Dull is safe. In conflict, boring symbology can avoid offence. We are all this, says the peacemaker in the black suit, standing in front of the flag with a bird or sword; with stars or moons; with circles, lines and patches of colour. The peacemaker tells us red means courage, blue vigilance, and white innocence. But they actually mean as little as possible—their significance will come later, as the signs enter history.
While commercial brands are equally conservative, they push for visual uniqueness: the swoosh, the bitten apple, the ‘f’ in Klavika font. The world of civic symbolism is far more banal, because—officially, at least—governments have to bridge rifts not widen them.
Police logos exemplify this: asterisks, wreaths, scales and the usual signs of ancient livery. Law enforcement personnel in many parts of the United States literally have shields as badges: a nod to their protective ideal, but also to the symbolism’s medieval origins. Old and abstract are anodyne. But in New York and Kentucky recently, officers showed citizens a new emblem: a skull. This was neither dull nor safe.
Skulls feature on some special units’ logos—the military police of Rio de Janeiro, for example. Still, they are rare in municipal law enforcement. And for good reason: skulls are not quietly trivial symbols. Yes, they can signify the carnivalesque in Mexico’s festivals, or vanity in seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes. But in general the skeletal face is a warning: the Grim Reaper, Jolly Roger, Nazi Death’s Head (Totenkopf). It is a threat.
In Solvay, New York and Catlettsburg, Kentucky, staff put this threat proudly on their squad cars. Part of the Blue Lives Matter movement, which advocates for the safety of police, the stickers were supposed to celebrate law enforcement. The skulls told citizens that police ‘will stand between good and evil’. Yet this skull is the logo of a criminal. It decorates the chest of Marvel character Frank Castle, the Punisher: a vigilante who uses his military training to terrify, torture and execute wrongdoers. In other words, the police were identifying with a murderer.
• • •
The Punisher was created in the year before I was born. He was a walk-on villain, a bit part to provide the hero with someone to overcome. Writer Gerry Conway wrote Castle for the Amazing Spider-Man no. 129, published in February 1974. He was simply an antagonist for the webslinger. His schtick: relentless killing.
Many mainstream Marvel superheroes merely knocked out or maimed their enemies. The death toll was surprisingly low in general, given the rampant conflict. This is part of what Ben Saunders, in Do the Gods Wear Capes?, calls ‘a comforting illusion of safety and control in a profoundly uncertain world’. These comics were often more luchador fun than noir crime; more colourful spandex haymakers than crimson sprays.
But the Punisher was an assassin—this was his original moniker, before editor Stan Lee suggested the other. Frank Castle not only offered Spider-Man a physical challenge, he also highlighted the good guy’s virtue. Peter Parker snapped wire strong enough to hold ten men, yet stopped himself from ripping Castle to pieces. (From Spider-Man no. 1, 1962: ‘with great power there must also come—great responsibility!’)
The Punisher was never written to return, but his popularity with fans saw him paired with various Marvel characters over the next decade: Spider-Man again, Captain America, Daredevil, among others. In each case he was the moral contrast: the maniac who killed, as against the principled hero. More importantly, he was also given a tragic backstory, which has endured over three decades. Castle was a decorated veteran whose wife and two children were killed in a gang firefight. He dedicated himself to murdering the men responsible, then continued to slaughter all criminals from street hustlers to Mafia dons. ‘I’ve got nothing to lose’, he said to one target, ‘by risking what’s left of my life wiping your kind of parasite.’ (The target was Spider-Man.) Over the decades the wars shifted from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to Iraq and Afghanistan. But Castle’s brief was the same: kill all transgressors.
