Thursday, February 21, 2008

One Man Counterculture

One-Man Counterculture
How Steve Gerber changed comics with Howard the Duck
By Grady Hendrix

Steve Gerber died last week at the age of 60, and so ended one of the most spectacularly creative and cursed careers in comic books. Readers may wonder if it's wise to celebrate the literary accomplishments of the writer responsible for 1977's KISS comic, but, from 1972 to 1979, when Gerber worked at Marvel Comics, he was a one-man counterculture. The clunky comic books written for Marvel and DC (the two biggest comic book companies) in the 1960s and '70s may have acquired a certain retro chic, yet they bear almost no relation to the comic books of today. Marvel was the House That Squares Built, and in the kingdom of the unhip, Gerber was the only writer who had a clue.

In the early '70s, most comic book writers were content to churn out insular, out-of-touch tales about the superheroes they worshipped in their childhoods. But when Gerber was first assigned a lemon of a book—Man-Thing, about a pile of sentient swamp ooze with a carrot for a nose—it didn't take long for him to turn it into freaky lemonade. He wanted to use comics to write about the real world, and, living in Hell's Kitchen, he was obsessed with landlords, slums, and moving to another city. In his books, El Gato was lord of the cats on the Lower East Side, welfare mothers ate dog food, and a black financier turned self-loathing racist founded the white supremacist cult Sons of the Serpent. He delighted in sneaky juvenile wordplay—for part of his run on Man-Thing the book was called Giant Size Man-Thing; and one of his later creations, known as the Black Hole, would activate his supersuction powers to a caption trumpeting, "The Black Hole sucks!" But one of his characters stands above the others: Howard the Duck.

Howard was the last of the angry ducks, a pants-eschewing cigar smoker who was trapped on our planet in—shudder—Cleveland. Shacking up with the curvaceous Beverly Switzer, Howard came off as a waterfowl Woody Allen, an oversexed, overly intellectual anti-hero who was constantly in the throes of an existential crisis, and who delighted in puncturing pomposity. He battled Pro-Rata, the Financial Wizard; the Deadly Space Turnip ("We were a breed of aggressive, dynamic, success-oriented vegetables. ..."); Bessie the Hellcow; and Dr. Bong.

Howard the Duck sent up the '70s and parodied Marvel's purple prose style ("The ghastly rumble of the explosion reverberates off the Pocono mountainsides—a sonorous death burp echoing into eternity. ..."), but the book grew into something deeper. Howard raged against the glorification of violence, had a nervous breakdown, lost Beverly to Dr. Bong, was transformed into a man, and, in the end, rejected his friends and bitterly set out on his own, trying to forget a past of pointless superfights. One issue was all text; another took place entirely on a long bus trip. These were surreal flights of fancy with razor-tipped wings, America's answer to Monty Python's Flying Circus.

But Gerber himself was trapped in a vulturelike publishing industry. A dispute with Marvel over payment terms for the artist on the Howard the Duck newspaper strip led to Gerber leaving the book, only to realize too late that his creations were all work-for-hire, property of Marvel Inc. He engaged in a protracted legal battle that was eventually settled, but the comics industry broke his spirit. When novelist Jonathan Lethem was hired by Marvel last year to revive Omega the Unknown, a series created by Gerber and collaborator Mary Skrenes, Gerber blasted the younger writer for validating the theft of his creation. Even after meeting with Lethem, he said, "I still believe that writers and artists who claim to respect the work of creators past should demonstrate that respect by leaving the work alone."

Gerber was the amphibian stage in the evolution of comic books, from when they swam in the funny-book oceans to the modern age, when graphic novels walk the earth and earn glowing reviews in the New York Times. But here's what overshadows all of Gerber's accomplishments: During his lifetime, Steve Gerber created dozens of popular characters and comic books. He died owning none of them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Elf Did It

My first real laugh in days came this morning; Mark Evanier, bless his soul, is minding the Steve Gerber blog, and his latest entry is just so appropriate to the ocassion:

"I am still Mark Evanier and I am still both staggered and pleased by how many writings I’m spotting on the Internet, on blogs and message boards, about what Steve’s work meant to people. That would have meant a lot to him and it certainly means a lot to his friends.

I can’t begin to link to them all but I have to link to the one by Heidi MacDonald. Make sure you read that one, as well as this one by Jim McLauchlin. In the meantime, Tom Spurgeon is compiling a list of links to Gerber recollections and tributes all across the Internet...

