Spidey Doesn’t Play Well With Others is a monthly column, published every third Tuesday, by Paul DeKams that looks at stories that showcase that while Spider-Man might have many “Amazing Friends,” they don’t always get along.
Spider-Man and The Punisher were made to be at odds with each other. Heck, in The Punisher’s first appearance, he’s got Spider-Man in his crosshairs! But these two have never been as simple as “heroes get into misunderstanding, battle and then team-up.” Even though the typical super hero meet-cute was the basis of their meeting, the relationship between the two has developed into a very complex, antagonistic one. They may have saved each other’s lives on occasion, but Peter Parker and Frank Castle are fundamentally different, and they do not like each other.
The Punisher has committed himself to eliminating criminals. All of them. On a permanent basis. Frank Castle is single-minded in his pursuit of his goal, and it’s a goal that was initially grounded in avenging the murder of his family. But he’s gone well beyond punishing those responsible for that crime. He’s killed so many members of organized crime in the Marvel Universe that I have no idea how there is still any organized crime in the Marvel Universe. Peter Parker’s reason for being Spider-Man stems from his inability to save Uncle Ben. But after years of further loss, he’s extended the span of his responsibility to include everyone, including his foes. “They all need to die” vs. “No one dies.”
The clash of these characters’ values has played out in a number of ways under a number of different creators, but I’d like to explore the approaches of Garth Ennis and Greg Rucka. How they’ve handled these characters not only deals with the conflict between the two characters, but larger conflicts regarding super hero comics and their value.
Some of the best Punisher stories have come from Garth Ennis. Punisher: MAX was a bleak and unforgiving run that placed Punisher in the “real world,” putting Frank Castle up against terrorists and human traffickers. The Marvel Knights Punisher run that preceded it was a dark, Looney Tunes-esque satire of Marvel. Heroes that guest-starred in this comic didn’t fare too well. Both in the beatings they endured as a result of their encounters with Castle and in how they were written by Ennis. They’re portrayed as fools getting in the way of the Punisher, who is (seemingly) the only smart person in a universe of idiots running around in tights.
In Punisher #2, Spidey interrupts a battle between The Punisher and The Russian. For his troubles, Spider-Man received several concussions as Castle used him as a super-human shield against the barrage of the Russian’s cybernetically enhanced-strength.
Spider-Man appears again in “A Confederacy of Dunces,” Ennis’s final story in this title before the Punisher moved over to the R-rated MAX line. Spider-Man teams up with Daredevil and Wolverine in order to end Castle’s murderous war on crime, but is easily defeated by a combination of the Punisher’s smarts and an amnesiac Hulk. It’s a fun story, but it’s not too kind to superheroes, nor is it too kind to those of us buying super hero comic books. Ennis’s stand-in for the fans, Spacker-Dave, winds up paralyzed as a result of his blind love of super heroes.
That isn’t to say that Ennis is being needlessly critical of the genre. He’s using over-the-top versions of these characters, and exaggerations of comic fans to challenge the genre and to challenge the readers. As I mentioned, this story was followed by the Punisher leaving the Marvel Universe proper for a bit so he could do some adult things. No, not THAT. Just drop some F-bombs and murder criminals in a more brutal fashion.
A few years after Frank Castle was re-integrated into the super hero world, the need to take him down was revisited by Greg Rucka in Punisher: War Zone. The Punisher is implicated in the murder of a police officer, and used one of Spidey’s web shooters to make a get away. This infuriates Spider-Man. He makes a play at taking Castle down, but is thwarted. He pleads the case to his fellow Avengers that they need to bring him in, and despite the arguments of some of the more ‘grey-area’ Avengers, Captain America agrees.
No character is really presented as a fool (except maybe Iron Man who has his armor stolen and then booby-trapped by the Punisher), and Rucka instead explores how this character can continue to exist in the Marvel Universe. It is a much more interesting examination of the absolutism of both Castle and Parker as well as the heroes whose morals fall somewhere in between the two. You’re not made to feel stupid for having read the comic, or for enjoying comic books in general. Instead, Rucka presents an adult, complex story within the confines of the superhero genre.
Spider-Man and the Avengers defeat the Punisher; he’s incarcerated in a prison of Iron Man’s design. But we know he’ll get out again, and Rucka recognizes this. Spider-Man and the Punisher are both going to continue on in their own comic books. The man who’ll risk his life to save his enemies is never going to get along with the man who’ll shoot Stilt-Man in the face. Ennis chose to show a Spider-Man whose beliefs prevented a better hero from fighting evil. Rucka presented a number of flawed heroes who fought hard for a hollow victory against a man whose obsession knows no bounds. If I’m honest, I prefer the latter approach to the former, as it challenges the next creator who handles Spider-Man vs. Punisher to top it, rather than pointing out the shortcomings of an entire genre.