Today in Yellowed Pages we explore the bizarre, shocking Foolkiller, a 1990 Marvel maxi-series by Steve Gerber and J.J. Birch that is either a searing condemnation of white male rage or an over-the-top anti-PC fantasy, depending on how you look at it.
Mainstream comics in the early ’90s were a mess, no matter how you look at it. The prospector boom that would soon lead to the bankruptcy of Marvel and the near collapse of the entire industry was in full swing and excess was everywhere. The most obvious representation of that was the emphasis on gimmicks, be they foil covers or deaths of iconic characters or the reboot fever we’re currently experiencing all over again. But there was also an excess in approach to commentary that made even the less outwardly gimmicky titles a slog. The lines between parody and seriousness became irreperably blurred as characters originally intended as satire of exploitation tropes, like the Punisher, became major stars specifically because fans craved that combination of gratuitous violence and jaw clenched self-seriousness the characters initially mocked. It is this environment that likely convinced Marvel that a new solo title starring an obscure Steve Gerber character named the Foolkiller could potentially be a hit.
Before the Foolkiller was given a maxi-series, the character had been a fringe background character in Gerber’s Man-Thing, lasting all of two issues before dying. This incarnation of the Foolkiller was a hardcore conservative named Ross G. Everbest, who snapped after learning his mentor Reverend Mike Pike was not quite as righteous as he seemed. Everbest in turn was replaced in the pages of Gerber’s Omega the Unknown by Greg Salinger, a mentally ill small time criminal whose definition of fools centered on an absence of “a poetic nature.” Where Everbest died in a somewhat poetic fashion, stabbed through the heart by a piece of glass from the tank he kept Pike’s corpse in, Salinger lived on, institutionalized for his unstable behavior.
Gerber uses Salinger’s instutionalization as the catalyst for the modern Foolkiller, beginning the maxi-series with one of Salinger’s sessions with his therapist, recounting a nightmare he had about a battle with his self over whether or not he is himself a fool. Internal monologues are one of the defining traits of Foolkiller’s parallel The Punisher but what differentiates Salinger is that his are usually a dialogue, constantly debating what constitutes a fool and what his own place in the judgment of that concept even is. Salinger is more or less a cracked philosopher, focused on forever tweaking a nebulous concept, making his life pursuit more complicated and tragic than the strictly black and white interpretation of action The Punisher has.
This opening therefore makes it abundantly clear that while the Foolkiller series eventually goes further in its violence than any Punisher series ever has, it is not an action comic, it’s an absurdly twisted dialogue where every scene, even the ones where bodies are scorched and vaporized, puts conversation at the forefront. What conversation Gerber hopes to provoke with it is difficult to say but in J.J. Birch he at least had a collaborator who could balance the violence and the contemplation with aplomb, and whose naturally smooth and flat style made the frequently brutal material feel more artful than exploitative, aided by Gregory Wright’s ability to flawlessly shift between Tales from the Crypt and Silver Age superhero coloring.
Birch had made a name for himself the year before on Mindy Newell’s Catwoman miniseries, which is equally dialogue heavy and contemplative, but that series, with its abundance of Catholic imagery and themes, was more symbolic. Foolkiller explores the same intersection of guilt and righteousness, of vengeance and collateral damage, but it puts you squarely in the headspace of the Foolkiller persona, with all the infectious hate and unfocused rage that entails. If The Punisher’s super power is that his aim is always true then Foolkiller’s super power is the ability to justify using capital punishment on every grievance, no matter how small. And Birch makes you feel every aspect of that, from the “crime” to the witnessing of it to the changing facial expressions showing the ultimate justification for killing.
That journey, which happens in a number of ways throughout the series, truly begins and ends with Salinger. After convincing his therapist to let him appear on a shouty conservative talkshow, Salinger receives a “fan” letter from Kurt Gerhardt, a yuppie who lost his dad, his job and his marriage in swift succession. There is true tragedy in Gerhardt’s life– his father was mugged and beaten to death over $6– but like so many mediocre white males, he is consumed by the belief that the world owes him something for nothing. When he hits financial rock bottom and takes a job at a fast food chain, only to be held up at gunpoint, his desire to punish the world becomes the only thing sustaining him in life and so he sends Salinger a manifesto of sorts because what Salinger said on tv about the “fools” of the world resonates with him.
Foolkiller may be a quintessentially ’90s comic but so much of what happens after these two begin communicating is eerily reflective of today’s alt-right indoctrination rituals. Salinger and Gerhardt shift to online bulletin boards for their communications and Salinger, feeling impotent within the walls of a mental institution, eggs Gerhardt on, telling him where the old Foolkiller costumes and weaponry are stashed away, directing him to put them to use again. It doesn’t take long for Gerhardt to follow through– on the way back home from picking up the gear, he stumbles across some skinheads assaulting a woman and vaporizes them when they turn their attention on him instead.
Initially, Gerhardt feels guilt for this action. The smell of incinerated flesh haunts him and he wavers in his commitment to a foolkilling crusade, pondering whether the punishment fits the crime. But it doesn’t take him long to get over it and in a short amount of time he becomes a spree killer, vaporizing a petty drug dealer, a would-be subway mugger and an attempted rapist in short measure.
