Origin story and symbolism are two of the most important ingredients of any superhero universe. But what happens when both of those pieces of a universe get flipped on their head?
The Punisher has always been a complicated Marvel antihero: a man whose creator imagined him as a reaction to the failures of government at home and in the Vietnam War. So why is the Punisher’s trademark dripping skull insignia — a menacing image used throughout history to denote imminent death — being painted on police vehicles, adopted by members of the military, and donned by white supremacists?
We tell the story of The Punisher’s symbol as a meme, look at how well we understand its origins, its use today, and whether its creator — or Marvel — can take it back.
- Debut of The Punisher in Marvel's The Amazing Spider-Man, #129
- Gerry Conway's BLM Skulls for Justice campaign and the top-selling logo design by artist Don Nguyen
- Nate Powell's comics essay About Face
- Anti-Defamation League's hate-symbol database
- The Washington Post, "Deconstructing the symbols and slogans spotted in Charlottesville"
- The Washington Post, "Identifying far-right symbols that appeared at the U.S. Capitol riot"
- TIME, "How a Marvel Comic Hero Became the Icon of the Fight Against ISIS"
- Gizmodo, "As the Punisher Skull Re-Emerges on Cops in U.S. Protests, Marvel Comics Reckons With Its Imagery"
- CBR, "There's Not Much Marvel Can Do About Cops Using Punisher's Logo"
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Amory Sivertson: Some origin stories kick off with radioactive spider bites, or alien planets. And some... some begin with good old-fashioned bloodshed.
[From Punisher dramatization: "If society won’t punish the guilty, he will."]
Gerry Conway: He was a Vietnam vet, an honorable soldier.
Gerry: And he had a family.
[From Punisher dramatization: "I can’t believe I’m home, or I could ever be so lucky."]
Gerry: His family was killed in crossfire in a mafia shootout in Central Park.
[From Punisher dramatization: "Get down honey get down!" (gunfire) Noooooooooo!]
Gerry: And when the police weren't able to bring the criminals to justice, he went and took the law into his own hands.
[From Punisher dramatization: "This is not vengeance. Revenge is not a valid motive. It’s an emotional response. No, not vengeance. Punishment. (Sound of the Punisher killing people) Call me… The Punisher."]
Gerry: He wasn’t, as I said, wasn’t intended to be a good guy, but he was intended to be a vigilante anti-hero who at least had his own code of justice. And wouldn't cross a certain line, but was definitely considered an outlaw.
Amory: This guy knows a lot about The Punisher because he invented him.
Gerry: I'm Gerry Conway. I'm a comic book writer and TV writer. I'm the creator, co-creator of The Punisher and various other characters that have appeared on TV and in movies.
Ben Brock Johnson: Including 3 Punisher films, which we heard some snippets from. Gerry was a professional comic book writer by the age of 16. He’s in his late 60s now, with tufty white hair. He has a nerdy laugh that he follows statements with, which is endearing. On the internet, he describes himself as a “minor pop culture icon” and “a modest and unassuming fellow well-liked by those who don’t know him." And Gerry is pretty modest, considering he’s scripted classics like Marvel’s "The Amazing Spider-Man." It was actually in that series, back in 1974, that Gerry introduced The Punisher as a villain — an exceptionally violent and murderous one.
Ben: He was a bad guy.
Gerry: Yeah, in the Marvel Universe, there is no such thing as a complete bad guy, you know what I mean? There are no mustache-twirlers in the Marvel Universe.
Ben: The man who becomes The Punisher has a real name — Frank Castle — and like so many bad guys in comic books, Frank has a tragic backstory.
Amory: The horrors of fighting in the Vietnam War, followed by the murder of his entire family, left Frank traumatized — a misguided, tortured soul.
Ben: Still, Gerry says, over the years, the character has made it very clear.
Gerry: What he does is wrong.
Amory: The way his enemies identify him? A huge, terrifying white skull with four extra long fangs, plastered across his extremely muscular chest.
Ben: And it’s this symbol we want to tell you more about. Because even if you’ve never heard of The Punisher, I bet you’ve seen that skull emblem before — the one with the squinty eyes and piano key-like teeth.
Amory: Maybe you’ve noticed it on t-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, mashed up with pro-police Thin Blue Line flags. You may have even spotted it on officers’ uniforms, patrol cars, or permanently etched on skin.
