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Tuesday, February 12, 2008


"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

I am profoundly saddened to tell you that Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck and one of the finest comics writers of his era, is dead at the age of 60 from pulminary fibrosis. One of the very few of my comics biz heroes that I never got to meet. Gerber's run on HOWARD THE DUCK in the 1970's was one the first time I realized a Marvel Comics series of the time not only didn't have to be staggeringly mediocre, but could also be satirical, adult, beautifully drawn (Val Mayerick, Frank Brunner and Gene Colan in da house!!!), and very, very funny. Gerber wrote other series of quality — most notably THE DEFENDERS — but none of them caught my young imagination like his work on the irascible duck, stories that didn't treat the reader like an idiot.

Howard the Duck, as drawn by Frank Brunner.

Howard the Duck was a pissed-off, cigar-chomping, dimensionally-displaced sentient waterfowl who found himself on Earth in the Marvel Universe, but while he did occasionally run into the supertypes common to that locale, his adventures in seedy Cleveland brought him into the path of a legion of looney characters including the Kidney Lady, Turnip-Man (not "The Space Turnip" as he's called on issue #2's cover),

a vampire cow (in a Dracula cape, no less), Master Chaaj (who taught him the deadly art of Quack Fu),

Le Beaver, Doctor Bong, Kiss (yes, exactly the Kiss you're thinking of), and many, many more, with the luscious former "exotic dancer" Beverly Switzler by his side. And in an especially insane story arc, Howard ran for the presidency of the United States back in 1976!

Man, I could kick my own ass for not getting my hands on one of the campaign buttons when they came out:

I'm tellin' ya, if Howard ran for office now I would vote for him without hesitation.

If all you of Howard is the unspeakably awful 1986 feature film, you owe it to yourself to pick up THE ESSENTIAL HOWARD THE DUCK" , a 592-page b/w collection that includes all of the character's early appearances, the first twenty-seven issues of his ongoing series and a related annual, depriving the reader of only the final four issues of the regular series (which is no big loss because it all ran out of gas just before those issues, and us regular readers only held on in hope of it returning to its former glory, but no such luck). Hopefully Marvel will issue the b/w magazine run of Howard, after he got saddled with pants for thoroughly idiotic reasons that had nothing to do with the creators, featuring some lovely art by Gene Colan and a memorable trip to Howard's homeworld drawn by Michael Golden (though not written by Gerber).

Don't let the cover fool you; inside is some terrific Michael Golden art!

Of particular interest from the original run is issue #16, in which Gerber took a break from the ongoing monthly story to give the reader a rare look into the mind of the freelance comic book writer, an indispensible piece that's a must for writers of all stripes. It's hard to describe, but here's the cover in case you decide to take my word for it and shell out the cash for the back issue on eBay:

I wish I could have met you, Steve. You were unique in a field ruled by mediocrity and maintaining the status quo, and for biting that system in the ass you will always be held high in my esteem.

From the mighty Wikipedia:

Stephen Ross "Steve" Gerber (born 20 September 1947, St. Louis, Missouri - died 10 February 2008, Las Vegas, Nevada) was an American comic book writer best known as co-creator of the satiric Marvel Comics character Howard the Duck.

Other major works include Man-Thing, Omega the Unknown, The Phantom Zone, Void Indigo, Shanna the She-Devil, Tales of the Zombie, Marvel Spotlight: Son of Satan, Defenders, Marvel Presents: Guardians of the Galaxy, Foolkiller, The Legion of Night, Nevada, Sludge, A. Bizarro, and Hard Time, as well as long runs on Sub-Mariner and Daredevil.

He was among the 1970s wave of writers such as Steve Englehart, Don McGregor and Doug Moench who took often minor characters and helped create a writerly Renaissance. At the time of his death, he was writing Countdown to Mystery: Doctor Fate for DC Comics, having briefly worked with a version of the character in 1983.

He was also known for including lengthy text pages in the midst of a comic book story, such as in Man-Thing, Howard the Duck, Son of Satan, Defenders, and his graphic novel, Stewart the Rat.

After corresponding with fellow youthful comics fans Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails, and starting one of the first comics fanzines, Headline, at age 13 or 14, Gerber attended college at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, the University of Missouri, and St. Louis University, where he finished his communications degree and did some post-graduate work. He then began work as a copywriter for a St. Louis advertising agency. During this time he wrote short stories, some of which, such as "And the Birds Hummed Dirges", later appeared in Crazy Magazine during his stint as editor.

In early 1972, Gerber asked Thomas, by this time Marvel editor-in-chief, about writing comics; Thomas sent him a writer's test — six pages of a Daredevil car-chase scene drawn by Gene Colan — which Gerber passed. He accepted a position as an associate editor and writer at Marvel Comics for $125 a week — $25 less than at the ad agency — and $13 a page for writing.[citation needed] Thomas said in 2007, “Steve and I had been in touch, off and on. ...I [eventually] got a letter from Steve saying, in essence, 'Help! I'm going crazy in this advertising job'. ... So I thought, 'Gee, he'd be a good person to get up here, so if he wants to make a change, let's give it a try'. He was brought in to be an assistant editor on staff. That didn't work out so well, because for whatever reason ... he had trouble staying awake. At the time, he wasn't a staff kind of person, at least in terms of what Marvel needed, but he was a real good writer and did some interesting things....”

