If you haven’t been paying attention, then you might assume that everything is the same as it has always been, and you might think that the sameness of your circumstances is a reward for your patriotism. If you have been paying attention, then you know that this assumption is founded on privilege, and you would recognize that people around the country are being oppressed, deported, and murdered. Now, what is the difference between one perspective and another, you might ask. How do two very different groups of Americans find themselves at such odds, at such different conclusions, and with such different responses to the same sociopolitical reality? The answer lies in the narratives we tell ourselves, which shape our perception, sometimes expanding it and sometimes limiting it, resulting in either the inability to see from other vantage points or the ability to do just that.
There is a constant characteristic among the politically conservative that causes them to revise history, to re-contextualize their actions, and reinvent their morality, and all to suit whatever their party’s agenda might be. That said, it is important to recognize that part of this need for revision and reinvention is the fact that their party has not been a constant itself, the conservative oscillating from the Democrats to the Republicans, Dixiecrats to the Tea Party, Libertarianism to Fascism. The one thing that all of these groups have had in common is being motivated by self-interest, being united Eurocentric masculinity, and a general lack of accountability. For this reason we see conservative Republicans praising US Presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln within the same breath, regardless of the fact that they held strikingly different views on slavery, and that one was a conservative Democrat while the other was a liberal Republican.
The core characteristic of the conservative is to adhere to a romanticized past that never existed, and in so doing re-contextualizing the historical and cultural figures and events of that past, and essentially hijacking them to serve their ideology. We see this in the Libertarian Flag, the very name of the Tea Party, and in the way that the Christian-Right claims victimhood constantly crying wolf about their religious rights are being oppressed all the while pushing Christianity as the state religion. Since the Bush Years, these characteristics have become more and more blatantly obvious, and they are reflected in our popular culture. Often in strange ways. Three pop culture icons that have been or appropriated, or misappropriated, in recent years are from the comic books The Punisher, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen. But I’ll touch up those latter two in another installment of this ongoing cultural commentary. And yes, I know what you’re probably thinking, and indeed it is strange. Comic book characters as mascots for political parties and extremist ideologies? Yeah, that is the level of immaturity our society has devolved to, and it’s an adequate expression of how misappropriation works.
The character of Frank Castle, The Punisher, was created by writer Gerry Conway and artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru in 1974. Within the comics, Frank Castle’s family was gunned down by the mob, and Frank, a veteran, decides to take it upon himself to wage war on crime. Unlike Spider-Man or Superman, Frank Castle doesn’t have superpowers, wear a mask, or a cape, and he doesn’t dress in a colourful spandex outfit. Frank Castle shares more in common with Batman, whose own family was gunned down by criminals, in that Frank has no superpowers and he is all about symbolic vengeance. He is different from Batman, however, because when Frank dons the title of The Punisher, he does not hesitate to use guns and to kill. In fact, this is one of his defining characteristics, what makes him unique, and what makes him dangerous as a revered pop culture icon. Frank Castle, The Punisher, is a brutally violent vigilante, a self-appointed authority who takes the law into his own hands and in doing so takes many, many lives. He wasn’t designed to be a superhero. He isn’t super. Arguably, he isn’t even really a hero, but an outlaw with a twisted sense of justice. The Punisher operates outside the law in order to do what he saw as serving the law. This is, of course, meant to be ironic. That he was created during the end of the Vietnam War and the end of the Nixon presidency is no coincidence. This was a time when America was questioning its identity, its heroism, its fascination with violent entertainment, and its admiration for self-righteous authority.
When The Punisher debuted in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, issue #129 in February of 1974, during the Nixon Years, he seemed to be too violent, too brutal, and too dark. Maybe he was too much of a reminder of the horrific violence that soldiers witnessed, experienced, and committed during the Vietnam War, or maybe Americans just weren’t ready to see such a grim portrayal of their own fantasies brought to life. Whatever the reason, he just didn’t seem to fit into the world of the “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man“, and the character faded into the background, but this would change within the span of a decade.
By the time of the Reagan Years, The Punisher was the perfect embodiment of the ’80s grim and gritty hero, the muscle-bound, gun-toting, macho man who would take it to the bad guys as viciously as they would take it to you. Frank Castle is consumed with an icy rage and a desire to see criminals punished for their crimes while he punishes himself for his own crimes by suppressing his humanity. He is single-minded, obsessive, and selfish in his pursuits. He fit in perfectly with the likes of Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone. America was engaged in a futile Cold War, locked into a standstill with the Soviets, and many Americans wanted immediate action. They wanted a clear-cut victory and a good guy versus bad guy narrative. They wanted to see their “enemies” dealt with expeditiously and permanently. That meant not relying on diplomacy, on foreign relations, or on criminal trials. It meant dealing out death to those who you see deserving it. When you can deliver on those things, when your very symbol is an icon of a skull, you represent death, and you endear yourself to people who crave that kind of self-appointed power. This is the kind of thinking that The Punisher was criticizing, but much like Archie Bunker in All in the Family, this is also what made The Punisher appealing to many of his fans who agreed with this school of thought. People have a funny way of taking an ironic criticism of themselves and adopting it as a hallmark of their own flawed value systems.
