My first memory of Steve Gerber – I mean personal memory, not memories of his comics, which precede it by a couple years – is set in a hotel room at a NYC based comics convention over Christmas of 1976. I’m not sure why I was there, in that tiny room, with a dozen or so other people, most of whom worked at Marvel at the time, but it must’ve had something to do with Duffy Vohland, whose Brooklyn apartment I crashed at that week. At the time, the House Of Representatives was investigating purported illegal behavior by the CIA, and in the course of conversation I suggested a storyline wherein Marvel’s CIA stand-in, SHIELD, would be likewise investigated. Someone in the room immediately jumped down my throat about how SHIELD would never do anything illegal, and Steve jumped to agree with my premise that any organization with that much power and difficult to achieve objectives that it viewed as critically important would tend toward self-justifying whatever actions it deemed necessary, especially if it operated outside the range of common oversight. This led to five or ten minutes of heated debate before chat shifted to other things, but it was only after the conversation that I learned it was Steve Gerber who’d sided with me.
I didn’t see him again for nearly ten years.
Which doesn’t mean our paths didn’t cross, due to Marvel. By the time I began writing for Marvel, Steve had moved on, leaving behind the detritus of his career there. Among the things left unfinished in his wake was his original creation, with Mary Skrenes, OMEGA THE UNKNOWN, which had lasted ten issues and left dangling plotlines Steve had promised to wrap up in “a future issue of THE DEFENDERS,” which he was also writing at the time. By late ’78, it had gotten to the point where about the only letters THE DEFENDERS got demanded the long-promised OMEGA wrapup. Then DEFENDERS writer Ed Hannigan felt it was a huge booby trap (rightly, as it turned out), while then editor Al Milgrom wanted to get past it and move on in the worst way. So he threw me the assignment.
Due to the name similarity, there was (obviously inaccurate) speculation at the time that I was Steve, working under a pseudonym. (It may have been Steve, during a run on CAPTAIN AMERICA, who gave Steve Rogers the middle name of “Grant,” and “Amber Grant” was a supporting character in OMEGA, which deepened the speculation but, as with MOON KNIGHT, it was coincidence.) The speculation died when the story came out, followed by many accusations, possibly correct, that I’d raped Steve’s character. I’m the first to admit I had no particular affinity for, nor interest in, OMEGA. For me, it was just another (and in this case too elliptical) expression of Steve’s Superman worship, which I didn’t share. It was an assignment. I tend to approach assignments as puzzles to be solved. Had I known how Steve intended to wrap up the series, I’d likely have done it that way. He never told anyone at Marvel; I don’t know if he ever told at all. The transparent reading of the series suggested the young co-protagonist, James Michael Starling, whom Omega spent his time protecting against Killer Robots From The Stars when he wasn’t fighting standard supervillains, would in some way grow up to be Omega. At least that was what most of the letter writers seem to think, though at least one Gerber-scripted scene indicated otherwise. I knew only two things for sure: I had to tie off all the plot threads, and I had two issues to do it. But I had no interest in savaging the character. Asking what Steve would have done was pointless, since no one knew. What I asked myself instead is how Steve Gerber, coming in cold, would have approached it.
Because there was a Steve Gerber approach. Steve was one of a flood of writers who came to Marvel as Stan Lee eased out of writing and editorial into the publishing end of the company, and Roy Thomas, who’d taught Steve while a schoolteacher in St. Louis, ascended to editor-in-chief. At first blush, his burst runs on strips like IRON MAN, SHANNA THE SHE-DEVIL and INCREDIBLE HULK read like the relatively non-descript work of an okay writer. Not that the stories were bad, but there was always something a bit off, like he couldn’t quite get the formula right. This was, after all, the age of the New Traditionalist at Marvel, when ex-fan writers steeped in comics were coming in to solidify the innovations of Stan Lee and Roy Thomas into “the Marvel style” and, perhaps unconsciously, constructing what was their favorite aspects of what had come to be known as “Marvel” into a solid formula while often simultaneously pursuing their personal tweaks and innovations of it. Marvel writers’ popularity (at least in fan circles, which didn’t necessary correspond to sales) often hinged to seamlessly build on the formula; Steve Englehart, for instance, became a superstar by shunting the formula into quantum drive. (I emphasize “the formula” not to denigrate anyone’s work; in most cases, “the formula” was pretty much value-neutral, and talent was still the pivot point. Englehart’s work, for example, ranks as it does regardless of the formula, not because of it.) Steve Gerber, who became the other writing superstar at Marvel in that era, always had an uneasy relationship to “the formula” at best, and even early on, there was one thing strongly indicating that Steve was not failing the formula, the formula was failing Steve.
