Punisher creator Gerry Conway: Cops using the skull logo are like people using the Confederate flag

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Boasting dozens of writing credits for both DC and Marvel, Gerry Conway helped shape the Bronze Age of comic books with stories like "The Night Gwen Stacy Died," the original Clone Saga, the creation of the Punisher, and his run on the Justice League. He's written almost every superhero from Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Flash to Spider-Man, Daredevil, Thor, Hulk, and Iron Man and amassed countless writing credits for his work in TV, movies and books.

He's been able to be so prolific in part because he got such an early start. Conway sold his first stories to DC and then Marvel when he was just 16 years old. Over his 50-year career as a comic book writer, Conway co-created handfuls of characters including Power Girl, Killer Croc, Firestorm and Jason Todd for DC and Dracula, Tarantula, and Mockingbird and more for Marvel. Still active today, Conway most recently penned a What If? issue with Flash Thompson as Spider-Man.

Ahead of the Season 2 premiere of Marvel's The Punisher on Netflix, Conway spoke to SYFY WIRE about the Punisher and prevalence of the skull symbol, how working at Marvel and DC felt like going to college, why he thinks universe-changing events are destroying the comic book industry, and, of course, killing Gwen Stacy.

Spider-Man snaps Gwen Stacy's neck trying to save her in The Amazing Spider-Man #121 (Written by Gerry Conway, Art by Gil Kane and John Romita)

What are your thoughts on Amazing Spider-Man #121 so many years later? I know you got a lot of heat for it when it happened but how do you look back on killing Gwen Stacy? What do you think of her return as Spider-Gwen?

I'm really proud of my work on that issue — and the work of Gil Kane and John Romita. We had no idea that story would end up having the legacy it's had, but even at the time I was conscious of wanting to drive home what I believed was the core theme of Marvel's approach to superhero storytelling: that being a superhero doesn't make you immune to tragedy, that superpowers don't make you infallible, and that real life doesn't always produce happy endings.

Unfortunately, Gwen's death also inspired some terrible stories, including the "girl-in-a-refrigerator" trope women in comics rightfully decry. I'd like to think that our approach to Gwen's death wasn't a cheap shot to create sympathy for our male hero, especially because I tried to use that tragedy more as a motivation for the emotional growth of the woman who would become the most significant female in Peter Parker's life, Mary Jane Watson.

But creators don't control the response to their work. We can only stand back and observe. It's astonishing to me that forty-five years later readers are still responding powerfully to that story. Astonishing and gratifying. As for Spider-Gwen... I love her, she's a terrific addition to the Spider-Verse.

Netflix's The Punisher star Jon Bernthal with Punisher co-creator Gerry Conway via Conway's Twitter

What's your take on the Netflix Punisher series? How do you think the showrunners interpreted the character?

I wasn't involved with the show at all. I did speak with the showrunner of the show and I do love what they did with the show.

The Punisher was originally conceived as a villain and was not intended to be an anti-hero. But in the course of writing the first story, I realized that's what he was -- an anti-hero. He had a moral code I could use to resolve story points. And, it was a simpler time in the '70s. You had a very black and white canvas on which to draw and to write --the storylines didn't go into psychological depth of these characters. Mostly, we worked in broad strokes.

Today though, given what we know about PTSD, what we understand about how soldiers are affected our ongoing, multi-generational war in Afghanistan, a character like the Punisher can speak to something that's important for us to come to grips with as writers and artists. The way the writers approached the Punisher as a character in the show, was just perfect. They embraced the insanity and violence of the character but also revealed the depths of pain and anguish he was experiencing. They made him a heroic, damaged figure, someone you wouldn't want your kids to emulate but who you could understand. That was a high tightrope to walk and they did it.

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What are your thoughts on the Punisher symbol being co-opted by police or the military?

I've talked about this in other interviews. 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 sysytem, an eample 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.

It goes without saying. In a way, it's as offensive as putting a Confederate flag on a government building. My point of view is, the Punisher is an anti-hero, someone we might root for while remembering he's also an outlaw and criminal. If an officer of the law, representing the justice system puts a criminal's symbol on his police car, or shares challenge coins honoring a criminal he or she is making a very ill-advised statement about their understanding of the law.

Gerry Conway in 1973 (Courtesy Photo via Marvel University)

Can you talk a bit about starting in the comic book business when you were just a teenager?

DC Comics in the late 1960's was experiencing an upheaval -- as a company they were finally being forced to finally compete with Marvel. Not compete in terms of market share, Marvel was still constrained by its distribution deal with DC, but they were in competition for attention. DC was aware readers were talking about Marvel books and Marvel's individual titles were selling better than ever. DC's management knew they needed to change the company's approach.

This confluence of changing circumstances made the editors at DC, some of them new hires like Dick Giordano and Joe Orlando, willing to try new people. I was the youngest new writer to come in, but I wasn't alone. Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Mike Fredrich, we all came in around the same time. We later learned there was another factor to us being hired -- the men who had been writing and drawing the comics wanted to get benefits like health insurance. So DC's management told the editors to fire them and hire us, because we were young and we weren't concerned about those issues. We just wanted to create comics.

