How do you stop the far-right using the Punisher skull? Make it a Black Lives Matter symbol
Sometimes it takes a bootleg T-shirt to stop a bootleg T-shirt. For years, the military, the police and white supremacists have displayed the skull symbol of Marvel’s comic-book outlaw the Punisher on unauthorised clothes, bumper stickers and spray-paint stencils. But, as Black Lives Matter protests around the world draw attention to institutionalised racism, Gerry Conway, the Punisher’s politically progressive co-creator and writer, is launching an unusual fundraiser: his own line of shirts designed by people of colour to take the symbol back from the right, with proceeds to go to Black Lives Matter.
“[The skull] should be a symbol for Black Lives Matter,” Conway says. “It should be a symbol for people on the outside of the justice system. I want the movement to claim this symbol for themselves.”
The Punisher begins his life as a vigilante after he loses his family to organised crime, then any chance for justice because of the corruption of the NYPD. Conway and artist Ross Andru originally envisioned the character with a small skull-and-crossbones symbol over his heart for his 1974 debut, but Marvel’s art director, John Romita, had the idea to cover the character’s entire torso with a skull symbol.
Then in 2012, Iraq veteran Chris Kyle published his memoir American Sniper, in which he distorted his war record and bragged about spray-painting the Punisher logo on his unit’s equipment during the 2004 battle of Fallujah. Kyle’s machismo and tall tales about shooting “looters” during Hurricane Katrina made him a hero to the far right. When his book was adapted for film in 2014, the Punisher skull gained increased currency among police unions, gun-loving militiamen, and neo-Nazis. Marvel, who did not respond to requests for comment, told Gizmodo last week that it was “taking seriously” unlicensed use of Punisher imagery while its notoriously litigious parent company Disney has not made any legal challenges.
Reasoning that turnabout is fair play, Conway has assembled a team of artists who will donate their work to make a BLM-themed line of not-quite-Punisher-logo merch, called Skulls for Justice.
“Just like many of the skulls you see out there are not the trademarked Marvel skull, we’re simply doing what these other people have been doing in our own right,” Conway says. “I put my name on the project because I have some notoriety and can use it to promote this to people who might not otherwise see it.”
On Twitter, Conway called for people of colour to work on the project; among the artists who agreed to participate are some white creators, including legendary superhero artist Jerry Ordway.
One reason Conway is so troubled by the use of his work to promote white supremacy, beyond his personal politics, is the diversity of Punisher fans. “I go to conventions now and I would say that two-thirds to three-quarters of people who come up to me and talk about the Punisher are men and women of colour,” Conway says. “He’s so popular with young men and women of colour that [the way the logo is misused] just infuriates me.”
Conway particularly hates seeing his creation repurposed by the police: “I think the way cops use it is extrajudicial: they are cops, and they are going to punish you. And the Punisher is an outlaw. He’s a symbol of the failure of the justice system to treat everyone equally … About three years ago when it started to show up on police cars and on challenge coins that cops were using, I was really disturbed, because it was such a fundamental misunderstanding of what the character was and was supposed to represent. In that sense, he’s been completely defiled.”
Disney is not a company that generally lets copyright infringers hang around eating all the chips and dip. In 2012, it filed under seal a preliminary injunction asking that the court keep the filing secret until police had seized all merchandise bearing the likenesses of its trademarked characters and executed a restraining order on the defendant, who ran a car accessories store in California. It’s one of scores of example-making lawsuits the company has filed, or been party to, over the years – including one last year against a company selling unauthorised Darth Vader shirts in Florida.
But even though Marvel Characters, Inc holds a trademark on the word “Punisher”, a brief look online reveals a shop called Sons of Liberty Tees selling a “Blue Lives Matter Punisher Skull” shirt. Another sells the same design on a hoodie, also using the character’s name. A third sells a “Blue Lives Matter/Punisher Skull Flag Thin Blue Line” shirt that is also listed for sale at Walmart.com. An Amazon retailer called American Vinyl sells a Punisher decal with Trump hair.
Asked why he thinks Disney has not brought its legal muscle to bear against rightwing retailers, Conway responds with a bitmoji of himself shrugging.
What Does the Punisher Skull Mean? Depends on Who You Ask
Few superhero emblems are as provocative as the Punisher’s. Superman’s diamond “S” communicates decency and heroism, while Batman’s silhouette bat strikes fear in those who prey on the fearful. But a white skull with long dripping teeth? The logo of the Punisher is as intimidating, and controversial, as Frank Castle himself.
