Lately I’ve been thinking about how sci-fi writer Steve Aylett once described satire as “[…] like scrubbing tombstones with a toothbrush.”
Satire is often an accusation of hypocrisy disguised as comedy – but those accusations are now a dead language in a new era of shamelessness. You think you deserve a pay raise while telling everyone else to tighten their belts? You think politicians should be limited to two terms while you yourself are running for a third? You don’t even have to deny it. Just smirk or shrug. Even if someone cares, you can laugh and say you’re living in their heads, rent-free. It’s useless. Tombstone, meet toothbrush.
Because of this, I’ve also been thinking about Marvel Comics’ Foolkiller, too.
There have been multiple versions of Marvel’s lesser-known vigilante. The first three iterations were all written by Steve Gerber –first with artist Val Mayerik in 1974, then Jim Mooney in 1977, and the third with J. J. Birch in 1990. One thing these characters have in common is their so-called purification gun – passed from one to the next – that can turn someone to a pile of ash in a flash of light. The other is that their victims aren’t just the traditional villains like those targeted by other noted vigilantes like the Punisher. The second Foolkiller, Mark Salinger, ordered his victims to “live a poem – or die a fool!”
And the third, Kurt Gerhardt, sums up his mission thusly: “Actions have consequences.”
Gerhardt becomes Foolkiller after his father is killed by muggers. “They enjoyed bashing in your head so much,” he thinks, “they left you the six dollars.” The story speeds through the next few months as Gerhardt loses both his job and his relationship. He’s forced to work flipping burgers for a fast-food place called Burger Clown. When they’re robbed, he gets his own beating and, waiting in an emergency room, says “What kind of vicious, sub-human brutes commit these atrocities? Why aren’t they here? How come they never die?”
When Mark Salinger appears on a TV show from the insane asylum that holds him, Gerhardt calls in and the two men begin an online correspondence. Gerhardt writes: “The world and my life now seem to me like one great open wound, festering at the edges with corruption and violence. We are all swimming in the blood of that wound, wallowing in the infection…”
Writing in the journal Law Text Culture in 2012, Dr. Cassandra Sharp of the Legal Intersections Research Centre states that “the superhero embodies the possibility of an antidote to law’s failings: they pursue and violently punish criminals because the authorities are outgunned, incompetent or corrupt, and impotent to redress criminal wrong-doing.” Furthermore, she points to an ideology of popular sovereignty for vigilantes. “The vigilante autocratically assumes responsibility for societal power and authority on the basis that not only do the circumstances warrant such exceptional action, but that popular sovereignty demands it.”
Foolkiller treats us to snippets of interview subjects, directly supporting Foolkiller’s actions. “Personally, I’m grateful,” says one woman from a hospital bed. “He did what the police couldn’t, or wouldn’t. As far as I’m concerned, he’s performed a humanitarian service.” Once he steals drug money and gives it to a church, his popular sovereignty is undeniable. Mark Salinger, the previous Foolkiller, laughs when he hears about it. “If I’d thought of that, I wouldn’t be in the nuthouse today,” he says, wiping his eyes. “God, I’d probably *hih* be in the Avengers!”
Frank Miller once said that “Batman works best in a society that’s gone to hell. That’s the only way he’s ever worked.” In fact, it’s the only way any vigilante works. Gerhardt’s New York is hell on earth, with the threat of sudden violence around every corner and a kind of insomniac lunacy bubbling always underneath. As one of the Foolkiller’s villains says to him, “What’sa matter, white boy? Never seen man’s inhumanity to man before?”
America’s most beloved cop-turned-vigilante, Clint Eastwood’s famed Harry Callahan, says in 1973’s Magnum Force that there’s “nothing wrong with shooting as long as the right people get shot.” Similarly, author Dr. Joe Street writes in his book, Dirty Harry’s America: Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan, and the Conservative Backlash, that Harry is “always right”. That’s his superpower. In fact, it’s the superpower required of all righteous vigilantes in fiction: to know who deserves to die. No mercy, no mistakes.
Foolkiller begins Gerhardt’s mission on easy mode, ethically speaking. As soon as Gerhardt gets his hands on the purification gun, the city coughs up the perfect targets: two nazis – wearing armbands and everything! – attacking a woman on the street. Who can argue with that? Gerhardt turns both of them to ash. He vomits afterwards, but it’s not long before he decides that he can get used to the smell.
Gerhardt begins a “war journal”, full of purple Travis Bickle-style prose. He starts training for his newfound mission: holding his hands to the grill at Burger Clown, doing sit-ups in trash from the restaurant. At first it seems like he’ll only take on drug dealers and street gangs – the favorite boogeymen of early ‘90s crime stories. Before long, though, Gerhardt’s victims shift and his real mission becomes clear.
Foolkiller, ostensibly, becomes the Punisher, only for hypocrisy instead of crime.
