts for that kind of ambiguity, perhaps especially in the rise of vigilante characters such as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey, men who take the law into their own hands in understandable yet brutal and extreme ways. Pushing that particular envelope even further are characters such as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle (spoiler alert for that clip) or Michael Douglas’s Bill Foster, men whose motivations are even more murky and disturbed, although the objects of their violence seem often to deserve their fates just as much as did Clint’s and Bronson’s. It’s no doubt in part because of that sense of rightness in their actions, despite the obvious wrongness in much of their characters, that all four men became pop culture heroes in various ways; but such vigilante heroism is also an enduring American ideal. Even many of the Revolution’s heroes, from the Boston Tea Partiers to Paul Revere to Nathan Hale, operated outside of and in opposition to the law; and they’re far from alone in our popular iconography.
Perhaps the most famous pop cultural embrace of vigilante-ism, however, is also a far more explicitly controversial one, and a reminder of the other side to these American histories. In the final sequence in D.W. Griffith’s technically pioneering and thematically disgusting The Birth of a Nation (1915), the Ku Klux Klan rides triumphantly to the rescue of the film’s protagonists, defying any and all official institutions (who are all in the film’s mythos in league with the villains) in the process; the scene’s celebration of the KKK’s lawlessness would be echoed two decades later by a distinctly similar scene in Gone with the Wind (both the novel and the film). These cultural texts remind us that the vigilante activities of the KKK, like those of lynch mobs, were for many decades in our national narratives treated just like those of The Punisher et al—as a disturbing and perhaps tragic but also understandable and even necessary response to societal ills. Makes Frank Castle that much more ambiguous, doesn’t it?
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other superhero contexts or analyses you’d share?