There was MAN-THING.
One of the virtues of writing for Marvel in the 1970s is that much of the era was a free-for-all. Organization wasn’t the company’s strong suit then, certainly not after Roy Thomas stepped down as editor-in-chief to be replaced by a revolving door of EICs: Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin. (I may be missing someone.) The editorial staff was small, the functions often indistinct, malleable and pragmatic, and quickly enough Marvel fell into the writer-editor system, where a book’s writer because its de facto, if not actual, editor, at the forbearance of editor-in-chief and publisher. It may not have been the greatest business structure ever invented, but it was an unprecedented moment for mainstream comics creatively. It was a culture Steve Gerber thrived in; that he has rarely thrived since says more about how our culture has changed than it does about Steve.
For most writers, MAN-THING would be a conceptual nightmare, its lead character devoid of intelligence, emotion, even personality. It’s not that he doesn’t speak, think or otherwise express himself in any apprehendable way, it that there’s literally nothing there to apprehend. The term “hero” is inapplicable, since he has no will or goals, feels no victory. He shambles. Those who know fear burn at the Man-Thing’s touch. That’s pretty much it. To say Steve was undaunted by this is missing the point, and missing the depth of his iconoclasm.
He embraced Man-Thing. (It’s pretty much impossible to discuss Man-Thing without unfortunate double-entendres – GIANT-SIZED MAN-THING is still the best, funniest comic book title Marvel ever came up with – so there they are and that’s that.) He quickly turned it into a mechanism for telling any kind of story he chose to tell, in any way he chose to tell it. (The “nexus of realities” he tossed into Man-Thing’s swamp was the progenitor of hundreds of such reality-warping plot gimmicks infesting comics ever since.) He championed the literary use of text in comics, in massive doses; of social realism that ended up making him the Nostradamus of Columbine; of deconstructing and undermining formulae with abandon; of incorporating didactic or philosophical arguments in stories. There were other great comics writers at the time, but, whether you like the work or not, in MAN-THING Steve alone of all his mainstream peers was writing as if there were still undiscovered countries in the medium. Steve always said his major influence was the SUPERMAN TV show of the 1950s – it certainly informed the humanist moralism that runs throughout his work – but though he tried several times to create a new Superman figure, it’s evident “heroism” and “power” were concepts he held in deep suspicion, along with fashion and tradition; his natural subjects were losers, outcasts, the repressed, the oppressed and the downtrodden. More than other comics writers of the era, he placed great coin on literary style; the “ironic moralism” in all his work stems, I think, from those same Missouri wellsprings that produced Mark Twain and William Burroughs. But what most readers recognized was this: unlike standard superhero books like DAREDEVIL, MAN-THING gave Steve the ground on which to develop an almost wholly unique tableau, where there was no formula (or precious little, unusually restricted to someone burning at Man-Thing’s touch… and there’s a damn double entendre again) except that anything could happen.
And it did, when out of the swamp walked Howard The Duck.
Howard the Duck was the concept that made and broke Steve Gerber. In 1976, it was the hottest property there was, unlike anything comics fans had seen in living memory but exactly what, in those post-Vietnam days when all rudders seemed broken, everyone seemed to want. Disrespectful, outspoken, abrasive, abusive, disgruntled, embittered, and, “trapped in a world he never made,” pretty much unbound from petty social restrictions, Howard was what much of his audience would love to have been, and was certainly Steve’s avatar, the ideal nightmare counterpoint to a formulaic Disney America.