Lastly: There is no truth to the rumor that all this stuff about pulmonary fibrosis is just a cover story, and Steve was actually offed by an elf with a gun."

For context, see here.

Neil Gaiman pays homage to Steve Gerber's continuing inspiration to new artists.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

In Memoriam

"I wouldn't describe myself as fearless, but I think you have to accept the possibility of failure if you want to achieve anything, in any field." -- Steve Gerber, 1985

Steve Gerber, 1947-2008: An Obituary, by Tom Spurgeon

Steve Gerber, a leading light in 1970s American comic books, a singular writer of odd and affecting comics for mainstream publishers, an advocate for and icon of creators rights, and the creator and co-creator of several characters including Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown, died Sunday in a Las Vegas hospital. The cause of death is believed to be pneumonia, although he had been suffering from a long-term illness, pulmonary fibrosis. He was 60 years old.

Gerber was born in St. Louis in September, 1947. A comics fan as a youth, he began to correspond with legendary fanzine figures Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails at an early age. He participated even more directly in the early fanzine movement by creating the publication Headline as a young teen. He attended at school as the University of Missouri -- St. Louis and the University of Missouri, finishing his degree and doing some graduate work at St. Louis University. He found early employment as a copywriter for a St. Louis advertising agent and wrote short stories at night.

Gerber became an associate editor at Marvel in 1972 through Roy Thomas, at a time in which the roles of writer and editor were blurry in that most of the editors, like prime Marvel mover Stan Lee and Thomas himself, were also writing books. His initial page rate may have been as low as $13 a page.

Gerber began to find fill-in work on Marvel's second-rung titles such as Sub-Mariner, Iron Man and Daredevil, branching out into more traditional assignments like Fantastic Four as well as stories for Marvel's newer horror titles such as Creatures on the Loose and Chamber of Chills. He began editing Marvel's MAD knock-off Crazy with issue #14, and found a twist on the classic EC through Marvel formula of exaggerated glimpses of the comics' creators by portraying himself and his fellow creators as straight-up crazy themselves.

A creative run on The Defenders featured one of the first deconstructions of the superhero idea and its conceptual nephew the superhero team concept that was actually done in the course of a narrative that also worked as an adventure story. Gerber was a fruitful creator or co-collaborator for many other titles and characters, including but not limited to Morbius, the Living Vampire, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Son of Satan, Tales of the Zombie, and Shanna the She-Devil. Those concepts he didn't create he often fleshed out. In many cases, his supporting characters were better known than the headliners, such as his title-jumping everyman, Richard Rory.

His scripts for Man-Thing, a classic swamp creature character of the kind that had been in comics since the 1940s, only this time portrayed as an empathic monster that used his burning touch on the fearful, are well-regarded even today for their concentration on psychological humor and touches of the absurd. It was in building an unlikely cosmic odyssey for the shuffling muck creature that Gerber created his signature character, Howard the Duck.

Howard the Duck was an unlikely twist on another classic comics archetype: the anthropomorphic duck (he would later wear pants after Disney threatened legal action, a story that if it's not true is better than truth). In the course of the story being told with Man-Thing in Fear, Howard played a more utilitarian role. His stepping forward from the bushes was put into the story to provide a weirder character introduction than the barbarian (Korrek) Gerber and Val Mayerik had just debuted by having him pop out from a can of peanut butter. A classic straight-talker slightly out of step with the time, an archetype that appears a lot in 1970s pop culture but never more effectively, Howard's debut proved popular enough with fans for Gerber and Marvel to bring him back, first in a short story or two, then in his own comic.

Imbued with an underground comix sensibility but as overground as the spinner rack at your local supermarket, Howard became a mini-sensation, allowing Gerber and his collaborators the opportunity to use a classic outsider character to riff on the ridiculous excesses of that decade's pop culture landscape: kung fu, the moonies, self-help gurus, Anita Bryant, KISS, religious fundamentalism, and Star Wars among them. It also turned out to be a perfect vehicle for Gerber's acerbic worldview, and in some of the best comics, such as when Howard ran for President -- something Marvel milked for all it was worth in terms of mainstream coverage -- Gerber turned his comic into maybe the most formally daring book ever put on the market by one of the big two publishers. Howard would eventually spawn a newspaper strip, which Gerber initially wrote, and a film version in 1986 by American Graffiti collaborators George Lucas, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz that has gone down in history as one of the all-time Hollywood bombs. Gerber had only a minimal amount to do with that project and, truth be told, the resulting film had nothing to do with Gerber.

