The Punisher Skull

Origin story and symbolism are two of the most important ingredients of any superhero universe. But what happens when both of those pieces of a universe get flipped on their head?

The Punisher has always been a complicated Marvel antihero: a man whose creator imagined him as a reaction to the failures of government at home and in the Vietnam War. So why is the Punisher’s trademark dripping skull insignia — a menacing image used throughout history to denote imminent death — being painted on police vehicles, adopted by members of the military, and donned by white supremacists?

This episode of Endless Thread explores the story of The Punisher’s symbol as a meme, and looks at how well we understand its origins, its use today, and whether its creator — or Marvel — can take it back.

Note: Since this episode was produced, Marvel announced a new Punisher limited series that will feature the character with a new logo emblazoned across his chest.



Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston. It’s hosted by Ben Brock Johnson and Amory Sivertson. This episode was produced by Nora Saks, as part of a series on the cultural history and importance of memes. Endless Thread is made by producers Dean Russell, Nora Saks, Kristin Torres and Quincy Walters. Editing by Maureen McMurray.
Mix, sound design and original music by Matt Reed. The meme experts you heard from were Gianluca Stringhini , Joan Donovan and Amanda Brennan.

  1. Neal Fargo

    The Punisher’s Skull is as iconic as the character and defines his lethality and what awaits those he directs his efforts against. The fact that it has been adopted by other groups (like some LE departments), should NOT be a reason to change the character or this emblem that has been his trademark for decades. If someone is offended, stick to Archie comics and leave it alone.
    Life can be filled with things that can be controversial. There should be controversy in a Free Society. Roll with it.

  2. Mike Rhode

    What’s left out of Mr. Conway’s recounting, is that the character was created to capture movie anti-heroes who took the law into their own hand such as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. Like 90% of comics history, publishers were just trying to leap on an existing trend. There are blaxploitation comics such as Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, and kung fu comics such as Iron Fist and Master of Kung Fu also being tossed out to audiences at the same time.

  3. Daniel Johnson

    I grew up reading The Punisher comics in the 80s. I disagree with the idea put forward in this episode that he was always morally ambiguous character. The DNA of the character is an individual asserting themselves over the system when the system fails. The punisher comics I read presented unlikable, cowardly and code-less criminals meeting justice at Frank Castle’s hands. There was no depiction of The Punisher mistakenly killing innocents. He lived by a code and code-driven characters are always depicted as superior to code-less ones.

    This podcast does not offer any examples of the punisher being written as anything other than a protagonist. If his acting outside of the law was ever questioned by other superheroes, it was as an abstraction and never had any teeth. My generation was sold this vigilante porn and it disturbs me to think about now.

    When cops use the symbol now they are absolutely using it in fidelity with the comic book Punisher. The system that is “failing” them is political correctness. A kind of philosophical red tape that supposedly blinds us from common sense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize