Few superhero emblems are as provocative as the Punisher’s. Superman’s diamond “S” communicates decency and heroism, while Batman’s silhouette bat strikes fear in those who prey on the fearful. But a white skull with long dripping teeth? The logo of the Punisher is as intimidating, and controversial, as Frank Castle himself.
The Punisher’s Skull, a ghostly white cranium often painted over a pitch black background, perfectly occupies the uncomfortable shaded areas in the venn diagram of politically conservative audiences, law enforcement, and hyper-masculine power fantasies. For some, it symbolizes honor and gritty determination, and for others, unbound aggression and destruction.
You’ve seen it before. The skull, as ubiquitous as Captain America’s shield, is on jerseys, t-shirts, coffee mugs, even tube socks. It was a focal marketing point for The Punisher, the new 13-episode series streaming on Netflix. The vast majority of Punisher stuff are produced and sold by Marvel, but it’s not hard to find the Punisher Skull without Marvel’s involvement alongside pro-police merchandise.
Thin Blue Line USA, whose spokesperson Pete Forhan tells Inverse is a law enforcement “support company” that makes merchandise for law enforcement families, has a popular “Punisher” collection of flags, shirts, patches, and other items that combine the skull with the “thin blue line” design. Copyright laws seem to be unenforced; after all, everyone has a skull.
But there is a disconnect between Frank Castle’s penchant for violence and law enforcement. Police brutality is a plague in modern America, yet the embrace of the Punisher by police is chilling, if not plain bad optics. In February 2017, a Kentucky precinct endured heavy criticism when it branded vehicles with Punisher decals with the words “Blue Lives Matter” over them. Later, Police Chief Cameron Logan told io9: “We’re getting so many calls, and they’re saying that the Punisher logo [means] we’re out to kill people, and that’s not the meaning behind that.” Cameron added that he would do “a little more research” in the future.
Forhan explains away the dissonance as such: “It’s adopted a new meaning over the last few years. Less of a violent overtone, more of a promise to criminals: You might think you’re getting away with it, but it’s karma. If you’re committing violent acts, one way or another, you will be meeting consequences.”
Another reason, Forhan says, is to “honor officers who have given their lives in the line of duty.” “So when you wear the skull with the thin blue line, you say, ‘Here are my fallen brothers, and what I’m doing is to keep that legacy going.’”
Most enlisted members acknowledge Frank Castle is a masculine figure that’s “safely in the realm of fantasy,” one Marine veteran and Punisher fan told Vulture. But Gerry Conway, who created the Punisher in 1974 and advocates progressive politics over social media, isn’t convinced.
“People can tell themselves anything,” Conway tells Inverse. “I could have a bat symbol and tell people I’m celebrating nightvision. It’s a defense people throw up when they don’t want to be associated with the actual meaning of the symbol.”
If he seems dismissive, it may be because Conway is close to law enforcement; he had police for family. Conway’s father was a cop and his uncle was captain of the academy of New York City. “I grew up during the Serpico era of New York,” he says. “The idea that the police are supposed to be given a pass on laws they’re held to enforce is incomprehensible. It’s not my understanding of the police.”
Though the Punisher’s fans are generally diverse, the character has a strong appeal to a conservative audience. “The character and his iconography are totemic for many cops and soldiers,” wrote Abraham Riesman for Vulture, adding that his popularity spiked when Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, the subject of American Sniper, appropriated the skull as his own.
“We all thought what the Punisher did was cool: He righted wrongs,” wrote Kyle in his 2012 autobiography. “So we adapted his symbol — a skull — and made it our own.” Kyle says that he and his men spray-painted the skull on Hummers, body armor, buildings, and their guns. “We wanted people to know, ‘We’re here and we want to f— with you.’”
“That’s a very specific image you can’t say is tied to anything except the Punisher,” Conway says about his creation’s signature emblem. “It’s like people saying the Swastika was a Hindu symbol that means family and love. I think you have to take what’s the generally accepted interpretation and that’s the one we should apply.”
For now, as Marvel fans continue to indulge with the Punisher’s quest for revenge in his Netflix series, the true meaning of the Punisher’s skull remains in the eye of the beholder, says Conway. “Everybody brings to it their interpretation, and I have no problem of any of those, so long as there’s a fundamental understanding that this is not a good guy.” Conway himself even admits to owning Punisher merchandise. ““For me it’s pride of creation.”
“I’m certain there are people who wear the Punisher without even knowing what it’s about,” he says. “You can’t get into people’s heads.”