Best known as the writer who succeeded Stan Lee on The Amazing Spider-Man, the erudite Gerry Conway most famously threw Gwen Stacy off a bridge, but his another key Spidey-story introduced a character who would go on to define the darker turn comics took in the late-Eighties, and spawned three (dreadful) movies. The father of Frank Castle, the notorious Vietnam vet turned one-man war on crime, takes us back to The Amazing Spider-Man #129 and February 1974 to talk about his most divisive creation.
Were you surprised to see The Punisher take off as a protagonist after being introduced as an antagonist?
“My original concept for The Punisher, was that as a character he was a foil. The way I was structuring that particular storyline, it was an introduction for this character The Jackal and I was trying to, in my own clumsy way, to parallel the development of the Green Goblin as a character. We saw the Green Goblin initially in conflict with other villains and he was sort of behind the scenes a bit, and slowly came out into the foreground. And that was my intention for the Jackal, but in order to do that I needed to have another character for the first story or so who would be in the foreground and would be the initial foil that Spider-Man was going to encounter. At that time there was a cultural movement in America with the [1974 movie] Death Wish phenomena, the vigilante character The Executioner, the Dirty Harry notion – the idea of the lone outsider striking against the system – and I thought it would be interesting if a character like that was manipulated into taking action against Spider-Man.
“My first notion for the character was that he was going to be a one issue throwaway character, but as I developed that issue – I helped design the costume and started scripting that story – I found that I really liked him [laughs]. I liked the fact that he was both clearly irrational in his methodology but moral in his objectives – he was taking a moral stance, which was not to say that you should go around killing people but that he had a clearly delineated sense of right and wrong, and good and evil, and in his view what he was doing was good.
“The greater conflict came about from the manner in which he was taking action was bad, and in conflict with Spider-Man it was almost a joining of those conflicting impulses. So we have this situation where a guy who’s trying to do good is doing something bad, and we’re both on his side and against him, and our hero is a victim of his insanity, and so on. It work out really well and as I was writing I though, ‘I don’t want to kill this guy off, I don’t want to get rid of him – I want to keep him around’. And even before we got the fan response we were planning a comeback for the character, and then when the fan response came in it was clear that we hit a nerve, so to our surprise and my personal delight – because I liked the character – we ended up with this fairly iconic Marvel figure.”
One of the best Punisher stories of the last decade was his appearance in Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil where he follows Matt Murdoch into prison, and through him you get a sense of who Matt Murdoch is and isn’t – do you think he works best in context than on his own shooting drug dealers?
“Yeah, I think so, because he was created to be an oppositional figure to superheroes. In a sense, he’s the worst impulse of the superhero, right? The superhero takes the law into his own hands, he sets himself up as above the law – or outside the law at the very least – so the Punisher is a madhouse mirror reflection of that. When you see him in a standalone story or – as they try to do in the movies – in a real world context, he doesn’t really he work. First of all you start making him more ‘realistic’, and once he starts getting more realistic, the immoral part of his actions starts taking on greater and greater weight, and it becomes harder and harder to see him as a potential sympathetic figure, or at least as a deluded figure that you can emphasise with.
“When a guy is standing alone in a room shooting a whole bunch of people, you might say, ‘Yes, I think these are bad people and they should all die’, but at the same time there’s a part of you that gets very queasy. On the other hand, if he’s going up against a superhero who’s already in a kind of morally vague sort of world, then the issues are a little bit less cut and dried, and you can play with the moral ambiguity. So yes, short answer [laughs], he does work better in a superhero world then on his own. That being said, he’s obviously been very successful in his own world but in his heyday – the late Eighties I think it was – he was mostly the character that was brought into other Marvel books to spice things up.”
He’s rare in that he’s one of those characters who’s been allowed to age in real time…
“Except he really hasn’t because otherwise he’d be about 80 years old!
Well closer to real time than everyone else, he’s definitely close to 60 in Punisher Max.
“He’s aged in ‘Marvel time’, you know. It’s like Nick Fury – the original Nick Fury aged in ‘Marvel time’. When we first encountered Nick Fury in the Howling Commandos, he was supposed to be a guy in his late 20s in the 1940s and when we next saw him in the mid-60s in had slight grey hair on his temples, right? That was to indicate that he’d gotten older, and then he just stayed that shape for the next 35 years! [laughs] They tried to make him into a more mature figure but that puts you in the awkward position of ‘why did he get older and no-one else did?’. You gotta watch those things in comics!”
Were you a fan of any of the Punisher movies?
“I’m happy and proud to say that I’ve seen none of them [laughs] and that’s because of a personal issue that I have with Marvel over the fact that they’ve never credited me over the character, or made even the slightest attempt to try and give me some recompense for it. I just refuse add my dollar to their money [laughs] it made the difference to me, I doubt it made a difference to anyone else!”
Look out for more from the spectacular Gerry Conway in a future issue of SciFiNow!