Another fondly remembered title, Omega the Unknown, came about in partnership with the writer Mary Skrenes and the long-time industry veteran Jim Mooney. It was many things: an odd but extremely affecting meditation on childhood as it rubs up against some of the sadder and isolating elements of adulthood, an out of the corner of one's eye snapshot of the post-Kirby Marvel Universe, a walking tour of Gerber's own Hell's Kitchen neighborhood and another dissection of the superhero. The briefly-lived comic series gained much of its power through Gerber and Skrenes' modern, even arch take on comic book writing dancing in and among Mooney's classic, square-jawed comic book dynamics. Although there were admirable attempts to resolve the character's story by other creators once the series had been canceled, the resolution desired by Gerber and Skrenes apparently never saw publication. A currently ongoing re-telling of the story with additional layers by writers Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak working with artist Farel Dalrymple has put the character back into the consciousness of comics fans, although there were complaints after the project's announcement that Gerber and Skrenes should have been given a chance to tell their story either additionally or instead of this new effort. As with Howard, there has never been a comic book quite like it.

Gerber left Marvel in either 1978 or 1979, and immediately entered into dispute with the publisher over the Howard the Duck character he created a few years earlier. In a letter that appeared in The Comics Journal #41, Gerber explained his situation to that magazine's editor, Gary Groth: "I was dismissed from the Howard the Duck newspaper strip in a manner which violated the terms of my written agreement with Marvel. Marvel was advised that I was contemplating legal action which would likely result in my ownership of the Howard the Duck character and all rights therein. As a consequence of the notice given Marvel by my lawyers, the company chose to terminate my contract on the comic books as well. Marvel's action was not unanticipated, and my only regret is that, for a while at least, the Duck and I will be traveling separate paths." In an interview that followed the publication of that letter, Gerber painted what was at the time a startling picture of the mainstream comics industries, its rivalries and petty jealousies, and what he described as a plantation system in terms of how the talent was treated by the corporations.

"What disgusts me even more, though, is that I think the writers and artists have largely brought this on themselves," he told Groth in 1978. "They don't want to know about the business end of comics. They prefer to remain ignorant. They've allowed the publishers to convince them that they're a bunch of no-talent bums surviving on the goodwill of the companies. Very few people in this industry really believe that their work has any artistic merit, or that it's sale-able elsewhere. Or that they deserve more than they're getting. You will actually hear them defend the publishers' ownership of their creations, the low page rates, the cowardice of the companies to explore new markets. That's why it's startling when someone like Gil Kane or Neal Adams or Don McGregor or Barry Smith -- or Steve Gerber -- shoots his mouth off. People in the industry find it disturbing that one of their number might actually take his work seriously, take pride not only in being fast and dependable, but in the work itself."

Steve Gerber did not win back Howard the Duck. He settled with Marvel and even returned to the company by the mid-1980s, although not in as devoted or prolific a fashion. Although the terms of the settlement were sealed, he told Art Cover in 1985 that, "It's no secret how mad I was during and before the lawsuit. The terms of the settlement are such that I am no longer angry." As part of the protracted legal battle, Gerber and the legendary Marvel Comics creator Jack Kirby created the lead feature in an anthology sharing the name Destroyer Duck, from Eclipse, with proceeds from various professionals doing stories going to Gerber's war chest. As Mark Evanier points out in his memorial post regarding Gerber, there was no shortage of professionals willing to contribute. "People did that because they knew, first of all, that Steve was fighting not just for his own financial reasons but for matters of principle relating to how the comic book industry treated its creators." The Gerber/Kirby feature is fondly remembered as comics apart from its industry implications. Marvel was satirized in the comic as Godcorp, the merciless corporation that exploited and then killed Destroyer Duck's best friend in a blunt swipe at Marvel's treatment of Gerber's Howard. That character would go on to make brief appearances in future comic books from Marvel and Image, and the original material is to be collected by Image Comics.

