Actions have consequences

After a long and winding road of comic book commentary, we come at last to the character who’s likely to be the final subject in our discussion of vigilantism in comic books during the Seventies and Eighties: the Foolkiller.

STEVE SAYS “KILL THE FOOLS”

If that name doesn’t ring any bells with you, don’t be surprised. He’s a decidedly third- (or fourth-, or fifth-…) tier character in the Marvel Universe, but his nature — particularly as illustrated in his 1990-91 ten-issue limited series — make him quite possibly the most complex and intriguing vigilante Ron and I have analyzed. The comics he’s appeared in are as follows: Man-Thing #3-4 (1974), Omega the Unknown #8-9 (1977), Defenders #73-75 (1979), Amazing Spider-Man #225 (1982), Foolkiller #1-10 (1990-91).

Most of these were written by the character’s creator, Steve Gerber. With the exception of the Man-Thing and Defenders issues, as far as I know none of these comics have been collected in trade paperbacks or an Essential volume — your best bet if you want to read them (and I hope you will, especially the limited series) is to check eBay or comics shops’ back issue boxes. So I’m going to summarize the character’s history in much more detail than Ron and I normally do, and Ron will add any other details he considers pertinent to the discussion.

The first Foolkiller was Ross Everbest, a traveling evangelist working for Rev. Mike Pike, a faith healer who had cured Everbest’s paralysis. Distraught over the current turmoil in society (the counterculture, Vietnam War protesters, the sexual revolution…), Everbest realized God had chosen him to eradicate “fools”: sinners, criminals, protesters, and the like. He went to tell Rev. Mike, only to discover his beloved mentor in an orgy. Enraged, he killed Mike, preserved his body in a formaldehyde-filled glass tank, and used the ministry’s money to fund his crusade against fools. He created a flamboyant black costume and hat, and somehow acquired a “purification gun” that could reduce a human being to a tiny pile of ash with a single shot.

Everbest’s career as the Foolkiller didn’t last long. He killed dozens of fools (74 according to the limited series), sometimes first giving them a warning to repent within 24 hours or be slain. But during a fight with the Man-Thing, a shard of glass from Rev. Mike’s glass tank pierced Everbest through the heart, killing him.

Not long thereafter, Richard Rory, a “friend” of the Man-Thing’s, told the story of the Foolkiller to one Greg Salinger while both were in prison (the former on false kidnapping charges, Salinger for disorderly conduct, though he claimed to have been defending himself). Upon his release, Salinger obtained the costume and purification gun and became the second person to adopt the Foolkiller identity. Unlike the religious fanatic Everbest, Salinger defined as “fools” anyone who lived materialistically, who led a mediocre existence, or who lacked “a poetic nature.” His catch-phrase was “Live a poem or die a fool.”

Salinger killed several “fools,” including the supervillain Blockbuster, before a guilt-stricken Rory convinced him to join the Defenders. That didn’t last long; Salinger soon concluded they were fools and tried to kill them too. They captured him but he escaped custody. He next appeared as a student at Empire State University. He continued his crusade and soon clashed with Spider-Man. A chance comment from a homeless person watching the battle made Salinger realize that he himself was a fool, and only Spider-Man’s quick action prevented Salinger from disintegrating himself. He was committed to an asylum in Indiana.

Salinger next shows up in Captain America in 1986 when Cap, thinking he might be the Scourge of the Underworld, visits the asylum to check on him. Salinger is a babbling lunatic by this point, and obviously not the Scourge. But with the help of a dedicated therapist, he begins to recover his mental faculties (though not to change his opinions about killing fools). In 1990, at the opening of the Foolkiller limited series, he’s recovered enough to begin writing letters outlining his philosophy and ideas to major media outlets. (Fascinatingly, the entire text of Salinger’s first “communique” appears in one of the panels of the comic, lending depth to the character/story in a way that Steve Ditko’s objectivist lectures through the mouth of Mr. A never do.)

Said limited series focuses on a man named Kurt Gerhardt. He’s laid off from his savings and loan job shortly after his father is killed by muggers, and can’t find other work. This shatters his illusions about life — or sharpens his thoughts about the modern situation to a fine edge, however you want to look at it. He spirals downward into depression, which eventually wrecks his marriage. After months of job hunting, he finally finds work at a local Burger Clown franchise. His experiences there help him in many ways, but also leave him convinced that mankind has entered “another age — of barbarism!”

One night Gerhardt sees Greg Salinger as a guest on the Runyon Moody Show (a talk show hosted by a bombastic man clearly, to my eyes, based on Morton Downey, Jr.). Intrigued by the ideas he hears Salinger try, unsuccessfully, to get across to Moody and his audience, Gerhardt writes a letter to Salinger. (Again, the entire text of Gerhardt’s letters are printed in panels). Afterward they maintain regular contact, exchanging messages in secret via a BBS.

It doesn’t take long for Salinger to convince Gerhardt to take up his crusade. A new Foolkiller hits the streets, dispensing fatal Justice to all the usual suspects: drug dealers; muggers; gangs of wilding teens brutally assaulting people in Central Park. At first this sickens Gerhardt, even though he knows it’s necessary, but he soon comes to accept his role and purpose.

After a botched attempt to kill a drug dealer raises doubts and fears about his mission, Gerhardt finds the will to go on but realizes he hasn’t truly been taking his crusade seriously. What follows is a fascinating training sequence in which he gets into shape and inures himself to pain and discomfort. To prove he’s truly ready to take on the job, he walks down Broadway at rush hour wearing only his underwear. Next he descends into the sewer, catches a rat with his bare hands, and smashes it to death with a headbutt. His willpower now honed to the proper edge, he returns to the hunt, better equipped in all the ways that truly matter.

With his new-won confidence, Gerhardt finally gets a better job: data entry at a credit reporting company. But he finds himself slipping downward in other ways. He thinks of using the purification gun on people guilty of trivial rudeness or incompetence — and on a male friend of his girlfriend. When a long-planned mission goes badly, he questions his crusade, fears for his sanity, and even seems to contemplate suicide.

Then comes the epiphany.

He meets a woman in a bar who shows him a mis-spelled sign to cheer him up. Suddenly it hits him: the foundation of civilization that the new age of barbarism chips away at is effort. Here’s what follows, taking up a full-page panel:

The revelation had struck with a force that numbed me to the passage of time.

Thinking demanded effort.

Principle presupposes thinking.

Conscience presupposes principle.

Restraint presupposes conscience.

Ordinary civility presupposes restraint.

Recognition of a “common good” presupposes at least a minimum of civility.

Without belief in a common good, the link between actions and all but their most immediate personal consequences is severed.

Devalue effort, and it all collapses.

Now possessing a better view of who the fools are — or in the terms we’ve used in this series of blogs, who he should target with his vigilante activities — he goes on to write in his journal:

There was a time when people — Americans, especially — used to root for the underdog. That’s changed.

That’s what I saw on [the face of that hooker I tried to save from being beaten by her pimp]. She wasn’t upset because I’d killed the man she loved. She was upset because he turned out to be a “loser.” She respected him precisely because he could dominate her — and the rest of their little world, I suppose — without effort. She thought she was backing a “winner.”

The underdog wins through the exertion of effort, which makes him, by current standards, not a “winner” but a sucker. The “winner” is someone who never has to try.

Once you grasp that, the world makes a kind of horrifying sense.

There is no longer any significant difference between the gutter and the board room. The quick buck and the quick high are two sides of the same coin.

I see now that I’ve been hunting only the most obvious fools. There are also political pushers, savings-and-loan rapists, corporate muggers, power junkies, and media slugs. They’ve been allowed to set the agenda, and they all share a common trait: a disdain for the common good that obviates civility and restraint[,] making principle and conscience seem like quaint anachronisms[,] and eliminating the hazards of thinking and the need for effort. …

Effort and “the good life” don’t mix. That is the essence of the new age of barbarism. No effort. No thought. No principles. No conscience. No restraint. No civility. No belief in the common good.

No consequences. Until now.

Gerhardt then sends the following manifesto to the Daily Bugle and other media outlets:

THE SANE MUST INHERIT THE EARTH!

From this moment forward, the penalty for senseless violence, for unthinking greed, for wanton ambition, for reckless destruction in the pursuit of momentary gratification or profit will be death.

He signs it by attaching his card:

THE FOOLKILLER
E PLURIBUS UNUM
Actions Have Consequences

Now the Foolkiller defines “fool” much more broadly than when he began. In the following issues he kills two Gulf War protesters (one pro, one con) for their hypocrisy, a right-wing media critic, a left-wing war toy protester, a war profiteer who won’t sell a poor mother’s child a small flag to wave, talk show host Runyon Moody, the Dean of Empire State University (who plans to curtail students’ First Amendment rights so he can stop “hate speech”), “civil rights activist” Rev. Mal Flapton, and two racist cops happy about Flapton’s death. He also focuses on another target: millionaire real estate developer Darren Waite (quite obviously based on Donald Trump). He goes after Waite and… well, let’s not spoil that part of the story, and the ending that shortly follows. It’s important for the story but not for the subject of this series of columns.

(Interesting tidbit: when Marvel published the Foolkiller limited series, there was a long gap between issues #7 — the all-important epiphany issue — and #8. My understanding, from something I read at the time, is that when the Gulf War broke out, Gerber felt he had to include that in the storyline, so he rewrote the last three issues. I wish there was some way to find out what he wrote originally. It probably wouldn’t be that different overall, but I’d still find it fascinating.)

So, after all that explanation, why do this character and his limited series matter so much? From my perspective, several reasons:

  1. The high quality of the exploration of a vigilante’s character and emotional reactions to his actions. In ten issues Gerber gives us more character development of a vigilante than in pretty much all the issues devoted to all the other characters we’ve written about put together. Kurt Gerhardt is a real person, with real feelings that change in response to his situation, some definite mental problems, and most importantly a rationale and philosophy for his vigilante actions.
  2. That very rationale and philosophy. Unlike other comic book vigilantes, whose justifications for their actions are usually pretty shallow (“criminals are bad and need to be stopped”; “I have to protect the innocents so that what happened to me doesn’t happen to them”), the Foolkiller actually puts some serious thought into what it means to be a vigilante. Gerber explores this thought process and its results thoughtfully, intriguingly, and perhaps most importantly without making any obvious judgments about Right and Wrong, conservative and liberal. He simply holds everyone up to examination without putting his thumb on the scales, then lets the Foolkiller’s actions speak for themselves. In short, Gerber leaves the reader to make up his own mind.
  3. The fact that the entire series raises questions about the concept of “crime” fighting. As I said before, it grapples with the issue of who should be the target of a vigilante’s actions. It starts with the most obvious targets (drug dealers, rapists, murderers, ad nauseum), but steadily moves on to ask who’s really a danger to society — who’s leading the charge into the “new age of barbarism.” Without ever letting street criminals off the hook for any of the usual bullshit reasons, it also levels the vigilante’s accusing stare at “political pushers, savings-and-loan rapists, corporate muggers, power junkies, and media slugs[.]”
  4. Because it so elegantly summarizes so much of what Ron and I have spoken about in this series of columns — both the good and the bad of the vigilante concept in comics and how it’s presented. Hence saving the Foolkiller for our

The Foolkiller’s message to the newspapers at the end of #7 tells us exactly how he defines “foolish” behavior:

  • senseless violence
  • unthinking greed
  • wanton ambition
  • reckless destruction in the pursuit of momentary gratification or profit

I think he should add hypocrisy to his list, for that seems to be the principle sin all of his later victims have in common: they say one thing, loudly, but do another. The leftist war protester resorts to physical violence in the name of peace, while the rightist one stages protests but doesn’t join the military to fight the real war. Reverend Flapton accuses Koreans of racism, but insists he can’t be a racist himself because he’s black. Not since Molière’s Tartuffe has hypocritical conduct been so entertainingly held up to the light.

For someone like me, fascinated with issues of morality and vigilantism, the Foolkiller limited series was like a fabulous ten-course feast. In many ways it surpasses even Watchmen in its exploration of these concepts. While I don’t recall it having any specific influence on my writing of Dark Champions two years later, I know it affected me strongly and made me want to write about these subjects in general.

It astonishes me how insightful Gerber was. He wrote this over 25 years ago but it still rings so, so true for today’s America. If anything, the Internet and social media have made the situation worse, or at least allowed the disease to grow in new and disgusting ways. I wonder what the Foolkiller would think about Twitter?

I wish Steve Gerber had written about these issues more.

RON SAYS “BUT ONLY IF I DO IT”

I totally agree about your numbered list. This is the vigilante series. Also completely agreed that Gerber had oceans of content and talent which we never got to see fully.

As someone has to be the bad guy, I’ll point out the bit of bad writing, in the training scenes, which are a straightforward G. Gordon Liddy reference and come off as parody. I also suspect that the ending received some editorial meddling and mishandling.

But on to the good, and wishing there were more of it from any number of comics. There’s not a whit of fictional artifice in the ruthless destruction of Gerhardt’s life; it’s all completely familiar and real crisis. No one has to be crazy to start, there aren’t any fantastic elements … it maximizes reader identification to step completely logically, bit by bit, into “the vigilante who could be you.”

The same goes for the changing nature of his self-imposed mission. I think I can summarize it: realizing that “scum and criminals” are often just people, and that just people, not socially coded as such at all, are often vile assholes. You can’t use legalistic designations to determine your targets when you’re on a moral crusade – even more so, a moral crusade that you really want to impact people’s ethics and social policy. (The early Badger had touched on this, all too briefly.) It’s not artistically easy: Gerber is writing hard against what the Tropes guys call misaimed fandom.

The series also raises an important question that doesn’t get enough play in the supers comics: can you make your normal life better via succeeding at things via your super-life? It’s very different from the usual track of realizing that “my normal life is over and gone.” (It also ties into some of my protagonists in Xaos Comics, whose normal lives are exactly the way they want because of their supervillainous activities.)

Here’s my thing, the big thing, the one thing I want to get out here that’s inspired from this series, and with any luck, something Steve can get bent excited about. It’s in this line:

There was a time when people — Americans, especially — used to root for the underdog. That’s changed.

“There was a time …” no there wasn’t. There was a movie you saw, with actors in period costume, with people who did that. There’s a false past at work here. Gerhardt – and I submit, accurately as far as default reader values are concerned – is seeking a dream world and validating it via confectionary past-revisionism.

The underdog wins through the exertion of effort, which makes him, by current standards, not a “winner” but a sucker. The “winner” is someone who never has to try.

I think that’s always been the widely-held view, always celebrated as the case, and always trumpeted whenever coyly claiming otherwise is not needed. It’s the philosophy of feudal lordship, of management, of wealth past a certain point (specifically, when you shift from being in debt from controlling the debt of others), and of pretty much the past century of the United States. Movies aside, social mobility in this country has always been the direct result of infrastructure, like the G.I. Bill and similar things, or vagaries of geography/access as when a given area becomes a good arrival point for a given origin of immigration. The notion that there indeed existed a widespread, default value system of “anyone can put in effort and they’ll win” is one of those wave-front beliefs: currently people think it was in the 80s, people in the 80s thought it was in the 50s, people in the 50s thought it was in the 20s …

The vigilante hero’s belief in the idyllic past is profoundly romantic. All the “realistic” trappings, the one who “knows what must be done,” the idea that the brightly-colored heroes are idealistic saps whereas I am the “one who stares in the abyss,” that is such horse shit. In that single phrase, “There was a time when,” is an enormous component of the vigilante’s role in comics. Therefore the issue of murderous violence – and the Foolkiller is right out there in front thereof – is thrown into quite a different light.

STEVE SAYS “ROSE-COLORED MASK LENSES”

I don’t disagree for a minute with your point that “nostalgic longing for a better past” is based on an at best misguided view of that past, and isn’t a particularly accurate source of motivation for one’s activities (vigilante or otherwise). Nor do I think this is an especially American trait. I imagine that people in almost every place and time have lovingly remembered earlier, easier days — even if the easiness comes from the simple fact that they were kids and didn’t see all the hardness life back then had to offer. (And even the most reactionary recollectors of the past don’t want it all to come back. I don’t see anyone yearning for a return to the rate of infectious disease we had a hundred or even fifty years ago, for example.)

But while Gerhardt may view the past through rose-colored mask lenses, ultimately I don’t think that he (or any of the other vigilantes we’ve discussed) is motivated by any idea of “returning” to or “restoring” that idealized former time. Fondness for that time may be a conscious or subconscious component of a vigilante’s personality but none of them are foolish enough to think they can change the world that way. Their goals, as I see them anyway, are simpler. Gerhardt wants to put an end to what he defines as “foolishness,” thereby achieving two goals that will lead to a better society: diminishing conduct he believes has a negative impact on society; and encouraging people to think beyond themselves and their personal needs. Batman wants to protect the people of Gotham City from suffering the harms caused by crime. The Punisher wants the same thing as Batman, but is willing to use lethal force to achieve his aims. And so on. While they’re all idealists, each in his own way, none of them expect to put today’s genie back in the bottle of 1953.

Perhaps that’s the key to my view of these characters, though: their idealism — and, well, optimism. As grim, gritty, gruff, ruthless, and hard-boiled as they may be, it seems to me that a vigilante, be he true or false, is motivated by the belief that he can make a difference. He’s not content to let society continue inflicting wounds upon itself. In the long run his activities may not amount to much more than triage on a fatally weakened patient, but you don’t stop doing the right thing even if at times it seems futile.

I can’t entirely agree with your point on social mobility. Infrastructure (to use your term) may enable social mobility, or make it easier, but it doesn’t cause social mobility as a result of its existence. All the GI Bills in the world do nothing for you if you’re not willing to put in the effort to enroll in college, attend class, work hard, and actually learn. All the benefits of geography and access don’t benefit you in the slightest if you just sit around. It’s the effort (to use the Foolkiller’s term) — the personal willingness to exert one’s self, and perhaps make sacrifices — that leads to the desired result of social (and perhaps more important, economic) mobility.

And that too is a key component of the vigilante personality: the willingness to put forth effort in a just cause. Lots of us hate crime, greed, and hypocrisy. Lots of us wish we could do something about them, but never take even the simplest steps (such as voting, or volunteering, or joining a neighborhood watch) to do so. Only the vigilante actually takes up arms against this sea of troubles, and by opposing ends at least a few of them for a little while.

I have no way of knowing whether the people of today are less likely to exert effort on their own behalf than people were in the Eighties, the Fifties, the Twenties, or whatever other past time we choose. But I wonder whether the modern mass media, and its equally evil twin advertising, haven’t in some way given the truth to Gerhardt’s beliefs by so often showcasing the get rich quick schemes, the instant roads to riches, the great new product that will immediately enrich our lives if we just buy it, the characters who seem to have nothing to do but sit around a coffee shop all day and get involved in wacky hijinks while still being able to afford to live in New York City. Much like the media and advertising created a Big Wedding Industry for the masses that didn’t really exist before the late twentieth century, I wonder if they haven’t also helped to foster the philosophies that the Foolkiller rails against.

The Steve & Ron vigilante series to date: Eat hot lead, comics reader, What was the question again?, The Big Bang, Wicked good, Vigilantes R Us, In Darkest Knight, The not so secret cabal, A pretty butterfly, Jet and silver, Red goggles at midnight, Irish rage, Catholic guilt, Justice is served!, and Lurking everywhere.

Links: The original and better Kickass, part 1, The original and better Kickass, part 2

Next: 70s and 80s, ladies

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Posted on May 29, 2016, in Heroics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Santiago Verón

    When Ron reminisces about grassroot movements, be it his essay about the history of D&D or his posts about the culture in which he grew up which was somewhat erased from official history, when he talks about how practices of the entertainment industry created consumers who find it difficult to create their own stories, doesn’t that point in the same direction as Steve’s comments about the modern mass media and advertising? A sharp increment in the passiveness of people, who find themselves majorly hindered in their capacity to exert effort.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think Steve and I agree about that – that there did occur some discontinuous event or phenomenon regarding the human social-participation experience, at least in U.S. culture. Probably no two people will agree about just what it is, how it happened, what “things were like” before then, or – without some sober self-critique – what components of authenticity or deception can be ascertained.

      One reason I like talking with Steve about this is that we both have tried to embark on that critique and can discover, via disagreement (in the technical sense, “you look at this how??”), more to review.

      Like

  2. Well, I can’t let the maybe-last post in this series go by without saying thanks … so, thanks to both of you for some great insights and discussion. I’ve really enjoyed it.

    On this post in particular – the underdog past bit, anyway – I will point at Horatio Alger for context, and note that a bit of googling reveals that it’s possible to draw a line from Alger, through Norman Vincent Peale, to Donald Trump. It feels like the importance and the fundamental unreality of the Alger “myth” was STRONG in both my formal and informal education. The default value system of “anyone can put in the effort and they’ll win” WAS held often (I’d say), is STILL held by many (as authentic by some, as convenient smoke-screen by others), and has so much myth attached to it that “holding the belief” is best described as delusional. Which fits as as a prerequisite, or in some cases a developed personality trait, for many of the vigilantes discussed here …

    Like

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