Gerry: It was a photo, somebody had tattooed the Blue Lives Punisher logo — you know, the blue stripe variation on it — on their arm. And then above it, they had had tattooed “I don't read," and then below it, “Punisher comics”. And I thought, yep…
Ben: So we’ve been wondering, how in the world did the mark of a fictional vigilante assassin — who’s not on society’s side and has a hit list a mile-long — become a totem of mainstream law and order?
Amory: And lately, almost a visual dog whistle for political factions in the U.S. that seem increasingly associated with violence?
[Sound from the January 6, 2021 riot on the U.S. Capitol: "You work for us! Where are they meeting at? Hey, where are they counting the f***ing votes?"]
Amory: Call me...Amory Sivertson.
Ben: Call me...Ben Brock Johnson.
Amory: From the WBUR podcast universe… we bring you... Endless Thread.
Ben: Before we go any further, you might be muttering to yourself, "Wait, is the Punisher skull symbol a meme? It has no IMPACT font. It doesn’t tell a story in multiple panels."
Amory: But it does have the other essential meme ingredients...
Ben: ...defined by our chorus of meme experts.
[MEME CHORUS MUSIC]
Gianluca Stringhini: It is this idea that is shared by people, and it is modified and it evolves like a gene, kind of.
Joan Donovan: They're really ways in which we structure, and then create, a shorthand for a whole set of ideas that usually are held by a small group of people that get it.
Amanda Brennan: I think at the heart of any meme, it all ladders up to, like, a larger kind of macro thing going on in culture.
Amory: Like other memes, the Punisher skull is getting remixed all the time with a lot of the memes we’ve explored so far in this series. That happens serendipitously.
Ben: But the Punisher skull feels different. It hasn’t just been tweaked or repurposed. According to its creator, its meaning has been turned upside down. And as a symbol, it might be in a major period of transition into something much more sinister.
Amory: Today, we’re looking at how the Punisher’s symbol has become estranged from the Punisher’s origin story, which, for most memes, is normal. But in this case, it’s controversial and at the heart of a battle — Punisher style — to reclaim what the symbol means.
Ben: Amory, there were basically three places I spent all of my time during middle school: The record store, the candy store, the comic book shop.
Amory: I’m with you on the first two.
Ben: OK, so I’m not a full comic book nerd, but I do remember The Punisher from the 90s, the 90s era of the Punisher.
Amory: What do you remember?
Ben: Well, he was super rough looking, unshaven, super hairy. If his body was architecture, it would be from the brutalist school — sort of chunked-out of rough hewn slabs. Plus, he was always surrounded by this spiral of shells flying out of his guns, out of his uzis, or whatever. And mostly what I remember was that huge white skull logo because it was badass, as most skulls are.
Amory: Mmm hmm. Gerry Conway would agree. When he was first dreaming up the Punisher, he was inspired by an early comic book called "The Phantom," featuring a warrior against evil who wore a skull shaped ring.
Gerry: And his base of operations was the skull cave. And so I always thought this was enormously cool. And that, along with the idea of pirates, you know, with the skull and crossbones of the pirates, was something-- I thought it would make for, you know, kind of an interesting design for a guy who was an assassin working against the mob. That was the impulse for the skull going back to The Phantom and to the Jolly Roger.
Amory: The Jolly Roger was, of course, that black flag with the white human skull and diagonally crossed bones identifying a pirate ship about to attack.
[HOIST THE COLORS!]
Ben: In the end, The Punisher kept the scary skull, lost the crossbones.
Amory: But there’s more to the genesis of this crazy popular skull motif than just swashbuckling rogue pirates inciting terror on the high seas, according to Nate Powell.
Nate Powell: I'm a cartoonist and graphic novelist and I live in Bloomington, Indiana.
Ben: Nate is the first cartoonist ever to win a National Book Award --- for his trilogy about the life of civil rights leader John Lewis. And while Nate might live in Bloomington, he’ll always be from Little Rock, Arkansas... and a punk.
Nate: Yes, definitely. Punk going on 30 years.
Amory: That’s one of the many punk and metal bands Nate has played in. So he not only comes from subcultures teeming with skull iconography and a military family, he was also a Marvel kid back in the 80s and 90s. But Nate says he didn’t get interested in The Punisher specifically until a few decades later. Fast forward to 2016, he’s living in Southern Indiana...
