Foolkiller: Behing these crying eyes

You know how websites do April Fool’s jokes on April 1st? Know how they always slay and never at all annoy? This is not that kind of April 1st article. This is a retrospective look at the FOOLKILLER series of 1990-91. Hopefully, that qualifies as good news to you and you will stay. If not, well, feel free to click away.

Make the choice now though, as this is the point of no return. If you read on, we will go where only angels fear to tread. If you choose to click away, well, I will weep tears of torment.

(Those sentences above all draw on cover blurbs from the series. I felt bad not giving you at least some kind of joke on April Fool’s Day.)

The Credits

Writer: Steve Gerber

Pencilers: Joe Brozowski (#1-4) and J. J. Birch (#5-10) [Actually the same person!]

Inkers: Tony DeZuniga (#1-4) and Vince Giarran0 (#5-10)

Colorist: Gregory Wright

Letterer: Phil Felix

Foolkiller: Original
The original Foolkiller outfit in all its vague pirate glory. (Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

The Story of FOOLKILLER

Kurt Gerhardt has reached the end of his tether. His father was beaten to death in alley, seemingly just for fun. Then he lost his well-paying bank job, and when he could not find a new one, his wife divorced him. With no options left, the couple’s shared savings all gone, he gets a cheap — in every sense of the word — studio apartment and a fast food job.

His salvation, or perhaps damnation, arrives in the form of Runyan Moody’s talk show. Moody, a G. Gordon Liddy look-a-like, hosts a very 90s style confrontation talk show. Think a louder Donahue without the social conscience.

The host has gone to the locked mental health facility where Salinger is being held to interview the previous Foolkiller Greg Salinger. Gerhardt overhears the broadcast and reaches out, at first to argue with Salinger but then is rapidly won over. The depressed fast food worker rapidly becomes Salinger’s long-distance mentee, the third Foolkiller.

Gerhardt, however, goes much farther much faster than Salinger ever did. Soon, NYC is in the grip of a Foolkiller panic with everyone fearing they might be the next to be labeled a fool and disintegrated.

Foolkiller: Ripped Mask
Gerhardt shreds the original Foolkiller costume as he takes control of his identity. (Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

The Art of FOOLKILLER

For reasons that I have been unable to locate, penciler Joe Brozowski drew some issues under his given name and some under the nom de plume of J. J. Birch.

His style proves fairly down to Earth. There is a kind of grainy professional but unpolished feeling to the art that nicely reflects the subject matter. If FOOLKILLER is something of a grindhouse film in comic book form, the art reflects that motive. It makes aesthetic sense. The drab flat coloring, which leans heavily into browns, also fits this perspective.

The way Brozowski/Birch escalates the violence along the way reflects the general sense of a world spinning out of control. What begins as Foolkiller reducing humans to neat little piles of ash turns into eviscerations, amputations, and more. Even the ash piles are depicting in more detail; we see the flesh give way to muscle and then bone before becoming dust. At the same time, B/B focuses more on close ups and emotions on faces, making everything not only just more visceral but also more personal and harder to ignore.

Foolkiller: Grindhouse style
An example of some of the effective but grindhouse-esque art in FOOLKILLER. (Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

The Characters

Gerhardt definitely leaves one feeling unsettled after crawling into his head. That, undoubtedly, was intentional for writer Steve Gerber but knowing that does not make the series a more pleasurable experience.

By contrast, Salinger feels more sympathetic. While manipulative and devious, he also seems more human and humane than Gerhardt. He was really more of a violent comic prankster, a kind of a low-grade Joker with a slight conscience. Gerhardt, on the other hand, quickly proves a zealot.

Nearly everyone in this book is different shades of unpleasant. Really only four characters come across as being generally kind decent people. Three of them are women. Two of them could be described as having an important role in the book.

The first of these is Linda Klein, Gerhardt’s coworker at the fast food joint and brief girlfriend. In addition to dating, she teaches him martial arts and saves him from losing his apartment for lack of rent money.

Next is Merle Singer, an associate of Salinger’s. She gives Gerhardt the Foolkiller gear and then periodically offers him sanctuary when the police seem to be getting too close.

Foolkiller: Burning flesh
An example of the increasing up close and graphic nature of the violence in FOOLKILLER. (Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

FOOLKILLER As a Satirical Vehicle

FOOLKILLER finds Gerber turning the ridiculousness up to eleven to make his points. In addition to the near ubiquity of horrible people noted above, his New York City feels like the cesspool that even the early 70s real-life NYC hellscape would look at in disbelief. On MULTIPLE occasions, Gerhardt has to leap out of the way of cars about to hit him on sidewalks or all the over on the side of the road. These are not cars targeting him either. They just happen to be reckless and out of control.

Then there is the costume by which I mean the gimp suit look he adopts. The zipper leather mask was not an innocuous or meaningless symbol in 1990. In fact, its meaning would have been even more explicitly tied into fetish and sex clubs than now. In ’90, Gerber made FOOLKILLER a leather daddy right before our eyes. I do not know exactly what he meant by it, but I cannot imagine he just happened to think it looked cool.

Some of the crimes as also just WILD. For instance, there is an apparent spree going on in the Gerhardt’s neighborhood where a gang is stealing bikes and beating their owners to death with them. It is not quite using their own ripped off arms to kill them but is incredibly silly.

Foolkiller: Here's a new fetish for you!
“My name is Daddy… Leather Daddy.” (Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

However…

The passage of time seems to have robbed this book of a lot of the bite it may have had.

A guy bursting into public places and opening fire? We have seen quite a bit of that over the past few years. Striking and far-fetched in 1990 feels all too real now.

The rage Gerhardt feels towards the world and people’s imperfections feel similarly prescient. It reminds me of several forces we see in play today. First, there is the above-noted need for men, especially white men, to vent their frustrations violently. Then we have the quest for perfection in both those we agree and disagree with. Finally, the leveling of all sins, where a lousy way to protest becomes as demanding of punishment as destroying the environment.

Other things seem almost quaint by comparison. Moody Runyan is clearly supposed to be an as-bad-as-you-can-get media figure. However, he would barely raise an eyebrow at, same, Fox, nevermind be able to go toe-to-toe with an Alex Jones type.

Finally, the satire can seem muddled. Foolkiller seems ludicrous and over the top but the book never seems to blink at him. I only came to that conclusion via my own existing morality. FOOLKILLER, the book, seems remarkably unjudgmental about Foolkiller the vigilante’s actions.

Foolkiller- Ooo, that PC cultureGerber might as well have written “Watch out snowflakes” all over this FOOLKILLER page. (Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

The Morality of FOOLKILLER

Pondering what Gerber means versus what he is depicting most inevitably lead us to questions the general morality of the book.

Nearly all the people Foolkiller targets are non-white. Additionally, most of the criminals are poor and different degrees of desperate either as a result of that or of their own addictions. One of his victims, a sex worker, he kills explicitly because she just tested positive for HIV. However, the book seems disinterested in interrogating if Foolkiller’s “solution” is ok. To be satirical, the element must be being held up for ridicule by the work. If that’s the intent here, the book kind of fails to deliver. If it is not the intent, well…yuck.

Even when white successful people are targeted, they are often either acting in the name of political correctness or connected to a non-white criminal. Moreover, people of color are nearly always depicted as more violent and harder to kill than their white counterparts.

On top of all this? Gerhardt literally uses blackface at the story’s climax to gain access to his final target and to slip away unnoticed afterwards. Yes, it was 1990. However, no matter what Virginian politicians want to tell you, it was already fairly well known by then that black face was just never a cool thing to do.

Foolkiller: Card
Foolkiller drops his literal calling card at the scene of his latest act. (Courtesy of Marvel Comics)

Sitting in Judgment

I have read FOOLKILLER before and liked it far better. Perhaps I have grown as a person. In any case I found it far less enjoyable and interesting this time.

Gerber’s social commentary, in my experience, is far sharper in other works, as is his sense of humor. His satirical points feel scattershot and oddly apolitical. At times it is like a Jay Leno joke finished off by a disintegrator ray. His grasp of characterization when it comes to the Foolkillers is strong, though. What does work here, works because of that.

Overall, FOOKILLER is an oddity with a point of view. I’ll never dismiss that kind of comic outright. That said, unless you love oddities or are a Gerber completist, this probably will leave you feeling foolish at the money you spent.

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