It was the least surprising image from the coup. In a Getty photograph, taken by Win McNamee, an anonymous Proud Boy hops over the hand railing inside the U.S. Senate Chamber. Clothed in black and gray camouflage gear, one could mistake him for an unlockable character in Call of Duty. The downward angle of his face, covered in a balaclava and the brim of his hat, conceals their eyes. We don't know what he's feeling, but from the bundled up zip ties clenched in his hand, we know what he's thinking.
Yet it's the tiniest detail that makes the biggest difference. Printed over a United States flag velcroed to the vest is the ghostly white shape of a skull. More specifically, it's the skull of the Punisher, the violent Marvel superhero/anti-hero who, unlike the Avengers or X-Men, uses lethal force — and an arsenal of firearms — against his enemies.
Why white supremacists love the Punisher
The Punisher, the alter-ego of vengeful ex-soldier Frank Castle, is the intellectual property of Disney subsidiary Marvel. He was created by Gerry Conway for an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974, at the height of gritty anti-hero popularity when movies like Dirty Harry and Death Wish ruled the box office. Since then, the Punisher graduated from one-time Spider-Man baddie to the star of his own comics. His image endured over the years and exploded onto the big screen not once, not twice, but three times — not to mention two seasons of a Netflix show.
For years, police, soldiers, and a wide swath of the political right, including white supremacists, have united in love for the Punisher. They love other Marvel characters, too — a handful came prepared to the coup with "MAGA: Civil War" sweatshirts that riff on the movie logo of 2016's Captain America: Civil War — but the Proud Boy's vest is just the latest instance of the right's historical appropriation of the Punisher as a hyper-masculine, hyper-intimidating avatar. Punisher skulls have been seen on neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and on the police during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
The Punisher's skull is intimidating. Intimidating for whom, though? And for what? The implications are scary indeed.
Why Marvel can't stop them
At the heart of the matter is Marvel/Disney's unwillingness to enforce boundaries on its intellectual property. The vast majority of non-Marvel approved "Punisher" merchandise, including t-shirts, hoodies, patches, decals, water bottles, and more, use a specific skull virtually identical to the one used for the 2004 film The Punisher.
A mid-aughts action movie starring Thomas Jane in the title role, the film came out years before Disney's 2009 acquisition of Marvel for $4 billion. The film itself grossed $54.7 million worldwide, a paltry figure compared to today's billion-dollar winners. Roger Ebert called it "grim and cheerless."
But there's no specific love for the 2004 movie. What cops and Proud Boys alike love about the Punisher is what he represents, and the heads of the Disney corporation should be very scared about that. It's bad enough that police vehicles in Kentucky branded their cars with the Punisher. It's really bad that the terrorists who marched into the Capitol Building didn't do so wearing only Trump hats and Nordic Pagan tattoos (a favorite for white supremacists), they stormed in with Trump hats, Norse symbols, and Punisher skulls on their tactical vests. The association between the Punisher and violent fascism is growing stronger with each shameful episode of America's never-ending saga. It might even already be too late to stop it.
How Nazis came to love the Punisher
The usage of the Punisher generally began with Chris Kyle, the late Navy SEAL and author of the book American Sniper (adapted into a 2014 film by Clint Eastwood), who used the Punisher logo during his deployment. “We all thought what the Punisher did was cool: He righted wrongs,” Kyle wrote in his 2012 book. “So we adapted his symbol — a skull — and made it our own. We wanted people to know, ‘We’re here and we want to f— with you.’”
In a 2017 interview with Vulture, a Marine Corps veteran called the Punisher "the ultimate definition of Occam's razor for the military."
"Find the bad guys. Kill the bad guys. Protect the innocent," they said. "Any true warrior? That’s the dream.”
Marvel's silence on the likely illegal usage of the Punisher, by cops, soldiers, and neo-Nazis, has been deafening for years. The only explicit acknowledgement has been a one-time moment in a July 2019 issue of Marvel's most recent volume of The Punisher by Matthew Rosenberg, where the Punisher rips a skull decal from a police vehicle. "We believe in you," the police tell the Punisher. "We're not on the same side," he says, tearing up their sticker.
But that's one writer lending their voice to Frank Castle. It's not a statement by Marvel or Disney as a company, and there continues to be no visible action taken to strike the use of the Punisher outside Marvel licensing.
The Punisher's creator, Gerry Conway, at least agrees with his creation. The son of a cop and whose uncle was an NYPD academy captain, Conway told Inverse in 2017, “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.”
As far as neo-Nazis go, “They’re despicable human beings, and Frank Castle would have all of them in his crosshairs," he said just a few months after the riots in Charlottesville. "The fact that white nationalists and Nazis embrace it is a tragic misunderstanding. It’s a misappropriation of the character and a blatant disregarding of reality. They literally do not know what they are fucking talking about.”
But even so, merchandise in online shops, often companies with names like "Thin Blue Line" and not associated with Marvel continue to sell Punisher merchandise. Even more are found on Etsy, where all kinds of merchandise ranging from car decals to wood art paint the Punisher's skull with police flags or even Donald Trump's hair.
It's not up to me how Disney or Marvel pursues action, but there are examples of companies taking action. Fred Perry, the polo clothing company whose black and yellow-tipped shirts became a Proud Boys "uniform," ceased manufacturing and selling the shirt and released a statement condemning the Proud Boys' values.
It's just a little bit ironic that using this symbol to celebrate the law and declare war on crime is, itself, a crime. Thin Blue Line USA, a manufacturer of pro-law enforcement merchandise, defended its "Punisher Collection" to Inverse in 2017. “[The skull has] adopted a new meaning over the last few years," a spokesperson said. "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.”
In an email from Thin Blue Line USA on January 7, a rep confirmed that the brand's "Punisher Collection" has been abandoned "due to copyright infringement laws."
But that hasn't stopped anyone, and other online stores, including one named Thin Blue Line Shop, are still selling their Punisher gear under a different name: “Skull Collection.”