The Sweet Smell of Excess

Noir Novelist Duance Swierczynski Takes the "Punisher" to a New Extreme: Philadelphia

By Steven Wells
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 11, 2009

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Hyperviolent vigilante Frank Castle--aka the Punisher--is on vacation in Philadelphia when he finds himself in the middle of a shoot-out between transvestite Mummer cops coming out of Geno's and hipster porn merchants coming out of Pat's. As countless civilians are toppled like so many gore-spewing skittles in the relentless crossfire, the Punisher judges both sides guilty and so punishes them--with leaden death.

This leads to an increasingly absurd avalanche of Philly-cliche mega-violence that reaches a bloody climax at the Wing Bowl, where the Punisher--cunningly disguised as a contestant in a Benjamin Franklin fat suit, pince-nez and powdered periwig--literally eviscerates Philly's organized crime community with fragmentation grenades and blazing AK-47s.

None of the above happens (so far as we know) in the new issue of The Punisher, published by Marvel and set in Philadelphia. (As we go to print only the first of five issues is actually in stores.) But what does happen in the popular comic is bound to be almost as crazy, because the current author is 36-year-old Philly crime writer and former City Paper Editor Duane Swierczynski. And he's fucking bonkers.

Not in person. Swierczynski is as big as a Budweiser Clydesdale but not quite as pretty. And while he could crush your skull like an eggshell with his mighty fists, he almost certainly won't. He lives with his wife, 6-year-old-son and 5-year-old daughter in a perfectly normal house in a perfectly respectable part of Northeast Philadelphia. His first job every morning is to make his kids breakfast (Coco Puffs, Special K and/or yogurt and frozen pancakes).

Then he might spend the rest of the day walking the streets of the city that he loves and loathes in equal measure, thinking about absurdly violent stuff happening to awfully unlucky people. The kinds of thoughts one needs to have in order to write about a protagonist like Frank Castle, who Swierczynski calls "a psychopath."

Frank Castle's story is a spin on the dark Bruce Wayne mythology. A Vietnam vet, Castle became the Punisher after he saw his wife and kids killed in the crossfire of a Mafia shoot-out in Central Park. In a comics universe full of fancy-dan meta-humans with blithe but strictly observed moral codes (even the similarly un-superpowered Batman desists from murdering his enemies), the Punisher broke all the rules. If you were bad, you died. End of story.

Dark light: Even in the daytime, "Punisher" scribe Duane Swierczynski sees the city's gloom (Photo by Michael Persico).

Except, of course, it's never that simple. In a recent story line, Frank Castle refused to help the CIA track down Bin Laden, citing his experiences in Vietnam as reason for his skepticism about government-sanctioned violence. Typical Castle stubborness.

Then there's the classic vigilante question: What criteria do you use to decide who deserves to die? The comic book Black Summer, for instance, started its brief 2007 run with a superhero walking into the Oval Office and summarily executing its occupant for taking the U.S. to war on a lie. Begging the question: If you've pledged to rid the world of the evil, why waste your time with mere criminals?

"With the Punisher you've always got to ask who's he going to punish and how much they deserve it," says Swierczynski. "And who are the motherfuckers who really need to be punished?

"I don't want to say I want to go around killing people, but wouldn't you like to see the Punisher pop into the offices of the major banks where they've taken public money and paid each other these billion-dollar bonuses and say, 'Hi, guys. What's going on?'"

So where do you draw the line? And perhaps more important, if you get the chance to bring the Punisher to your hometown, how do you resist having him wipe out everybody who's ever cut you off at the light? Or didn't return your hedge-trimmer?

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