As of writing this, the United States is just one day after a harrowing assault on the Capitol grounds where an attempted insurrection was incited by the outgoing President. Rioters adorned with political extremist paraphernalia, Confederate flags and worse inflicted their terror and left us reeling. In the wake of such an event, there has been one symbol that shows up in many images from the scene of the assault that has a complicated history to say the least, the Punisher logo.
The events are tragic and shocking, but they have quickly spurred on a new discussion about the Punisher’s place in Marvel’s lineup after the logo surfaced on the rioters, and whether or not the character deserves a place among the ranks of some of the greatest characters in comics like Captain America, Iron Man and so many more. This has come up on several occasions in the past but never in such a striking context. It’s argued that the character has been coopted from the original concept and is past the point of redemption, that the Punisher should be cast aside as outdated and dangerous, incapable of finding new relevance in the current comics landscape. That he is defined by a corrupted sense of lethal nationalism and therefore setting a precedent that should be unilaterally condemned, allowing the character to fade into the channels of history. And in saying this, many are not wrong.
This perspective is not without precedent. There have been too many occasions to list where we’ve seen the Punisher’s skull logo making an appearance in a situation where it shouldn’t be by all accounts, such as police cars and political extremist merchandise. The recent riot and insurrection at the Capitol is certainly chief among them and demonstrates a singular point that regardless of how we might think Frank Castle himself may feel about the use of the logo, it’s reached a precipice of popularity amongst certain crowds that can be enabled no longer. The logo has become too synonymous with groups that pose a very real threat to our wellbeing. To some, the Punisher has become a lost cause, representative of the hurt and pain caused from oppression that has no place in our society today. But these feelings towards the Punisher and the logo have also been confronted by a different approach, like that of one of the very creators of the character, Gerry Conway, who has strong feelings that the Punisher hasn’t just been embraced by Law Enforcement and conspiracy nuts, he’s been fundamentally twisted.
“The Punisher is representative of the failure of law and order to address the concerns of people who feel abandoned by the legal system,” Conway told Forbes, “It always struck me as stupid and ironic that members of the police are embracing what is fundamentally an outlaw symbol.”
“Castle always represented a code of honor . . . that respects the ultimate values of American society. He’s not a conspiracy nut. Even in his most fringe existence [in the 1990s and early 2000s] he had legitimate enemies…”
Conway even goes as far as to say “I want to deny police and militia and the military the opportunity to use this as a symbol of oppression.”
What we saw on the Capitol grounds was undoubtedly the use of the Punisher logo as a symbol of oppression. But the original intent, and sentiment, from the creators of the character has been magnified by the recent comics run The Punisher by Matthew Rosenberg and Szymon Kudranski, when in issue #13 Frank Castle comes face to face with a pair of all-too-eager police officers who have placed a Punisher skull logo on their car and draw inspiration from Castel’s brutality. Castle responds with a firm and unmistakable statement, saying “I’ll say this once. We’re not the same. You took an oath to uphold the Law. You help people. I gave all that up a long time ago. You don’t do what I do. Nobody does. You boys need a role model? His name is Captain America and he’d be happy to have you.” as he tears the logo from their car and shreds it to pieces in front of them.
The police officers in the scenario respond by blaming him for their own perpetuated violence and claim his abandonment of their support leaves him with not a single friend. And that is a point that rings clear in the greater Marvel Universe. Frank Castle is an outlaw, alone and without support from anyone for a very specific reason. His ways are condemned by most of everyone, and we see that true even today when he rescues Daredevil in the current run from Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto in Daredevil #3 and #4. Punisher thinks Daredevil has finally “seen the light” for killing a criminal, but he quickly finds out that Daredevil is in no place of agreement with such methods as Murdock calls Castle a psychopath who is just trying to justify murder, who thinks he is above the law. Daredevil puts the Punisher in his place and makes it clear they are nothing alike. But then Daredevil just leaves, like so many others do too often, allowing the Punisher to go free without hesitation. It’s a sequence we’ve seen often in the Punisher’s past and the lack of consequence is an unfortunately familiar outcome even in our own reality.
