Ever since Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, Frank Giacoia and Dave Hunt introduced the Punisher in Amazing Spider-Man #129 in 1973, the Punisher had been one of the most controversial characters in comics. A former Marine, the Punisher pursues his own brand of justice, murdering criminals that he believes live "outside the law." The trick, of course, is that while the Punisher was introduced as an opponent of Spider-Man (with the Punisher being tricked into believing Spider-Man murdered Norman Osborn), he quickly started being used as a protagonist in his own stories (his first solo story debuted less than two years after Amazing Spider-Man #129).
As his status as a lead character grew, so, too, did the interest in his brilliantly-designed logo grow (initially sketched by Conway himself and then further developed by Marvel's Art Director, John Romita, into the iconic logo we know today). The symbol today has been controversially adopted by police officers, military servicemen (from all over the world) and even politicians. How did that development take place?
If you were to pinpoint the first turning point in the Punisher's popularity as a symbol, it would likely be when Mike Zeck, fresh off his best-selling stint on Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, agreed to join a pitch to Marvel for a Punisher miniseries. This was surprising because, by the mid-1980s, the Punisher had become a relatively minor character at Marvel. Bill Mantlo had effectively written the Punisher into comic book limbo during his Spectacular Spider-Man run, sending a delusional Punisher to prison, ranting all the way. Writer Steven Grant had been pitching Marvel on a Punisher miniseries since 1979, but now, with a superstar art team (Zeck and his longtime inker, John Beatty) attached (amusingly, Zeck and Beatty had independently decided they wanted to do a Punisher project before Grant contacted them), Grant finally got his Punisher project approved by Marvel editor, Carl Potts.
The resulting Punisher miniseries was a massive sales success...
It soon led to an ongoing series by writer Mike Baron and artist Klaus Janson (still edited by Potts)....
By the early 1990s, Punisher was starring in three monthly series as well as a recurring series of one-shots (and also guest-starring in so many other Marvel Comics series that he was practically appearing in at least one other Marvel comic book on a monthly basis from 1991-1993).
Now that the Punisher was becoming one of Marvel's most popular characters, he was beginning to be noticed by fans in the military. The first fan letter from an active serviceman came in Punisher #8, in a letter mostly talking about the choice of weapons that the Punisher used...
The appeal was fairly obvious. The Punisher was one of the most prominent military veterans in all of comics and Baron made sure to spotlight the Punisher's military service during his long run on the popular Punisher ongoing series. During the height of the Punisher's resurgence in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Punisher skull tattoos were common throughout fandom and that presumably included some military servicemen, as well.
The next big turning point in the Punisher's use as a symbol came during the Iraq War in 2003. Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who wrote the best-selling autobiography, American Sniper (which was later adapted by Clint Eastwood into a blockbuster film starring Bradley Cooper as Kyle), fulled embraced the Punisher during his time in Iraq. He explained in American Sniper, "He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him ... We spray-painted [the Punisher logo] on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns. We spray-painted it on every building or wall we could. We wanted people to know we're here and we want to fuck with you."
The logo soon became prevalent not only throughout the American armed forces in Iraq, but once the United States occupied Iraq and began training the Iraqi military, it spread to the Iraqi military and its militias and police forces. This widespread popularity of the Punisher's symbol was especially fascinating in Iraq because there was not a good deal of pro-American sentiment, in general, in the country but their armed forces fully adopted the very American character and his iconic symbol.
Naturally, the men and women who served in Iraq eventually returned to the United States and there is a good deal of interconnection between the military and the police, so it was unsurprising when American police officers also began to embrace the Punisher's logo at the start of the 21st Century. Again, with a character as popular as the Punisher, it is only logical that a number of cops were already fans of the character growing up. However, the widespread usage of the Punisher's logo during the Iraq War likely increased the visibility of the symbol. The same reasons that the Iraqi police embraced the symbol was almost certainly the reasons why American police did so, as well.
This embrace was not without controversy, of course. In 2004, a rogue group of cops in Milwaukee formed a vigilante group known as "The Punishers," who outfitted themselves with black gloves and caps that featured the Punisher's logo on them. The "Punishers" continued to operate through at least 2007, despite a number of inquiries into the group.
The next turning point in the use of the Punisher as a symbol was the development of the "Blue Lives Matter" propaganda campaign. In 2013, the "Black Lives Matter" campaign launched as activists tried to highlight the systemic racism and violence that African-Americans face in the United States. The protesters particularly spotlighted police killings of African-Americans, which, in turn, tied into protests against racial profiling, police brutality and the overall mistreatment of African-Americans within the American criminal justice system.
