While other superheroes have used the deaths of loved ones as motivation to fight crime, the Punisher uses his family’s massacre to justify a murderous crusade that may dishonor rather than serve their memory. In the two-book Punisher: The Ghosts of Innocents miniseries (by Jim Starlin and Tom Grindberg), Frank Castle must confront his guilt over failing to protect those caught in the crossfire of his never-ending war on crime. Rather than giving him pause, the deaths of innocent children fuel his vengeful campaign against the underworld, giving him a self-serving reason to continue his war indefinitely. Castle, a man driven by the blood of both his enemies and his loved ones, has never known peace and most disturbingly might not desire it.
The miniseries opens with the Punisher’s pursuit of Snake, a low-level foot soldier in the Kingpin’s organization, which leads him aboard a school bus that the criminal has commandeered. As Frank wrestles Snake down the bus aisle, the criminal’s gun fires sporadically, striking the bus driver. This causes the bus full of screaming children to careen directly into the path of an oncoming train. Snake leaps out the back of the bus before the point of impact. The Punisher and the terrified children surrounding him are not so fortunate, as the train demolishes the yellow bus, sending bodies everywhere.
Marvel’s Punisher Is Driven by His Failures
When the smoke clears, Punisher stands alone as he is once again the sole survivor of an unfathomable tragedy. Suffering a severe concussion, Castle begins seeing apparitions of the school children who died on the bus. Every time he feels fatigued, they encourage him to keep going and find Snake, the man responsible for their deaths. It is never made clear whether the ghosts of the children are real or a figment of the Punisher’s concussed mind, but Castle uses their presence to fuel his vengeance. He pushes his body beyond its limits, unleashing hell in Kingpin’s penthouse tower in a desperate bid to locate and kill Snake.
However, Kingpin does not wish to hand Snake over to Punisher, so he flees with his foot soldier. Frank collapses in his vacant office, bleeding out and repeating whispered promises to the ghostly children who continue to spur him on. He is arrested and taken to a hospital where he drifts towards death, hallucinating about his own deceased family. He considers crossing over to the other side, but the ghost of his wife Maria informs him that his crusade against crime is more important than their reunion in the afterlife and that he must survive to carry on his mission.
Reinvigorated by his wife’s wishes, he awakens with renewed determination to avenge the innocents killed on the bus. After escaping the hospital, Punisher targets several of Kingpin’s associates and business meetings, pressuring the corrupt crime boss to finally give up Snake’s location. Castle catches up with his quarry and cripples him on railroad tracks, leaving him to be hit by a train just as Snake abandoned the bus to be hit by one. Finally, avenged, the specters of the slain youths fade away, but Castle knows they will be with him for a long time to come.
The Punisher can’t Let Go of the Past
Frank Castle is not haunted by the ghosts of the past but instead driven by them. If it weren’t the school kids motivating him, it would be his family and if it weren’t them, it would be his experience in Vietnam. A man like the Punisher cannot survive in peace and must constantly look for justifications to continue his war on crime. He also cannot face up to his own culpability in the deaths of the innocents caught in the crossfire of his war. If he had not pursued Snake onto the school bus, there’s a distinct possibility the children aboard might still be alive.
Although the Punisher didn’t directly kill the children, neither did Snake — neither steered the bus towards the train. But the Punisher is looking for an outlet for his anger, lest he turns it inward and destroys himself through the guilt of what he has become. As a result, he will find reasons to minimize his own responsibility while transforming common thugs like Snake into symbols of pure evil deserving of death — he cannot stop killing. Unfortunately, redemption is impossible for a man who is steeped in blood, and the ghosts that haunt him may actually be his own.