“American political discourse. The wisdom of the bumper sticker. The eloquence of a toe in the eye and a knuckle up the nostril.”
–Foolkiller #8, Steve Gerber
Ever had one of those bad days when the slightest annoyance enrages? Someone steps on your toe and suddenly they become the embodiment of everything you hate. You want to scream at them, throttle them. Many of us might do the former, while only imaging the latter. It is natural after all, steam blowing off and all that. Eventually perspective returns. However, those violent urges never entirely dissipate. Violence is woven into humans’ DNA; it is a piece of our heritage in being a member of the animal kingdom. Living in society, though, teaches how those impulses can be held in check. At the same time, culture can send quite mixed messages on the subject. Media representations of violence were one of the reoccurring concerns of writer Steve Gerber, who often satirized what he viewed as lax attitudes on the subject. His early 90s series Foolkiller, goes beyond Howard the Duck’s humorous ribbing, offering instead a searing indictment of an ailing body politic and the madman it produces. It is a compelling examination of how far down the rabbit role one man might descend when he accepts the task of cleansing the nation of fools. It is also one of Gerber’s masterpieces.
Gerber first created the Foolkiller sixteen years earlier with artist Val Mayerik for Man-Thing #3, “Day of the Killer, Night of the Fool.” Ross G. Everbest, aka the Foolkiller, was very much a product of the times in which he lived. Both of Ross’ parents gave their lives in military service which resulted in Ross idealizing the armed forces. His conservative worldview was reinforced by the preaching of a charismatic faith healer, who cured Ross’ paralysis. However, Ross cannot find peace of mind. He is enraged by the protests roiling the country, “all the work of fools,” who debased the pillars of god and country. Added to this national trend was the revelation of Reverend Mike as a womanizing drunkard. In a fit of anger, Ross strangles Mike, the first fool to die at his hands. (This being a Steve Gerber comic, Ross then decides to preserve the preacher in a liquid filled capsule as an inspirational reminder). Ross’ mission is very much a religious crusade, the language of which Gerber does not mince. However, Ross’ faith blinds him to the reality around him. He kills a man for “scoff[ing] at me and deny[ing] Heaven” when the man was in the process of shepherding flood victims to safety. Such charitable considerations are beyond the Foolkiller’s perceptive; all he sees are the fools who would argue with his righteous plan.
Ross’ time as the Foolkiller was short lived, dying in his second appearance, Man-Thing #4. Gerber, however, was not finished with the concept. Gerber was fond of reusing characters from one of his series to another. Thus, in Omega the Unknown, Richard Rory stops by Hell’s Kitchen to visit his friend Ruth Hart. Richard and Ruth had both featured in Man-Thing, including the issues involving the Foolkiller. In fact, Richard was indirectly responsible for the new Foolkiller. During a stint in prison, Richard shared a jail cell with Gregory P. Salinger to whom he related the tale of the Foolkiller. Gregroy was so fascinated that after leaving prison, he tracked down Ross’ old stash and assumed the mantel. Gregory, though, had very different motivations than Ross. Instead of being driven by a religious zeal, he was incensed by the lack of poetry in contemporary culture. He viewed society as overwhelmed by material desires, more interested in accumulating wealth than happiness. What is fascinating here is how Gerber creates an extreme left-wing vigilante to balance out the far-right doctrine of Ross. Considering both men together reveals how easily either side of the political debate can drift into fanaticism.
Gregory’s time in Omega is limited almost entirely to a single issue, #9. (He cameoed in #8, which was guest-written by Roger Stern, though Stern does not receive any creator credit for Gregory). Gerber and his Omega co-writer Mary Skrenes do hint that Foolkiller would return again, but Gerber was fired from Marvel and Omega canceled before that could happen. Gregory made a couple other appearances here and there but for the most part was forgotten until years later when Marvel gave Gerber another chance at the concept.
Marvel began the 1990s by dusting off several cult 70s properties for high-profile revivals. 1990 saw new series for Ghost Rider, Guardians of the Galaxy and the New Warriors, an original team which consisted of many formerly B and C-Level heroes. Jack “Nomad” Monroe got a shot at his own ongoing as well. In addition, the age of “dark and gritty” was in full swing with the Punisher and his huge guns appearing all over the Marvel Universe; Jim Valentino even found a way to work Frank Castle’s imagery into his 31st Century Guardians title. In this environment, it is hardly surprising Marvel would greenlight a new ten issue Foolkiller limited series. What they got, though, was far from an upbeat, heroic tale celebrating a one man war on crime. Instead Gerber, along with artist J.J. Birch, crafted a portrait of social dysfunction and the madness it produces.
The debut issue opens with an evocative splash page, which immediately pulls in the reader. Gregory’s Foolkiller points his signature gun straight at the reader, while declaring his mantra “Live a poem or die a fool!” White cobwebs cover both the Foolkiller and the darkened interior (Greg Wright’s muted colors add much to the ambiance). From the here the sequence rapidly assumes the shape of a dream as the Foolkiller is overwhelmed by mucus which literally drowns him. Gregory is then shown relating this dream to his therapist. Declared mentally unfit for conventional prison, Gregory has spent the last several years confined to an Indiana mental hospital. At first he appears to have made some progress in regaining balance in perspective, though, events will soon reveal how precarious that semblance of sanity is.
