The morning of Saturday April 19, 2008 saw the Friends of Ol’ Gerber (or F.O.O.G., as they are known) gather at New York Comic Con to share stories of and respects to the recently departed and dearly missed comics legend, Steve Gerber.
The hour was kicked off with moderator Mark Evanier stating, “I can think of a lot of people I’d much rather were dead instead of Steve.”
Beside Evanier’s podium was a table, and on the table was a small wooden box containing the ashes of Gerber. “[After the panel] we will celebrate by taking it down to the floor and flinging [the ashes] in the faces of various publishers,” Evanier said, prompting a righteous response from all those in attendance.
Next, a brief video assembled by Buzz Dixon was played, comprised of numerous covers of the numerous books Gerber was involved with throughout his celebrated career, from his earliest work to his latest, from “Howard The Duck” to “Suburban Jersey She Devils,” all accompanied by The Beatles song “Revolution.” The presentation ended with the quote “He is one with the turnip.”
The filmed presentation was followed by a series of tales and anecdotes from various speakers, mostly centered on their personal interactions with Gerber, particularly their first meetings. As was the case of Evanier, who explained that as a Marvel employee, a coworker called Duffy Voland warned him, “Watch out for Steve; he’s crazy. And not eccentric crazy, but Charles Manson crazy… enough to go up a tower with a gun and start shooting everybody.”
Years later, Evanier, said, he ran into a person at a party thrown by Sergio Argones, and immediately hit it off with a stranger. Too embarrassed to ask who this person was, Evanier tried to identify the mystery man by figuring out what book he was working on, and was shocked to discover after a process of elimination that he was the very man Voland had warned him about years earlier. Immediately, a strong friendship was forged that would last for many years.
Evanier noted there was not a single person who despised Gerber, which he said in the comics industry, is something rather amazing.
Evanier also told a quick story about a time when Gerber was staying at his home one evening, and a woman’s scream was heard. Before Evanier could even think about it, Gerber was out the door and running towards the woman, in hopes of providing help. Aside from “[doing] a Barry Allen on me,” it was his “immediate compassion for a stranger” that really impressed Evanier, and Gerber’s strong moral ethics would also leave a lasting impression on many who would meet the man.
Evanier also noted that Gerber always had problems with deadlines, but “we always forgave Steve, because we all knew what a decent man he was, plus when we got the script, it was always worth it.” Also mentioned was how Gerber obviously read more than just comics, and how he brought something fresh and unique to the form, yet also something valid to the medium. Hence the strong legions of fans he’d gathered over the years.
The second speaker was Gerber’s brother Michael, who first touched upon their parents: their father Leonard was a stand-up comic turned cavalry soldier, air force officer and prisoner of war, who married a woman a year after he came back from duty. Their mother Bernice always wanted to be a writer, and Michael always considered Steven a perfect amalgam of the best of their traits.
Said Michael Gerber, one of his earliest memories is of his brother Steve dragging him out of bed at dawn on a Saturday morning to watch television. Years later, Steve would watch another show, “The Adventures of Superman.” “The time he spent watching Superman was a mystical, trance-like experience for him… he was not to be disturbed.” The show transformed young Steven as a whole, as well as the world behind him; “Bath towels were no longer towels. They were capes. Pajamas were no longer for sleeping. They were for adventures.” It was then he also developed his deep sense of justice that in brother Michael’s opinion “often exceeded reason.”
Michael Gerber next described how in the same way bath towels became capes, paper towels became comic books. Young Steven would discover the Scott brand paper towels at the time, when folded at a certain angle, formed the shape of a comic book. When combined with other folded sheets, and a blue ballpoint pen, Steven began to make his own comic books. The books were tricky to hold together until Steven’s father brought home a stapler from work. But when the staples ran out, Steven made an emergency trip to the local stationary store. The store’s proprietors soon became puzzled by the fast rate of staple consumption and soon asked his story, they were amazed and decided to include it in the local paper, which was produced on their premises.
The headline read, “Spend Good Money On Comic Books? Why? This Boy Creates His Own.” Though this first brush with the press left Steve appalled; since he spent good money of his own on comics, to suggest it wasn’t money well spent was blasphemy, and to connect his name to such a sentiment was mortifying. He wanted to sue.
Michael next described how Steven would create his own superhero movies when he acquired a Super-8 camera years later. He would even depict himself flying in them by creating double exposure shots. Later on came a more sophisticated publishing venture, when Steven began producing his own fanzine called Headline, which enjoyed a healthy readership that manages to perplex his brother to this day considering the lack of the internet and other word of mouth avenues back then.
Later on, Gerber appeared wrote a play in high school that was a parody of “Bye Bye, Birdy” set in Russia. And in college, Steve produced for a local NBC affiliate a pilot for a talk show that was never picked up. In Michael’s mind, the failure was due to a 14-minute harmonica solo that he didn’t have the heart to tell his brother to edit out.
Shortly after college, Gerber worked as a copywriter in advertising, and then the call came from Marvel. He and his family packed their bags to move to New York, and the rest is history, as Michael Gerber said.
The third speaker up was “Wonder Woman” writer Gail Simone, a lifelong admirer of Gerber. She noted how she once got an out-of-the-blue email from Gerber regarding her work on “Birds of Prey.” Gerber told her, “I hope to hell you know how good you are.” Simone noted that everyone who wanted to do something a little off-beat in comics were fans of Gerber, who paved the path and set the example. Simone would end up working with Gerber on “Helmet of Fate.”
