On the Punisher's popular iconography

*This is an older story that I sat on for a while and let slip through the cracks. I’m publishing it now to clear my backlog of draft articles. The source material that inspired this article can be found at SYFY, and in an article about The Punisher’s popularity with the police and military in Vulture.

Some people see the Punisher as a hero, a sort of pure ideal of justice given form. Frank Castle, aka “The Punisher” wants to world to be a better place, and he doesn’t deny that hard dirty work has to happen in order to realize that goal. Castle’s vision of a better world also comes with a sort of permission for him to do this work himself, and by any means necessary. The execution of that virtuous sense of goodness leaves many wanting, but the police and military have adopted The Punisher with great zeal. Not everyone, obviously, but it is a sort of trend. The articles linked above, if you didn’t read them deal with two different takes on the phenomenon.

First, there is an article in Vulture that discusses directly The Punisher’s fandom. There are some interesting quotes and some very insightful observations from the people that hold the character in a sort of reverence. It’s both comforting and disturbing to hear people with these roles in society seek to emulate the Punisher, for what is no doubt to them, a very sincere desire to be a positive force in the world.

The second is about an issue with the superhero as mentioned above comic where he says outright that he doesn’t like the police’s adulation. All those warm fuzzies are not reciprocated. Will this have an effect on real-world police, or is this Marvel’s way of acknowledging the fandom among the ranks of military and law enforcement? On that note, I’ve included quotes from an excerpt from an interview at Comicbook.com with Punisher creator, Gerry Conway.

“I’ve talked about this in other interviews,” Conway said. “To me, it’s disturbring 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.” Conway went on to explain that this co-opting of the symbol, the police and military are fundamentally misunderstanding the character, what he stands for, and are aligning themselves with a criminal.

“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 sides with an enemy of the system,” he said. “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,” Conway said. “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.”

There’s also the problem I get stuck at which is, why have the police and military rallied around the Punisher’s iconography, but no one else’s? I mean, when hasn’t Batman been a symbol of the ‘Thin Blue Line’? Aside from Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s #1 accomplice is probably Commissioner Jim Gordon. Exactly, a high-ranking officer of the law. Furthermore, Batman is the superhero vigilante and has been for decades. For much longer than The Punisher has existed. As Batman, Bruce Wayne fights crime, stands for good, and knows when to doggedly pursue a crook no matter the cost. Yet, no killing, despite being willing to sacrifice his life. In the world of superhero comics, Batman looms large. The police could adopt the iconography of The Caped Crusader, but he isn’t the only one.

What about The Savage Dragon? Erik Larsen’s monthly superhero rag has been running since Image was first created. Why wouldn’t this lesser-known character be a favorite among the police? I mean, he’s a cop. If The Punisher is a hero among law enforcement and the military, then the mere fact that there is a cop superhero should be enough to bring in readers, right? Dragon turns his back on the spandex-covered superhero pastiche and decides to be a real hero, a police officer. The police then turn Dragon’s extraordinary abilities against powerful villains. If you work in law enforcement or even the military, what’s not to love? The series is still going strong, and Larsen himself still helms the book.

While it isn’t too surprising that the Punisher has a following, what is surprising is that no other vigilante superhero has any sort of popularity comparable to the skull-wearing veteran. Something about The Punisher attracts the police and military’s interest, and that’s a bit weird. I would totally get a vigilante superhero having a strong fanbase in law enforcement. This wouldn’t surprise me at all. The specificity of this one guy that kills people because he thinks he has the right just always feels a bit odd, and yes, I know this isn’t all cops. Like I said earlier though when was the last time you saw someone in law enforcement make it a point to wear Batman iconography?

There are so many superheroes to choose from. At their very core, superheroes are people that fight crime, and mostly outside of the law. If The Punisher is so popular, why not Ghost Rider? The Spirit of Vengence is sort of an extreme version of The Punisher. Why not Superman? Why not The Avengers? I could keep going, and there’s a whole encyclopedia of choices.

All things being equal, I’m happy to see comics have a larger and larger fanbase. Whether it’s cops, the stereotypical fat greasy nerd, or everyone in between. The more the merrier when it comes to comics. I expect that the interest in The Punisher is temporary until people find their next choice for representing their ideals. Until then, I hope that the fight for justice is the motivating factor. Is there a resonance to Frank Castle,, aka, The Punisher, that I simply don’t understand because I don’t work in law enforcement or the military? This is entirely possible that I just don’t get it because I’ve never worn that uniform. Perhaps Conway struck on something he didn’t realize when he first outlined the character. Regardless, the following is real and is something of a phenomenon, albeit a mildly controversial one. Here’s to the unifying power of comic books!


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