With his own mainstream series in the eighties, the Punisher became ubiquitous: the Punisher, the Punisher War Journal, the Punisher War Zone, even the Punisher Armory, which showcased his weapons. The Frank Castle mythos was developed in this era. No longer a simplistic antagonist, he became an antihero in his own right: the righteous executioner, who never hurts civilians and has few doubts about his mission. He pauses to fly a kite in Central Park to commemorate his loved ones, and has moments of tenderness and regret. But for the most part Castle is a killer. ‘The Nam war vet who couldn’t protect his own family,’ he reflects in the Punisher War Journal no. 3. ‘Been taking it out on all criminals ever since.’ Witness the psychology: this is more therapy than justice. He is purging the streets, yes—but chiefly to purge his own guilt and rage.
During the seventies and eighties, vigilantes were the perfect fantasy for audiences anxious about crime. There was some justification for these fears. The US Department of Justice reports that ‘the homicide rate doubled from the early 1960s to the late 1970s’, peaking in 1980 and 1991. The causes of these spikes are still debated, alongside their portrayal in the media, but the fear was real. Many citizens were concerned about drug-related gang violence. This terror was often racial, with ‘crime’ almost synonymous with ‘black’ or ‘Latino’. While African Americans are the victims of pervasive minority and state violence, the stereotype of the urban thug is authoritative. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers his friend Prince, shot by police. ‘Prince was not killed by a single officer,’ he writes, ‘so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.’
In this sense, the Punisher’s fury was a straightforward response to some readers’ dread. Alongside movie franchises such as The Executioner, The Exterminator and Death Wish, comics took the common superhero premise—good guy citizens battling bad guys, rather than awaiting authorised aid—and raised the stakes. Instead of simply pacifying felons for arrest, judgement and jail, they murdered them: the point was extermination, not detention. Importantly, and even in the courts, fear justified violence by civilians. In 1984, Bernhard Goetz shot four African-American men in a Manhattan train carriage. He was lauded by many as a hero for standing up to the alleged muggers. ‘If I had more bullets,’ the electronics technician later told police, ‘I would have shot ’em all again and again. My problem was I ran out of bullets.’ Now we have George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin, guilty of walking home with Skittles and iced tea—while black. (‘These assholes,’ Zimmerman said, ‘they always get away.’)
While often written by liberal authors wary of fascist ideology, the Punisher of the seventies and eighties exemplified this way of thinking: a solitary soldier solving complex communal problems simply by slaying individuals. A charismatic purifier of streets, if not of blood and soil. And he rarely ran out of bullets.
• • •
By the time the Punisher was at his eighties apex, I was a provincial Melbourne teenager. The vigilante ethos pulled me in. Alienated from school, I found Castle’s loner personality consoling: this hero needed neither authorities nor, for the most part, friends. He made loneliness romantic.
More importantly, the Punisher suggested that rage was healthy. Moving between the classroom’s tedium and home’s violence, I discovered in comics a secondary world. Here, fury was not only tolerated but also celebrated. And the hero’s victims were not abused wives or their traumatised children. They were rapists, serial killers, snuff producers—in other words, men who deserved it. In the Punisher War Journal no. 11, I watched cheerfully as the Punisher sprayed a drug dealer at close range with an automatic rifle. It was brutal and futile, and so satisfying: someone was made to suffer, and it was not me or my mother. ‘The dealers must pay for the innocents they’ve killed,’ reads a calm monologue. ‘They must pay for my family.’ This makes no ethical sense, but what applied to Castle also applied to me: the point was psychological, not moral. However briefly, I felt better in this universe of the righteous and the dead. It glorified my damaged psyche.
I am cautious of speculating about others’ minds, especially with fiction. There is no text without someone to interpret it, to turn sensation into sense. While we make what Frank Kermode called a ‘negotiation’ with the work, there is plenty of interpretive wriggle room. So I cannot simplify causation in some Platonic way, as if reading the Punisher makes little Frank Castles of us all. Instead, my point is that this ethos, at its most basic, appeals to a basic morality: us and them, good guys and bad guys.
