This week I got to fulfill yet another one of those little collector-acquisition dreams.
Well, not really COLLECTOR. I buy comics to read. Let’s say I got to make an addition to my personal library that I’ve been wanting to for a while, and as a result I finally get to do a column I’ve been thinking about since Overlord Cronin made me the offer of a weekly writing gig all those months ago.
Regular readers of this column will no doubt recall how fond I am of 70’s Marvel, and I have mentioned various writers of that era in passing as being favorites…. but I have avoided talking about my VERY favorite, because I wanted to give him a whole column’s worth of appreciation and call your attention to some good stuff of his that often gets overlooked. That creator is Steve Gerber.
Now, most fans today, when you mention Steve Gerber, think of Howard the Duck, if they know the name at all. And if they know the Duck, they probably know about the attendant lawsuit. And a few more might chime in with Hard Time. And that probably would be it.
However, as much as I loved Howard the Duck, my favorite books from Steve Gerber were not really the usual picks. The reason I waited to do this particular column, and the reason I’m finally getting around to it this week, was because yesterday my copy of the trade collection of the original Omega the Unknown arrived.
I adored that book when it came out and wanted to refresh my memory before writing anything about it. It was, sadly, an unfinished work, for all intents and purposes. It ran ten issues and it was so far ahead of its time that I think that if it came out today, it would be a hit. I reread it again this morning and was shocked by how fresh it felt, compared to most of the other reprint books I’ve been looking at lately. Now, I love the old stuff, but no matter how excited I am to get hold of the latest Marvel Essential or back-issue eBay lot, there’s still that vague feeling that it’s not quite the same, some of the magic has gone… I can see the zipper on the monster suit now.
But Omega reads like something current. It really was a novel unfolding at the rate of a chapter an issue, rather than an open-ended serial. Today that’s the norm. Back in 1976 it was a lunatic idea. The amazing thing to me is that it was ever greenlit at all…. and the second-most-amazing thing is how ACCESSIBLE the thing is, considering the complex storyline that was unfolding and the multi-faceted mystery that was being presented.
I love long-running stories that have clues and a mystery to solve, and Omega was a great example of that kind of storytelling; there was a real Laura Palmer-Twin Peaks vibe about the whole thing. Except with a superhero. The tagline of the book read: ENIGMA THE FIRST: the lone survivor of an alien world, a nameless man of somber, impassive visage, garbed utterly inappropriately in garish blue-and-red. ENIGMA THE SECOND: James-Michael Starling, age twelve, raised in near-isolation by parents who (he discovered on the day they “died”) were robots. ENIGMA THE THIRD: the link between the man and the boy, penetrating the depths of mind and body, causing each to question the very reality of self.
That was the caption that ran on the first page of each issue, and it sums up the ongoing mystery pretty well. But the real enigma of the book, as far as Omega and James-Michael were concerned, was the insanity of the human condition. The underlying engine that drove the stories was the need for both characters to, essentially, learn to be human, and the thing that made it interesting was how reluctant they were. They didn’t WANT to be human. As far as they could tell, being human meant being vulnerable and getting hurt. And who needs that?
It was an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking, the more so for being a mainstream Marvel book in the mid-70’s. Omega was set squarely in the Marvel Universe, he fought Nitro and the Hulk and Electro; but there was a distinctly un-superheroic take on it all. Both Omega and James-Michael lived in a Hell’s Kitchen quite a bit less noir and cool than Frank Miller’s. They had to deal with money issues and crappy plumbing and roaches… and in James-Michael’s case, a really vicious public school and social services system. Yet there were shining moments of nobility from the flawed humans around them, often followed by moments of surprising venality from the same people. Just like real life, in other words.
Jim Mooney was the artist on the book and he was damned near perfect, as far as I was concerned. He could handle whatever craziness Gerber and his co-writer Mary Skrenes could throw at him, and the regular Marvel characters all looked right on-model…. but at the same time the normal people all looked really, well, normal. It was sort of the anti-Kirby look, and it really fit the story in a way that you didn’t see all that often in those days.
The book was canceled abruptly in mid-storyline with #10, with a promise that the story would eventually conclude at some point down the road in The Defenders. Which was all very well but unfortunately, Steve Gerber left Defenders right around the same time and I think he left Marvel itself not too long after that. It took something like two and a half years before they stuck Steven Grant with finishing out the story in Defenders #76 and #77. He did a better job than he’s given credit for, but really when people complain about that conclusion I suspect that what they mean is simply that Gerber didn’t write it. I can understand that; nobody else could really write Omega quite like Steve Gerber, despite a couple of nice fill-ins during the original run by Scott Edelman and Roger Stern.
For that matter, nobody wrote the Defenders like Steve Gerber either, which made Steven Grant’s job doubly thankless.
Even more than today, a team book needed some kind of a hook, a raison d’etre. The Fantastic Four were a family. The Avengers were an official government-sanctioned organization. The X-Men were a school. Etc.
The Defenders’ hook was that they weren’t a team at all, at least not officially. They just happened to hang out from time to time when they needed to. They took a kind of reverse pride in it — “Yeah, okay, we’re the Defenders, but we’re not a TEAM.”
