Yes, Marvel fans, it's official whether you want to admit it or not: The Punisher is the most notorious serial killer still walking the streets of Marvel's comic book universe.
Created by Gerry Conway and John Romita Sr. back in 1974, the Punisher was originally introduced as a Spider-Man villain. Over the decades, his story has become legendary; Frank Castle, the military vet who took the law into his own hands after the deaths of his family. And while Spider-Man may be the world's most marketable superhero, few comic book characters seem to have as universal an appeal as the Punisher. Lately, his fans have come to, troublingly, include police officers who have traditionally hunted him.
As comic book writer Nathan Edmondson told Comic Vine in an interview back in 2014:
"The Punisher is perhaps the most ubiquitous comic character, world-wide. Soldiers wear him on their uniforms who haven’t read a comic in their lives; sex toys are nicknamed for him, racecars and wrestlers take on the skull or namesake, despite having little awareness of the actual comic... I have always liked The Punisher, the simplicity of the uncompromising death dealer; even his costume is simple, no-nonsense, fierce."
That ubiquitous Punisher logo became a subject of controversy when a St. Louis police union called on officers to use it in protest against internal investigations. Comic book writer Marc Sumerak insisted that any law enforcement official who feels the Punisher represents him either doesn't get the character, or is probably in the wrong job. Legendary writer Kurt Busiek agreed, and went one step further, claiming that the Punisher is a serial killer. But is he right? And if so, why does a comic book serial killer have so many fans?
The Punisher Is Definitely A Serial Killer
According to the FBI, a serial killer is someone who commits at least three murders over more than a month with an emotional cooling-off period inbetween. Male serial killers are often driven by some sort of deviant sexuality, power fantasy, or a desire to generate fear in others. Use the phrase "serial killer," and the average American thinks of people like Ted Bundy, who targeted college-age women with particular hairstyles; Jeffrey Dahmer, who lured young men back to his apartment by pretending to be a photographer looking for models; and the Zodiac Killer, who targeted couples due to the failure of his own relationship. Each of these famous serial killers is a predator who hunts a particular type of prey.
The Punisher most certainly fits the bill. It's impossible to count how many people the Punisher has killed over the course of his career; frankly, he tends to commit at least three murders in every single issue he appears in. There's definitely an element of power fantasy to his campaign; otherwise he'd choose to wear camouflage or civilian attire rather than emblazon a bright white skull on his chest. Like all serial killers, he has a pattern; in the Punisher's case, he targets criminals. And finally, just as the FBI suggest, there have been several occasions where the Punisher settled down, experiencing that "emotional cooling-off period" before being drawn back into his so-called war on crime.
It's worth remembering that the Punisher was never created to be a hero. He was designed to be an oppositional force, to contrast with the typical superhero's morality and thereby encourage an actual hero to question their own sense of right and wrong. That's why many of the best Punisher stories have involved him teaming up with characters like Spider-Man, Daredevil, Nightcrawler, and Captain America. His creator Gerry Conway has occasionally expressed some unease about the fact the Punisher is actually popular in his own right. But what is it that makes this "uncompromising death dealer" resonate with so many comic book fans?
Why Is The Punisher So Popular?
Frank Castle may be a serial killer, but he isn't just a serial killer. There's a sense in which he models one of the most ancient archetypes of justice; the concept of unrestrained vengeance. This appears to be an impulse deeply rooted in the human psyche, to the extent that the Old Testament had to impose a structure of retributive justice upon human nature in order to restrain it. "An eye for an eye" was intended to establish the principle that the punishment should not exceed the crime. The Punisher ditches even this cloak of civilization, abandoning all restraint. He is vengeance personified; if you are a criminal, and you cross his path, then you die.
The sheer simplicity of this explains the Punisher's appeal, because we live in a society where justice seems increasingly remote. Legal systems have become incredibly complex, and often poorly understood; schools are discouraged from prioritizing teaching children matters related to law and politics, and children then grow into adults who cannot truly understand the legal framework that surrounds them. People feel powerless, victimized by a system they have not been equipped to understand, and the idea of the "uncompromising death dealer" kills that sense of victimhood as surely as the Punisher murders his mark.
It's interesting to note that Marvel's portrayal of the Punisher has gradually changed over time. He was introduced as an antagonist, who targeted Spider-Man because he believed the wall-crawler was responsible for the death of Gwen Stacy. The Punisher was treated as a villain for quite some time, a notable example being in Captain America #241, where Steve Rogers literally compared Frank Castle to a Nazi. Contrast that with more recent portrayals, such as in the "War of the Realms" event, where the Punisher stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Thor and Wolverine. Indeed, in War of the Realms: Omega, Heimdall - who served as an omniscient narrator in that issue - described the Punisher as Earth's greatest soldier. It's hard not to argue that the Punisher has gone mainstream.
But he probably hasn't gone so mainstream that his logo should be used as a symbol by the St. Louis police union. The reality is that the Punisher's concept of justice is one that should be entirely alien to modern law enforcement; what's more, it's quite chilling that police officers are drawn to the Punisher's ancient archetype of vengeful justice, when it would be hoped that they would number among the few people who understand the legal process and thus don't feel powerless in the face of it. The union appears unrepentant, insisting that "there will always be someone who will find fault with any symbol we identify with or person we choose to carry our message." They probably do have a point here, but perhaps they should also carefully consider whether or not they should use the logo of a comic book serial killer.