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September 22, 2020

Nate Powell’s About Face (review): Law enforcement and The Punisher’s symbol


This critique is to do with Nate Powell’s About Face. But we start with this scene, written by Matthew Rosenberg, appeared inThe Punisher #13 published by American comic book giant Marvel Comics. It caused a sensation back in July 2019. 

Some police officers in the United States have adopted The Punisher’s logo as a form of protest in respect of the Blue Lives Matter movement. Blue Lives Matter concerns an apprehension by police officers that their lives and safety were being made secondary to those of other citizens. 

The scene was covered by:

1. Syfy.com https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/the-punisher-tells-cops-hes-sick-of-them-idolizing-him – “as [The Punisher] points out in the comic above, he’s not here to protect and serve. He’s just here to straight-up murder people.”

2. Newsweek https://www.newsweek.com/punisher-police-blue-lives-matter-skull-logo-1449272 quoting St. Louis Police Commissioner John Hayden Jr. on the Punisher:  “[the character] engages in acts of violence, to include murder, kidnapping, and extortion in his one-man effort against crime,” and that the character did not align with the department’s mission “to protect life and property and achieve a peaceful society.

Both articles quote the character’s co-creator, Gerry Conway, and how he is “disturbed” by the use by police officers of the symbol. 

The philosophy behind, and fundamental error in the adoption of the Punisher’s logo is well ventilated in About Face, a provocative, insightful, well-articulated comic by Nate Powell: https://popula.com/2019/02/24/about-face/ We reproduce some of it in this critique:

The text consists of a set of well-illustrated convergent theories about disenfranchised white people, American nationalism, and the use of the Punisher’s symbol as an expression of lost power and a desire to be above the fussy, civilised complications of the law. None of these concepts are new, but as far as we know, this is the first articulation of the ideas focused on the Punisher’s logo as a “canary in the coal mine” (to quote Mr Powell).

On a first read, we had initially wondered if Mr Powell’s theories on cultural corruption were over-cooked, and a reaction to the firestorm of identity politics gripping particularly (but not exclusively) the United States. Is this not just police officers engaging in collective fandom? Or admiring the singular obsession of the character about justice, but not necessarily admiration for the tactics?

But About Face contains compelling and rational sociological arguments (very evident to people outside the United States who wonder about the quasi-cult of deference to the military within that country – no other country’s airlines gives priority to military personnel when boarding planes – and America’s never-ending Central Asian wars). The Punisher’s backstory is that he started off as a marine. An 2017 article in Vulture https://www.vulture.com/2017/11/marvel-punisher-police-military-fandom.html  quotes a former marine: “Frank Castle is the ultimate definition of Occam’s razor for the military… Don’t worry about uniforms, inspections, or restrictive rules of engagement. Find the bad guys. Kill the bad guys. Protect the innocent. Any true warrior? That’s the dream.”  

Other veterans are more nuanced: “ “There is no place for a Punisher in society,” says J.D. Williams, a Marine vet and current sheriff’s deputy who’s been a Punisher fan since childhood. “That said, some of the qualities that the Punisher has are very admirable. Strength, tenacity, perseverance, decisiveness. I don’t believe there is any more danger or contradiction than using any other type of fiction and cheering for the flawed protagonist. Frank is a compelling character because of his black-and-white view and propensity to go from zero to killing based on his perception and ‘code.’ It is fiction.”

Mr Rosenberg, speaking through the Punisher, is correct. Police officers too frequently sacrifice their lives to protect their communities. It’s a noble profession. And as for About Face, Mr Powell’s assessment is bleak, despairing, and it seems to us all-too-accurate:

Stickers, patches, caps and t-shirts are cheap ways of expressing a political view on society. And we wonder if they would be selling so well if the Punisher was female? Or black? Or Hispanic?

If law enforcement officials wanted a symbol of the sacrifices that they might and do make for the people in their towns and suburbs, then they could indeed not go wrong with the star and shield of Captain America. But we would hope that the shield or star that police officers each wear as part of their uniform would be enough. 

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