Marvel's Punisher Problem

Jon Bernthal in Netflix's 'The Punisher.' Netflix

Marvel has a popularity problem with one of its B-list characters: the Punisher, aka Frank Castle, a troubled ex-Marine turned vigilante who metes out lethal justice to the corrupt and criminal ("The people I kill need killing"). Right now he's too popular with the wrong people.

Among the MAGA hats, Don't Tread on Me Flags and Trump 2024 banners on display during the January 6 invasion of the Capitol, were also logos and images belonging to various comic book characters. One of the most popular was the Punisher's signature white on black skull emblem, which cropped up on patches, shirts and flags. Some were on officially licensed Marvel merchandise, some on copyright-infringing knock-offs. While the symbol has long been popular with people eager–either seriously or in jest–to project a bad-ass image, its public appropriation by a pro-Trump mob, touched a nerve.

Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Jon Bernthal, the actor who most recently played the character (on Netflix's The Punisher, cancelled in 2019 ) tweeted, "These people are misguided, lost, and afraid. They have nothing to do with what Frank stands for or is about." Some comic fans meanwhile called on Marvel to retire the character altogether. And Gerry Conway, the writer who co-created him in 1974 with artists Ross Andru and John Romita tells Newsweek, "I could definitely see it might be time for him to step back for a bit. Not because there's anything necessarily wrong with the character, but given where we are right now in our society."

As for Disney-owned Marvel itself, which is reportedly planning a Punisher TV reboot, a company spokesperson declined repeated requests for comment except to say Marvel doesn't support its intellectual property being used without permission.

What can a brand do when one of its copyrights gets hijacked? They can, and often do, sue the knock-off makers and the retailers that sell counterfeit goods. Julie Zerbo, founder and editor-in-chief of, says "I know that Disney, for instance, is quite aggressive. When The Mandalorian first came out, they didn't want anyone selling Baby Yoda gifts." But Zerbo also says "With the rise of the internet, it's kind of a losing battle. Let's say Nike filed a lawsuit against all of these websites that are selling counterfeit shoes, and they win. The court says the defendants have to stop selling counterfeits on the domains they've used. Let's say Nike takes on 20 of these websites—before the case is even done, 20 more will already be selling comparable items."

Additionally Jeanne Fromer, a professor of law at New York University and co-director of the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy, says avoiding losing to counterfeiters is not the only consideration. "Aside from proving whether you have a strong legal claim, there's a PR component as well," she says. "Often, we'll hear that copyright or trademark owners might not want to go after their consumers, because it just generates bad PR for them.... So, there may be some economic and PR calculus companies use to decide if legal action is not worth pursuing."

And while Marvel could sue manufacturers who have ripped off the Punisher image and put it on items designed to appeal to extremists, there is little it can do about militia groups and others sporting officially licensed Punisher merchandise. Sports shirt maker Fred Perry found itself in a similar scenario recently when the Proud Boys adopted the company's black and yellow polo shirts as an informal uniform. Last September Fred Perry discontinued the shirts and put out a press release warning "To be absolutely clear, if you see any Proud Boys materials or products featuring our Laurel Wreath or any Black/Yellow/Yellow related items, they have absolutely nothing to do with us, and we are working with our lawyers to pursue any unlawful use of our brand."

Marvel has shown no sign of being willing to go that far and even killing the character outright might do nothing to de-weaponize the skull symbol. The real problem with the Punisher seems inherent in the character himself: is he a troubled good guy or fascist murderer?

Co-creator Gerry Conway calls him " a bit of a Rorschach test." Conway first dreamed the Punisher up as a supporting character for Spider-man in the early 1970s when the country was trying to put Vietnam behind it, urban crime was high, faith in government was low and violent revenge movies like Dirty Harry and Deathwish were big hits. The Punisher was "kind of in the Zeitgeist," Conway says, coming out of a "sense of society being out of control" and the desire for "a vigilante coming in and restoring order by taking on the role that institutions had failed to perform." Conway says he first noticed that the Punisher had taken on a life outside of comic books years later when he read an article about Iraqi soldiers using the Punisher's logo after they had seen American Marines wearing it on their uniforms.

In his best-selling 2012 memoir American Sniper (later turned into a film directed by Dirty Harry himself, Clint Eastwood) Navy Seal marksman Chris Kyle wrote about why the Punisher appealed to him: "He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him. That's what we were all about. So we adapted his symbol—a skull—and made it our own, with some modifications. We spray-painted it on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns. And we spray-painted it on every building or wall we could."

Conway says he understands, to some extent, the Punisher's appeal to soldiers (the character is, after all, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder). He was more troubled, though, when during last summer's Black Lives Matter protests, some cops started to adopt the skull as their own. The emblem began appearing on patches and stickers in the colors of the "Thin Blue Line" flag created by "Blue Lives Matter" supporters. Conways says "The idea that police, even unofficially, would take on this character just seemed to me to be not only totally inappropriate but also shocking." In response, he started a campaign to have artists of color redesign the skull logo for a T-shirt line called "Skulls for Justice." All proceeds from the shirts—more than $70,000 thus far, according to Conway—have been donated to Black Lives Matter (Conway has no ownership stake in Punisher imagery).

Conway says it seems logical that the character's popularity with soldiers and cops set the stage for its adoption by "right-wing and fascistic militia types, who in many cases, are in fact police officers and ex-military people. You get this cross breeding of white supremacy and hate that's just so repulsive."

"Social media encourages people to link ideas with images, and then make it easy for these semiotic packages to circulate," says Janet Abbate, a Virginia Tech professor and author of Inventing the Internet. As a result, she says, images "become unmoored from their original meanings." She adds, "I think the internet has made cosplay more mainstream, which may make it easier and more acceptable for people to dress up in this kind of imagery during in-person actions."

According to George Hawley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Alabama and author of multiple books about the alt-right, "right-wingers a little closer to the mainstream" like libertarians and the Three Percenters are more likely to borrow images from popular culture like the Punisher than people on what he calls the "explicitly racist right."

Different people have attached different meanings to the Punisher emblem and that process of appropriation and redefinition of pop culture images, shows no sign of stopping. NYU law professor Fromer says "I think we'll be seeing a lot more of this, given the meme culture we live in, where visual images and logos are currency. I think we'll continue seeing these being images co-opted by extremist groups as much as by the mainstream. It's quite striking right now, but I don't think this is an issue that's going away."