Gerber’s run paid lip service to that idea, but what he keyed in on and really made work was that the core group of Defenders — Dr. Strange, Nighthawk, Valkyrie, and the Hulk — were social outcasts. A couple of years later Chris Claremont would get the X-Men assignment and really milk the outcast thing, but the Defenders under Steve Gerber got there first and for my money did it better. Gerber’s Defenders weren’t feared and hated because they were mutants, but because on some personal level they were socially unacceptable. Nighthawk and Valkyrie were both reformed villains, Dr. Strange was a weird mystic, and the Hulk was, well, a monster. The thing that made this so brilliant was that Gerber played them like the weird kids in high school… the freaks and nerds that become friends in self-defense because no one else will have them. Valkyrie was the tomboyish girl that everyone thought was a lesbian. Nighthawk was the emotionally-damaged kid from the messed-up family that was always acting out self-destructively. The Hulk was the slow-witted kid with the anger-management problem that took a lot of patience and understanding to deal with. And Dr. Strange was the smart one that knew a lot of weird stuff, the one whose house they always hung out at because nobody wanted to go home. You just KNEW Strange had the coolest record collection EVER in that Greenwich Village pad. And Clea was sort of around too, not really one of the gang but she had an in because she was Stephen’s girlfriend.
My first issue of Defenders was #21, introducing the Headmen, and Gerber had my 13-year-old self at hello with the opening scenes of Valkyrie’s horrified realization that her former incarnation Barbara Norriss had a family, she was married… and Nighthawk storming off in a self-centered rage over how that ruined HIS shot. It was high school with superpeople, way more then the X-Men ever was. Plus lots of the usual pedal-to-the-metal Marvel action… Gerber was ambitious enough to want to tell stories about real people, but he was pro enough to get the superheroics and spectacle in too.
It was an irresistible combination, at least for me. I loved Gerber’s Defenders because they were like me and MY group of outcasts… except they were, you know, superheroes that saved the world, and my gang were just geeks that read a lot of SF and listened to bands no one ever heard of like Camel and the Rezillos. But we were brothers in spirit.
The Defenders under Steve Gerber were also forced to learn the hard way what it meant to be human, vulnerable, and hurt. There was lots of wacky trademark Gerber satire and weirdness, but always underlying it was some serious human pain. Nighthawk in particular really went through the wringer, with his girlfriend losing an arm to a car-bomb attack and his fortune being stolen out from under him to fund the hate group the Sons of the Serpent, before he was captured by the Headmen and had his brain removed, forcing him to spend months reliving his life’s mistakes in a sort of hallucination flashback, trapped in the ultimate sensory-deprivation tank in a nightmare he could never wake up from.
Valkyrie didn’t do much better, stalked and harassed by an ex-husband she had no memory of and no feelings for, before getting thrown into jail on a trumped-up charge and having to adapt to the vicious predatory environment of prison.
These stories all hit a theme that Steve Gerber comes back to again and again… the alienated loner that perceives the world more truly than the people around him can, but because of that becomes more vulnerable and endures more pain. I read a review somewhere of Hard Time that was busting Steve Gerber for using that theme, and I remember thinking at the time, Jeez, if you feel that way, why are you bothering to read a Steve Gerber book at all? Look at Howard the Duck and Man-Thing and Defenders and Omega… they’re all outsiders looking in. That’s what Steve Gerber does best. I think it was Stephen King that said that if you’re a lit’ry sort of writer you can get away with exploring the same theme from different angles, but if you do it in a pop culture outlet people will assume your head’s so empty it has an echo. The alienated-yet-empathetic loner idea is something Gerber came back to in not just in the books I’ve mentioned already, but also in an unlikely DC miniseries that will never ever be collected in trade, probably, but you really should hunt your back-issue bins for it — the Phantom Zone.
This is a little overlooked treasure from the early 80’s, from the era that my friends and I always privately referred to as the Big Talent Swap — when suddenly everyone we knew from DC had huffed over to Marvel, and everyone who was a star at Marvel was suddenly kicking ass at DC, and both sides swearing they’d never had such creative freedom before. But it did give us a lot of really good comics and fresh takes on old stuff, and this one’s one of my favorites. Lots of patented Gerber surrealism as Superman tries to fight his way out of the Phantom Zone, and by the end of this four-issue mini things really get apocalyptic; the whole JLA shows up as General Zod and the other Zone criminals run amok. And of course, it’s a terrified regular guy named Charlie, swept up by events too big for him, that finds the way out of the Zone and saves Superman and everyone on Earth.
The art is amazing. Gene Colan is just about the last guy you’d ever expect to see working on Superman but it really works for this story. His Superman has actual mass, you can feel the impact when he shatters asteroids and smashes through walls. He does a nice Clark Kent too; in fact all the Planet scenes look great. Seriously, track this one down from one of the back issue dealers, because DC is too stuffy about continuity to ever collect it in trade, I think, and it’s great stuff. People should see it.
I could go on and on, but I don’t have to; blessedly, we live in a day and age where you can find damn near all of this (except Phantom Zone, get with it, DC) in paperback for cheap. Essential Defenders Volume 2 and Essential Man-Thing are finally on the schedule and you can bet I’ll be first in line. If you like good comics you’ll be right there with me, and in the meantime you might look for some of these others.
See you next week.