In 1974, a menacing new figure emerged in the pages of Marvel Comics' The Amazing Spider-Man. Comic book heroes have had qualms about killing since the dawn of pulp; Batman's distaste for guns is almost as iconic as the Bat Signal. But that wasn't the case with the Punisher, the alter ego of Frank Castle, a troubled Vietnam veteran and vigilante. The Punisher, armed with little more than big guns and a literal interpretation of the law, was and is an edgy antihero who stretches our culture's definition of the word "superhero."
The Punisher, the creation of Amazing Spider-Man scribe Gerry Conway, soon became one of the most enduring characters in the Marvel stable. The Punisher's solo series debuted in 1986, and he's remained popular ever since. In 1989, Dolph Lundgren appeared as Castle in one of the first big-screen adaptation of a Marvel property, and two more reboots, The Punisher and Punisher: War Zone, followed in 2004 and 2008. The character has been brought to life once again by Jon Bernthal, first in Netflix's Daredevil and now in his own eponymous series.
Across media, the Punisher's origin story remains the same: He's a veteran who witnessed the brutal murder of his family and has thus taken it upon himself to punish every lawbreaker and criminal, regardless of context or circumstance. His "eye-for-an-eye" brand of justice is blind, with no concern about bloodshed. The character's Wikipedia article is almost comical in its detailed documentation of the various foes Castle has battled: He's taken on "the Italian Mafia, the Russian Mafia, the Japanese Yakuza, the Columbia and Mexican drug cartels, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Chinese Triads, the Jamaican Yardies, the Irish Mob, biker gangs, street gangs, gunrunning militias, muggers, killers, rapists, psychopaths, violent racists, sadists, pedophiles, and corrupt city officials."
Unlike most superheroes, the Punisher has no real powers, not even the immense wealth of Bruce Wayne or hyper-intelligence of Tony Stark. He's just a man with strong beliefs who's good with a gun. And that's where the Punisher starts to get complicated. Many writers over the years have offered nuanced portrayals of the character, trying hard not endorse his methods despite their depiction. For example, Matt Fraction's Civil War-era Punisher Max series draws comparisons between the Punisher's hardline beliefs and Captain America's patriotic absolutism.
But that level of sensitivity, holding up the Punisher not as a hero but as a potent example of the relationship between violence and comics, often doesn't translate to certain sectors of Punisher fandom. Particularly potent, and at some points troubling, is the relationship that real-life military personnel and law enforcement agencies have with the fictional soldier.
The Punisher's logo, a menacing skull with four long fangs, is almost as iconic as the character itself. But it's developed another association thanks to Chris Kyle, the late Navy SEAL. Kyle discusses his love of the Punisher and his imagery in his memoir American Sniper:
"He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him ... We spray-painted [the Punisher logo] on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns. We spray-painted it on every building or wall we could. We wanted people to know we're here and we want to f*** with you."
Kyle's unit called themselves "the Punishers," sparking a trend that's become popular throughout U.S. armed forces serving in Iraq. The Punisher logo appears in American Sniper, Clint Eastwood's controversial telling of the Kyle story, and is also worn by John Krasinski's character in Michael Bay's 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
The Punisher hasn't just become popular with American soldiers, though. He's also been adopted as a symbol by Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militia fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Despite the anti-American sentiment held by Shi'ite militia members, this American symbol has become central to their identity as soldiers.
The Daily Mail also reports that the Punisher logo has been widely adopted by Norway's infamous, Valhalla-seeking Telemark Battalion, an "elite mechanized infantry unit of the Norwegian Army," who fought the Taliban in Afghanistan and have since been deployed to Iraq in the NATO offensive against ISIS. In 2009, the Telemark Battalion gained infamy for spray-painting the Punisher's logo on buildings in Afghanistan; the Norwegian tabloid Verdens Gang reported that the unit was still using the logo, also worn on patches honoring a fallen soldier, even after being reprimanded by their superiors.
The Punisher isn't the first action hero to strike a chord with armed forces around the world. "In the 1980s, Rambo was popular with rebels, revolutionaries, and insurgencies across the globe, in Lebanon, Central America, and Asia, even with aboriginals advocating for land rights in Australia," says Dr. Edwin Martini, professor of history at Western Michigan University and author of Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975-2000.
