Cancel ‘The Punisher,’ Then What?

The revelation that some Capitol rioters were spotted wearing The Punisher’s white skull emblem has brought another layer of controversy to Marvel’s complicated vigilante. The symbol, as well as the character himself, are popular among police officers, the military, militias, QAnon, and far-right groups. And since all of these entities have adorned the logo in the name of actual violence, the fictional character is now associated with real-life dangers that pose a threat to society’s well-being. That poses a problem for Marvel.

The recent riots — which saw a mob of Donald Trump supporters cause an insurrection in Washington D.C. — have led to a renewed focus on The Punisher and his idolatry in right-wing circles. This has resulted in calls for Marvel to change his logo, put a hold on new projects, or retire the character completely.

Marvel might be listening, too. Bleeding Cool noted that there hasn’t been a new Punisher comic since November of last year. There are some collections of already-published titles scheduled to hit shelves in 2021. However, it seems that the publisher is hesitant to put out new stories, possibly due to the sociopolitical climate in the United States at the moment. Has Frank Castle been silently cancelled?

On one hand, I totally understand Marvel’s decision to put The Punisher on ice for the time being. People are pissed off at what’s happening in the world and releasing new comics about a murderous vigilante is bound to create some negative publicity. But discontinuing the series is a win for the people who have co-opted the character’s iconography in the name of wrongful violence and garbage politics.

Before we get into that, however, it’s worth highlighting the differences between the various real-life groups who have adopted Castle as their mascot. The military and the police, for example, aren’t far-right organisations that want to burn the system. There are certainly some troubling problems within these institutions, but they deserve a more nuanced examination than fascists, Nazis, and conspiracy theorists.

It’s understandable why soldiers and cops love Frank Castle and his vigilante alter ego. The character is a veteran who’s driven by a strict moral code and exacting justice in the truest sense. He guns down the bad guys and protects the innocent from harm. There’s no denying that the vigilante has faults, but he still boasts qualities that are possessed by typical law enforcement officers and soldiers.

On the other hand, some members of these institutions have admitted that they wish they could ignore the rules and hunt down criminals the Punisher way. The justice system is flawed and often results in wrongdoers getting off the hook lightly. That must be frustrating for the cops and soldiers who want to see justice carried out, but are bound by a system that can be manipulated and bent by some truly terrible people.

That notion might be troubling to some people considering that soldiers and cops are often guilty of corruption and wrongdoing in their own right. I’ve lost count of the number of times that they’ve committed atrocities and been let off the hook. Police brutality stories are as common as weather reports. The American military has been involved in some brutal massacres and controversial wars. Institutions that harbour genuine villains relating to a psychopath isn’t a comforting thought.

The Punisher has been celebrated among some of the most controversial figures within these forces. As Time pointed out, the unit of Chris Kyle — who was the subject of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper — called themselves “The Punishers” during the Iraq War. There’s even a case to be made that the Punisher character gained popularity in questionable circles because of Kyle.

In his autobiography, the soldier praised the vigilante as the ultimate bad-ass; a man who gets the job done without any hesitation. Kyle also explained how he and his comrades used the character’s imagery to intimidate their enemies and some Iraqi citizens.

“We spray-painted [the skull symbol] on our Hummers and body armour, 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**k with you.”

Kyle isn’t the best poster boy for American heroism, so him praising the Marvel antihero isn’t the best endorsement of the character. While Kyle has been celebrated in conservative circles as a patriot, others have called him a “hate-filled killer” and a psychopath. Plenty of people have described the Punisher with those adjectives, too.

The skull logo is also synonymous with the divisive Blue Lives Matter movement. In 2017, Kentucky police officers were forced to remove the logo from their squad vehicles due to its association with a character who’s an unabashed murderer. Lexington Herald-Leader of the Catlettsburg Police Department claimed that he wasn’t familiar with its history. He merely viewed it as a “warrior logo,” which didn’t do much for changing criticisms about militarisation in the police force.

