The Punisher is one of the most popular and controversial characters in comics. His trademark skull logo possibly even more so. Even if you’ve never read a Punisher comic, or know the bare minimum about Frank Castle, chances are you’ve seen the logo somewhere. It’s as ubiquitous as Superman’s “S”, Batman’s bat, and Captain America’s shield.
Punisher’s logo stands apart from other comic book hero logos because the image of a dripping skull is so provocative. It doesn’t evoke thoughts of heroism like others, but it’s just as present. Curiously, it’s most popular among the law enforcement and military community, which, on the surface, seems like a paradox. This week, Punisher creator, Gerry Conway, weighed in on the subject in an interview with Syfy Wire. He explained:
To me, it’s disturbing whenever I see authority figures embracing Punisher iconography because the Punisher represents a failure of the Justice system. He’s supposed to indict the collapse of social moral authority and the reality some people can’t depend on institutions like the police or the military to act in a just and capable way.
The vigilante anti-hero is fundamentally a critique of the justice system, an example of social failure, so when cops put Punisher skulls on their cars or members of the military wear Punisher skull patches, they’re basically sides with an enemy of the system. They are embracing an outlaw mentality. Whether you think the Punisher is justified or not, whether you admire his code of ethics, he is an outlaw. He is a criminal. Police should not be embracing a criminal as their symbol.
Forsythe, Dana. “Punisher Creator Gerry Conway: Cops Using the Skull Logo Are Like People Using the Confederate Flag.” Syfy Wire, Syfy.com, January 8, 2018, www.syfy.com/syfywire/punisher-creator-gerry-conway-cops-using-the-skull-logo-are-like-people-using-the
It goes without saying. In a way, it’s as offensive as putting a Confederate flag on a government building.
The character, inspired by The Executioner book series, eventually became someone readers could root for but not emulated. That’s not to say Punisher doesn’t have admirable characteristics, or that he can’t be relatable. Frank is a veteran, so it’s not hard to apprehend why some Americans see him as representation. However, Frank Castle’s honor and dedication are only a fragment of what he stands for.
Another appealing part of Punisher is he’s not a superhero. Like Batman, he’s an ordinary man among men and women who can do extraordinary things. They both represent the ingenuity and tenacity of a common man. Frank is vulnerable, but he uses the tools and training he gained in the Special Forces to do what he believes is necessary.
Batman is driven by revenge too, but what makes him special is his use of his wits over unchecked aggression. Also, on some level, Batman believes in the system. Though he acts outside of it, Batman doesn’t kill, and he cooperates with police officers. The Punisher’s mission, on the other hand, is deeply personal to him. It plays into the hyper-masculine power fantasy of a man with his gun holding the line, judging, and executing anyone he sees fit.
Not any man can dress like a bat, and gain disciplines in martial arts, espionage, escapism, and criminal science. Generally, any man can learn how to use a gun, giving themselves power when others feel helpless. It’s not hard to see the correlation between that distinction and why some conservatives gravitate towards Frank Castle. In truth, his fight and his tactics are all too real.
Positive aspects aside, ignoring the troubling implications of what the Punisher does is problematic. At the same time, using the violent vigilante aspects of the character, stripped of the pathos that makes him so compelling, is irresponsible. That kind of willful ignorance is dangerous in the hands of civilians, for sure, but it’s negligent, at best, for pillars of law and order.
See? The “logo” elicits fear; that’s the undeniable intent. Frank’s not looking to gain trust or respect. His mission is vaguely altruistic, but murdering people without due process isn’t. It’s an affront to one of America’s fundamental principles. Taking on the symbol of his crusade, whether intentionally or not, paints you as a provocateur in the face of civility.
Frankly, you can’t say you uphold the duty to “serve and protect” in one breath and adorn the iconography of a character that provokes violence. It’s self-contradictory, and with police brutality plaguing minorities all over the country, it’s a conflict of interest.
In 2017, a Kentucky precinct received criticism and had to remove Punisher skull decals with “Blue Lives Matter” on them from police cars. Without getting into the issues with the use of Blue Lives Matter as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s dubious to use Punisher and his logo as a part of the campaign for obvious reasons.
It goes without saying, police officers and their sacrifices should be respected. However, using the Punisher as an emblem in face of real grievances is inherently intimidating. It clearly paints BLM as an enemy that needs to be eliminated.
Punisher decals and paraphernalia emblazoned with the Thin Blue Line flag are still sold on online stores, including Amazon. With season 2 of the Netflix show coming later this month, the interpretation of the Punisher and his motives will stay relevant, but in the current social and political landscape, there is no place for Punisher’s ideology as a real-world application. It’s inappropriate and alarming in a time characterized by a notable lack empathy.