The irony of vigilante purity
First published in the Gutter Review | February 2023
Lately I’ve been thinking about how sci-fi writer Steve Aylett once described satire as “like scrubbing tombstones with a toothbrush.”
Satire is often an accusation of hypocrisy disguised as comedy – but those accusations are now a dead language in a new era of shamelessness. You think you deserve a pay raise while telling everyone else to tighten their belts? You think politicians should be limited to two terms while you yourself are running for a third? You don’t even have to deny it. Just smirk or shrug. Even if someone cares, you can laugh and say you’re living in their heads, rent-free. It’s useless. Tombstone, meet toothbrush.
Because of this, I’ve also been thinking about Marvel Comics’ Foolkiller, too.
There have been multiple versions of Marvel’s lesser-known vigilante. The first three iterations were all written by Steve Gerber –first with artist Val Mayerik in 1974, then Jim Mooney in 1977, and the third with J. J. Birch in 1990. One thing these characters have in common is their so-called purification gun – passed from one to the next – that can turn someone to a pile of ash in a flash of light. The other is that their victims aren’t just the traditional villains like those targeted by other noted vigilantes like the Punisher. The second Foolkiller, Mark Salinger, ordered his victims to “live a poem – or die a fool!”
And the third, Kurt Gerhardt, sums up his mission thusly: “Actions have consequences.”
Gerhardt becomes Foolkiller after his father is killed by muggers. “They enjoyed bashing in your head so much,” he thinks, “they left you the six dollars.” The story speeds through the next few months as Gerhardt loses both his job and his relationship. He’s forced to work flipping burgers for a fast-food place called Burger Clown. When they’re robbed, he gets his own beating and, waiting in an emergency room, says “What kind of vicious, sub-human brutes commit these atrocities? Why aren’t they here? How come they never die?”