Depending on who you ask, Frank Castle is a symbol for a number of different and sometimes conflicting ideas. To some, he's a dangerous antihero who represents the darkness that all costumed crimefighters are on the verge of slipping into. To others, he's an idealised embodiment of the United States' military might.
When we talk about the Punisher, the character's history as a military vet often becomes something of a footnote in the larger conversation about his character. We know that Frank Castle was a marine and that his combat training makes up the bulk of his power set, but the more modern Punisher stories don't always make a point of unpacking the long-lasting impact that Castle's time in the service had on his mind. In Garth Ennis, Goran Parlov and Jordie Bellaire's new Punisher MAX series, The Platoon, we finally get a chance to see what sort of man Castle was during his first tour of duty in Vietnam, and how it was that he came to make his first kill in the field.
The second issue of The Platoon is out today. At first, the series reads a lot like your standard sort of story about the horrors of war. But as it's been unfolding, Ennis and Parlov have been gradually taking the time to give us a look into the mind of a much younger, fresher Frank Castle.
The Platoon opens in a bar where the only four surviving members of Frank Castle's first command have gathered to meet with a writer. The author has been researching information about the time before their second lieutenant first became the Punisher. Castle, the writer insists to the gathered veterans, was the type of man who embodied the loss of innocence that war inflicts on people, and his path to becoming the Punisher is a story worth committing to the books. The veterans are quick to point out, though, that the concept of an innocence existing before any one particular war is inherently flawed. It's the very lack of innocence to begin with that leads to warfare, and in their way, the men all understand that the same may have been true of Castle as well.
The Castle that the veterans first met back in '68 was very much a prototypical version of the man who would don his iconic skull insignia: Someone with a natural talent for combat and an innate understanding of the battlefield. When Frank first arrives at his new platoon, he learns that their camp is consistently the last to receive supplies, mail, and communication from command. This puts the soldiers in the difficult position of having to do without, despite being squarely in the line of fire. Though his men are good, they're undervalued and the negligence from above casts a long shadow across the entire camp.
While access to necessities on the front line is certainly an issue that concerns the men, it's flawed intelligence that puts Castle's platoon in potential danger, and The Platoon begins to zero in on the way that negligence and lack of oversight create an environment of uncertainty. One of Castle's men expresses his doubts about the safety of a planned extraction point, which they have been explicitly told is safe. Castle chooses instead to trust his sergeant's instincts and orders an airstrike on a plot of land that he and the others were scheduled to trek through. The air strike reveals that the area was indeed occupied by enemy combatants that would likely have killed them.
Though The Platoon doesn't explicitly refer to Castle making his "first" kill until today's second issue, the series has moments where Castle, in his capacity as a soldier, has a direct involvement in the decision making process that leads to the deaths of people. It's never specifically mentioned whether or not Castle feels a particular way about his actions, beyond that he was merely doing what was expected and required of him. To Castle and the rest of his men, the Vietnamese fighters they're facing are largely faceless enemies off in the distance, but The Platoon knowingly goes out of its way to humanise the Vietnamese people and emphasise that they too were victims of the conflict.
As detailed and well-researched as Ennis' depiction of the war is, what's most striking about The Platoon is the way that Castle is rendered here as something of a cold, almost mechanical figure who simply arrives fully formed as the ideal soldier seemingly unfazed by the horrors he sees.
His fellow soldiers struggle to maintain a hold of their sanity as they're forced to fight for their lives, but Castle approaches the violence with a collected calmness that comes across as almost inhuman. The fissures in Castle's psyche that eventually led to his becoming the Punisher began to form long before his third and final tour in Vietnam, and it feels as if that's one of the major ideas that The Platoon is subtly trying to convey.
When we talk about the One Bad Day that broke Frank Castle, that framing dismisses the idea that he was a broken, fractured man long before then. Witnessing the deaths of his family certainly pushed Castle over the edge, but to dismiss his time in the service as merely a point in his life where he learned how to fight feels intellectually disingenuous. In a very thoughtful, careful way, The Platoon is telling an important story about the countless bad days that Castle experienced in the years leading up to his days as a vigilante. This new series is the sort of deep dive into the man's history that deserves to be told more often as a cautionary tale.