So where does this leave the Punisher and what should we, as readers, viewers and fans, want to see happen to him as a character in the greater Marvel Universe? Now surrounded by misled conceptions of his morality in our own society and left to his own lethal vices within the story, there are many who wish to see the character no longer have a presence in Marvel’s lineup. Before we reach that point, however, I think it is important to look at what the actual creators have to say about the character and the potential he holds to show a point that could arguably be more impactful than his simple removal. The character has, willingly or not, tapped into a notion in our society that undeniably needs to change. The current evolution of the Punisher, from Conway’s strong dialogue with Forbes about what the logo means in our own world to the confrontation between Frank Castle and Police Officers in the comics, is a signifier for a continued necessary evolution of the character to tell a story with meaning. It’s not a validation of his methods and who he has been perceived as, it’s confronting the negative connotation head on and, through storytelling, able to capture an opportunity to express a powerful statement that aligns the character more accurately to who he should be portrayed as. But it’s clear that more needs to be done.
It’s time for the Punisher to truly come face to face with his wrongdoing. No longer should we see team-ups with characters like Captain America or even Daredevil where the lethal actions he has taken are understated as an attempt to gain a pass for allowing him to continue killing. It’s time for the Punisher to face justice and reflect on the devastation he has caused and the impacts that have come as a result, especially from those that seek to use the Punisher’s methods as legitimization of their own cruelty. You cannot just have Daredevil calling the Punisher a psychopath then leaving him to continue because of other injustices.
It is time for a reckoning.
Just as Conway, Rosenberg, Kudranski and many other creatives have done their part to distinguish the Punisher from those who seek to distort his mission, it’s also time for Marvel, as a corporate entity, to take an aggressive stance on the accessibility of the Punisher logo. Though their legal ramifications are limited under trademark law, their usual silence on any such matter is deafening, doing the bare minimum to show a sense of disagreement. In order for an evolution of the Punisher as a character to be lasting, the continued vocal support of Marvel, and yes even their parent company Disney, is necessary from every possible approach. Unlicensed distributors of Punisher merchandise should be cracked down on, every possible instance of distasteful use of the logo condemned vehemently and a narrative reckoning on the Punisher’s methods within the Marvel Universe addressed outright.
I don’t believe the character should just be forgotten. That would constitute a lost opportunity to enact meaningful change even in the microcosm world of comics that has proven time and time again to be precursor to more widespread popularity. This doesn’t have to betray the characters core identity, instead it can be a revelation, a chance to do something more and take back what has been twisted for all the wrong reasons There is potential for Frank Castle to represent a shift in social ideals, and the evolution that is so needed for the character is already underway. From his creator’s statements to his actions taken against police and others, the trend of displacing the Punisher from dangerous crowds is happening now and needs to be not just continued but emphasized. It’s time for Marvel to drive the point home, both tangibly and narratively, that this cannot be tolerated. That there is a different way forward.
As we all watched in horror as so many stormed the Capitol grounds in the United States, too many bearing the Punisher logo while doing so, it’s easy to say this character should simply be removed entirely from any publishing, merchandise or other adaption. It’s a rightful opinion that holds validation and merit all its own. But instead of making the Punisher a martyr amongst the wrong crowds, Marvel has the potential to use the Punisher as a catalyst for progress, representative of an all too necessary evolution that must happen. It’s time for a meaningful change and the Punisher is primed, today more than ever, to be that agent of change.
Marvel is now faced with an opportunity to bring justice to a homicidal maniac wearing a symbol used all too often for the means of oppression, in a way that we as a nation have failed to do too many times, and to usher in a newfound relevance for the character with a clear focus on respect for the ultimate values of American society.
COMMENTARY: An All Too Necessary Evolution of The Punisher
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