The writer discussed how “super supportive” Gerber was, explaining that when working in comics, with so many forces trying to ask for changes, or simply folks complaining about everything, Gerber’s encouragement was invaluable, and he gave her confidence to pitch ideas that otherwise she would be too nervous to make. “Only he could get away with do a comic called ‘Giant-Sized Man-Thing.’”
Simone also brought up Gurber’s later work, which she felt was “so moving, and so gutsy, and so real, at a time when so many comics trying those things, but falling short.” When it came to working on The All-New Atom” with Grant Morrison, Simone said everyone assumed Morrisson was the primary influence, but it was in fact Gerber and his work with bizarre monster movie concepts that they borrowed from and slightly spinned.
In Simone’s last email to Gerber, knowing he was ill, she asked him if he needed any help, such as ghost writing. And Gerber’s response was that she sounded kind of down, and that some positive things can come from his illness. Shortly afterwards he passed away.
Simone touched on how she wrote the ending of the project Gerber was working on before his death, and all the criticism that people were “trying to write like Steve.” She said no one ever wanted to write like Gerber, but to honor him. No matter what she wrote throughout her career, Simone said it was ultimately always for him, because he was her audience.
Simone finally mentioned how anyone wanting to honor Gerber should donate money to the Hero Initiative, to help out other comic creators with health issues.
Fourth up was “a publisher who doesn’t get ashes thrown in his face,” said Evanier, speaking of DC Comics’ Paul Levitz, who quickly went over the three things that Gerber did that most creators don’t.
The first is his generosity not only to professionals, but fans. When Gerber came to New York to work for Marvel as an assistant editor, he always passed along notes to Levitz when he was working at the fanzine Comics Reader, perhaps due to his own days as a fanzine writer. Gereber also passed along detailed information regarding every book, including what was going on and who was behind them, since he knew the fans wanted to know.
The second was Gerber’s mastery of the letters column, especially of his generation, which again was another sign of his skill and love for communicating with the fans.
The final point Levitz made was of Gerber’s strong influence in making the comics business more civilized, but constantly pointing out injustices. “Telling us how it ought to be from a theoretic and moral principle,” the publisher said.
Fifth up was Hildy Meslick, who did not work with Gerber in the realm of comics, but animation. They met when he was working as story editor for Sunbow Animation on such shows as “G.I. Joe.” “Transformers,” and “My Little Pony.” Meslick presented to the audience an internet video Christmas card that Sunbow produced back in the ’80s, featuring Gerber, as well as various other employees, including one other notable comics personality, Marv Wolfman, who is seen hitting briefly hitting on a cardboard cut out of Jem.
The video contained a short vignette of Gerber at a typewriter and fielding angry calls by those upset by the death of Optimus Prime. “Yes, he’s dead. No, we’re not sorry,” said Gerber.
The firth speaker was Buzz Dixon. About a week after Gerber’s death, a dinner was held to commemorate his passing and to swap stories, which Dixon felt was too soon. Everyone was sharing the sad, sweet stories. But enough time had passed to pass along the ruckus tales, and in his mind the quintessential Steve Gerber story:
Years ago, both men had declared bankruptcy and decided to compare notes. Dixon explained how bankruptcy was more or less a fairly cut and dry, straightforward process. One goes to court, is called in front of a judge, explain what one owes and how much they have, the judge asks for any objections, and finally papers are signed. But for Gerber, when was called up front and asked who he was, including what he does, once he stated his name, the court reporter immediately exclaimed, “Steve Gerber?! The Steve Gerber, who made Omega the Unknown, Howard The Duck, Thundar The Barbarian? Declaring Bankruptcy?! No! There is no justice!!!” The court reporter’s tirade continued, forcing Gerber to sigh, “Will you just shut up and sign the papers!”
The next speaker was Marty Pasko, who also knew Gerber mostly through animation. Pasko noted many instances in which he was asked to look at what Gerber was writing, or to help collaborate on a project, and was always completely dumbfounded. “I don’t think like this man,” Pasko recalled saying, explaining that Gerber had an entirely unique way of thinking and looking at things, which Pasko repeatedly described as genius.
Pasko also noted that Gerber was “the Jack Benny of comics and animation,” meaning he had no ego, and completely supportive of whoever he worked with, constantly giving credit where credit was due.
According to Pasko, Gerber never complained nor expressed bitterness, even when he was suing Marvel over the possession of Howard The Duck. He was even excited for the movie despite the fact he knew that no one associated with it had any understanding of the character. Pasko reminded everyone that not only was the movie not bad, but a notorious Hollywood disaster. And one of the funniest things to Gerber was how, once the movie was out and listed in a Leonard Maltin compendium, Gerber was finally given credit. Finally his name was attached to the character, but only after the movie was a famous bomb.
Not too long afterwards, Pasko said, he was working at Universal Studios on a television show, and at the same time, Martin Scorsese was working on “The Last Temptation Of Christ,” a film Universal was extremely nervous about. There was fear that it would be a critical and financial disaster, so much so that it was dubbed “Christ The Duck.”
Steve’s daughter Samantha Voll then took the stage and shared various memories father- daughter moments, such as when they saw “Star Wars” together. After the first film, as they left the theater, Gerber would mention bits and pieces of what was going to happen next. “Then low and behold, the Empire did strike back.”
The hour ended, but Evanier noted that stories and memories will continued to be shared. Evanier said that Gerber’s blog will continue to be online indefinitely and encouraged people to post comments for everyone else to see, not only now but many years down the road.
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