Nate: ...going about my business, taking my kids to and from school…
Ben: ... when he starts noticing this pronounced shift towards a hyper-masculine look. We’re talking big beards, blacked out trucks, gun decals, and — over and over — that menacing, long-in-the-tooth skull image.
Nate: It was obvious to me that The Punisher skull was central — along with black and white American flags, et cetera — was central to the normalization of this paramilitary esthetic.
Amory: For Nate, seeing The Punisher symbol in this context was jarring. So he starts researching the saga of The Punisher skull icon and turning it into a comics essay, beginning with the roots of the skull and crossbones, or “death’s head,” imagery. Naturally...
Nate: I was expecting to land on pirates. I was not expecting to land on a proto-para-military unit.
Ben: As in, privateers. And this is a really important distinction. We think of pirates as jolly, parrot-loving, treasure-hoarding, rum-guzzling scallywags with no real power behind them. But privateers are different. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, privateers are given the nod, and the financial backing, of colonial governments to seize and plunder enemy ships, says Nate, without following the usual rules of war.
Nate: Not being outside of the law, simply being above the law.
Amory: Bottom line, he discovered that the skull has always been a sign of power beyond good and evil, but — first and foremost — a declaration of power itself.
Ben: In the 20th century, the Nazis adopted the death’s head - or "totenkopf."
Nate: The Nazi death’s head is a specific design, and it's one that you can identify on pickup trucks here in America today.
Amory: The skull was also used by US troops throughout World War Two. But especially in...Vietnam.
[From "Apocalype Now": "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."]
Gerry: In the early 70s, we had, you know, a number of national traumas.
Ben: To a young Gerry Conway, whose career was just getting off the ground, the biggest of all was the U.S. military’s involvement in the Vietnam war.
Gerry: And for many people of my generation that was a fundamental social crime that we felt that the government was perpetuating, which, by itself, sort of undermined your sense of the government as a force for good.
Amory: So in the pages of "The Amazing Spider-Man," Gerry responded with Frank Castle. An ex-sniper turned skull-sporting, vigilante, killing machine.
Ben: It, it sounds like it came from frustrations with the government's use of violence.
Gerry: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, it felt like the government is taking on the wrong people and ignoring the people who are really dangerous.
Ben: The Punisher was controversial from the get go. But, like any good comic book character and meme, once he shot out of Gerry’s pen into the Marvel Universe, he kept evolving, and gaining fans — lots of fans.
Gerry: And for a period in the 80s, The Punisher was-- became Marvel's most popular character, next to Spider-Man.
Amory: Maybe, Gerry says, because during the Reagan years, the Punisher embodied this ultimate truth — this notion that one man could wage war against crime itself.
[Ronald Reagan: "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."]
Ben: So, like, a black and white character in a black and white era.
Gerry: Exactly. And I think that I've often said that The Punisher represents kind of a Rorschach test for the era that he's-- that readers discover him in. For me, in the early 70s, he was, you know, a response to a dysfunctional era in American history. In the 80s, he's a triumphant character representing, you know, a black and white view of the world. And in the 2000s, he's the dysfunctional Punisher — the despairing tragic hero who is really an outcast and no longer represents anything except his own ID.
Ben: Over the last few decades, there have been Punisher spinoffs, books, films and TV series — all adapted and written by other people — that have increased its visibility. And, it must be said, some of these mutations were great, and some were decidedly not. One of the offshoots, "The Punisher Armory," reads like a gun catalogue. And some of the movies are so bad.
[From one of The Punisher movies: "Holy s***, the Punisher! It’s him!"]
Ben: Gerry refuses to see these movies. But all in all, while it was hard watching his bloodthirsty baby grow up, he was proud of him. Didn’t feel too attached.
Gerry: And it's actually part of the value of the comics is that you can reinterpret these characters as long as you maintain some truth to the original archetype that they represent. You can reinterpret them for the time in which you're creating.
Amory: About fifteen years ago, though, something very different started to happen — not to the Punisher as a character, but to his symbol. It leapt off the page, and took a hard right turn not in storylines, but seriously IRL — in large part because of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
Ben: Kyle served four tours in Iraq and was arguably the deadliest sniper in U.S. history. He credits himself with over 160 kills.
