The Punisher is well known to comic book readers and non-readers alike as a vigilante anti-hero who punishes crime with extreme violence – a concept Frank Castle’s co-creator says wasn’t initially baked into the character.
“The Punisher was originally conceived as a villain and was not intended to be an anti-hero,” Conway told SyfyWire. “But in the course of writing the first story, I realized that’s what he was – an anti-hero. He had a moral code I could use to resolve story points. And, it was a simpler time in the ’70s. You had a very black and white canvas on which to draw and to write – the storylines didn’t go into psychological depth of these characters. Mostly, we worked in broad strokes.”
From that, Conway says, the character has grown into an icon – one whose striking skull emblem has become a symbol of vigilante justice in its own right. In that regard, Conway has an opinion on the way some military and law enforcement personnel have controversially embraced the symbol.
“I’ve talked about this in other interviews. To me, it’s disturbing whenever I see authority figures embracing Punisher iconography because the Punisher represents a failure of the Justice system,” Conway explained. “He’s supposed to indict the collapse of social moral authority and the reality some people can’t depend on institutions like the police or the military to act in a just and capable way.
“The vigilante anti-hero is fundamentally a critique of the justice sysytem, an eample of social failure, so when cops put Punisher skulls on their cars or members of the military wear Punisher skull patches, they’re basically sides with an enemy of the system,” he continued. “They are embracing an outlaw mentality. Whether you think the Punisher is justified or not, whether you admire his code of ethics, he is an outlaw. He is a criminal. Police should not be embracing a criminal as their symbol.
“It goes without saying. In a way, it’s as offensive as putting a Confederate flag on a government building,” Conway concluded. “My point of view is, the Punisher is an anti-hero, someone we might root for while remembering he’s also an outlaw and criminal. If an officer of the law, representing the justice system puts a criminal’s symbol on his police car, or shares challenge coins honoring a criminal he or she is making a very ill-advised statement about their understanding of the law.”
Conway’s thoughts on the social ramifications of his own work don’t stop there. The longtime Amazing Spider-Man writer, whose run followed Stan Lee’s in the 70s, also shared his retrospective thoughts on his story “The Death of Gwen Stacy” in which Peter Parker’s eponymous girlfriend was killed by the Green Goblin.
“I’m really proud of my work on that issue – and the work of Gil Kane and John Romita. We had no idea that story would end up having the legacy it’s had, but even at the time I was conscious of wanting to drive home what I believed was the core theme of Marvel’s approach to superhero storytelling: that being a superhero doesn’t make you immune to tragedy, that superpowers don’t make you infallible, and that real life doesn’t always produce happy endings,” Conway said of the story’s impact.
“Unfortunately, Gwen’s death also inspired some terrible stories, including the ‘girl-in-a-refrigerator’ trope women in comics rightfully decry. I’d like to think that our approach to Gwen’s death wasn’t a cheap shot to create sympathy for our male hero, especially because I tried to use that tragedy more as a motivation for the emotional growth of the woman who would become the most significant female in Peter Parker’s life, Mary Jane Watson.”
However, Conway sees the legacy of Gwen Stacy as a net positive.
“It’s astonishing to me that 45 years later readers are still responding powerfully to that story,” Conway explained. “Astonishing and gratifying. As for Spider-Gwen… I love her, she’s a terrific addition to the Spider-Verse.”