In late 2014, a counter-movement debuted called "Blue Lives Matter" following the murders of two New York City police officers. The movement's stated goal is better protection for police officers, typically through laws making it a "hate crime" to target police officers.
Naturally, in movements like these, propaganda is key and one of the most popular choices to help promote the "Blue Lives Matter" movement was to work the Punisher logo into "Blue Lives Matter" posters, decals and the like. In February 2017, the police department in Cattlesburg, Kentucky began featuring decals on their squad cars with the Punisher logo and the phrase "Blue Lives Matter." Police Chief Cameron Logan noted that "that decal represents that we will take any means necessary to keep our community safe." Eventually, public outrage led to the removal of the decals.
Just a couple of months later, the same approach was adopted by the police department in Solvay, New York, who added a blue Punisher logo to their squad cars as a "Blue Lives Matter" tribute. The Solvay Police Department released a statement noting that the use of the logo "is our way of showing our citizens that we will stand between good and evil. There is no vigilante justice that takes place in our community or within our department." Unlike Cattlesburg, Solvay decided to stick with their decals even after a similar public outcry.
The proliferation of the Punisher logo in "Blue Lives Matter" propaganda also coincided with the Punisher making his television debut in Season 2 of Netflix's Daredevil series before launching into his own Netflix series in 2017.
This heightened public awareness of the Punisher and his symbol has made the adoption of the Punisher as a symbol of the police and the military more and more of a spotlighted story.
Recently, the use of the Punisher's symbol as a stand-in for the "Blue Lives Matter" movement came to a head in St. Louis where a pair of officers were being investigated by Internal Affairs and allegedly one of the reasons that they were being investigated was for their use of the Blue Punisher symbol. This led to Ed Clark, President of the St. Louis Police Officers' Association, to request that his fellow police officers all begin to share the Blue Punisher logo, as well, as a sign of solidarity. Clark noted, "The Blue Line symbol and the Blue Line Punisher symbol have been widely embraced by the law enforcement community as a symbol of the war against those who hate law enforcement. It's how we show the world that we hold the line between good and evil."
The popularity of the Punisher logo as part of propaganda for "Blue Lives Matter" has also recently translated into being a more generic adoption of the Punisher's symbol by conservative websites and especially bootleg conservative merchandise. The most popular sales item is the use of the "Punisher Trump" logo, a Punisher logo with Donald Trump's hair added to the top.
One website advertised the "Punisher Trump" as follows:
The Clinton Crime Family. Croneyism. Taxes. Unemployment. Democrat Collusion with Russia. Fake News. Voter Fraud. What do all of these have in common? They are all being exposed, punished and eliminated by President Trump and his administration.
Punisher Trump is not afraid of confrontation and he takes no prisoners. Punisher Trump is taking on all of these villains in his quest to Make America Great Again.
Will you join him?
Interestingly, even as the Punisher's symbol has become an entrenched symbol within the police and military (and now politics), the Punisher's creator and the Punisher himself have spoken out against the use of the Punisher's symbol in this manner.
First, Gerry Conway explained earlier this year that he found the embrace of the Punisher's symbol by any authority figure to be distasteful. He elaborated:
To me, it's disturbing whenever I see authority figures embracing Punisher iconography because the Punisher represents a failure of the Justice system. He's supposed to indict the collapse of social moral authority and the reality some people can't depend on institutions like the police or the military to act in a just and capable way.
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 with an enemy of the system. 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.
It goes without saying. In a way, it's as offensive as putting a Confederate flag on a government building. My point of view is, the Punisher is an anti-hero, someone we might root for while remembering he's also an outlaw and criminal. If an officer of the law, representing the justice system puts a criminal's symbol on his police car, or shares challenge coins honoring a criminal he or she is making a very ill-advised statement about their understanding of the law.
Meanwhile, just last week, the Punisher himself spoke out against the use of his symbol by the police. In July 10th's Punisher #13 (by Matthew Rosenberg, Szymon Kudranski, Antonio Fabela and VC's Cory Petit), the Punisher is badly injured in a fight with a Hydra agent and he is accosted by a pair of police officers. It seems like the Punisher might be arrested, but he is surprised to learn that these police officers are sympathetic to his cause and have adopted his symbol as their own, featuring it on their squad car.
A disgusted Punisher tears the logo off of their car and explains to them, "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." He then tells them that if they want to follow someone as a symbol, they should follow Captain America instead.
However, whether Punisher's creator or even the Punisher himself likes it or not, it appears as though the interconnection of the Punisher's logo and the police, military and politicians is only getting more extensive, not less.