The Punisher’s Skull, a ghostly white cranium often painted over a pitch black background, perfectly occupies the uncomfortable shaded areas in the venn diagram of politically conservative audiences, law enforcement, and hyper-masculine power fantasies. For some, it symbolizes honor and gritty determination, and for others, unbound aggression and destruction.
You’ve seen it before. The skull, as ubiquitous as Captain America’s shield, is on jerseys, t-shirts, coffee mugs, even tube socks. It was a focal marketing point for The Punisher, the new 13-episode series streaming on Netflix. The vast majority of Punisher stuff are produced and sold by Marvel, but it’s not hard to find the Punisher Skull without Marvel’s involvement alongside pro-police merchandise.
Thin Blue Line USA, whose spokesperson Pete Forhan tells Inverse is a law enforcement “support company” that makes merchandise for law enforcement families, has a popular “Punisher” collection of flags, shirts, patches, and other items that combine the skull with the “thin blue line” design. Copyright laws seem to be unenforced; after all, everyone has a skull.
But there is a disconnect between Frank Castle’s penchant for violence and law enforcement. Police brutality is a plague in modern America, yet the embrace of the Punisher by police is chilling, if not plain bad optics. In February 2017, a Kentucky precinct endured heavy criticism when it branded vehicles with Punisher decals with the words “Blue Lives Matter” over them. Later, Police Chief Cameron Logan told io9: “We’re getting so many calls, and they’re saying that the Punisher logo [means] we’re out to kill people, and that’s not the meaning behind that.” Cameron added that he would do “a little more research” in the future.
Forhan explains away the dissonance as such: “It’s adopted a new meaning over the last few years. Less of a violent overtone, more of a promise to criminals: You might think you’re getting away with it, but it’s karma. If you’re committing violent acts, one way or another, you will be meeting consequences.”
Another reason, Forhan says, is to “honor officers who have given their lives in the line of duty.” “So when you wear the skull with the thin blue line, you say, ‘Here are my fallen brothers, and what I’m doing is to keep that legacy going.’”
Most enlisted members acknowledge Frank Castle is a masculine figure that’s “safely in the realm of fantasy,” one Marine veteran and Punisher fan told Vulture. But Gerry Conway, who created the Punisher in 1974 and advocates progressive politics over social media, isn’t convinced.
“People can tell themselves anything,” Conway tells Inverse. “I could have a bat symbol and tell people I’m celebrating nightvision. It’s a defense people throw up when they don’t want to be associated with the actual meaning of the symbol.”
If he seems dismissive, it may be because Conway is close to law enforcement; he had police for family. Conway’s father was a cop and his uncle was captain of the academy of New York City. “I grew up during the Serpico era of New York,” he says. “The idea that the police are supposed to be given a pass on laws they’re held to enforce is incomprehensible. It’s not my understanding of the police.”
Though the Punisher’s fans are generally diverse, the character has a strong appeal to a conservative audience. “The character and his iconography are totemic for many cops and soldiers,” wrote Abraham Riesman for Vulture, adding that his popularity spiked when Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, the subject of American Sniper, appropriated the skull as his own.
“We all thought what the Punisher did was cool: He righted wrongs,” wrote Kyle in his 2012 autobiography. “So we adapted his symbol — a skull — and made it our own.” Kyle says that he and his men spray-painted the skull on Hummers, body armor, buildings, and their guns. “We wanted people to know, ‘We’re here and we want to f— with you.’”
“That’s a very specific image you can’t say is tied to anything except the Punisher,” Conway says about his creation’s signature emblem. “It’s like people saying the Swastika was a Hindu symbol that means family and love. I think you have to take what’s the generally accepted interpretation and that’s the one we should apply.”
For now, as Marvel fans continue to indulge with the Punisher’s quest for revenge in his Netflix series, the true meaning of the Punisher’s skull remains in the eye of the beholder, says Conway. “Everybody brings to it their interpretation, and I have no problem of any of those, so long as there’s a fundamental understanding that this is not a good guy.” Conway himself even admits to owning Punisher merchandise. ““For me it’s pride of creation.”
“I’m certain there are people who wear the Punisher without even knowing what it’s about,” he says. “You can’t get into people’s heads.”
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The Punisher skull: Unofficial logo of the white American death cult
White Americans appear to have enlisted into a death cult. If one drives around the suburbs or rural outposts removed from a major metropolitan area, it quickly becomes apparent that, in their zest and zeal for violence, countless whites have begun to brandish the Punisher skull, typically with red, white, and blue stripes, on their automobiles and clothing. T-shirts at the gym, the bumpers of minivans, with children riding as passengers, and baseball caps all display the menacing skull, proving that it has become ubiquitous in the United States. Several companies, including Thin Blue Line, have made millions selling apparel with ghoulish image.
The Punisher symbol originates with the Marvel comic book story of Frank Castle. After Castle’s wife and children are murdered by career criminals, he adopts the Punisher moniker in his quest to eradicate crime without interference from the liberal cucks who wrote the Bill of Rights and the prissy naïfs who enforce protections for American citizens, such as the irritating regulation prohibiting police officers from summarily executing criminal suspects without a trial.
Chris Kyle, deceased Navy SEAL sniper and patron saint of the American death cult, wrote about the celebration of the skull in his memoir, “American Sniper”: “We all thought what the Punisher did was cool. He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him. We spray-painted the Punisher skull on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns. And we spray-painted it on every building or wall we could. We wanted people to know, We’re here and we want to f**k with you.”
The beauty of Kyle’s prose could bring a tear to the reader’s eyes. Gerry Conway, the Punisher’s co-creator, is crying tears not of joy, but of anger and disappointment. Responding to the late Kyle’s praise of his character, Conway said, “I don’t think he understood the fundamental truth that the Punisher is not a man to admire or emulate.”
Conway also explained that Castle’s mission, and especially his tactics, were “morally dubious.” The Punisher’s identity oscillates between unconventional crusader for justice and psychotic vigilante, torturing and massacring anyone he so much suspects of wrongdoing. Castle is a combat veteran, which likely contributes to active duty military personnel relating to him, but with typical right wing acuity, the skull-sporting crowd rejects the complexity of the character. Garth Ennis, one of the later writers of the comic book, explained that Castle’s experience as a Marine weakens as much as it strengthens him. It provides him with resolve, expert training, and physical bravery, but it simultaneously pollutes his thinking, reducing his criteria for decision making to might makes right. “He comes to see war as the answer to all of his problems,” Ennis said.
It is difficult to quantify with precision, but a large percentage of Americans, mostly white men, do not have the interpretive skill to comprehend a comic book, and as a consequence, are knowingly or unknowingly celebrating the symbol of a character who, if actually existed, would be a serial killer living as a fugitive from the law.
The Punisher skull is not merely a profitable merchandising industry, but an ideological icon verging on religious significance. One of the impetuses for its popularity was a reactionary objection to the Black Lives Matter protest movement. Thoughtless defenders of police amid allegations, or even video evidence, of unethical use of fatal force, adopted the Punisher skull as a sign of loyalty to the unbreakable “blue line.” The Cattlesburg, Kentucky police department even attempted to incorporate the skull into their official squad car insignia. Complaints from residents forced them to remove it. Officers in Wisconsin and New York have also tried to appropriate the symbol while on duty.
Oscar Wilde once said, “Irony is wasted on the stupid.” It is immeasurably rich and sad that cops and conservatives, in an effort to temper complaints that police departments are too quick to pull the trigger and too indiscriminate in their use of violence, have expressed their defense with the emblem of a fictional character who “sees war as the answer to all his problems,” routinely violates the U.S. Constitution, and appoints himself judge, jury and executioner when dealing with anyone under suspicion of illegal activity. One would think that even those who are unfamiliar with the Punisher would hesitate before equating the police with a frightening skull at the precise moment that blacks, Latinos and Native Americans view law enforcement with fear, mistrust, and caution.
There is also nothing like a malevolent icon of death to reassure the local population in Afghanistan, most of whom see the United States military not as a great liberator, but an occupying army. It is easy to imagine anti-war protestors in the late 1960s using a similar skull in depictions of the police or military as “Murder Incorporated,” to use a popular phrase of the New Left.
A few decades later, the police, along with their right wing sycophants, have, clearly without intention, self-applied the indictment. As much as it is obvious that the American right is oblivious to the nuances of The Punisher story, it is far too generous to claim that the Americans who plaster its logo on their chests and bumpers are merely misinterpreting a symbol. A sinister skull, even if one has no familiarity with its origin, is not exactly subtle. It instantly projects death, violence and danger.