The notions that Marvel would take a character away from a creator, even the one best suited to it, and that a creator might fight back, became powerful ideas among a growing tide of younger creators asserting a series of creators' rights in regards to their work with big, mainstream comic book companies or their moves to smaller companies or self-publishing where rights might be attained. One element of the cautionary story was that Marvel was more interested in keeping and controlling the character than it was in fostering a relationship with the creator, even when the benefits were obvious to both. Also, the fact that Gerber had created Howard in an offhand manner but that the character had come to be a valuable mouthpiece for the creator became a key part of the thinking of a lot of creators rights advocates, and spoke as a powerful counter to an argument often expressed that some characters you created for the big companies and some characters you kept for yourself. As many have cautioned in a thousand hushed conversations since, you never know.

The remainder of Gerber's comics career was devoted to primarily mini-series and a few short runs on series comics. He had worked sporadically for DC Comics and Hanna-Barbera even while still at Marvel. He created the early graphic novel Stewart the Rat for Eclipse. An Epic Comic series refashioning a Hawkman proposal became the sex and violence-filled Void Indigo, one of the first comics to run afoul of the hands-on series of single proprietors approach that drove growing Direct Market network of stores in that, as Gerber put it, "Certain distributors themselves, personally, found it objectionable." This was also an opinion shared by some retailers and a few comics reviewers. He would write Howard the Duck again, a series starring his Foolkiller character, and pen a number of stories for the anthology magazine Marvel Comics Presents. Gerber was one of the veteran writers brought on board by the then enormously successful Image creators to provide some scripting stability for a title or two, and he was in the group of writers that created a superhero line at Malibu, eventually sold to Marvel. His Nevada was the last after Stewart the Rat and Omega the Unknown in a series of comics that were as much about a place as they were a set of characters, an under-appreciated aspect to his career and something he did as well as any writer to work in comics. One of his last notable creations was the superhero-in-prison saga Hard Time at DC Comics. He was at the time of his passing working on a revival of the difficult Dr. Fate character.

Gerber's main vocation during the 1980s and its sporadic comics output was as an animation writer and story editor, working for such successful franchises as Dungeons and Dragons, GI Joe, Thundarr, Transformers, Mr. T and The New Batman Adventures. It was in that role that he was famously parodied during the period of antagonism between himself and Marvel, in Marvel Secret Wars II #1, a comic book that Gerber said later he enjoyed.

Gerber had in recent months turned to blogging as many writers in the industry have, talking openly and honestly about his various projects, his state of mind and his declining health. It was there that first indications he may have passed were posted, in the commentary thread under Gerber's last entry.

Steve Gerber's role as one of the best and emblematic writers of his generation can't be understated. He was a crucial figure in comics history. Like some of the all-time great cartoonists of years past, Gerber carved a place for self-expression and meaning out of a type of comic that had no right to hold within itself so many things and moments that were that quirky and offbeat and delicately realized -- except that Gerber made it so. His Howard the Duck comics remain amusing when read today, perhaps more poignant now, laying into their broad targets in a way that communicated a kind of critical consciousness into the minds of many devoted superhero comics readers, fans that simply wouldn't have been exposed to those kinds of ideas any other way, the concept that media might lie to you, the notion of absolute self-worth in the face of a world that seems dead-set against it. Steve Gerber's superhero books were a tonic to the over-seriousness of most of their cousins, and his horror-adventure books were frequently classy and reserved in a genre that tends to reward the blunt and ugly. No creator save Jack Kirby has as a cautionary tale and a living example saved so many creators the grief of turning over their creations without reward or without realizing what they had done. Few creators in the American mainstream were as consistently fascinating as Steve Gerber. Even fewer have been as outspoken and forthright, or in that way, as admirable.

Monday, February 11, 2008

STEVE GERBER 1947-2008

Found out that my favorite living writer died last night.

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!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Lest We Forget

"Of course, the war cannot bear responsibility for all our other ills. It has contributed to them by draining off resources and energies and, most of all, by blunting our sense of moral purpose. But to a large extent it has only catalyzed an awareness of more profound problems."

Richard Goodwin, speechwriter for John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, wrote these words in 1968. They sound as prevalent today as then, yet in that tumultuous year were ignored by a divided US electorate, who ushered in even more tumult by electing this jerk:

Friday, February 01, 2008

In To Win

Last night's tremendous debate gave me such a sense of renewal for our country, and a feeling that we cannot lose this November, no matter who wins the election. McCain is great, and I hope Republicans nominate him: he's the best the party has. And as we saw at last night's debate, both Clinton and Obama are fantastic candidates.

Finally, an election year where the debate is about matters of substance: foreign policy, healthcare, and personal integrity were all at the front of the discussion this week. This might be the best contest our country has seen in a long time!