Martini's detailed study of the cultural aftermath of the Vietnam War includes an analysis of Rambo, the ever-popular action icon played by Sylvester Stallone, who offers an insightful point of comparison to the global popularity of the Punisher.
"In the Rambo films, the real enemy isn't the Vietnamese or the Russians, it's the government," says Martini. "This was the embodiment of the Reagan worldview, in which the government is the problem." American veterans, many of whom felt screwed over by their government, could identify with that sentiment. In other parts of the world, Rambo's "lone wolf" struggle provided a model for their own resistance, often against the United States or regimes supported by it.
Like the Punisher, Rambo was also misinterpreted. "First Blood offered a thoughtful, intentional depiction of what veterans faced when they returned home. He embodied their alienation and frustration," notes Martini. "By the second film, Rambo had become a cartoon character, and the sequels embraced jingoism and militarism." Nevertheless, in Martini's view, "Rambo had a huge reach. He was able to cross ideological and cultural boundaries."
Rambo and the Punisher are veterans troubled by their traumatic experiences both in the war and afterward at home, and both operate as lone wolves. Though they have each found audiences on an international scale, there's one key difference: Rambo is fighting against the injustices of the government, while the Punisher, despite his illegal methods, is working to enforce the law. The two figures may both find popularity across cultures, but the implications are different.
In fact, the implications of the Punisher's military fandom are most troubling on the American home front. In February 2017, the police department in Cattlesburg, Kentucky, made national headlines for its placement of a large Punisher logo, along with the phrase "Blue Lives Matters," on its squad cars. As reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader, Police Chief Cameron Logan described these menacing logos as a "way to give back to the police."
In his view, "that decal represents that we will take any means necessary to keep our community safe." After the controversy erupted, the logos were eventually removed, though Chief Logan never seemed to realize the implications of adopting the image of a vigilante who uses murder and torture to achieve his ends.
In April 2017, the small town of Solvay, New York, faced similar controversy, though much less reported on, after placing Punisher logos with a blue stripe, representing the "thin blue line" of police officers, on their department vehicles. Solvay PD issued an official statement, saying that this "is our way of showing our citizens that we will stand between good and evil. There is no vigilante justice that takes place in our community or within our department."
Though they faced criticism from community members, Solvay Mayor Ron Berdetti and the police department ultimately chose to keep the logos. (Neither the Solvay Police Department or Mayor's office responded to our request for comment regarding the current status of these decals.)
Though police officers themselves may deny it, it's a clear problem when those hired to enforce laws and serve the community idealize a vigilante, someone who by definition is breaking laws in order to enforce their conception of justice. In a world where many police officers find themselves on the wrong side of the law, whether in high-profile and hotly contested killings or the recent case of two NYPD officers accused of raping an 18-year-old, the connection is downright frightening.
The Punisher logo has become the chief symbol of the pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement, and it takes only a few quick searches on Etsy to reveal a medley of unofficial Blue Lives Matter merchandise sporting the image, from Yeti coolers to baseball caps.
In the case of Rambo's popularity, many of his veteran and insurgent fans felt oppressed and actually were oppressed, and used his image as a way to channel their own frustration and alienation. But those who look up to the Punisher are not rebels or mistreated veterans returning home from war: they're active members of the United States military and police officers, representatives of some of the most powerful forces in the world, using a violent vigilante as an icon.
Punisher creator Gene Conway, himself a conscientious objector from the Vietnam War and self-described "anti-war guy," has spoken to the troubling appropriation of the Punisher time and again. In an interview with Time Magazine, Conway says that he's "flabbergasted by the whole thing. In my mind, he's not a good guy." Even then, Conway admits that he can understand the appeal of the Punisher to soldiers who have to make difficult decisions under pressure, since Frank Castle never falters from his moral compass, no matter how crooked it might be.
In a day and age when gun violence and police brutality are epidemic, it's a little bit disconcerting to know how many individuals in positions of power are getting the wrong idea from the Punisher. The showrunner of the new Netflix series says they tried to show all sides of the debate, though it's clear that people will continue to see what they want in the character, regardless of what he stands for.