As the Punisher Skull Re-Emerges on Police in U.S. Protests, Marvel Comics Reckons With Its Imagery

By James Whitbrook on at

The appropriation of comic book character Frank Castle’s skull emblem by police and the military has been an ongoing issue for Marvel Entertainment as it wrestles with the questionable embrace of the anti-hero’s extrajudicial violence by real state and federal employees. But as the “Punisher skull” has re-emerged on officer’s uniforms in current crackdowns on anti-racism and police brutality protests, the publisher is being forced to confront it once more.

As demonstrations continue this week in the wake of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd, in all 50 U.S. states and across the world, pictures of two Detroit PD officers allegedly wearing special operations badges emblazoned with the skull designed by writer Gerry Conway, artist John Romita, Sr. and Ross Andru went viral on social media. As a reminder, the Punisher skull logo itself was inspired by similar imagery of the totenkopf, the skull-and-crossbones used by military forces in the German Empire and, most infamously, the Nazi SS, in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Conway, who has been vocal in the past about the appropriation and evangelisation of the Punisher by armed service members and police, also shared the images – showing members of the Detroit Police Special Operations department wearing badges prominently displaying what appears to be the Punisher’s emblem as they violently detain protesters. Although he did not add further comment directly, Conway shared the demands of other Twitter users for Marvel and its parent company Disney to shut down uses of the Punisher skull by police. He also used his feed to reshare links to his prior comments about its use, including one from Gizmodo.

“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’re basically sides [sic] with an enemy of the system,” Conway told Syfy in January 2019. “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.”

But while this is far from the first time Marvel has had to contend with the Punisher’s imagery being wielded like this, its return to prominence in the current protests against police brutality makes the seeming lack of any public response by the publisher disconcerting.

When asked about its stance on U.S. police officers using its logo – the imagery of a murderous, extrajudicial vigilante – a spokesperson for the comics publisher indicated to Gizmodo that while it is “taking seriously” any unlicensed use of its imagery by officers, in terms of making any new statements, Marvel Comics was standing by the message delivered on social media by the Marvel Entertainment account this past Sunday: “We stand against racism. We stand for inclusion. We stand with our fellow Black employees, storytellers, creators and the entire Black community. We must unite and speak out.” (The same message was shared on other Disney-owned subsidiary accounts, including the official channels for Disney+, Marvel Studios, Star Wars and more.)

When asked about the publisher’s further commitments beyond this statement, Gizmodo was pointed to Tuesday’s news that Marvel Comics’ owners, the Walt Disney Company, would be making a $5 million (£3.95 million) donation to “support nonprofit organisations that advance social justice,” starting with $2 million (£1.58 million) of that fund going to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

As for the publisher’s own beliefs about police officers’ deification of Frank Castle? The spokesperson further added that the company believes the stance laid out in July 2019's The Punisher #13 – by Matthew Rosenberg, Szymon Kudranski, Antonio Fabela and Cory Petit – makes it clear where Marvel Comics as a publisher stands. If you’ve read it, of course.

In that issue, Frank Castle is confronted by two NYPD officers while on the hunt in the city for Baron Zemo. As the duo move in to detain Castle, they realise they’re standing in front of the Punisher himself, before lowering their weapons and taking out their phones to request pictures. Explaining to a confused Castle that they’re members of an internal NYPD group that are massive fans of the Punisher’s ethos, the officers reveal that they have emblazoned a decal of his skull emblem on their patrol car, which Castle promptly tears off before castigating the duo:

Frank Castle makes it clear that he’s not for cops emulating his tactics. Image: Szymon Kudranski, Antonio Fabela, and Cory Petit (Marvel Comics)

“I’ll say this once. We’re not the same. You took an oath to uphold the law. You help people. I gave all that up a long time ago. You don’t do what I do. Nobody does,” Castle says. “You boys need a role model? His name is Captain America, and he’d be happy to have you.”

Yes, that’s a clear message. But there’s a difference between standing by a piece of a script made public a year ago in a single issue of a comic that sold just shy of 22,000 issues in its debut month and making a crystal clear statement on police use of this image during this current moment.

After multiple requests for comment, a spokesperson for Detroit Police gave Gizmodo the following statement: “Any expression of this fictional character in no way reflects the values of the Detroit Police Department, nor will its use be tolerated. We take this matter very seriously and are taking immediate action to address it.”

This post has been updated to reflect comment from Detroit Police Department.

Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.

Featured image: Seth Herald/AFP (Getty Images), Jim Cooke