Gerber initially penned standard superhero stories for titles such as Daredevil and Sub-Mariner, but soon developed an individual voice that mixed adventure with social satire and absurdist humor. In one issue of The Defenders, for example, a group of supervillains, tired of always being beaten by the good guys, seeks out a self-help guru for motivation. He penned some stories for Creatures on the Loose, Chamber of Chills, Journey Into Mystery and Crazy Magazine. When he took over as editor (until issue #14) he wanted to distinguish it from Mad Magazine by presenting stories that made it appear that the creators themselves were crazy. [BUNCHE NOTE: the early CRAZY is some of the funniest stuff I've ever had the pleasure to read, especially the incredible and outrageously tasteless "Kaspar the Dead Baby." Seriously, somebody pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease put out THE ESSENTIAL CRAZY, schnell!]

Besides a lengthy run on The Defenders (which included the introduction of Korvac), Gerber scripted Man-Thing, about a swamp-monster empath; Omega The Unknown, which explored the strange link between a cosmic superhero and a boy; and Howard the Duck, created with artist Val Mayerik as a throwaway character in a Man-Thing story, and then eventually brought back in solo backup stories in Giant-Size Man-Thing (with artist Frank Brunner) before getting his own series (with art primarily by penciler Gene Colan and inker Steve Leialoha). Gerber and Colan later collaborated on a Howard the Duck syndicated comic strip. He collaborated heavily with Carole Seuling on Shanna the She-Devil to the point that he has been credited with co-creating the character and her supporting cast. He more modestly claimed that only Nekra is his creation.

Among other Marvel projects, Gerber wrote the first issue of Marvel Comics Super Special featuring the band KISS, in which he also introduced Dr. Doom's tutor, Dizzie the Hun. Another important part of Gerber's oeuvre was Tales of the Zombie based on a one-shot character, Simon Garth, created in the 1950s by Bill Everett, who died shortly after the series began. He also wrote the Guardians of the Galaxy series in Marvel Two-in-One (he wrote the first nine issues of that series, the first seven tying directly with his other storylines), Defenders and Marvel Presents, which had previously appeared only one time. He created the characters of Starhawk, Aleta Ogord, and Nikki. In this series, he depicted the first obvious sex act in a book approved by the Comics Code Authority. He also wrote stories of Son of Satan, Morbius the Living Vampire and Lilith, Daughter of Dracula. He created the Monk Montesi in Dracula Lives! #5, whose formula would later temporarily destroy all of the vampires in the world.

Steve Gerber was noted for memorable supporting or guest characters who would become cult favorites in their own right. Among his best known are Everyman Richard Rory, who has appeared off and on in most of the Gerber books, and the Foolkiller, a psychopathic vigilante who inspired several different individuals to adopt his identity over the years and acquired his own 10-issue limited series in 1990. Gerber was also responsible for the creation of the Silver Samurai during his Daredevil run, and the female Red Guardian when writing Defenders.

Toward the end of his work at Marvel, he wrote Hanna-Barbera stories for Mark Evanier under the anagrammatic name, "Reg Everbest". Only two of these, featuring Magilla Gorilla and Clue Club, were published in their English-language originals.

With his off-kilter humor and somewhat confrontational creative style, Gerber had cultivated a "wild card" reputation in the Marvel offices, which he felt ultimately worked against him in the realm of workplace politics. Many of his fellow associate editors, such as Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman and Archie Goodwin, had served tenures as Editor-in-Chief, but Gerber was never offered the position, which he blamed on the impressions of him held by his superiors (for instance, he says people at Marvel thought he was crazy for living with girlfriend and frequent collaborator Mary Skrenes in the dangerous Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, but Gerber says they lived there for the most logical of reasons: rent was cheap, and Marvel didn't pay him all that much).[citation needed] When Jim Shooter was given the job, he and Gerber found they did not get along well personally, and the writing was on the wall for Gerber at Marvel.[citation needed]

Gerber left Marvel in 1979 and launched a lengthy legal battle for control of Howard the Duck. During the late 1970s and 1980s he did some work for DC Comics (including a 1981 Superman miniseries, The Phantom Zone, the last three issues of Mr. Miracle, and a run of backup stories in The Flash starring Doctor Fate co-written with Martin Pasko), and for independent comic companies.

One of Gerber's first major works away from Marvel was the original graphic novel Stewart the Rat for Eclipse Comics, with art by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer. In 1982 he teamed with Jack Kirby at Eclipse to create Destroyer Duck, a satirical comic that raised funds for his court case and Kirby's similar legal battles against Marvel. Gerber and Marvel reached a settlement in the case.

