By Steve Gerber, JJ Birch, Tony Dezuniga & Vince Giarrano
Published by Marvel Comics
“Live a poem… or die a fool!”
There’s a good chance you’ve never read this mini-series, published from October 1990 through October 1991. You may have heard of the character – he enjoyed a brief and mostly unsuccessful revival a few years ago under Marvel’s MAX imprint – but you probably don’t know much about him. His gimmick is what the name would imply – he kills “fools”- and as you might guess, the joke is that he’s a third rate Punisher knockoff. He’s supposed to be a farcical character and you’d think his best usage would be in comedy stories.
You would be wrong. He’s best used in a dark, twisted psychological thriller with satirical overtures, written by the master of psychological subversion, Steve Gerber. What’s particularly interesting about this forgotten classic is just how prescient it is. Despite being written in 1990-1991 and being very much of its time stylistically, you could place virtually the whole story in 2013 and have to change very little to make it fit. Gerber’s ability to predict the future of comics was uncanny.
Mad… as in Angry
Gerber tells the story of Kurt Gerhardt, a man in his mid-30′s working as a loan officer on Wall Street. He and his wife are struggling to make ends meet, and Kurt’s entire worldview – you work hard and you earn money and respect – is slowly coming undone. Kurt is laid off from his job (remember the recession of the early 90′s?), shortly after he’d buried his father, who was murdered by thugs in an alley for six bucks (which they didn’t even bother taking), because his company is declared insolvent. To add insult to injury, his bosses are fine because of federal bailout money (any of this sounding familiar?). Kurt and his wife struggle financially, eventually separating as Kurt takes a job at a burger joint, sacrificing the remainder of his dignity.
As Kurt moves into a one room hellhole of an apartment and begins pondering his own despondency and the unfairness of our society, he chances upon a televised interview with the Foolkiller, Greg Salinger. Salinger is incarcerated in a mental institution in Indiana, and is appearing on a sensationalistic talk show hosted by the conservative Runyan Moody. Moody professes to have strong political principles and traditional moral values but is clearly only in this for the ratings. When Kurt hears Salingers’ views of the world, that people are led by the nose by wealth, celebrity, and the pursuit of objects rather than happiness and basic humanity, this strikes a cord in Kurt. The poetry and beauty have gone out of our lives, Salinger insists, to be replaced by excess, brutality, inconsideration for our neighbors, and mindless passivity. Our society celebrates and rewards the foolish, says Salinger. Kurt is sufficiently motivated to begin a correspondence with Salinger, taking up the Foolkiller identity and equipment and carrying on his mission.
Why so serious?
A lot of this seems to be intended as a dark satire at first, but Gerber presents the ideas so earnestly that the story very early on stops being satire and becomes something much darker and more interesting. The idea that our world has been overrun with “fools” that are obsessed only with status, wealth and image is obviously not a totally new one; I’m sure many of us have pondered this notion at some point. What sets this book apart is how Gerber uses this idea to place his characters in an existential crisis. If you’re the only one working on what you deem meaningful, what is your purpose? Why bother working hard, if your work is unappreciated and unrewarded? And doesn’t that make you just as much of a “fool” for allowing your decisions to be influenced that way?
While none of us will go to the extreme that the Foolkiller does (I hope!), certainly we can identify with the disgust and frustration he feels. How often have you rolled your eyes at overhearing two idiots talking about the latest reality show? Gerber keeps the character somewhat grounded by having him be aware that he’s clearly not well. He knows what he’s doing is essentially wrong and that he will have to face consequences, but at the same time feels a compulsion to go back out and find more fools to kill. He alternates between being pleased with his actions and disgusted with himself to the point of being physically ill. He’s a manic depressive narcissist with a science fiction handgun that incinerates people, and he’s appropriately terrifying yet sympathetic.
Despite the surprisingly serious tone of the story, Gerber does remember to bring humor back into the proceedings. As Kurt begins a “Taxi Driver” inspired toughening up and training routine, he decides it’s not enough to toughen his body up physically, so he fills his living room with dumpster garbage and begins doing sit-ups and push-ups in filth, in order to train his mind to deal with the repulsion he’ll have to face to carry out his mission. It’s ridiculous, obviously, but his home training routine – and the physical toll upon Kurt’s body when he’s injured during his missions – is surprisingly similar to the protagonist of Mark Millar’s very successful “Kickass”. In that story, the protagonist also became a vigilante and began a self-training routine to take on whomever he deemed a criminal, with similar results. It’s remarkable that Gerber used a similar premise a full 20 years before Kickass was released, and was arguably more successful in execution (though certainly not critically or financially). It’s another reminder of how ahead of its time and under appreciated this miniseries is.