Amory: Chris Kyle also worshipped The Punisher. His unit actually called themselves The Punishers. Put the skull insignia everywhere. In his best-selling memoir, Kyle writes, “We spray-painted it 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.'"
Gerry: I didn't think it was the best thing in the world. But I could kind of see it because The Punisher was a vet, you know, and was a sharpshooter in Vietnam, and in his updated version was an Iraq war vet. So, you know, it made sense to me that somebody working in that world, you know, being a soldier might embrace that.
Ben: While creator Gerry had imagined Frank Castle’s story as a complicated, cautionary tale, to soldiers like Chris Kyle, Frank wasn’t an anti-hero. He was a hero.
Amory: The Punisher skull became sort of an icon for some members of the U.S. military, Iraqi security forces, even Shi’ite militias in the fight against ISIS.
Then, punk Punisher historian Nate Powell says it made another leap — moving from the U.S. military into American law enforcement...
Nate: ...as a very clear, direct response to the movement for Black lives throughout the United States.
Amory: Around 2014, right as tensions between police and communities of color were reaching a boiling point...
[Protestors: "Hands up, don’t shoot! Hands up, don’t shoot!"]
Amory: ...that notorious, long-fanged skull started showing up on Blue Lives Matter paraphernalia — police challenge coins, officers' uniforms, patrol cars — sending a message, according to one Kentucky police chief, that they would take any means necessary to keep their community safe.
Ben: Which feels like coded language. And this time, creator Gerry Conway could not empathize.
Gerry: By definition, he's the opposite of what they're supposed to be, right? No, he is someone who is outside the law taking the law into his own hands. So if they are claiming The Punisher as their symbol, they are saying they are outlaws and that they are criminals and that they are enemies of society. Is that really what they want to be saying?
Ben: Enemies of the state within the state?
Conway: Yes. Yeah. I mean, it's such a fundamental misreading of the character that that appalls me.
Amory: But the appropriation — or misappropriation, if you ask Gerry — of The Punisher skull symbol didn’t stop there.
Ben: In recent years, it’s also become the darling of some on the right, like Fox News commentator Sean Hannity.
[Sean Hannity on Fox News: "President Trump, in less than two years now, has given power back to you."]
Ben: And factions of the far right, who, for whatever reasons, feel that government, modern society, et cetera, have failed them, or left them behind, or broken some kind of promise. Which is not unlike the actions of The Punisher himself — an attempt to achieve justice through direct action, taking on the “forces of evil” by any means necessary.
Amory: A variation of The Punisher logo turned up on some white supremacists marching in the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville...
[Sound from the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally: "Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!"]
Amory: And it’s in vogue with the anti-government militia movement, the Three Percenters. Here’s a guy we talked to at a “freedom” rally in Boston this fall who was waving a massive Punisher flag.
[Rally attendee: "What it actually means it's a three percent skull, OK? And three percent of the people originally fought the British. Only three percent of the people. I am part of that three percent that is not afraid of the government."]
Ben: And, most recently, it appeared among some of the armed insurrectionists that violently stormed the U.S. capitol on January 6th.
[Sound from January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol: "They’re gonna use this against us as hard as they can. But we ain’t playing nice no f***in' more."]
Ben: Obviously, there is a difference between state-backed police and military forces and paramilitary extremist groups. Except, in a world where off-duty police are among the January 6th rioters, where military personnel eventually find work at Blackwater and other private security firms, whereas the Rage Against the Machine song says…
[Rage Against the Machine (song): "Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses."]
Ben: ...those lines seem to be getting even more blurry.
Amory: So Nate argues that no matter who is flaunting The Punisher emblem, the skull is functioning once again as a symbol of power beyond the law.
Nate: We've basically gone full circle.
Amory: This logo has broken free from the gravitational field of the Marvel Universe. And any inciting influences on the character, or its context.
Nate: The comic book symbol itself reached escape velocity. But now we are back to its original-- its original intent.
Amory: Original intent or not, the seizure of this specific skull logo, especially by American police or some on the extreme and far right, really pissed off the guy who brought him to life in Marvel Comics almost 50 years ago.
[Sound from a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Detroit, Michigan]
Ben: Last summer, after photos of police officers wearing Punisher skull patches while cracking down on Black Lives Matter protesters went viral,
Gerry took matters into his own hands — not quite Punisher-style. What did he do? And did it work? We’ll find out...after the break.
