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With his military-grade arsenal and take-no-prisoners attitude, Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, has never fit the conventional model of a Marvel Comics hero. And according to Gerry Conway — who co-created the stalwart soldier-turned-ultraviolent vigilante in 1974 with John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru — that’s by design. “The Punisher was originally conceived as a villain and was not intended to be an antihero,” the legendary comics writer told Syfy in 2019. “In the course of writing the first story, I realized that's what he was – an antihero. He had a moral code I could use to resolve story points. And, it was a simpler time in the ’70s.”
But the Punisher’s legacy has grown more complex since his introduction in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man. An instant reader favorite, he eventually graduated to his own title and became one of Marvel’s most popular characters in the ’80s and ’90s. He found a particularly devoted audience among actual soldiers and police officers, with many of them adopting the trademark skull symbol he wears on his chest. Those symbols have been spotted on officers during the recent protests following the death of George Floyd, but they had found their way onto police uniforms even before that.
Conway has never shied away from expressing his distaste for seeing Punisher signage adorning real police officers. “It’s disturbing whenever I see authority figures embracing Punisher iconography because the Punisher represents a failure of the justice system,” he remarked to Syfy. “He’s supposed to indict the collapse of social moral authority, and the reality is some people can't depend on institutions like the police or the military to act in a just and capable way.”
While the Walt Disney Company — which owns Marvel — hasn’t moved to take legal action against police departments (despite the urging of many on Twitter) for using the Punisher symbol, Conway is using social media to launch a project. In a series of tweets on June 5, the writer outlined his plans to “reclaim the Punisher skull” and benefit Black Lives Matter in the process.
Conway revealed those results on Tuesday, launching the Skulls For Justice campaign, hosted by online apparel company Custom Ink. Featuring four different T-shirt designs from four artists — Wess Hancock, Demonte Price, Don Nguyen and Sam Ines — all proceeds raised will go directly to Black Lives Matter. “For too long, symbols associated with a character I co-created have been co-opted by forces of oppression and to intimidate black Americans,” Conway writes on the campaign page. “This character and symbol was never intended as a symbol of oppression. This is a symbol of a systematic failure of equal justice. It’s time to claim this symbol for the cause of equal justice and Black Lives Matter.”
So far, the Skulls for Justice campaign has raised almost $40,000, and Conway suggests it could represent a new beginning for a character that’s outlived his purpose in his current form. “My expectation is we will never see another Punisher movie or TV series,” he recently told Forbes. [A Netflix series starring Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle was canceled last year.]
“Disney knows this is radioactive. They are going to let it fade away. Which to me is a shame. Maybe seeing it in this new light will inspire them to embrace it, and bring it forward.” Part of bringing the character forward would be replacing Castle with a different soldier. “[A new Punisher] could be Latino or black or Asian,” Conway pointed out to Forbes. While the Punisher’s face might change, thanks to Conway’s efforts, the skull would stay the same.
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