As for your specific question, I was a kid, I didn't know who I was yet, or really what I thought. I was a student in Catholic school, used to an authoritarian environment. In contrast, at least among the people I was associating with DC in the mid to late '60s, I found myself in a counter cultural environment. Denny O'Neil was a peace activist, Bernie Wrightson was a charasmatic wild man, Steve Skeates was a hippie, Alan Weiss was a character and Len Wein who went to Woodstock. We were young, rebellious guys. It was like entering a different universe, like going to college at 16.  As a kid, smothered by the authoritarian life at school, to find myself in an environment where I was encouraged to be creative, think off the wall and do fanciful things, that was life-changing.

Marvel was liberating, when I finally got there, because that company was pure chaos. There were no adults in the room at Marvel in the late 60's except Sol Brodsky. Working at both companies during that transitional time was really a wonderful opportunity and I don't think anyone breaking into the business today would have the same experience.

Gerry Conway started writing for DC and Marvel comics when in 1969, at the age of 16.

What have you been reading lately?

These days, I'm mostly interested in independent comics but I am a big fan of Tom King's Batman and Scott Snyder's Wonder Woman. I really liked Greg Rucka's run on various DC characters. At Marvel, I enjoyed Brian Bendis' work and Dan Slott and Christos Gage's writing on Spider-Man.

As for smaller publishers, I was into Valiant's reboot a few years back. I love Mike Mignola's books at Dark Horse. At Image, I'm a huge fan of Kelly Sue DeConnick's Bitch Planet and Matt Fraction's Sex Criminals. Elsewhere, I like any story that takes on superhero mythology or uses the comic book format to be ironic and silly. Right now, I'm reading Hypernaturals [by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning]. I really enjoy that book because it deconstructs superhero mythology. Anything that isn't weighed down by corporate IP concerns or event storytelling, I love. I prefer stories invented by individual creators or creator teams. I hate the idea of a comic book writer's room.

Trial of the Punisher (Art by Leinil Yu)

What do you mean?

Most of the great comic books that created up the mythology we see reflected in film and television were created by writers and artists scratching a personal itch. Stan Lee didn't have a writer's room. Jack Kirby didn't have a writer's room. Steve Ditko didn't have a writer's room. Dr. Strange wasn't created in a writer's room. Neither were the X-Men, Hellboy or Swamp Thing. None of these memorable characters, stories, or valuable IP was a product of a company wide 'event.' Events and the writer's rooms that prouduce them are a result of corporate thinking. Corporate event thinking has been hopelessly destructive of individual creative effort.

A group of people, smart as they are, sitting around planning events over a two year period, it's strangling the ability of individuals to come up with a weird idea on the spur of the moment. The Punisher was a weird idea on the spur of the moment. Roy Thomas created The Vision. Because, Roy was a fan of 1940s comics and wanted to revive a favorite old character, The Vision, come back. Because he was an obsessive thinker, he came up with the idea of combining his new Vision with the original android and the Human Torch. That's the kind of thinking that might get killed in a writer's room.

Gerry Conway most recently wrote a What If? for Marvel Comics posturing if Flash Thompson became Spider-Man instead of Peter Parker. What If? Spider-Man (Written by Gerry Conway, Art by Diego Olortegui‏)

Are you still a fan of superhero comics?

The problem I have with mainstream comics these days is that mythologies have become so dense it's hard to get invested in characters and storylines to the same degree as I was when I was younger. Mostly, because of the business practice of these yearly and bi-yearly story events blow things up and destroy continuity.

So, I find myself re-reading comics from the early '60s. They're clunky, they're silly, there's no real depth to the material but its consistent and within the context of the time, the continuity makes sense. I like that. 

Firestorm #1 told the story of student Ronnie Raymond and Professor Martin Stein who get caught up in an explosion at the reactor plant for the production of nuclear, the two merged to become The Nuclear Man.(Written by Gerry Conway, Art by Al Milgrom)

What's it like to see your creations on the TV or in a movie?

It's surreal. When I wrote comics full time, starting in my middle teens, through my young adulthood into my early 30s -- For most of that period, my peers and I thought comics as a business was on ther verge of collapse. It looked like a dying business. Our numbers were going down rapidly with no end in sight. For most of us, we hoped the business would last as long as possible but honestly we didn't know where we'd end up.

The idea that I could be introduced 40 years later as Gerry Conway, the legendary creator of the Punisher and see my character on posters and billboards — Are you serious? I'm very flattered and happy. I just wish there was more recognition for other creators when these properties are turned into TV, movies and video games. Real people created these characters and stories that now make studios billions of dollars. It would be nice if the companies involved would do more to acknowledge that fact. Some are better at giving credit where credit is due. Others, not so much. Hopefully, some day that will change.

 


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