A martial atmosphere pervades this outlook. While wary of celebrating the murderer’s psyche, Gerry Conway recognised that the Punisher ‘has a certain appeal’ to the military. In Clint Eastwood’s film American Sniper, based on sniper Chris Kyle’s memoir, the skull appears regularly. Immediately after Kyle has shot an Iraqi child and his mother, we see a soldier reading the Punisher in the barracks. Later it appears on US vehicles, body armour, rifle magazines and so on. His platoon is even called ‘The Punishers’. Although the movie is fictionalised, the celebration of Frank Castle is not cinematic exaggeration. From Kyle’s autobiography: ‘We all thought what the Punisher did was cool: he righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him. That’s what we were all about.’ The skull has since appeared on various military buildings in the American-occupied Middle East, in unit patches and tattoos.
Common to my adolescent misanthropy and Kyle’s esprit de corps is the need for enemies. Not fully fledged human beings, but ciphers: empty others, who can be guiltlessly destroyed. Kyle regularly described insurgents as ‘savages’ and ‘evil’, and admitted that he was deployed for his comrades, not for the liberation of Iraqis. Whatever we make of the sniper’s psychology, the point is that he had a very simple credo, defined by national and religious borders: protect (Christian) Americans and kill foreign (Muslim) enemies. ‘I only wish I had killed more,’ he wrote. ‘Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives.’
There is a purity to this that is profoundly troubling. It does away with thought or even common sympathy. There is no need for exceptions or hesitation: these targets get a bullet. It makes existence falsely simple, putting aside ethics and politics. Punisher author Gerry Conway said ‘There’s not a lot of room for nuance when you’re in a firefight.’ But why are you in a firefight, against them? Sincerity is no answer to moral doubt.
• • •
The Punisher’s most lauded run was published while Chris Kyle was in Iraq. Its first issue appears in American Sniper: Garth Ennis’s the Punisher, no. 1, 2004. Alongside the striking artwork, the writing is more graphic, politically sophisticated and ethically ambiguous. The premise is that the Punisher was not born in Central Park but much earlier, in Vietnam—and perhaps before. ‘He’s up to his neck in horror,’ as Ennis put it in an interview. ‘He likes it.’ Castle’s tragedy is real and affecting, but not formative. It simply cuts him off more completely from ordinary life, liberating his most powerful urge: to wage war.
The run begins with the now-older antihero remembering his family’s slaughter. His daughter, Lisa, shot in the belly: ‘the expression on her face was not a little girl’s’. His son, Frank Jr: ‘the bullet had entered through his open mouth’. His wife, Maria, a hole in her heart, eyes open with yearning. This macabre mood continues over ten volumes, with brief respite in absurd humour and loveless sex. Ennis’s Castle is most content when he is murdering. He attends the birthday of a centenarian mobster, drooling in his wheelchair. The Punisher shoots the old man then strolls outside to gun down the wise-guys with a belt-fed machine gun. Artist Lewis Larosa has drawn their heads and stomachs exploding, faces almost comically surprised. The graphics are genuinely confronting: more war illustration than superhero sketch. But Ennis pairs these chaotic visuals with Castle’s calm narration: ‘only now, pouring automatic fire into a human wall—do I feel something like peace.’
This Punisher is capable of grief, regret, generosity and loyalty. He is annoyed by New York gentrification. He seems to prefer short hair on men. But his enduring state of mind is numb rage. Anaesthetised to civilised society, his life dedicated to strategic logic and tactical calculation, Castle is a superhuman with very little humanity left. The world is composed of civilians, and those who harm or protect them—what American Sniper refers to as sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. There will always be more wolves who need killing. And the sheep? ‘The most I could do for anyone’, he says in the Punisher no. 49, ‘was hold them while they died.’ More a force than a self, the Punisher always walks away—but has nothing to walk to. Nothing beyond the next mess of cordite and guts.
As a vision of martial will, Ennis’s Punisher is profoundly discomfiting. Castle provides entertaining brutality, giving misanthropy a justified persona. But he is sick: a lonely old man, with nothing left but futile revenge. In the Punisher no. 54 he calls his life ‘a long, cold, dark night’. His legacy is rotting corpses, readily replaced.