At the same time, Gerber introduces readers to Kurt Gerhardt on the day of his father’s funeral. Kurt’s father was a longtime resident of the Bronx, while his son had moved (fled?) for the suburbs of Riverdale. Kurt warned that the neighborhood was changing, becoming more dangerous, yet his father would not listen. Then, one day, the father became the victim of a mugging which rapidly mutated into a fatal beating. In the end, the assailants left behind the wallet which only had six dollars in it anyway. This illustration of how cheap life can be haunts Kurt over the coming months as he loses his banking job due to downsizing (naturally no one from management is laid off). He struggles to find gainful employment, eats up his savings and is told by his wife to move out. Eventually he finds a job flipping burgers at Burger Clown and living in a crummy apartment. Just another unfortunate soul lost in the millions of the city. Still, Kurt gets along with his new co-workers, despite them being half his age, and his life begins to regain equilibrium. Then, one night he watches a television interview with the infamous Gregory P. Salinger.
One key to the success of Foolkiller is Gerber’s gradual depiction of Kurt’s embrace of the Foolkiller mantel. Given the nature of comic book narratives, readers can quickly guess where the narrative is heading, yet Gerber takes his time getting there. Kurt does not take naturally to killing; his first act of justice invokes not exhilaration but vomiting into an alley dumpster. Part of becoming the Foolkiller, involves overcoming that revulsion against killing, becoming able to dish out violence as easily as those fools who pummeled his father to death. At the same time, the more inhibitions Kurt knocks down, the more dangerous he becomes. A raid on a crack house brings him face-to-face with a boy wielding a gun. Kurt stops in his tracks, internally debating “Is [the boy] a fool—a victim of fools—both?” Before he can formulate an answer, the boy tosses a knife at Kurt. Impaled by the blade, Kurt is startled into action crippling the boy, who he then kills out of “mercy.” The shaken Kurt stumbles away, leaving behind the telltale Foolkiller card. On Ross’ was printed the admonishment “repent—or be forever condemned to the pits of Hell”. Kurt’s? “Actions have consequences.”
By this mid-way point in the series, eagle-eyed readers will have noted that the Comics Code Seal of Approval has disappeared from the front cover. It will not return for the remainder of the series.
While it is never restated in as explicit language, the quandary of differing between the fools and victims of fools lingers over the narrative. When Kurt started down the road of the Foolkiller he picked off the predictable late 80s/early 90s street criminals of drug dealers and their ilk. However, as the series progresses, Kurt finds himself fixating on more petty offenses. What about the businessmen who knock over an old lady on their rush to leave the subway? The co-worker who, as revenge for playing loud rap music, doctors a bill payment status so that the car of his upstairs neighbor is repossessed? The sales clerk to busy talking on the phone to interact with a customer? Are these not fools as well? Do they not drag down society as much as the “criminals?” Kurt witnesses dueling protests for/against the First Persian Gulf War which breakdown into fighting. He kills the leader of the doves for resorting to fists at a peace rally and the leader of the hawks for not having the courage of his convictions (i.e. enlisting in the army himself). Kurt does not see political right or left, simply a country at each other’s throats, spurred on by the self-absorbed TV pundits who call for bloody law and order without a second thought to the consequences of their actions. (There is a bit of a passing resemblance of TV host Runyan Moody to G. Gordon Liddy, who once advised his listeners on how to aim your gunshots between the gaps in the feds’ body armor).
“Television isn’t the world. It doesn’t require courage to yell slogans into a camera.”
The more Kurt chases the fools, the more he grasps at some larger picture. Each time he tries to get a handle on human nature he is disappointed, until finally he sees the key to success as a lack of effort. From the street pimp beating a prostitute to the millionaire real estate developer justifying mass evictions from a lower class building, society rewards those who appear to have made as little effort as possible. Thus, Kurt believes that he has found his true purpose. He must purge the country of those giant fools who teach us all to be subservient. As such he declares war on everyone who is engaged “in the pursuit of momentary gratification” above all else.
All of this evolution is portrayed with a measured nuance. There is no one grand moment, where readers can point and say “that’s the panel Kurt went bonkers.” (Or in Kurt’s more evocative phrasing, “Bingo bango bongo”). Until late in the series, there is still a slight measure of hope that Kurt might find solace. Yet, events rush about him and the fools keep prancing across the television. Long-term narrative planning was never one of Gerber’s strengths, except here where he masterfully charts the incremental, creeping lull of fanatical violence. In the end, Kurt is as much a product of his society his predecessors ever were.
Another essential element of the series is the refusal to glamorize the violence. Artist Birch renders the action scenes in a raw, matter-of-fact manner. Often they are short bursts of brutality. Unlike Frank Castle with his stoical cowboy demeanor, Kurt is deeply affected by his actions. Instead of reviving Kurt, they drain him. As the series progresses, Birch increasingly shows how the Foolkiller’s exploits have ravaged Kurt’s appearance, until finally, like acid they have burned away his identity.
After Foolkiller, Gerber did not return again to the character. Gregory and Kurt lingered in the background of the Marvel Universe until they were both dragged into, of all things, the orbit of Deadpool. Gregory got lumped into Deadpool’s Mercs for Money title which this November spins out a new solo Foolkiller series. Will it continue Gerber’s tradition of social commentary or simply be another celebration of the type of snarky ultraviolence which Gerber deplored? The former would be nice, however, the solicits suggest the latter is more likely, which would be a shame. There remains much potential within the character.
One of the most troubling aspects of Gerber’s writing is how relevant it remains twenty-six years later. Take the quote which opens this article, swap out bumper sticker for tweet, and it sums up the current state of political discourse as well as it did in 1991. Maybe better. Gerber’s premature death was a great loss. He was one of the most original, biting writers this medium has ever produced. We could use his unique, off-kilter perspective on the troubles which continually plague our country. If he thought that the political system was broken when Howard the Duck assumed leadership of the All-Night Party ticket, if he believed civil decorum had devolved in 1990, oh what would he think of 2016?
I like to imagine he would have dreamt up something that would have shone some enlightenment on our own foolish age. And perhaps, despite the prevalent darkness of Foolkiller, made us grin a little at the absurdity of it all.