It is at this point that Birch establishes an extremely effective visual shorthand for Foolkiller’s erasure of fools. The panels leading up to the killings have a Dave Gibbons-esque Silver Age approach, particularly given the swashbuckling outfit Gerhardt has inherited as a costume. The panels are rough and simple, the emphasis on the big white eyes of the Foolkiller costume and then the vaporizing gun. Sometimes Birch gives us the victim’s straight ahead view of Gerhardt raising the gun at them, but the real constant is a short, wide frame simply showing a direct view of the muzzle of the vaporizing gun with its rays stretching out followed by a panel displaying the ashes that used to be a human, usually with one of Foolkiller’s trademark E Pluribus Unum cards on top.
Birch’s framing maximizes the dehumanization aspect of Gerber’s story, pushing viewers to look through Foolkiller’s eyes at his victims as he reduces them to a grievance, then forcing the reader to see exactly what the victim sees in their final moment before they are completely dehumanized, not even left as a corpse, only a smoldering pile of waste. The more Birch shows the vaporizing process, the more brutal it becomes, with occasional splash pages emphasizing that it’s not an immediate death but an immolation, the flesh disintegrating from the victims bones while they’re still aware, coated in green acidic flame.
But as far as the public sees, the Foolkiller is erasing criminals and the lack of proper corpses left behind likely helps them side with or at least tolerate Foolkiller, at least at first. After a botched attempt to bring down a drug lord named Backhand, Salinger gently encourages Gerhardt to think smaller, to hunt “squirrels” before he goes for the lions, and so he sets about strengthening himself through martial arts training as well as endurance rituals, like punching his own face and rolling around in garbage and walking nearly naked through the streets and sewers. He creates a new costume, consisting of a gimp mask and a whole lot of leather, and sets his sights on a violent gang of child criminals for his first new target.
Gerhardt’s attack on the teen gang and their mothers is the exact middle point of the Foolkiller saga both on a literal level– it goes down in the fifth issue of the ten issues series– and on a thematic level. Even though the crimes of these children are unquestionably violent– they’ve been assaulting people in the park with their own bicycles, beating them nearly to death– they are still children, but Gerhardt doesn’t hesitate to wipe them and their protective mothers out, the latter simply because he has determined they didn’t do a good enough job parenting. The killing is more grisly here too, with one of the kids sliced in half by Foolkiller’s vaporizing gun, the top half of his body landing in a dumpster, still talking, while his waist and legs fall onto some junk.
From there, Gerhardt’s targets, and Gerber’s writing, only become more questionable. In one scene he vaporizes a sex worker because he overhears a doctor telling her she’s HIV positive. In another he disintegrates two sides of a war protest. Towards the end he incinerates the dean of Empire State University for announcing a new “political correctness” policy at the school. In the most traumatizing moment, he raids a crack house and murders everyone in it, then shoots a child smoking crack but botches the job and has to shoot him two more times to put him out of his misery.
Immediately before the crack house scene, Gerhardt had been pondering whether he had gotten out of control after Salinger sent him a cryptic message. Gerhardt asks himself “Are my motives that petty? Are my feelings that fragile?” before deciding “No. I have not gone over that brink.” Gerber’s writing in Foolkiller is undoubtedly reckless, even when he’s trying to make a point about bigotry and extremism he veers into questionable territory himself, indulging in disturbing characterizations of the people he’s ostensibly speaking up for. But in this one moment, as Gerhardt comes so close to recognizing that his violent, disturbing behavior is because of his inability to control or cope with his “fragile” feelings, Gerber perfectly captures both the origins and the power of the alt-right mentality.
The best commentary Gerber provides in Foolkiller is this notion that white male rage can justify any target it wants to, that the men who succumb to it are capable of transforming reality so that they become not only the true victims but also the only people with the ability to “save” reality. The alt-right and its legion of incel warriors aren’t out to create anything, they just want to disintegrate everyone they hate, and they gain their power in large part because people are too willing to take them in good faith at first: Salinger eventually snaps after Gerhardt turns on and abandons him, the talk show host who birthed Gerhardt’s new identity is murdered on live television, the corrupt real estate mogul who initially refuses to condemn Foolkiller’s actions is blown up by him. Everyone who comes near Gerhardt suffers, no matter what they’ve done, and in the end, he gets away with it all, facing no real repercussions.
It’s a grim fucking comic, made all the grimmer when you factor in that it was released like any other Marvel comic at the time, other than the subtle absence of the Approved by the Comics Code Authority stamp. But the most depressing thing about Foolkiller is that Marvel has since resurrected it twice, first as a pair of Marvel MAX limited series and more recently as a “comedy” written by Max Bemis. Both incarnations completely erase the moral philosophy component of Foolkiller, favoring torture porn and Deadpool-esque humor respectively, even though the white male rage commentary in Foolkiller is more relevant than ever before; in the right hands, a new Foolkiller series could have been the ultimate satire of the toxic masculinity. Instead, all we’ve received are a couple more examples of the white male mediocrity Gerber was warning us about.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover