When I first got really big into comics, around 1986, the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Book of the Dead issues were just coming out and I remember poring over each 64-page issue learning about all of the (usually violently) deceased characters in the Marvel Universe. Reading and re-reading those issues gave me a warped introduction to the history of the MU, and a strange sense of appreciation and even false nostalgia for a lot of its forgotten little corners. One of the characters I first came across in the Book of the Dead was a 1970s character, the Foolkiller.
There's truth in advertising with the Foolkiller: he kills people who are fools (or at least, people he thinks are fools). Three people have worn the Foolkiller costume, and their definitions of fools have varied dramatically, creating room for the character to be seen as a deranged serial killer or a Punisher-like vigilante. The first Foolkiller, Ross Everbest, was a religious zealot who "purified" those in the late 60s/early 70s counterculture; he only appeared in a couple of issues before getting killed. The second Foolkiller, Greg Salinger, considered fools to be those who embraced crass commercialism, among other things. After killing one supervillain and tussling with heroes on a few different occasions, Salinger was caught and sent to a prison for the criminally insane. The 1990 Foolkiller limited series (10 parts) picks up a few years from this point and soon introduces the third, Kurt Gerhardt.
Issue # 1 opens with Greg Salinger in prison during a session with his psychologist. Canny enough to tell the shrink what he wants to hear, Salinger gets permission to write letters to the outside. He sends his very particular views to newspapers and talk shows for months until a right-wing t.v. talk show host named Moody (who's very much a G. Gordon Liddy type) responds and invites him on the show. Meanwhile, a white collar type named Kurt Gerhardt alternates between bouts of anger and depression; his father was killed during a mugging, his wife leaves him after he loses his job and can't find work for months, and so forth. He eventually hits a new low when the only job he can find is working at the Burger Shack, and when robbers come to hold up the place, Kurt tries to intervene to impress a friendly coworker (Linda Klein) and gets knocked out. While he's at home recuperating from his injuries, he tunes in to the Moody show and sees Salinger ready to debut as a guest. The first issue features no costumes and no fool-killing, but it works well at setting the stage for what follows in the rest of the series. My favourite part though, is that awesome cover.
In Issue # 2, Moody's talk show features a retrospective on the Foolkiller persona: how the first Foolkiller, Ross Everbest, was a religious zealot soon killed by the Man-Thing, while the second Foolkiller (and present guest) Greg Salinger was quite different, a "poetic critic" of hedonism and all-encompassing capitalism. "The fools got the world they wanted," Salinger says when he appears on the show. After watching it, Gerhardt writes to Salinger in prison, and they begin to exchange letters. Knowing that his letters could be monitored by his shrink, Salinger tricks the shrink into allowing him to use a prison computer to "keep a therapeutic diary" when what he's actually done is set up an online bulletin board in order to converse with Gerhardt through pseudonyms. After months of correspondence, Salinger directs Gerhardt to a warehouse. A woman named Merle Singer, part of her face thoroughly scarred, is waiting and gives Gerhardt a box. Inside, of course, is the Foolkiller costume and disintegrating gun. In a rather cliched scene, Kurt stumbles upon a robbery outside and uses the gun for the first time. This issue is a good example of the series as a whole insofar as the interior artwork verges on the poor to mediocre line, but the scripts and overall plot is really good. One thing the series misses is a good letter's page where the interesting themes raised by the series could be discussed (the letters' page for The Question, for example, were a hotbed of philosophical debate).
Issue # 3 shows the aftermath of Gerhardt's first killing--he's sickened by what he's done, but also a little bit thrilled by finally having fought back. Gerhardt ends up donning the costume for the first time and hits the streets, disintegrating a random drug dealer, an attempted rapist, and a would-be robber on a subway in a scene that must have been intentionally reminiscent of the Bernhard Goetz affair. Later, after witnessing a murder, Gerhardt trails a drug boss back to his penthouse suite and tries to kill him, only to have a bodyguard throw him out a window!
Badly hurt, Gerhardt manages to escape the drug dealers and call Merle for help in Issue # 4. As she patches him up, she says she did the same thing for Salinger many times--he helped her deal with the old boyfriend who used sulfuric acid to scar her face. Later, back at his apartment, Gerhardt slowly recovers from his injuries. His coworker from the Burger Shack, Linda, shows up for brunch and brings him some cash so he can pay his electric bill. She offers to teach him self-defense, and although Kurt has doubts about whether he should remain the Foolkiller, he goes through three rigorous months of a self-directed regimen of strength training, pain endurance, and so forth. The issue ends with him tracking down a gang in Central Park that's been attacking cyclists; it sees the debut of his new costume--an open-neck leather shirt with a funky gold medallion and an S&M style leather mask! Suffice it to say, I far prefer the classic costume.
"Brutal" and "over the top" are good ways to describe the opening scenes of Issue # 5 as Gerhardt kills the Central Park gang. There's eyeball-popping (literally) disintegrations, a thug getting cut in half by the purification gun, etc. If you don't mind a bit of gore, it's entertaining. The appearance of the new Foolkiller in public creates a media sensation; the drug lord who had Gerhardt thrown out the window in Issue # 3 appears (his name is Backhand) speaking to the true drug kingpin in the city: Emilio Mendosa, a white-collar type. Gerhardt sends Backhand a warning that he's coming for him, and in the meantime kills an HIV+ prostitute who wouldn't stay off the streets and then an abusive husband/dog murderer. This issue is far more in the vigilante justice vein, with lots of ultra-violence and little reflection. Much like the Punisher, you sometimes start rooting for him despite your better judgement.
Issue # 6 sees Gerhardt celebrating the fact that he's found a new job working for a credit reporting agency. Things are starting to turn around for him, and his relationship with Linda is part of that. He still corresponds with Salinger but starts settling into his new life when petty irritations start to mount; there are annoying co-workers at his new job, rude people on the streets, and so forth. Gerhardt dons the costume and storms a crackhouse belonging to Backhand, disintegrating several addicts and (accidentally) Backhand's young son! It's a well-written issue that I think plays into the "Angry White Male" narrative that was often circulating in the 1990s (Michael Douglas in Falling Down is a good example): the idea that society has become so alienating and grating that it wears a man down to the point where he has no choice but to give up or fight back.
In Issue # 7, Gerhardt realizes that his actions have consequences: he's tormented by having murdered a child. He can't eat, he can't sleep, and verges on having a full mental breakdown. He hits the streets again and interrupts a pimp beating a sex worker; when the woman defends her abuser, Gerhardt kills them both! He resolves to look beyond the obvious fools and target the root of the problem: those in power. It's pretty good, thought-provoking stuff.
Because you demanded it! The obligatory Spider-Man appearance takes place in Issue # 8, which is shocking because normally he appears in Issue # 3 of a new series. Even writer Steve Gerber must have just been humouring his bosses, because apart from a prominent position on the cover, Spider-Man only cameos in the book and doesn't even meet Foolkiller. The issue begins with protests in D.C. over the Gulf War; when the protests turn violent, Peter Parker starts taking photographs. Gerhardt, in his Foolkiller guise, starts zapping away, but by the time Parker can change into his costume, he's too late and Gerhardt has escaped. Gerhardt uses his job at the credit agency to investigate Darren Waite, a developer who's been having tenants evicted to make way for yet another high-rise office tower. While waiting for a chance to strike at Waite, Gerhardt murders a right-wing pro-war t.v. hack (a different one than Moody) and then lefty protesting war toys and action figures! The issue finishes with Gerhardt offing a flag vendor who wouldn't give a mom a discount to buy a flag for her son. Jeepers!
Issue # 9 ramps up the drama. While surveilling one of Waite's properties, Gerhardt spots Backhand (who works with one of Waite's associates) and goes after him. Backhand escapes, however, and Waite is alerted to the fact that the Foolkiller is coming after him. He offers his minions $ 250,000 for the Foolkiller's head. Nonetheless, Gerhardt still plans to take Waite down, knowing it'll be a suicide mission. He sends a last message to Salinger and goes undercover as one of Waite's employees. His chance comes and he assassinates Waite during a gun battle on a helicopter! Somehow, Gerhardt survives the fall to a nearby rooftop.
A great opening scene in the series finale, Issue # 10. For three weeks after the events in Issue # 9, right-wing talk show host Runyon Moody has been "killing" Foolkiller doubles and chastising the major for failing to apprehend Darren Waite's killer. But when one of the doubles doesn't fall down when shot with a blank by Moody, Moody has just instants to realize the real one's in front of him! Meanwhile, in prison, Salinger is ecstatic about how well his protege is operating, but his therapist discovers his trick with the model and bulletin board and is able to link Gerhardt with the Foolkiller. Police start trying to find Gerhardt, who manages to avoid arrest while murdering some other fools and planning one last mission: he wants to go after Backhand and his boss, Emilio Mendosa. Although Backhand (a pretty generic bad guy) escapes, Gerhardt has a fitting end in mind for Mendosa; he forces the man to dress up in the Foolkiller costume and run out the front door of a building surrounded by police; the cops, of course, shoot to kill. Gerhardt reaches Merle's warehouse and has her splash acid on his face to conceal his identity and, when recovers, gets plastic surgery to have a whole new face. It's a clever ending that leaves room for more while still offering a satisfying conclusion.
Foolkiller must be (seemingly) the only comic book series ever not collected into a trade paperback, and it's worth tracking down. It has a good, suspenseful story, raises some interesting issues to think about, and provides a very different take on the classic vigilante idea.