[Black Lives Matter protestors: "Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd!"]
Amory: In June of 2020, racial justice protests were spreading across the country.
Gerry: And I wanted to be part of that. And also, I was in the middle of the pandemic like everybody else, and going stir crazy.
Ben: So The Punisher’s daddy, Gerry Conway, launched the first-ever BLM Skulls for Justice campaign. His intentions were two-fold. One: support the Black Lives Matter movement by raising money for the Los Angeles chapter. Two? Reclaim the skull...
Gerry: ...potentially as a symbol for justice rather than for oppression. That, while The Punisher was a very problematic hero, he was trying to fight on the side of right.
Amory: Gerry invited young artists of color to come up with a new iteration of The Punisher skull emblem — one that would challenge its affiliation with “lawless police oppression.” Fight fire with fire. Logo-vs-logo.
Ben: And lots of artists answered this call. The top-selling logo design, by an LA-based Vietnamese indie comics artist, transformed the skull into a Black power fist — the teeth, the fingers gripping the letters BLM, a blood-red tear drips from one eye.
Amory: And by one metric - the campaign was a smash success, raising over 75-thousand dollars for the Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles chapter — far more than Gerry ever imagined.
Ben: As for Gerry’s more abstract goal of reclaiming the skull for justice?
Gerry: I've heard one or two people on Twitter saying that there's literally no way that the Punisher logo can ever be anything except a symbol of oppression. And I think that’s just, you know, no, come on. But even if that were the case, sticking your finger in the eye of the bad guys is always a good deal. And putting out sweatshirts that, or T-shirts, you know, that had the BLM logo with The Punisher logo is a, you know, it's a pretty hefty "F- you" to people who deserve to have an "F- you."
Amory: Gerry says he launched the logo campaign independently because the symbol was already controversial.
Ben: Also, this was when Black Lives Matter protesters were grappling with how white participants could be allies without appropriating the megaphone or the spotlight. So, would Gerry’s effort feel... off?
Amory: We wanted to get at least one perspective from the BLM ranks. And we did. But let’s get one thing straight first.
Kimberley McNair: I am not a fan of superhero comics, I love anti-heroes.
Amory: Dr. Kimberley McNair is very familiar with The Punisher canon. And...
Kim: I am a member of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles. And I am also a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in African and African-American studies.
Ben: She actually studies t-shirt culture and Black activist traditions.
Amory: And Kim says she understands Gerry Conway’s intention to protect his creative legacy — set the record straight, as far as BLM-LA is concerned...
Kim: White supremacists are using this image to intimidate Black people. And no matter who a person is and where they are, trying to upend that effort is something that I believe is commendable and something that BLM-LA believes is absolutely necessary. But overall, we always try to coordinate efforts with parties. That makes an even larger impact, and it also helps us try and steer the conversation towards not only, has this happened to Mr. Conway and this was not the original intent or purpose or meaning of The Punisher and The Punisher skull, but also how can we make this conversation more about, not only the military's use of the Punisher skull, but, the militarization of the police?
Ben: Or, Kim says, to draw a line, from that to the over policing of Black communities, to how images of Black people themselves have been co-opted or demonized in the service of white supremacy. Her point is, there are so many possibilities to take the conversation about one symbol to the next level.
Kim: And to me, this is really a beautiful thing because it is Mr. Conway's entryway into a movement that is about broader things.
Amory: Gerry did tell us that he didn’t expect that the Black Lives Matter movement would adopt the justice-themed Punisher logo as their own. But we still wanted to ask Kim a bigger question that we’ve been puzzling over — the one that hovered above the campaign.
Ben: Do you think it's even possible to, sort of, give a movement a logo?
Kim: There's this saying, and I love this saying. It’s by Lilla Watson — she’s a Maori elder — and it says, "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." Right? And so the idea of gifting a movement, imagery, or a symbol, you have to work with those people who are at the center of the movement. You have to work with those people. Don't give anything, you create it with the people.
Ben: These days, the tug-of-war over The Punisher skull symbol rages on.
Amory: Over the last few months, our team has gone searching for The Punisher IRL. And even though we spied the toothy skull in plenty of places, it wasn’t easy finding people who wanted to talk about it. We did, however, strike gold at the “Stand Up For Freedom” rally in Boston - an event organized to oppose vaccine mandates. There, we chatted with a few dozen folks about what that skull means to them. And all we can say is, there is still not a clear consensus.