While The Punisher was created as more of a critique for a certain attitude that was popular in the ’70s and ’80s, he hasn’t been written or illustrated by one person or even one team, so throughout the different incarnations there have been fundamental differences in approach. Just as the character appeals to a widely varying group of fans, he has also been written and drawn by a widely varying group of comic book writers and artists. Not all of them share the same perspective on the character and some even portray him in a way that is in stark contrast to his creators’ intentions. Gerry Conway once acknowledged that he had created a kind of monster with a strange and enduring legacy, saying, “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.“
The skull emblem worn by The Punisher became a kind of calling card for people who thought of violence as the be-all, end-all solution to crime and terrorism. Never mind that The Punisher is himself a criminal and uses terrorist tactics to achieve his ends. It was taken up by police who were weary of inner city violence and gang-related crimes and liked seeing The Punisher shoot up the Italian Mafia, the Russian Bratva, the Chinese Triads, and the Japanese Yakuza. It was taken up by punks on the Left who saw The Punisher as a product of a corrupt statist society and as rebelling against authority by killing corrupt cops and politicians. It was taken up by racists on the Right who saw The Punisher as someone who was cleaning house of immigrant criminals and gangs comprised of young black men and Latinos. It was taken up by soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran who saw The Punisher fighting against terrorists and foreign enemies. It was taken up by American sniper Chris Kyle who simply thought that the skull looked cool and that he shared a common living with Frank Castle: killing people. The Punisher became many things to many people (and most of those things weren’t good) and each of them saw his skull as symbolic of their own beliefs and worldview. They misunderstood that it simply represented death and that The Punisher was just a product of violence. He isn’t good. He isn’t bad. He isn’t a hero. And he isn’t quite a villain. He does some good things. He does more bad things. That is why he’s considered an anti-hero. When you identify with him, you should feel discomfort, you should feel conflicted about it. The skull isn’t an emblem of any philosophy or ideology. It’s not a call to action. It’s an admission of failure, a failure to serve and protect, and a failure to recognize oneself. The whole point of the character is to question vigilantism and authority, not to embrace them, and the people who know the character best want you to know that.
“I’ve talked about this in other interviews. To me, it’s disturbing 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. 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’ve basically sided with an enemy of the system. 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. 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.“
– Gerry Conway, writer and co-creator of The Punisher, on the use of the skull logo by American law enforcement and the military
The Punisher skull logo has also been adopted by Blue Lives Matter, a counter-protest movement, which sprung up on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement. Blue Lives Matter is a group that holds to the notion that lives of police also matter and therefore we should be siding with law enforcement. Along with All Lives Matter, it operates under the assumption that Black Lives Matter is somehow an isolationist or supremacist movement. What it fails to recognize is that while, yes, all lives matter, not all lives are being systematically targeted by racist agendas. Worse it operates under the misapprehension that there are “blue lives”. People are born black, born brown, born red. These ethnic groups have been targeted time and again by white ethnic groups. Nobody is born blue. Blue skin doesn’t exist. People aren’t born into the profession of police officers. That is a choice that a person deliberately makes. You don’t get to choose your race or ethnicity. What is odd is that if police lives matter isn’t opposed to black lives simply existing, then why did their movement rise up in response to Black Lives Matter, and why did they choose as their symbol for support for law enforcement a skull; an emblem of death? That doesn’t seem to equate “to protect and serve”. It’s intimidation of a minority group disguised as support for police. It’s no different than racism aimed at one ethnicity disguised as national pride in another.
Black Lives Matter sought to show the world how American police have perpetuated a long history of brutality, violence, and suppression on black Americans. Historically, this is true, and it’s almost impossible to argue against. There is a long and undeniable history of police violence against people of colour (I have covered that in a previous entry). Yet, rather than actually acknowledge that and look for possible solutions, many white reactionaries have pointed out that there is even more “black on black violence“, referring to the percentage of black men killed by other black men. But the reality is that one could also say that there has been an even greater problem of “white on white violence“. Most violent acts are perpetrated by people within the same community, ethnically and geographically, and that is not surprising for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here. Then there is the other reactionary argument that if people of colour weren’t committing crimes then they wouldn’t be getting shot by the police. Well, there is some truth to that, but that response generally overlooks decades of institutionalized racism, segregation, and socioeconomic conditions, and it also overlooks the important statistics about who commits crimes and where. Violence is violence and it is all negative. But that doesn’t take away the issue of police brutality visited upon black communities. Period.
This is where we get into false narratives. We live in an age of “Fake News” and “False Narratives“. These are terms that have been popularized by fringe groups and political commentators on both the far-Right and the far-Left. There are indeed false narratives, but more often than not, the term is applied without much thought or analysis as a knee-jerk reaction to a statement that someone disagrees with. No further explanation is given to back up the claim or provide a justification for the term being used to begin with. I am going to try to explore that. Holocaust deniers call Anne Frank‘s diary a false narrative, despite the fact that the diary itself is supported by numerous other documents verified to be authentic, and by the fact that a vast majority of historians acknowledge that the Holocaust, which left behind thousands of bodies and thousands of first-hand accounts from survivors, did happen. Many white supremacists claim that the South will rise again, despite a nationwide movement to remove Confederate monuments, a surge of African-Americans entering into significant positions within the government, including but not limited to President Barack Obama, and a strong backlash to every single White Pride demonstration for decades. A false narrative persists in its folly despite all identifiable facts pointing toward the contrary. Both the false narrative and the terms “Fake News” and “False Narratives” have been part of the alt-Right movement.
The skull logo of The Punisher has been used by many of these groups. A simplified version of the skull has even become a symbol for the White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis that marched in Charlottesville. And what does The Punisher say to that?
– Jon Bernthal, actor who plays Frank Castle/The Punisher on the Netflix series, on the appropriation of the skull logo by white supremacists and the alt-Right