Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Devils and Things

Steve Gerber got his start writing at Marvel Comics in the early 1970's. His first regular work involved devils of one kind or another, a theme that would follow him through the decade. Writing the adventures of the blind hero, Daredevil, as far as I can tell, was his first gig in 1972, his name appearing a month later in the credits for a relaunch of Sheena the She-Devil.

These were the beginning of a prolific and important career. Though they were a humble start for the gifted writer, even in these early works you can see the foundations for themes that would later come to define Steve Gerber.

In short order, I would imagine thanks to his compelling dialogue and colorful characters, the author's name began appearing on several titles each month. Then, as now, regular comic book series produced monthly episodes, each generally thirty-two pages in length and comprising the output of a writer, penciller/inker, letterer and colorist -all without computer assistance! An editor would oversee the work of everyone on a title, and in the early seventies all of Marvel's titles fell under the editorial eye of Roy Thomas. It was Thomas, I believe, who was responsible for bringing Gerber to Marvel in the first place.

The Man-Thing appeared in Adventures in Fear for several issues, before gaining his own title, where the muck-monster carried on for two years, bringing with him many characters whom would come to be closely identified with their creator; not least among them, Howard the Duck and a self-appointed holy warrior, the Foolkiller. There will be space to cover them in a later entry.

Even as Gerber was cutting his teeth on Man-Thing, he distinguished himself from other comic book writers by showing sympathy and compassion for marginal characters -hippies, bikers, and drifters. He populated his stories with these and other non-establishment types, paying as close attention to their travails as to the action of the title character. He also brought insight about urban blight, environmental damage and the killing of animals for sport, themes not automatically associated with comic books!

By 1974 it was clear that Steve Gerber was a force to be reckoned with, and he began to influence Marvel's entire line of titles. He hit a breathtaking stride as his by-line appeared on no less than six books a month, a prodigious output unheard of today. By the end of that year he had initiated a new title, Marvel Two-In-One, which featured the Thing (whom you may recognize from the Fantastic Four) teaming up with different heroes. By the sixth issue, Gerber began laying the foundation for some epic storytelling.

In the sixth issue, the Thing teams up with Dr Strange. It starts innocently enough, on a subway platform in Manhattan, where gathered are Dr Strange and his lover/disciple, Clea, along with several other folks waiting for a train (Marvel heroes use public transit, it seems). Off in the corner a blond girl plays a harmonica. A pair of ruffians grab the harmonica from her and the girl falls in front of the oncoming train.

Too late to save the helpless girl, Dr Strange watches as she explodes into a "shower of multi-colored sparks --a brilliant display of unearthly pyrotechnics!" Not what usually happens when someone gets hit by a train. The harmonica is left behind and Dr Strange is convinced that he must decipher the single word inscribed upon it: Celestia.

The Thing, meanwhile, receives a call from the grandmother of one of the ruffians. As it turns out they live in the Thing's old neighborhood on Yancy Street. Grudgingly, the Thing agrees to come over and help solve the mystery of what happened at the subway station.

When he arrives, the wonderstruck ruffian exclaims, "Holy crud! My grandma really does know the Thing!"

This is the kind of touch Steve Gerber brings to his storytelling, absurd but grounded in humanity. This may not sound all-so-important, but take a look at other books coming out at that time and you can see what I mean; while the general fare of comics is juvenile and concerned only with fighting, Gerber concerns himself with the small moments, relegating the predictable fisticuffs almost completely to the side.

The story goes on from there, and the Thing and Dr Strange join forces to solve the mystery of Celestia. The trail they follow doesn't end for several issues, and eventually leads them to one of Gerber's most important contributions: The Woman Who Doesn't Exist!

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