It may be time for Frank Castle to go the way of Pepe the Frog.
On May 8, 2017, cartoonist Matt Furie held a funeral for one of his creations. That creation was Pepe the Frog, a character in his 2005 series Boy’s Club who, despite initially being a fun-loving amphibian who found joy in the simple pleasures of life, like peeing with your pants all the way down, became a symbol of hatred and bigotry around the world. After his hapless stoner beginnings, Pepe reached everlasting popularity on 4chan, and eventually among pro-Trump circles. By the 2016 election, Pepe’s visage was seen endorsing deplorable acts of violence and hate.
Initially, Furie wasn’t terribly concerned about Pepe’s newfound appropriation, saying it was “just a phase.” As that phase lasted longer and longer, however, and the Anti-Defamation League identified Pepe as an anti-Semitic hate symbol, Furie came to terms with the character no longer belonging to him. Surrounded by his fellow anthropomorphic roommates, Andy, Brett and Landwolf, Pepe was laid to eternal rest on Free Comic Book Day 2017.
Feels bad, man.
Fast forward four years, and not only is Pepe the Frog’s usage still rampant amongst the alt-right and other hate circles, but another comic book character has been championed as a rallying cry for violence: Frank Castle, aka The Punisher. The Punisher, a violent vigilante who dispenses justice how he sees fit, has long been a favorite of edgelords and Hot Topic kids everywhere, but recently, he has become more and more associated with specifically right-wing violence (and, paradoxically, police, despite The Punisher alter-ego existing as a way to circumvent the justice system).
We’ve already talked at length here at AIPT about legal routes Marvel could take to stop the proliferation of their intellectual property being illegally produced and commandeered by people with firefight fantasies (and helped make some progress!), but in light of yet another horrific demonstration of domestic terrorism in the United States this week, several comic book creators have been discussing the merits of Marvel simply retiring the character altogether.
— Tara Lemieux, Writer (@Tara_Writer) January 7, 2021
I don’t say this lightly,” Jama Yaseem Igle, creator at AHOY Comics, wrote on Twitter. “It’s time for Marvel to put The Punisher out to pasture. The concept is corrupted.”
I dont say this lightly.
It's time for @Marvel to put The Punisher out to pasture.
The concept is corrupted.
— Jamal Yaseem Igle (@JAMALIGLE) January 7, 2021
Becky Cloonan, who has written a Punisher series (which I loved!) chimed in with a story of an encounter with somebody brandishing a Punisher logo in the wild.
Of course, that won’t instantly stop anybody from using the symbol anymore. Despite the “funeral”, Pepe the Frog is still ubiquitous in the dark corners of the internet, a rallying symbol of the depraved. In his 2016 Time article about Pepe, Furie wrote, “It’s completely insane that Pepe has been labeled a symbol of hate … but in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is.” And that’s true of Frank Castle, too. There’s nothing Marvel or anybody else can do about countless army guy LARPers thinking storming the U.S. Capitol with guns is a funny troll or an opportunity for social media likes — the genie’s out of the bottle. But officially severing ties with Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru’s creation would be the boldest way Marvel could condemn the violence being carried out, at least partially, under their intellectual property.
Of course, as with most topics worth discussing, there are no easy answers here. The Punisher has been a popular character in the Marvel Universe since his creation in 1974, and his co-creator, Gerry Conway, has staunchly denounced his creation being used as a beacon for hatred. In 2019’s The Punisher #13, writer Matthew Rosenberg and artist Szymon Kudranski showed Frank speaking directly to the type of corrupted cops and wannabe vigilantes who bear his symbol, saying “You boys need a role model? His name is Captain America, and he’d be happy to have you.”
So if retiring the character isn’t going to stop Punisher skulls with Trump hair from being slapped onto the bumper of every Toyota Tacoma in rural America, what’s the point?
Well, it’s worth exploring what Marvel’s intentions originally were with Frank Castle, and what he’s evolved into. The Punisher’s first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #129 depicted him in no uncertain terms as a villain, a bloodthirsty murderer who has no problem ending others’ lives to get his way. Around a decade later, the character had morphed into something of an antihero, a psychologically ill griever who tries to do what he sees as the right thing. In the early 2000s, the skull logo gained popularity with soldiers in Iraq, and his introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in season 2 of Daredevil cemented that connection when Jon Bernthal’s portrayal of the character was that of a former soldier stationed in Afghanistan with PTSD. Face and heel turns are not terribly uncommon in comic books, and as the general public’s fascination with antiheroes and the troubled grew over the years, Frank was a perfect lens through which Marvel to explore it.
But things are different in 2021, especially in America. Political, racial, and class tension have been steadily growing, and this past week, it reached a horrifying crescendo that the world witnessed with shock and sadness. Glorifying serial killers, no matter how layered or nuanced the story is, is simply unconscionable for a global creator of consumer culture in this society.
Maybe instead of erasing the character altogether, the answer is to take Frank back to his roots as an irredeemable villain, a scourge to be eradicated by the heroes that patrol the same streets he does. But like Jamal Igle said on Twitter, the very concept of The Punisher has become corrupted, and it’s time for Marvel to reckon with it. Like Pepe before him, putting Frank Castle to eternal rest probably wouldn’t result in the end of his association with extremists, but the character may be too far gone for Marvel to profit from him with a clean conscience.
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