Howard’s also of the most important characters in the history of comics because Steve became the first major figure in modern comics to sue a comics company over who really owned the character. It was eventually settled without trial, leaving Marvel in control of Howard and Steve scrounging to pay off massive legal fees, and by that point Howard’s value had been gutted by its notorious movie version, which, in Hollywoodizing the Duck, missed his appeal completely. Which isn’t surprising, since Marvel, despite several attempts to revive the property, missed it as well. Howard easily survived artist changes, but if there was ever a character who functioned almost purely as an expression of his creator, it was Howard the Duck. In Steve’s hands it was a humor book, but not like any humor book anyone had done before. Most later writers have tried, unsuccessfully, to play HOWARD THE DUCK as a joke strip, with traditional setups and punchlines, but in Steve’s hands the humor was conceptual, situational; much of the time it wasn’t even concerned with being funny. It was predicated on outrage that didn’t waste time stopping to acknowledge its own existence, and it’s not surprising that it not only ended in outrage but its final gift to the comics business was a growing outrage among freelancers whose previously shaky views on creator-ownership had been brought into sharp focus by the lawsuit against Marvel.
Howard was also responsible for my second, this time direct, run-in with Steve, with an article I wrote for Marvel’s HOWARD THE DUCK black and white magazine about the origins of the Duck, where I quoted an interview with MAN-THING artist Val Mayerik that seemed to indicate Val came up with the idea of having a cigar-smoking duck in hat, jacket and tie strut out of the swamp, with Steve seizing on the one-off character and naming him. Steve called me after publication to find out where I got that from, since Marvel’s lawyers were trying to use it to claim Howard didn’t originate with him after all. (That the piece would have any influence on the lawsuit never occurred to me, and, in any case, as I understand it both Steve and Val gave evidence negating the account.) It was during that call that Steve and I genuinely became friends, and where I became aware he was extremely gracious and generous.
But the lawsuit’s end was also the end of Steve as a fan favorite writer. Marvel was no longer an option for him, though his shadow lingered over THE DEFENDERS (another book in which anything could happen, including a hero’s brain being put in Bambi’s body and a nameless elf randomly murdering anonymous civilians with no apparent connection to any plotline) for the rest of its long run; it was always the book where whoever writing it had to live up to what Steve Gerber did. Steve, again with Val Mayerik, created VOID INDIGO (it started as a Hawkman revamp rejected by DC) for Marvel’s Epic line and was promptly shut down by comics retailer outrage against its “ultraviolence” and sexual situations, and its connection of the two. He had some small success at DC, finally writing Superman stories in the PHANTOM ZONE mini-series, and collaborating on Dr. Fate stories with Martin Pasko, but he never comfortable fit into DC’s more corporate environment.
It’s not widely known, but he was the partial stimulus for some of DC’s biggest changes in the ’80s. Early in the decade, I believe while Frank Miller’s RONIN was in its early stages, Frank and Steve approached DC to drastically revamp its three core characters – Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – with Steve to write a sweeping Wonder Woman revamp called AMAZONS and Frank & Steve collaborating on Superman. They were in talks with DC for a long time, but the talks eventually broke down. VOID INDIGO as an intended Hawkman revamp gives us some idea of how radically different his Superman and Wonder Woman would have been; as I understand it, Frank’s Batman revamp eventually mutated into THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Certainly the urgency to do something different with their books wasn’t lost on DC, whose only real success at the time was Marv Wolfman & George Perez’s NEW TEEN TITANS, and its not difficult to draw a line between Steve & Frank’s prompting and the eventual decision to run CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTH and restart the Superman franchise from scratch.
The years since found Steve alternately working in animation – as one of the leading lights at Sunbow, he was heavily involved with the animated success of GI JOE, TRANSFORMERS and various other very popular cartoons of the ’80s – and comics, alternately praising both as “the place where you can do what you really want” and condemning both as corporately controlled wastelands. He returned to both Marvel and DC at several points, with mixed results – at Marvel he generated the ridiculously well-selling magazine version of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, only to have it, like VOID INDIGO, driven off the stands by fears of parental outrage, and to some extent rebirthed the spirit of his HOWARD THE DUCK in SHE-HULK in the late ’80s, but the work was lost amid the thousands of titles Marvel flooded out at the time – and briefly found homes at Eclipse Comics and Malibu’s Ultraverse line (where he essentially recreated Man-Thing as SLUDGE and The Defenders as EXILES) but lowered profile amid a ton of new flavors-of-the-month and lengthy absences from the comics field while toiling in animation had demoralized him. By then, both Frank and I were, like Steve, living in Los Angeles, and we frequently lunched together, bonding over our mutual resistance to a then-proposed industry-wide ratings system as anything else (thanks to his views on creator-ownership and his direct experience with outside repression of his comics, Steve was more than eager to cowboy up) and briefly co-published a rabble-rousing newsletter for comics freelancers. I’d intended to bring him in creatively on the abortive TSR-West books but never got the chance. For Steve, the ’90s were the ’80s revisited, until he got fed up for good with animation (or at least with living in Los Angeles to work in animation; in this decade Steve was involved with adapting YU-GI-OH episodes) and relocated here to Las Vegas.