I’d be remiss if I never mentioned the artwork of JJ Birch, with inkers Tony Dezuniga and Vince Giarriano. I’m not familiar with anything else Birch has done (though I’ve seen his inkers names pop up here and there), but the tone he sets with his artwork contributes a lot of atmosphere to Foolkiller. His work is very basic, old-school Marvel, with somewhat melodramatic facial expressions and body language, but it’s his attention to background details and settings that really shine. Kurt’s apartment is appropriately spartan and grim. Birch’s NYC is grimy and dirty. It looks like a place you’d avoid, especially at night. It’s filthy, shadowy, and filled with dark figures and garbage in the streets. Even though his depiction of NYC goes a little too far at times (I’ve been to the South Bronx, and it’s not a hellish, bombed out war zone) it’s still very effective in establishing the “reality” of Foolkiller, and this occasional exaggeration plays well to the satirical tones of the story (you might also argue that this is the city seen from Kurt’s damaged perspective).
Foolkiller is the 99%!
The stories’ setting during the (first) Bush-era recession is also interesting, and further marks it as a story that is still relevant today. After his corporate bosses are saved from their own mismanagement by a federal bailout (just like today), Kurt is shamed by having to accept a job flipping burgers when his education, experience and age should get him a far more dignified and well-paying position. How many stories do we hear exactly like this in 2013?
The “99%” is a modern buzzword, and another idea that Gerber was way ahead of us on. No, he doesn’t actually call it that, but in the final act of his story, Kurt begins to realize just how much of society’s ills are due to the actions of the extremely rich, the puppet masters who control the “little people” and whose uncaring manipulations cause much of the senseless suffering he sees. In the climax of the series, Kurt sets out to take on what he seems the biggest, richest “fools” of all: real estate developer “Darren Waite” (based on Trump), and bank executive/restaurateur “Felix Mendosa”.
Steve Gerber, fortune teller?
Let’s pause here, and consider when Foolkiller was released. Starting in October 1990, it began four years after The Dark Knight Returns, and three years after Watchmen. Foolkiller was written in the middle of a comics industry just beginning to settle down from the shock waves those two books caused, and right around the start of the “grim n’ gritty” comics wave that would go on to define the very late 80′s and most of the 90′s (the final issue was released the exact same month as Claremont and Lee’s mega-hit X-Men #1, interestingly). Stylistically, Foolkiller’s journal entries start as a parody of the sort of narration you’d find in a Punisher comic of the time, the Punisher being arguably the quintessential “grim n’ gritty” character. It’s full of intentionally purple prose, which becomes so earnest and introspective that it forgets to be a parody and becomes an examination of the protagonist’s psyche.
But what’s interesting about the time and place of Foolkiller’s release is that only relatively recently have mainstream comics begun to acknowledge these larger concerns of economy and politics. Warren Ellis and Mark Millar are generally credited as the first writers to have superheroes address these concerns by taking the fight to the very top in 2000′s The Authority, in the process signaling the end of the grim n’ gritty comics era. Steve Gerber beat Ellis and Millar to the punch by a decade. He took the comics mentality of the time to its logical extreme before anyone else. By ending the series on this note he acknowledged the “untouchable corporate villain” as the natural endpoint of the style. Steve Gerber: the comic book industries unsung fortune teller.
In another interesting example of Gerber’s prescience, Kurt communicates with his predecessor Salinger via an “Internet message board”. Obviously, communicating via Internet is not only commonplace but arguably the norm these days. But in 1990 the Internet was mysterious and new, used and understood by few. Most owners of home computers used them primarily for data processing and printing, and used dial-up modems that worked via telephone connections for their rare excursions into the net. That’s how the two Foolkillers communicate in this series, and it’s to Gerbers credit that he explains the process very simply to readers who are likely unfamiliar with the technology (in 1990), and that he saw such methods of communication as the wave of the future. Again, subtract the explanation for how they communicate, and you could drop this scenario into 2013 without having to change much.
To be continued: In part two, we’ll discuss what exactly qualifies someone as a fool – does Foolkiller even really know? We’ll also discuss the one big, glaring problem with story, and why it might make you uncomfortable.