The Punisher has been a lightning rod for controversy almost since the beginning, when he first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 in February 1974. His one-man Holy War against all criminals has made him one of Marvel Comics' most talked-about, and at times best-selling, characters, despite the bodies he leaves in his wake. Depending on your point of view, the Punisher is either an anti-hero or a homicidal lunatic. However, it's not his bloodthirsty code of justice that poses the biggest problem for Marvel at the moment. It's the emblem on his chest. The stretched skull logo has become a symbol of pride and fascistic dominance for groups and individuals who often celebrate violence, and it's time Marvel address it.
The infamous skull logo was spotted on more than one of the rioters taking part in the violent uprising at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. One particularly disturbing example involved a masked suspect who broke into the Senate building while holding a handful of zip ties and appearing to be in illegal possession of a handgun at his right hip (it is illegal to bring firearms into the Capitol). On the front of his flak jacket, the Punisher's skull is clearly visible. It's just the latest, but perhaps most disturbing, example of how Frank Castle and his iconic logo have been misappropriated.
When your IP gets hijacked by dangerous extremist groups, you've got a real problem. Another thornier problem is that a number of law enforcement officials have also embraced the Punisher's skull logo, despite the fact that he explicitly works his violence outside of the bounds of the law. The Punisher character has always occupied an uncomfortable place in comics culture. He's a killer, and no matter how absurd his tales have been over the years, his homicidal tendencies and gunplay have been celebrated by those people who subscribe to a more toxic definition of vigilante justice. The people who make the decisions at Marvel need to have a conversation about what to do about the Punisher, and it really shouldn't wait.
(SYFY WIRE has reached out to Marvel for comment and will update this story accordingly.)
But let's say they do have those talks. What actions can they take?
There have been discussions on social media suggesting Marvel should issue tougher enforcement of the trademarked logo as one solution. Good luck with that. You think the people who broke into the Capitol will be worried about receiving a strongly worded letter threatening trademark violations?
Some comments from fans have said Marvel should just bench the Punisher character entirely, for at least a good while. That's a practice that used to happen years ago in comics when editorial teams ran out of ideas for a hero. (Luke Cage, for instance, was shelved for a time in the '80s after Power Man & Iron Fist was canceled. Original X-Men member Iceman also mostly vanished for a time in the late '70s, off to study accounting, after The Champions was canceled.) A character would be out of the picture until a different creative team offered up a fresh take and then said character would make a splashy return. There are certainly valid arguments to be had over the value of a character like Frank Castle in this day and age when gun violence is, obviously, such a huge problem in America. But while the Punisher is no longer the money-printing machine he was in the late 1980s and early '90s, he still has a lot of value. And I'm just too cynical to believe a big company will agree to sideline one of its money makers, no matter how much controversy they stir.
My suggestion? Give the Punisher a makeover.
Get an artist with a flair for costume design to do a complete visual re-do that eliminates the skull. Hire a writer to find a story hook to explain why the change in visual aesthetic. You'll catch heat for creating a "woke Frank Castle," no doubt, but who cares? If the story is a good one, people will buy the book. Ultimately, it's a cosmetic change that shouldn't have any type of damaging impact on Frank Castle as a character. More importantly, it lets Marvel put valuable distance between its character and the various groups who have adopted the controversial logo in such problematic fashion.
I reached out to legendary comics writer Garth Ennis, whose multi-year run writing the character starting in 2000 made him perhaps the definitive Punisher scribe, for his thoughts on why so many people have a fixation with the skull logo. Ennis, as anyone who has read his comics could expect, did not mince words. He says many of the people who wear the skull simply have no understanding of who Frank Castle is.
"I’ve said this before a couple of times, but no one actually wants to be the Punisher," Ennis exclusively told SYFY WIRE. "Nobody wants to pull three tours of duty in a combat zone with the last one going catastrophically wrong, come home with a head full of broken glass, see their families machine-gunned into bloody offal in front of their eyes and then dedicate the rest of their lives to cold, bleak, heartless slaughter."
"The people wearing the logo in this context are kidding themselves, just like the police officers who wore it over the summer," he added. "What they actually want is to wear an apparently scary symbol on a T-shirt, throw their weight around a bit, then go home to the wife and kids and resume everyday life. They've thought no harder about the Punisher symbol than the halfwits I saw [on Wednesday], the ones waving the Stars & Stripes while invading the Capitol building."
With regards to the skull symbol, he dismissed suggestions that it had any impact on inspiring the actions of those who adopt it. "No one’s going to suggest that the American flag is now a fascist symbol and should be treated as such, just because a bunch of would-be fascists employed it yesterday," Ennis said. "I doubt there’s anyone who would suggest that any of the clowns who wore the Punisher skull [Wednesday] would have acted any differently in DC had it or the character never existed. They did what they did because their demented turd of a leader convinced them the election had been stolen; if you're ready to take violent action on that basis then no bloody, silly T-shirt you wear will have any bearing on the line you've crossed. In fact, it's completely irrelevant."
Cultural fascination with the grim and stark symbol, inspired by the German military symbol Totenkopf, or "Death's Head," has been going on for years. The skull appeared in the Clint Eastwood 2014 film American Sniper, based on the true story of military sniper Chris Kyle. Fox News opinion host Sean Hannity has worn a pin with the logo in the past. Numerous officers in various police departments around the United States have also adopted the skull, which is mind-boggling when you step back and consider Frank Castle operates, unapologetically, outside the law. Yet last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests, a number of law enforcement officers were seen sporting the skull logo. That angered Punisher co-creator Gerry Conway so much that he launched a fundraising initiative for BLM that brought together artists of color to create T-shirt designs that incorporate the skull.
"The Punisher represents a failure of the Justice system," Conway told SYFY WIRE in 2019. "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."
He continued: "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 siding with an enemy of the system. He is a criminal. Police should not be embracing a criminal as their symbol."
The Punisher has always been a polarizing figure. Frank Castle is a merciless killer with enough fictional notches on his belt to impress Thanos. In the real world, that skull he wears on his chest has become a twisted symbol of violence and retribution. That is infinitely more frightening.
And it is something Marvel can't wait to address any longer.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.