The comics industry shake-ups of the ’90s put Steve in a bad place, with most editors that he knew moving on and a new crop often ignorant of his work moving in to replace them, and he spent much of this decade scraping by. A new HOWARD THE DUCK mini at Marvel got good response from pretty much everyone but Marvel, which never followed up on it. Things began to turn around when Dan Didio became something of Steve’s patron at DC, throwing the company behind Steve’s unorthodox prison drama HARD TIME and more recently assigning him to the Dr. Fate revamp currently running in COUNTDOWN TO MYSTERY. But by then Steve had developed a severe lung condition, a type of pulmonary fibrosis that was basically turning his lungs to wood. (Yes, Steve smoked, until recently, but the smoking doesn’t seem to have caused the condition, though I’m sure it didn’t help.)
Steve was the first person I went to lunch with when I moved to Las Vegas at the end of 2001. Lunches became, if not frequent, regular, until work and his disease drastically limited his movements. There were a few things you could depend on with Steve. Considering how byzantine many of his plots and characters were, he was personally one of the most guileless persons I’ve known, and, as I said, always open and generous. He had cats. I never got the feeling he necessarily liked cats, but he always had them. Whatever time you gave to meet, he would always call at that time to say he’d be there in half an hour, traffic allowing. He was constantly in a state of panic, distraction and good humor. Not to mention always very negative about the general state of the comics industry, while always extraordinarily upbeat about the prospects for whatever new project he had in the works, as well as extraordinarily supportive of anything you had in the works. He was always a very funny guy, but in the way HOWARD THE DUCK was funny: he found the humor, dark and light, in every situation, regardless, sometimes because, of the pain involved.
And odds are pretty good the business would be a far different place today had Steve never been in it. Beyond being a vocal champion of creator ownership and creator rights, to the point of putting his financial future on the line for it, he was a unique voice in a business that too often goes out of its way to rein unique voices in; it speaks of his perspective that no one has yet been able to replicate it. It’s an indictment of the comics business that it was unable to find, or make, a real place for Steve Gerber even after he had demonstrated he was, as Warren Ellis wrote in his Bad Signal newsletter yesterday, “a giant. Is a giant.” Back when I wrote a eulogy on Gil Kane’s passing, I mentioned that a lot of people would now be coming out of the woodwork to heap praise on him but it’s too bad they didn’t do that when he was still alive. The same goes for Steve. Where were all the people who will praise him now when he couldn’t get a new project off the ground or get an editor to answer his phone calls? I look at Steve’s career and see a lot of still inspiring work, but I look at what could have been and see so much potential wasted. If this is a business that can’t find a place for the guy who created Howard The Duck, what good is it? Recently Marvel launched new HOWARD THE DUCK and OMEGA THE UNKNOWN series, and many involved for some reason found it odd that Steve didn’t really view this as the compliment to his work they seemed to. But it’s not odd to find it less than complimentary that a company is assigning someone else to work on properties you created that are almost universally associated with you when you are available to do them and perfectly capable of it, and anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves.
The last time I saw Steve was over Christmas, carrying a portable oxygen supply with him. He was nearly ecstatic; after months of uncertainty, his insurance company had decided to pay for a lung transplant operation after all, he was on the short list at UCLA Medical Center and awaiting a donor, and was ridiculously full of life and optimism, talking of new projects he had in mind, and how much fun he was having with Dr. Fate. Except for the hose in his nose, you’d never have known he was sick. So when I got the call yesterday that he’d die, it was a shock. There are lots of weird little diseases running around the Las Vegas Valley this year, and it has been uncharacteristically cold and damp. Like most of the rest of the valley, Steve picked up something recently, and ended up with pneumonia he no longer had the resources to withstand.
I don’t feel like writing about anything else today. Regular programming resumes next week. There is no prize this week for figuring out what all the covers have in common.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.
IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.
Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
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