After that time, Gerber worked sporadically in comics, writing several miniseries for Marvel (including Void Indigo for the Epic Comics imprint in 1983 and The Legion of Night and Suburban Jersey Ninja She-Devils in 1990) and DC (including A. Bizarro and Nevada for the Vertigo imprint in 1998). Returning briefly to Marvel, he had a 12-issue run on The Sensational She-Hulk, a three-issue run on Cloak and Dagger, had Hawkeye get shot and wear a new armored costume designed by Tony Stark in Avengers Spotlight, and wrote two issues of Toxic Crusaders, all for Marvel. During this time he also did a serial in Marvel Comics Presents featuring Poison, a character he created in The Evolutionary War crossover. He also wrote the two-issue Freddy Krueger's A Nightmare on Elm Street which delved into the backstory of the character with a depth the films never displayed.

In collaboration with Beth Woods (later Slick), he wrote an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled "Contagion" and BBSs for Dummies. With Hank Saroyan, he story-edited the first season of Dungeons & Dragons and wrote the episode "Prison Without Walls", which featured a character that bore a strong resembalnce to Man-Thing. He has also written episodes of G.I. Joe, which he also story edited during early seasons, the Berlin Wall episode of The Puppy's New Adventures, which was heavily censored to make East Berlin look terribly unthreatening, which resulted in Gerber's mock-slogan, "ABC Standards and Practices... Protecting Your Children With Lies", and the pilot episode of Mister T. He story edited the third season of The Transformers, but did not write any episodes. He created the animated Thundarr the Barbarian.

He was one of the founders of the Malibu Comics Ultraverse, co-creating Exiles (perhaps the first comic in which a superhero team's incompetence has been played for tragedy rather than comedy) and creating Sludge. For Image, he co-created The Cybernary with Nick Manabat and disbanded Codename: Strykeforce (in their crossover with Cyberforce, in which Gerber showed the impossibility of one leader leading two teams with any effectiveness), in addition to guest-writing Pitt. In 2002 he created a new Howard the Duck miniseries for Marvel's MAX line. For DC he then created Hard Time, which outlasted the short-lived imprint DC Focus.

He worked in television animation, working as story editor on the animated series The Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Dungeons & Dragons; creating Thundarr the Barbarian, and sharing a 1998 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Class — Animated Program, for the WB program The New Batman/Superman Adventures.

He spoke out against Jonathan Lethem's plans to revive Omega the Unknown, and in 2005, when Marvel had a vote on which of four characters to revive, he asked his fans to vote against Wundarr the Aquarian, a supporting character he created in Fear and Marvel Two-in-One. Wundarr took second after Death's Head. Wundarr was made the Aquarian by another writer (Mark Gruenwald--see Project Pegasus), as it is. He stated numerous times on his blog and elsewhere on the web his opinion that no one should write another's characters without the creators' personal endosement, which he wished he'd had with Kirby on Defenders and especially Mister Miracle, despite Kirby's approval when they worked on Destroyer Duck.[citation needed] He did, however, endorse the new Foolkiller series.[citation needed]

Gerber was assigned a new Doctor Fate series by DC Comics, appearing in Countdown to Mystery. The series follows a series of one-shots depicting the Helmet of Fate's interactions with other DC mystical heroes. Gerber wrote one of the one-shots, featuring Zauriel. The new series features Dr. Kent V. Nelson, who puts on the helmet to protect open wounds from the pouring rain. The storyline is called "More Pain Comics" in homage to More Fun Comics, where the character of Dr. Fate originated. He negotiated with Marvel for a new project relating to Howard the Duck.

In 2007, Gerber was diagnosed with an early stage of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and attempted to get on a waiting list for a lung transplant, while continuing to work. On February 10, 2008, Gerber died in a Las Vegas hospital from complications stemming from his condition.

A recent photo of Steve Gerber.


Jared said...

A Howard The Duck oversized HC Omnibus is coming out this year. You can look it up at Amazon.

Scott Koblish said...

Uncredited in there he worked at Stan Lee Media, which is where I first met him. A real sweet guy and a helluva creative force. Terrible loss.

I know that the Hero Initiative was actively helping him out and i think it'd be a good reminder to everyone that even a small donation can help comic industry giants stave off illness and hardship... give if you can...

Ken Pierce said...

Wow that is a shame and like Scott notes before this comment a real loss. I liked a lot of what he contributed to comics, and how could I not since he gave the world KISS in the comics form. A true Metal geeks dream come to life as it were on the printed page. It was timeless and held up even against the making them weird forces of whateverthefuck like McFarlane's crew did. Howard The Duck always eluded me but when read I was amused but I enjoyed the Man-Thing and Sludge.

Rest in Peace Mr. Gerber, we raise the horns in high hails to you. May your journey to Valhalla be guided by the gods safely.