For years now, American police officers and members of various branches of the American military have used Marvel Comics’ Punisher skull logo as a symbol to represent their own personal ideologies about what it means to be a person wielding a weapon. Those ideologies, interpreted through the lens of the logo, are simple: it is our right to murder with impunity.
In the midst of last week’s worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic, anti-Black racism that were sparked by the killing of George Floyd, photos emerged of two Detroit police officers wearing Punisher logos. This quickly raised questions as to whether Marvel and its parent company Disney would finally take steps to put an end to the co-opting of their IP. Rather than outright condemning the police’s valorization of the Punisher—a man who takes the law into his own hands against the wishes of his fellow costumed vigilantes to go out and kill people—a Marvel rep pointed us to Disney’s company statement—posted on its many social media accounts—in regards to the recent protests, its publicized pledge of $5 million to social justice-focused nonprofits, and a Punisher comic from 2019.
But to Punisher co-creator Gerry Conway, who has spoken at length about how he’s been appalled at the way the character’s been appropriated by police and members of the armed forces, the protests and calls for action to support organizations committed to social justice presented an opportunity for the Punisher’s iconography to be put to better use. “Black Lives Matter - Skulls For Justice” is a campaign of Conway’s creation in which a number of artists have contributed different skull-focused designs emblazoned on t-shirts meant to “claim this symbol for the cause of equal justice and Black Lives Matter.”
Conway put a call out into the social media ether to find artists interested in collaborating on Skulls For Justice. However, he made of point of stating that they would not be paid for their labor, something that’s particularly worth noting given that many of the artists who’ve contributed to the project, according to Conway, are people of color. Each of the four shirts currently listed on Skulls For Justice’s CustomInk page has hit their respective fundraising goals, and collectively, the organization has raised over $25,000 that’s all going toward Black Lives Matter, which is an objectively good thing. But there’s something about trying to turn a Punisher logo analog (as this is not a Marvel-backed initiative and only exists in conversation with the Punisher brand) that doesn’t sit quite right.
Beyond raising money for Black Lives Matter, the larger idea behind Skulls For Justice is to make a push to reclaim the skull logo and the Punisher himself, and emphasize that the character and his ideals are a representation of the total breakdown of the justice system. As a thought experiment, something like this might work, but in the real world it’s difficult to imagine just how wearing a t-shirt with a stylized skull would accomplish that, particularly considering that’s precisely what police officers are doing when they sport “Thin Blue Line” versions of the Punisher logo.
An image’s meaning lies in the eyes of the beholder, but it’s impossible to disassociate that specific logo, or artwork similar to it, both from the Punisher’s personal brand of brutality and the ways in which cops have embraced it as an example of the kind of policing they wish to inflict upon people. Well-intended as Skulls For Justice may be, the reality is that each of the shirts’ core design elements are, of course, the skull, and some reference to Black Lives Matter. Together, the idea they create reads less like “Frank Castle and those who look up to him believe that Black lives matter” and more like “this symbol of death has been juxtaposed with a refrain whose purpose is to prevent senseless, racist murders of innocent Black people.”
The best selling of the shirts—whose illustration was designed by artist Don Nguyen—is meant to merge the letters “BLM” with a skull in order to create an image that vaguely resembles a raised fist. But because of the image’s style and use of color, it ultimately looks like a Punisher skull sitting beneath a bleeding “BLM,” which could just as easily be interpreted as the Punisher going after Black Lives Matter activists. Another shirt, designed by Nate Powell (pictured above) reads “Say Her Name.” It’s a call to action that most recently has been focused on Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old medical technician who was killed by Louisville, Kentucky, police, as well as with the countless transgender women who have borne an inordinate amount of abuse both by individual police officers as well as the larger criminal justice system as a whole (which the shirt nods to through its use of the transgender flag colors). But again, the image doesn’t exactly convey “the Punisher or someone like him would demand justice for Breonna or transgender women,” because it resembles a memorial more than anything else.
One imagines that this was not Conway’s intent, and in a recent interview with the Guardian about Skulls For Justice he said as much. “[The skull] should be a symbol for Black Lives Matter,” Conway said. “It should be a symbol for people on the outside of the justice system. I want the movement to claim this symbol for themselves.” io9 has also reached out to Conway to discuss his initiative but has yet to hear back.
But when it comes to campaigns like these, optics matter, and an image like the Punisher skull is one is already so overlaid with negative connotations that it’s difficult to say how Skulls For Justice could turn it positive. What Skulls For Justice is doing, though, is being quite explicit about the need for everyone to recognize anti-Black racism and police brutality as societal ills in desperate need of addressing. It’s the sort of idea that the bulk of the industry that led to Skulls For Justice’s creation (in a roundabout sense) only ever really addresses by speaking about their own supposed commitments to diversity and inclusion, which, while nice, gloss over the larger issue at hand.
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