As calls to retire The Punisher and his symbol rises, Marvel’s best move would be to utilize the character.
In 1974, “The Punisher” or vigilante anti-hero Frank Castle made his first appearance in Marvel comics’ 129th issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Nearly 30 years later, in 2003, The United States would deploy thousands of American forces into Iraq, effectively starting the Iraqi War. 17 years after that, in the summer of 2020, massive protests and riots would spark across America in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A year later in January 2021, a mob would storm the United States Capitol building in protest of the 2020 presidential election results.
These seemingly unrelated events are tied together by a theme of conflict and violence. However, they are also connected by the symbol of a white, bulbous skull with slender and elongated teeth.
The symbol is the motif of the comic book character “The Punisher,” which he dons in his one-man war against crime. The skull is often on his shirt or tactical military vest.
The controversy surrounding the symbol has nothing to do with the character or the symbol itself, but instead, the individuals and parties who have been spotted sporting the skull motif.
You might spot Punisher skulls decorating military gear, arsenal or vehicles in American encampments in Middle Eastern warzones like Afghanistan or Iraq. According to military personnel, the presence of these skulls would be abundant on both the frontlines and the military culture back home. This would make sense considering Frank Castle’s comic book status as a veteran would earn him empathy amongst American troops.
When did the skull become synonymous with American deployment in the Middle East and the military culture as a whole? In a Time article, it says that it started with Chris Kyle’s unit during the invasion of Iraq. Kyle, otherwise known as the “American Sniper,” stated in his autobiography that their appreciation of the Punisher, and the idea to decorate their equipment, came from their military communications personnel.
“We all thought what the Punisher did was cool: He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him. That’s what we were all about,” Kyle said.
However, Gerry Conway, the original creator of the 1974 Punisher, expressed his distaste for the use of the symbol in war, “I was an anti-war person. I argued against it and certainly wrote against it,” Conway stated.
This is not Conway’s first time speaking out against the appropriation of the symbol. He’s recently taken to reclaim the skull from police and fringe groups. Yet many police officers feel justified in their use of the symbol, they believe the use of the skull symbolizes their oath to combat crime and evil.
“The Punisher symbol on the patrol vehicles of the Solvay Police Department, while similar to the symbol featured in Marvel comics, is our way of showing our citizens that we will stand between good and evil,” said in an official statement by Police Chief Allen Wood and Lt. Derek Osbeck in a Syracuse article.
The final tipping point was the sighting of the skull as a patch on a protester carrying zip ties inside the Capitol building, during the invasion of the Capitol in January 2021.
Due to this event, multiple figures in the comic book industry have joined the call to retire the Punisher and his symbol, stating it’s been corrupted.
In my opinion, it’s too late because retiring the symbol or Punisher comics won’t stop the misuse of the symbol. However, I believe Marvel’s most effective strategy against misuse of the symbol would be to utilize the Punisher comics to reinforce the idea that the Punisher is not a character to idolize. In fact, Marvel has already done something like this.
In the 13th issue of “The Punisher” (2019), Frank Castle is approached by two cops who express their support and admiration for his work. However, The Punisher is anything but pleased. “We’re not the same, you took an oath to uphold the law, you help people,” Frank says to the cops. “I gave all that up a long time ago. You don’t do what I do, nobody does.You need a role model? His name is Captain America, and he’d be happy to have you.”
He even tells the cops that if he finds out they’re doing what he does, he’ll come for them next.
To me, this was Marvel’s most effective way of combating the gross misuse of the Punisher symbol. Using their platform and the Punisher in a not out-of-character way to discourage the misuse of the symbol and emphasize that the Punisher isn’t an objective hero.
From military to police, to political fringe groups, the symbol of The Punisher has been used and appropriated by a variety of different groups. The problem of the symbol being associated with fear or violence is undoubtedly rising, but Marvel has already risen to the occasion by taking back the Punisher from these groups. Let’s hope they continue to do so.