The capitol rioters, on the other hand, are domestic terrorists and vandals, fuelled by the so-called protestors’ quest to exact justice because they felt Trump losing the election was a crime against America. Their refusal to adhere to the law and carry out violence to rectify a perceived wrong is similar to Castle’s methods. We call them extremists, but the rioters and their supporters view them as warriors whose mission is righteous and above the law.

Seeing these groups wave the skull logo as their badge of honour has tainted the legacy of the character. But it shouldn’t be allowed to get to the point where he’s widely recognised as a poster boy of extremism. History is littered with examples of extremists misinterpreting everything from art to religious texts to fit their own agenda. The swastika, for example, was originally a symbol of good fortune until Adolf Hitler made it synonymous with fascism. It’s too late for the image to shake off these connotations, but it isn’t too late for the Punisher’s skull to be saved.

Giving up symbols because they’ve been appropriated by awful people is essentially letting the bad guys win. The “OK” hand gesture has been universally acknowledged as a sign that means “everything is fine” for generations. In recent years, some white supremacists from 4chan began using for their own ends and now it’s regarded as a symbol of hate. And that’s because people would rather disown it than reclaim its original meaning. But society just sat back and let it happen.

The big question is: where does it end? If we keep allowing fringe extremists to redefine the meaning of traditions, they’ll claim ideological ownership over more of them. What happens if they decide food, drinking water and going to the toilet are also far-right? Will anti-fascists stop eating, drinking, and pooping?

The Punisher‘s emblem has always represented villainy to an extent. The character’s co-creator, Gerry Conway, always intended for the vigilante to be portrayed as a bad human being, albeit a complicated one with shades of grey and moral ambiguity. That said, just because some bad people agree with Castle’s code doesn’t mean the character deserves to be cancelled or even associated with them. He was never supposed to inspire anyone. Conway is also against the groups who have co-opted his creation. So is Jon Bernthal, the actor who played the character in the Netflix series.

Everyone has the right to interpret art in their own way. That also counts for fringe groups, as unsavoury as that notion may be. They’re entitled to read the comics, watch the movies, buy the products, and discuss their opinions the same as the rest of us. The best way to defeat them is by expressing better opinions and not allowing them to dictate the narrative. Cancelling The Punisher is essentially accepting Castle as their character and resigning a storied Marvel legacy to the dumpster.

Most people who admire Castle are regular folks who can sympathise with his quest to slay the wicked. That’s why he has a broad fan base. For most of us, the stories are simple entertainment. Conway has also noted that the vigilante would gun down the QAnon crazies and other extremists. That’s why he wants to reclaim the imagery for those who have been oppressed by racists, fascists, and other wrongdoers.

So, what’s the solution?

For a start, censorship and cancellation aren’t the answers. Marvel removing The Punisher from the shelves isn’t going to put an end to political extremism, police brutality, and other social ills that his emblem has been associated with throughout the years. Even if Marvel somehow manages to somehow scrub Frank Castle from the social memory, extremists will just adopt other imagery from pop-culture that they can use to fit their agenda.

Marvel can create more stories that feature the antihero slaughtering criminals who harbour fringe ideologies. Maybe that won’t make a difference to those who use the logo but don’t acknowledge the media it comes from. But that approach will at least further distance the character from being a representation of the far-right in the source material.

Syfy Wire proposed retiring the skull symbol and giving Castle a “woke” makeover. I think retiring the logo would ultimately make it more synonymous with the undesirables who’ve soured it. The article’s author was only trying to find a happy middle ground, which I can respect. Personally, I think a better approach would be for non-extremists to take Conway’s advice and claim it as their own. Maybe someday everything will balance out and we can get back to enjoying the comics and merchandise without worrying about them being entangled in hot-button issues.

The rest of us can raise our voices to ensure that the dialogue surrounding The Punisher is productive. Any time someone says the skull emblem is a hate symbol, counteract it with an alternative — and better — opinion. If an extremist claims it as the flag of their group, remind them that Castle would hate everything they stand for. Just don’t sit back and let a beloved pop-cultural mainstay become another victim of the culture war.

Thank you for reading! If you’d like to support our website, you can follow us on FacebookTwitter and YouTube

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *