The “tweener” generation of comics readers and creators — of which I’m one — were lucky enough to come of age in an era of comics struggling to break out of a chrysalis. Nurtured on the canny, mythic cosmic melodrama of classic Lee-Kirby-Ditko Marvel, the next generation yearned to break out to the next level, to go from the child’s colorful fairy tale to the adolescent’s poetic angst. If early Marvel was the timeless struggle to be human despite the powers and guise of a monster, the next wave was struggling to be human despite the oppressive nature of human corruption. In a country made cynical by a failed war in a rotting jungle and a president who thought nothing of personally authorizing thugs to win an election it was time to question heroes.
In comics, a generation of writers emerged for whom the greatest threats weren’t space aliens or giant lizards — it was the evil at the core of a corporation, the greed of exploitation.
As a teenager in the 70s, my own comics reading grew up in the space of several short months. I was immediately hooked by the colorful dash and humor of Spider-Man, the clean adventure of the Fantastic Four. It was all fun and exciting. My trips to the spinner rack at a local department store were a search for new adventures, a world I knew nothing of, but was quickly learning about due to footnotes and letters pages.
I had only been reading Marvel comics for a few months when I found something called Howard the Duck. It was already up to issue 9, but back in those days every issue was a jumping on point. I was a little confused because Howard was dealing with the effects of an ill-advised presidential campaign and his relationship with a beautiful woman named Beverly was already in the middle stage of mingled attraction and bickering that actual human relationships were made of. After his disastrous campaign, Howard was forced to flee to Canada and fight a giant beaver. It was full of wacky humor, clever dialog and startling, original characters. I wasn’t very experienced in the ways of comics, but about five seconds in, I knew this was something I could relate to and make my own special comic.
Like I said, I had only been reading superhero comics for a few months, but I could already appreciate this deviation from the norm. Plus, the artwork, by Gene Colan and Steve Leialoha, was so much more emotionally rich than the other comics of the day. Characters pouted and trembled, winced and schemed.
And the writing had a level of sophistication that communicated to me, and only me. It was written directly to a sensitive adolescent with a morbid sense of humor. Or so I thought at the time. Howard’s mental problems and struggles to remain sane in a world filled with kidney stealing old ladies and other assorted psychos was a metaphor for my own struggles dealing with my own sometimes random urges and eccentricities.
Within a year’s time I was a serious fan girl, with long boxes and a subscription to THE BUYER’S GUIDE, as it was then known. I knew which issue The Vulture had debuted in and who inked Thor #232. While I filled my mind with all that useless information there was one other thing that I knew for sure: any comics that had “Written by Steve Gerber” in the credits was going to be good. It was going to be more than good. It was going to be a story that was funny, dark, exciting and filled with a knowledge of the mysteries of the human heart that no other writer of the time could match.
Which isn’t to say that Gerber solved those mysteries. But he knew they existed, and he knew that pulling them apart made for the most compelling stories, the ones that would stick with you for decades.
I haven’t read those old comics in over 20 years. Everything I’m writing here is from memory alone, and I’m sure will be corrected in the comments section by those with access to issues or collections or scans. My old comics have been packed up since 1984. But there is not a month that has gone by since then that I haven’t remembered something from a Steve Gerber comic.
Howard the Duck, of course, was his signature title, simultaneously parodying superhero comics and the funny animal tradition. Howard was the foul fowl that Donald and Scrooge could never be, having carnal relations with a human, smoking cigars, fully aware of the fact he wore no pants. The very first panel of Howard #1 was one of many, many scenes that has remained burned into my brain all these years. “Behold, a depressed duck.” Demoralized by his journey to the world of the hairless apes, far from home with no way back, Howard was contemplating suicide by jumping into the polluted waters of the Cuyahoga River. From there it was a picaresque satire of pop culture and human foibles. Howard battled the bland, the greedy, users and exploiters. The villains were ordinary creatures—transformed as so often in comics, into demon cows, killer turnips—or else crazed wackos with their own chaotic agendas—the Ringmaster, Dr. Bong or, on one memorable occasion, a supervillain called the Black Hole, who when using his powers would be at the center of a full on Kirby-esque panel with the giant caption, “The Black Hole sucks!”
At the time I just wasn’t worldly enough to get a lot of the jokes and allusions, but I knew that Howard could quote other writers and poets. Just like me, he was an intellectual trapped in a world of philistines who didn’t get it.
Gerber’s other masterpieces of the era were The Defenders, Man-Thing and Omega the Unknown. The Defenders was the most conventionally structured, but once again it was a wildly imaginative circus of misfits and weirdoes — the heroes were just as messed up as the villains. Dr. Strange and the Hulk were more mainstream Marvel U characters, although no one ever surpassed Gerber’s characterizations, in my opinion. Where he really found inspiration was Nighthawk and Valkyrie (and later Patsy Walker, Hell-Cat.) Valkyrie was a six-foot tall child-woman, confused as to how to find a moral center in the world of mortals. Nighthawk, Kyle Richmond was even more nuanced. Another Gerber story that haunted be was one that I firmly believe was called “Who is Nighthawk?” but I can’t find any mention of it anywhere, so clearly my memory has failed me. What I do remember is that the origin story of this Batman knock-off turned out to be that of a spoiled rich kid named Kyle Richmond who was just trying to figure out how to survive, how to be a good person. He become, in literary terms, a rounded character. After that story, Kyle was always my favorite Defender.
The Headman saga of the Defenders is justly celebrated. A killer elf, Ruby Thursday, bozos. It was long and complex and it was something special in those days of standalone stories. Instead of being a wearying marathon of endless non-tension, this multipart epic rewarded the long attention span. I think it’s the fond memories of early multi part stories like this and the Kree-Skrull War — rare in those days — that have made the multi part epic such a tedious staple of comics now. Everyone wants to recapture that excitement but, you know, you can’t go home again.
Man-Thing was Gerber’s most typical morality tale. “Whatever knows fear burns at the touch of Man-Thing.” A silent avenger whose caustic powers left evil-doers horribly burned, , Man-Thing fought for the repressed and misunderstood. “The Kid’s Night Out” from Giant Size Man-Thing #4, co-written by Annette Kawecki, was so good you didn’t even make fun of the title of the book. I suppose by today’s standards this tale of a sensitive kid killed by bullying would be bad movie of the week fodder, but it was strong, moving stuff.
And of course, Omega the Unknown, co-written by Mary Skrenes, who added another level of poetry and daytime strangeness to Gerber’s writing. I discovered the first issue of this book on some forgotten comic book rack and once again I was sucked in by a story that was about me. I was home-schooled; so was James-Michael Starling. His efforts to understand kids his own age was my effort. I read every issue of this book over and over again, trying to plumb its mysteries. There’s a line from the narration that has stuck with me forever, “To resist change is to embrace despair.” Omega was eerie, and filled with meaningful silences; like so much of Gerber’s work (at least as I read it as a kid) there seemed to be so much going on beneath the surface. The life his characters had to lead was not the simple one where a blow from a heroes fist to a villain’s head would solve everything. The battles were everyday, the battle for sanity, for dignity, for identity, the battle to belong and to know who you were and where you stood in this world you had never made.
As a well-read sensitive adolescent, I had the usual heroes: Tolkien, Salinger, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, Madeline L’Engle. In the comics there were only two writers whose work made me think about myself and my own individuation. One was Doug Moench and Master of Kung Fu— the Eastern philosophy and pulp heroism had obvious appeal for someone who was very attracted to Zen Buddhism (see Salinger.) The other was Steve Gerber, of course. Moench offered answers; Gerber, only questions.
As ignorant as I was of the complexities of the real world of comics, Gerber’s subsequent battles for his own dignity and equity as a creator went over my head. I read about his legal action for Howard the Duck in the Comics Journal of the day but didn’t understand what was at stake. Later on, I got that his continuing battle was one that was for everyone. He teamed up with the other great cheated artist Jack Kirby for Destroyer Duck, a benefit book to help him in his lawsuit against Marvel. Gerber would eventually settle the lawsuit and Howard would become a legendarily bad movie. From reading interviews, blog postings and other’s remembrances it seems that Gerber was a sensitive individual himself who never really recovered from this.
But he went on to write many great things and tell great stories. Void Indigo and Nevada were creator-owned efforts for different times in comics — Void Indigo for Epic and Nevada for Vertigo. Void Indigo was famously so violent and sexual that only two issues could be published for an ostensibly adult line. Nevada was a play off of a one panel fever dream in an issue of Howard in which a show girl, a lampshade and a killer ostrich had a battle to the death. As much as I had loved his work, I didn’t always go out of my way to seek it out as the years went on, and couldn’t bring myself to read his later Howard the Duck with Phil Winslade.
Probably the last thing I read by him was Hard Time, part of yet another failed line of new comics for DC in the Aughts, the Focus Line. With underplayed, nuanced art by Brian Hurtt, it was a return to the theme of the brutalized dreamer, this time a teenager with powers he can’t control who is sent to prison. In its unfolding discovery of the power to fight back it recalled a lot of Gerber’s earlier themes and was an engrossing story. It thrilled me to know the kid was still in the picture.
I met Steve Gerber several times once I got into the “industry,” as they say. We were always cordial but not friends, alas, and I’m envious of the many remembrances of what a good, loyal friend and mentor he was to so many.
The first time, I think was at an Inkpot Awards ceremony in 86 or so. Meeting my hero, I must have babbled incoherently. I do remember that I had my nails painted in alternating white and black, and at one point he looked at them and said, “You are a crazy girl!” I am sad to say that our meetings were usually kind of awkward. I think I really didn’t want to get to know the man who had written so much that spoke to my younger self; I didn’t want any disillusioning incidents.
Many years later I was working at Vertigo. For some reason (I have no idea where I found it) I made a xerox of the last panel of Howard the Duck #3 and stuck it to the outside of my door. It was another great moment that had stayed with me since the very first time I had read it, and still one of the best closing lines to any comic I have ever read. Steve was in the office to meet with Karen Berger, I think, and he did stop by to say hello. I was eager to show that I hadn’t forgotten his work and pointed to the door. “That’s one of the greatest stories I ever read!” I blurted.
He smiled but it was a little pained. “It’s flattering, but I wish you had something I’ve written more recently than 30 years ago!”
I felt bad because no one likes to feel their best days are behind them. That isn’t how I meant it, of course, but I can see how it could have been taken that way. And in all honesty, that’s a part of the struggle that Howard and Man-Thing and Omega didn’t necessarily prepare me for. In the artist’s journey we all like to think that the best is ahead. Sometimes, like with Beethoven and Brahms, it is. Sometimes, like with Sibelius, it isn’t.
Steve Gerber was an artist. A great artist. In a medium that has all too often despised and drained its greatest creators, and been treated with contempt in return, he fought the fight right up until his last breath. As tragically early as his death is, it has been a comfort to see the outpouring of people who were touched by his work just as I was.
Steve Gerber changed comics. In a medium where the writing is often suspect or the awkwardness of the enforced pairings of writers and artists results in substandard work, he showed that someone with a unique style could work with any number of artists to create great stories. His writing inspired many many people to do better work or their best work. He fought battles which caused him great personal pain but paved the way to improve things for everyone who came after.
Looking back, I’m amazed at how many times I’ve used the word struggle or battle in this piece. I didn’t really know Steve Gerber so I don’t know how much of a struggle or battle his life really was. I did read his blog at the end, and that was a battle, a sad one which was probably doomed to have an unhappy ending. But so do all our stories. There is very real grief in the comics industry tonight as I write this. There is much more to be said by people who knew him better, who have their comics by them to reread.
The above is an awkward, ill-formed tribute to an artist who touched me and helped me become a writer myself. But I think I can say one thing: Thank you, Steve Gerber. You died a butterfly.