For example: he kills an anti-war activist for resorting to violence on one page; on the next, he kills a pro-war protester for not enlisting to fight. Each time, there’s the flash of light and a life reduced to ash. “I kill fools,” he says. “And it even improves the taste of my coffee.”
In another missive to Salinger, Gerhardt writes: “The joke used to be ‘a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.’ A liberal, then, must be a conservative who loses his job during what is touted as the most sustained economic boom in history. What does that make a person who’s been mugged and lost his job?” Here Gerber asserts Gerhardt as existing in a middle ground between political parties, and Gerhardt’s victims show that he sees fools on both sides, with him existing as judge, jury, and executioner above them.
He kills someone for trying to organize a boycott of violent toys; he kills someone who won’t give a kid a discount on a tiny American flag. There’s a shopkeeper who won’t get off the phone. A woman who throws coffee in a man’s face. Gerhardt dreams of killing them all in tiny panels alternating between the victims and the familiar flash of light. The annoyances that trigger his rage become more and more mild.
(It’s shocking how often Birch draws the purification gun firing at the reader. In fact, the very first page of the series shows Salinger aiming the gun out of the page, and soon the star-shaped flash has become a recurring motif. Almost every issue makes the audience see from the fool’s point of view.)
There’s no sliding scale, depending on your supposed crime. Gerhardt’s gun can’t be set to stun, can’t offer any degree of mercy or understanding. All he has to deal is death.
Superhero comics have always had a strange relationship with capital punishment. Mostly it’s fine to beat someone within an inch of their life, so long as you leave them that final inch. It’s an economic necessity as much as an ethical position – how else will villains keep coming back, issue after issue? But I’d forgotten that Action Comics #1 (1938) features Superman stopping an innocent man from dying in the electric chair.
I’ve always been fond of a quote from Superman in Justice League Classified #3 (2005), who says “These ‘no-nonsense’ solutions of yours just don’t hold water in a complex world of jet-powered apes and time travel.” That’s true of our world as well.
Foolkiller’s faith in his own judgment begins to waver. During one of his massacres, he finds a child, already addicted to drugs, and thinks, “Is he a fool – a victim of fools – both?” Later, tending his wounds, Gerhart faces that “killing fools – it’s still just killing, isn’t it?” Somewhere, Harry Callahan is shaking his head.
When that boy attacks him it throws off Gerhardt’s aim, and it takes three shots to kill him. The child suffers before he dies. The “purity” of the purification guy is wavering. The deaths become more vicious: victims cut in pieces, or disintegrated in slow-motion. At his lowest point, Birch draws Gerhardt with the gun in his mouth. It dares you to turn the page. Actions have consequences, remember?
The gun blows out the back of his head. No disintegration, just a regular weapon and a regular suicide. Maybe the gun was just a gun all along.
That turns out to just be a dream, though, and Foolkiller’s mission continues. He kills a preacher for claiming a black man can’t be racist, and kills the cops investigating it for using a racial slur. Finally, when he kills a business mogul, Darren Waite, responsible for environmental destruction, Foolkiller loses his popular sovereignty. The city turns against him. A TV host berates him for equating Waite with “the dope pushers he used to waste” while the studio audience barks like dogs.
Once Gerhardt muttered that those in the media “don’t see the difference in character of the victims”. Now they’re seeing differences when Foolkiller does not. When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you only have a purification gun, everyone looks like a fool. Foolkiller presents the bothsidesism of its antihero as the correct moral position.
Unlike the Punisher, Gerhardt knows he’s just another fool. He says he knows he’s going to die because “actions have consequences” – yet he organizes himself a fake ID, disfigures his face with acid, and plans to start over. After a final, guns-blazing sequence, he wakes up in hospital with a new name. He may not be a fool, but he’s definitely a hypocrite.
Perhaps it’s a grim justice that a 2016 series brought back Mark Salinger as the Foolkiller, this time acting as a murderous psychiatrist for supervillains. When Kurt Gerhardt confronts him, he’s killed for laughs. You can almost hear the barking of the audience.
The scene that lingered with me the most – both when I read Gerhardt’s story in the ‘90s, and rereading it now – is when a stranger takes him to see a business that’s spelt its own name wrong. Gerhardt stands frozen in front of it, thinking about how someone couldn’t be bothered getting it right, noticing it was wrong, or getting around to fixing it.
“Devalue effort,” he writes in his journal, “and it all collapses.”
Danny Fingeroth, in his book Superman on the Couch, says that not only do superheroes do what’s right, they always “know what the right thing is”. One of the pleasures of superhero stories is that right and wrong are easy to distinguish from each other. Vigilante stories twist this pleasure like a knife because ultimately deciding who’s right, who’s wrong, who deserves punishment and who deserves mercy?
That requires effort too.