WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for The Punisher#6 by Matt Rosenberg, Szymon Kudranski, Antonio Fabela and Cory Petit, in stores now.
One of the most iconic visuals in the Marvel Universe is the Punisher's skull symbol. It's been a signature of death for countless villains over the years, and thanks to its prominence in comics, movies and television, it's become a big part of pop culture.
Marvel's latest series starring the violent vigilante just put a huge twist on the symbol tied to the ever-angry Frank Castle. The Punisher #6 takes the skull and literally makes it a part of the anti-hero, giving it a more personal meaning along the way.
Over the years, the skull has been more than an emblem; it's been a badge of blood and honor for Frank Castle. But ultimately, it's superficial, mere paint on cloth or armor or whatever the Punisher emblazons it on. Now, Baron Zemo gives it a whole new meaning in the wake of taking Frank captive thanks to Nick Fury Jr.
Of course, Fury set the pair against each other in the hope that Frank and Zemo would kill each other. However, Zemo has successfully incarcerated the vigilante and is making him pay for his recent vendetta. The gunman has been waging war on Zemo in the wake of Secret Empire, atoning for his sin of joining the Hydra cause by killing off remnants of the terrorist group and scuppering Zemo's attempts to resuscitate it in his image. When he killed the Mandarin, Frank took a big player off the board for Zemo, as the Iron Man villain was helping his new stronghold of Bagalia become somewhat of a world power.
Now, it's all about revenge, and with Frank confined, Zemo decides to follow up on his childhood love for art. He recognizes this skull as a symbol of Frank's immortal heartbeat, takes a knife, taunts the soldier... and carves a bloody skull into his chest, explaining that when Frank repents or wants to walk away form his murderous career, he won't be able to escape his history as the Punisher. It's a stamp, a brand Zemo wants him to never forget. There has been a lot of collateral damage in Punisher's war against crime, after all, and Zemo wants him to remember that... forever.
When Gerry Conway, John Romita, Sr. and Ross Andru designed the character for his debut in 1974's The Amazing Spider-Man #129, the icon was changed from a small Death's Head figure into a bigger skull in order to make him scarier. Marvel has since fiddled with what the icon means, though there has never been a clear definition. Some writers indicate it was both to intimidate his enemies, while others have scripted it as a target, to lure enemy fire to the more heavily protected segments of his armor. It's been written as a design taken from either a Vietcong sniper or, as 2007's Moon Knight indicated, it was down to the influence of the demon Olivier, who helped manipulate the murder of Frank's family and influenced him to use a demonic skull as a warpiece.
As this issue winds down, we skip ahead several months. As he makes allies in his prison, namely a cell led by the mysterious Sister Mercy, we see that Franbk has taken ownership of his scars. His cellmates are all fearful of his sinister "tattoo," but it's a mark they all know could help free them and potentially kill Zemo. With this group being an enemy of his enemy, Frank looks poised to strike a deal, but should they double cross him it's highly possible they'll be meeting his new skull, up close and personal.