[Amory: "Does it mean anything to you in particular?" Protester: "Yeah, Frank Castle’s a badass."]
[Another protestor: "Not really. Skulls have always been a power symbol throughout the world, you know. It's just a power symbol more than anything."]
[Another protestor: "I ride a black Harley Davidson — a fat boy with 18s on it. It’s right there and it has two American flags on the bars and it looks awesome. And I feel like The Punisher when I’m coming through, you know? You know, an American patriot, supporting our country."]
[Another protestor: "Yeah, that’s a cool skull. Yeah, I've seen it around. I don't like when the Thin Blue Line is put over it, though, because that's the bootlicker flag. And when you put The Punisher skull over the bootlicker flag-- in the comics, he killed police."]
[Another protestor: "I know quite a few Marines that do have it, yeah, and they do enjoy it. They stand for what we all stand for: USA — right here, what they’re all chanting." Endless Thread producer Nora Saks: "Why do you think that skull is a symbol of that?" Protester: "Uh, pain and punishing for justice. Doing what’s right for the people."]
[A counter-protestor: "I didn't know what it meant before. Any time I saw it, I would assume The Punisher. But now, because I've been to so many rallies and I've seen that on hats and shirts of people that are not very nice, I'm going to go out on a limb and assume it represents a hate group or hate ideology or something along that line. And the fact that, in 2021, there's still more symbols that are coming up that we don't know of, it's just, like, wild to me."]
Ben: We also talked to a comic book store owner up in Maine, and he just wasn’t sure.
[Maine-based comic book store owner: "I’ll be honest, when I see it, I kind of, my hairs go up a little bit because I don’t know what the intention is behind it."]
Amory: It’s those last comments — about the confusion, the not-knowing — that really stuck with us. Because, with some symbols, it’s really clear what they mean nowadays, no matter the context.
Ben: Take the swastika. Originally an ancient good luck symbol, it’s been forever corrupted by Nazi propaganda. The Confederate flag — pretty hard to defend as just a symbol of "Southern heritage" and pride. Or Pepe the Frog, the sad cartoon amphibian? He’s been used as the alt-right’s internet bigot. These are just a few of the 200-plus entries in the Anti-Defamation League’s hate symbol database.
Amory: The Punisher skull is not currently one of them. Sometimes it really is just a representation of the Marvel character. But more and more, it’s an image that seems to denote a distrust of authority, and trust in the ultimate authority of violence. It still has a foot in both worlds, for now.
Ben: What makes all of this extra confusing is that it’s everywhere. Go inside your local Wal-mart or army surplus store and you can find anything from Punisher pajama pants to tactical vests. Online, you can order skull shirts and hats galore, flags, decals, stickers for your gun mag, pop sockets. There’s just so much...
Nate: ...cool stuff for people to buy. At the mall, or off of Amazon.
Amory: In Punisher expert Nate Powell’s mind, that’s the real danger. The symbol is so deeply embedded in pop culture it can be hard to pin down its meaning. Is a person wearing it only because they’re a diehard Marvel fan? Or as a dog whistle of white supremacy? A signal of anti-government sentiment? Something in-between? Does it become a gateway or a cover for those ideologies and political views the more ubiquitous it gets?
Nate: It’s a really good case study in seeing how the symbol evolves — in seeing how it gains power by appearing to lose political specificity.
Ben: And by normalizing fascist and paramilitary activity…
Nate: ...it allows space for all that stuff to expand and continue.
Ben: What, then, should be done? And who should be doing it? Should the burden to wrangle a symbol gone wild be shouldered by its creator alone? Is there any other entity that might have a dog in this fight? If you ask BLM-LA member Dr. Kimberley McNair...
Kim: I think Marvel should sue. I want to imagine a world beyond punitive justice, but I'm thinking about accountability. I'm thinking about ways to redress harm that has been done by those who have profited. They’ve made money.
Amory: Oh right! Unlike, say, Pepe the Frog who belongs to one independent artist named Matt Furie, The Punisher is the intellectual property of Marvel Comics, which is a subsidiary of...
[Disney's theme music]
Ben: The Walt Disney Company — one of the world’s largest and most litigious media and entertainment conglomerates. One that takes copyright and trademark infringement quite seriously. Disney has been known to go after just about anyone using unauthorized mouse ears: daycares, DJ DeadMau5, et cetera.