• • •
Which brings me back to the police, with their Punisher logo. What the fuck were they thinking? Perhaps some were ignorant of the symbol’s origins. In response to reproach, Kentucky chief Cameron Logan told i09 he would do ‘a little more research’ on the Blue Lives Matter imagery. This is plausible but also baffling: what did he think a skull meant? Candy? Memento mori?
For those like chief Allen Wood of New York, who said the Punisher ‘dealt with bad guys, and that’s how we are’, the decision is more damning. Most obviously, Castle’s franchise is absurd as a formal description of law enforcement. Cops are not soldiers. They do not represent one sovereign nation against another. They serve citizens by working alongside them. Yes, they respond to force with force, and this is a widely recognised part of their brief. But there is no state of war—not on criminals and not on police.
Like other first responders, police certainly suffer high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, and it is important to recognise this. They witness regular violence, cruelty and neglect. Like all workers, they deserve appropriate and timely support and treatment.
But there is no need to advertise that blue lives matter. They already matter to most citizens, if not opportunistic politicians. As the conservative Cato Institute notes, most Americans have a favourable view of police, and even those who do not—African Americans, for example—are more likely to be conflicted and have ‘neutral’ feelings. No ethnic group wants fewer officers on the streets. The slogan ‘war on cops’, used by US conservative pundits and their fans, mocks military service and the democratic freedoms this service purports to protect.
More disturbingly, this valorisation of Frank Castle might be psychologically and institutionally accurate. Clearly many officers do feel alienated from the public, as if they are not merely employed by the state but also deployed against its assailants. This partly arises from ordinary workplace camaraderie. ‘We become introverted,’ instructor and former officer David J. Thomas told GQ. ‘Most of our friends become cops and we don’t really socialize with people who aren’t.’ But this fellow feeling is more that of the trenches than the office. The problem is not solidarity but the hostility it requires: some police are not with the innocent, so much as against the guilty. And this category keeps growing. From the default black thugs, to the urban elite who sympathise with gangbangers, to the liberal media who put blue lives at risk by giving Black Lives Matter airtime—the list of bad guys grows. Public criticism is received not as a republic negotiating its principles, but as an attack: enemies trying to weaken the corps.
This martial outlook reflects the militarisation of America’s police, intensified first by the ‘war on drugs’ then the ‘war on terror’. This is partly why Slate journalist Jamelle Bouie described the police’s response to Ferguson protests as ‘an occupying force’. As part of the 1033 program, the Department of Defence has given billions of dollars’ worth of surplus equipment to law enforcement agencies. These include every-thing from high-powered assault rifles to helicopters and aeroplanes, mine-resistant armoured vehicles and bayonets. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the tiny town of Bloomington, Georgia, took four grenade launchers.
This approach, in turn, can create more brutality. The appearance of heavily armoured and armed police primes officers and the public for conflict. US Customs and Border Protection commissioner Gil Kerlikowske told National Public Radio that riot gear can heighten tensions. He related a story of one Mardi Gras, before which the police union requested more protection. Kerlikowske believed officers ought to look as normal as possible, aiming at community harmony, not domination. But he backed down and the result was assault, rape and death as the crowd grew violent—apparently one man was even killed as police watched. ‘It makes it pretty difficult when you’re talking from behind a face shield with a gas mask’, Kerlikowske said, ‘to engage with the public and say, look let’s tone this down, let’s calm things down.’ No doubt this is doubly true of the view from within a military vehicle or behind a rifle’s sights.
In this light, the police’s embrace of a vigilante such as Frank Castle makes sense—of a stripe. It is not reasonable, but it fits with a certain perverse corporate rationality. Its adherents are not worried about the Punisher symbol’s threatening presence, as only their adversaries will be upset. Everyone else—law-abiding patriots, presumably—will recognise the skull’s worth. It is an old fascist emblem of hope: that the state can be purified by force, and sincerity absolves the purifiers. It is hackneyed, simplistic, dangerous—and quite common. Dull, but not safe. •