The cultural and moral matter more worthy of scrutiny than a comic book narrative is America’s comfort with violence, murder and war. What does it say about a people when they want to communicate hostility and intimidation while they jog on the treadmill, shop for groceries, and drop their children off at school?
2017 was the worst year on record for death by firearm in the United States. Nearly 40,000 Americans died at the barrel of a gun in that year alone, and from 1965 to 2011, 1.4 million lost their lives to gun violence. No statistic on murder and suicide in America, no matter how horrific and off the scale of the developed world — and no mass shooting, no matter how gruesome, even when the victims are children — has moved the United States government to adopt stricter federal gun control regulations.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, America has dropped tens of thousands of bombs on seven countries, invaded two countries, and conducted Special Forces missions in many more. Death and destruction from above do not come cheap. According to a recent study, the U.S. has wasted $5.9 trillion on annihilating human life, ecology, and property. Given that children in Flint, Michigan have developed cognitive disorders and physical defects for lack of clean drinking water, and thousands of American die annually because they cannot afford medical treatment, it is not a challenge to determine how a wise and just nation might have better spent such an enormous amount of money.
“How will you pay for it?” remains the most repeated bromide in reaction to sensible proposals from Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others relating to universal health care, subsidized childcare and student debt relief. The question never surfaces on the rare occasions that the bloated defense budget, which accounts for over half of federal discretionary spending, becomes the subject of political discussion. More than 40 percent of Americans continue to support President Trump even after his budget proposals call for the reduction or elimination of services for disabled children, poor families, the elderly and the chronically ill.
Much of Trump’s support derives from white America’s fear of what sociologists have called the “browning of America.” Mexican immigrants have become targets of the most intense hatred from the American right. In Mexico, there is a holiday, the “Day of the Dead.” Mexicans construct skeletal figures with wild colors, and do so to pay tribute to their deceased loved ones. Skeletons represent the cycle of life from birth to death, but also love, remembrance, and bonds that are emotionally eternal long after physical separation. Right wing pundits often warn of “America becoming Mexico” — if only.
Americans who wear the Punisher skull signify spiritual fidelity to the dark heart of murder beating underneath the red, white and blue façade of American identity. They quietly observe reports on police shootings, drone strikes, and soldiers suffering from PTSD, but rather than interrogate the lethal assumptions that have created such a violent and dangerous culture — rather than act according to the belief that life is precious, and that even a necessary killing amounts to a tragedy of human failure — they ritualize a fetishization of pain, terror and execution.
To defend the police against accusations of unlawful use of force is entirely separate from celebrating the elimination of life. Chris Kyle writes that he and his fellow SEALs hoped to send the message, “We’re here to f**k with you,” in the middle of a war that President Bush promised would “win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people,” and millions of Americans embrace the threatening iconography of militarism, even applying it to domestic police who should act as public servants. Then, they express bafflement and outrage over why the citizens of the countries we bomb, and the Americans who live in heavy police patrol neighborhoods, are hostile to the military-industrial complex, and the increasingly militarized police force.
In his modern classic, “The Things They Carried,” poet and novelist Tim O’Brien writes that one of his fellow soldiers in Vietnam, Dobbins, expressed a desire to truly believe in God, not because he had any particular interest in religion, but because he believed it would help him “be nice to people.”
“Dobbins meant the he just wanted to be nice to people and be a decent person,” O’Brien writes, “Because in war you are opposite of that.”
A powerful strain of American culture has embraced the ethic and ethos of war, and it shows in its rejection of kindness and decency — in public policy, in political rhetoric, and on the clothes they wear.
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twitter announced today that it will be removing its implementation of stories dubbed “fleets.” the feature was either loved or hated by twitter users since its initial release last year.
this short-lived feature, which was released in november of last year, will be removed on august 3. twitter acknowledged the controversial nature of the snapchat/instagram clone with the farewell tweet. notably, there was no fleet from the main twitter account announcing the departure of the feature, only a standard tweet.
in the goodbye, the company said it is working on “new stuff.” one can hope that they add the ability to edit tweets, in addition to the new edit audience and monetization features.
in a more detailed blog post, twitter shared that it hoped fleets would make people more comfortable posting onto twitter. as fleets disappear, some of the fleet creation features, like gifs and stickers, will be implemented into the standard tweets composer.
ftc: we use income earning auto affiliate links.more.
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