Amory: And when it comes to unauthorized use of The Punisher skull, there have been repeated calls by fans on social media for Marvel/Disney to do something.
When we contacted reps from Marvel and Disney to find out where they are in this whole wrestling match, we got...
[Crickets chirping sound effect]
But there’s been a lot of dogged reporting on this issue in comic book trade publications. And from what we can tell, because of some murky trademark territory, Marvel probably has limited legal recourse to stop the spread of The Punisher skull, especially when it comes to non-commercial use — police officers wearing Punisher patches at BLM protests, for example.
But commercial use is not a trademark grey area. And it’s really easy to get your hands on some bootleg Punisher merch. Gerry’s best guess as to why Marvel hasn’t cracked down on these unlicensed distributors?
Gerry: The promoters of these are all fly-by-night, you know, Etsy kind of companies. And it would be like whack-a-mole.
Amory: So far, the company has come out and publicly denounced... racism.
Ben: And when pressed on the appropriation of the skull, a Marvel spokesperson told Gizmodo their stance is laid out in a 2019 Punisher comic. In that issue, Frank Castle encounters two NYPD officers displaying the skull decal, tears it off, and lectures them, saying, “You boys need a role model? His name is Captain America and he’d be happy to have you.”
Amory: Which is super helpful if you actually read Punisher comics.
Ben: A stronger offense from Marvel and Disney might actually put an end to the power struggle over this meme-ified logo, right?
Amory: Mmm, hard tellin' not knowin'. But if, as our Punisher authority Nate Powell likes to say, the skull symbol has, in fact, reached "escape velocity," chances are this meme will continue to have a life of its own. And, in his view, trying to redefine The Punisher symbol or the character is a massive waste of time right now.
Nate: Why can't we just continue spending that time and spending more time trying to prevent police officers from, you know, killing Black citizens without accountability? I think it's time to keep our focus where it matters, or none of this is going to matter in five years. Sometimes you just have to recognize that there will be no reclamation.
Ben: For Gerry Conway, the debate isn't over. Whether The Punisher logo can ever be reclaimed as a symbol for justice remains an open question.
Amory: Since The Punisher was spotted on Capitol rioters, demands on Marvel to retire the Punisher character and his logo have only gotten louder, from both fans and industry leaders.
Ben: Instead of canceling him or killing him off, Gerry Conway says let The punisher go dormant for a few years. And then, let’s reinvent Frank Castle — give him a new mission, maybe even a new identity.
Gerry: You know, there’ll come a time, just like in the 80s, when that character can be rebooted, you know, and turned into something new. I mean, my personal preference would be that the next iteration of The Punisher would be a Black vet, you know, who comes back and faces the issues that minorities in the world face today.
Amory: Maybe then, The Punisher will have something to say to the next generation.
Gerry: Again, as I say, like a Rorschach test. And when he does, you know, I'll be proud of him again.
Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.
By the way, we did find a few cases where Marvel took legal action to protect its Punisher skull trademark — one where the company opposed Molon Labe LLC’s attempt to trademark the skull on its gun-related products; another involving insulated beverage sleeves.
Ben: Want early tickets to events, swag, and bonus content? Join our email list! (see below)
Amory: Also, we want to know what you think is the most underrated meme. So call us! 857-244-0338. Or better yet, record a voice memo and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We just might feature your voice memo — and your meme suggestion — on the show!
Ben: Big thanks to our meme chorus:
Sarah Laiola teaches about digital culture and design at Coastal Carolina University.
Joan Donovan is Research Director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.
Gianluca Stringhini studies online security disinformation and hate speech at Boston University.
Amanda Brennan has the extremely cool title of Internet/Meme Librarian.
Please go find their work and benefit from their meme genius.
Amory: This episode was produced by Nora Saks. Our series and our show is made by producers Nora Saks, Dean Russell and Quincy Walters. We are co-hosted by us, Amory Sivertson
Ben: And Ben Brock Johnson. This episode was edited by Maureen McMurray.
Amory: Mixing and sound design by Matt Reed. Original music in this episode also by Matt Reed.
Ben: Special thanks to, and additional production work from Grace Tatter, Josh Crane, Frank Hernandez, Kristin Torres, Sofie Kodner, and Rachel Carlson.