The Punisher is a bad character. What I mean by this is that the Punisher, as a “person” in the Marvel universe, is a bad person. He is a serial murderer who has given himself the authority to decide who lives and who dies. However, the Punisher is also a “bad character,” meaning that he’s not an exceptionally good comic book hero. Yes, he has a code and would sooner die himself than harm whomever he deems “an innocent.” But his shoot-first, never-ask-questions style is one that, arguably, our society has outgrown. There are many exceptional stories about the Punisher, just as there are many great stories about all sorts of villains. But, current storytellers on the Punisher comic just sent a very clear message to members of both the military and the police who idolize this character, who is definitely a villain.
The Context of the Punisher and Cops
When I say that the Punisher is a villain, I mean this literally. Created by Gerry Conway in the 1970s, the character first appeared as the hired hitman of The Jackal to take out that pesky Spider-Man. Yet, in part because of the moral code Conway imbued the character with and the 1970s’ penchant for anti-heroes, the character took off. In fact, Conway got the idea from a series of novels about a Marine veteran who avenged the deaths of his family by becoming a serial murderer of Mafia criminals. Stan Lee named the character the Punisher, because Conway’s original name—the Assassin—seemed like one that would never work on a comic book title. Later, Frank Miller helped define the character’s personality, as a man who saw crime as black-and-white, and that the black hats deserved only death.
The design of the character, complete with giant Death’s Head skull on his chest, is unquestionably iconic. Since then the symbol found its way onto patches, decals, and paintings used by police and the military. Despite Frank Castle’s moral code, it’s troubling, because he kills his perceived enemies indiscriminately. He ignores things like the civil rights of the accused, due process, and (where the military is concerned) rules of engagement. Nonetheless, this affection took root so deeply in police culture that cops started putting the Punisher logo on their cars. One city had to remove them after citizens complained. Another refused to remove them, saying that by adopting the symbol of a serial murdering vigilante it showed the community that the police stood “between good and evil.” Terms that agents of an evidence-based system with due process should not use at all.
It Turns Out, the Punisher Agrees with Me
In the latest issue of The Punisher, storytellers Matthew Rosenberg and Szymon Kudranski, the character comes face-to-face with some of his devoted fanboys in blue. Released in promotional images from DC Comics, we get to see the Punisher’s reaction when caught by the cops. Held at gunpoint, he raises his hands in surrender. The cops recognize him and then proceed to ask for photos. One cop mentions that their friends “in the group are not going to believe this.” Castle, to his credit, asks what group he’s talking about. The cops say that despite most of the force hating what he does, they support him. To prove it, they show him their police cruiser complete with Death’s Head decal. And the Punisher rips it off the car.
Castle proceeds to tear the decal into tiny shreds, as the cops themselves protest. That’s when the Punisher lets them have it. No, he doesn’t kill them. Instead, he tells them why using his symbol is just wrong.
“I’ll say this once. We’re not the same. You took an oath to uphold the law. You help people. I gave that up a long time ago. You don’t do what I do…. You boys need a role model? His name is Captain America, and he’d be happy to have you.“
The cops hearing this respond like some cops do, with arrogance and malice. The Punisher, unfazed, warns them if he finds out the police officers are trying to do what he does, he’ll also mark them for death. When one of the police officers tells him to be careful because what he said sounded like a threat, Castle tells them, “it was.”
What All This Means
Even though he’s not your humble correspondent’s cup of costume psychopath, there is nothing wrong with liking the Punisher. As noted above, this story is rife with drama and offers a hyper-violent examination of societal ills and asks questions about where the line between criminal and hero, murderer and killer gets drawn. The Netflix series starring Jon Berenthal as the titular character is an excellent action show, and the show’s storytellers rightly keep all of the Punisher action very personal for Frank. This series also asks the question about what a country can do with people they turned into living weapons and then cut loose with little support. It’s a myth where the super-powers and sci-fi stuff end up replaced by unrealistic fighting skills and ultra-violence. Yet, treating the Punisher as a role model is like thinking the Joker is a comedy icon.
In today’s America, police are given more freedom to prosecute criminals than ever before. Due process and civil rights gave way to no-knock warrants and mass incarceration. Despite the fact that crime is at all-time historic lows in America, some police “advocates” would have you believe the crime rate is as high as it was when the Punisher was born. Because of this, it’s important that the storytellers behind the ongoing Punisher series send a clear message to police that he is not their role model. The Punisher fantasy is one of rage, anger, and uncaring violence. There’s a catharsis to it, much in that way people enjoy John Wick films or other similar shoot-em-up action movies. What the Punisher is not, however, is someone police officers or armed forces service members should emulate.
Will There Be Controversy?
With this statement and the discussion of the border crisis in Lois Lane, both big comics houses made big political statements. Remarkably, there is little controversy surrounding the Punisher in general. Even though the character still appears in comics aimed at younger readers, his wanton violence doesn’t shock the way it should. Yet, in today’s charged political times, the Punisher clearly took a position in the debate about the role of peace officers in modern society. They are not there to exact vengeance or kill bad guys, but rather are there to serve the public-at-large. Ultimately their role is to help people and the communities they serve. It’s a lesson police officers all over the country could use a reminder about. The question is, will this anger those cops who need to hear the message? Or, will they stop and consider this rebuke from their favorite “hero?”
What do you think? Is the Punisher a hero? Are the storytellers right in saying cops and soldiers shouldn’t model themselves after him? Let us know in the comments below or by sharing the article on social media!
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.