12 Feb 2008

STEVE GERBER R.I.P.

By Rob N


Steve Gerber sadly died on the 10th February 2008, having suffered from pulmonary fibrosis. In hospital, and hoping for a lung transplant, he developed an infection that led to his death at the tragically early age of 60.

Part of the second wave of writers at Marvel comics, Steve Gerber was one of a handful of prominent names who radically changed the style and content of comics printed by the House of Ideas following their remarkable Sixties expansion into the marketplace. Throughout the 1960s Marvel had benefited and suffered from a lone driving voice – that of Stan Lee. Lee's 'house style' – a sort of kind, paternal liberalism – meant that every book spoke to the reader in the same way. But as Lee gradually handed over responsibility for his books to other writers, a new breed of young guns were dug in and ready to take over.

Steve Gerber was young and keen to explore new ideas in keeping with the revolutionary generation in which he'd grown up. He wasn't going to write comics about responsible pipe smoking superheroes in smart casual slacks. Gerber leaned instead towards a more eccentric writing style, rarely seen outside of the 'comix' underground small press – a style that owed a lot to the 'druggy' New Wave of SF writing from the Sixties.

His stories and his characters were often bizarre for the time. Even when hemmed in by the conventions of a traditional superhero book, like the Defenders, he managed to push the boundaries of what was expected by the traditional spandex readership. Storylines in the Defenders eschewed traditional villains for surreal escapades such as the Headmen – where three obscure villains from 1950s Atlas horror stories (each with some form of disfigurement involving the head) set about switching brains with Nighthawk. Readers were perplexed and enraged in equal measures when he introduced a homicidal and mysterious 'elf with a gun' who would turn up for one page at a time to gun down some anonymously inoffensive character without any word of explanation, or apparently anything to do with the main plot. When Steve Gerber left the title suddenly without warning, readers howled for a resolution to this running joke of a storyline, and not knowing what the hell Gerber had intended to do with the character, the new writers simply had the elf run over by a speeding truck. The end. In many ways the style of Gerber's run on the Defenders was a forerunner for Grant Morrison's version of Doom Patrol. Here was a series that now had characters called The Spanker (a private school headmaster dismissed because of his taste for corporal punishment.) Dr Angst (Self titled 'Mystic of the Mundane'), The Black Hole (a man with the ability to suck things into a cavity in his chest) and Sitting Bullseye (ex-CIA agent with joke - but deadly - arrows and a giant red target tattooed on his chest).

Gerber wrote the seminal run of Man-Thing (Marvel's own Swamp Thing) – a classic work of horror in a fine decade that saw the genre rejuvenated both in comics and in movies. During his run on the muck-monster he created the enduring character of Howard the Duck and the less famous, but equally original, Foolkiller (a man who makes the Punisher seem sane by way of comparison). Howard was to be a source of considerable conflict as Gerber tried in vain to claim ownership of the character in later years, only to learn that prising any creator rights out of Marvel at that time was statistically less likely than learning to fly with a pair of fake plastic wings. This was one of the earliest examples of fighting for creator rights within an industry that considered such a thing as being tantamount to Communism.

His days were numbered at Marvel as the increasingly straight-laced editorial staff neither understood nor particularly liked his irreverent way of dealing with characters who were effectively the 'family silver'. Jim Shooter's promotion to editor-in-chief was more or less the final straw as he and Gerber did not see eye to eye on most things.

Sadly, life in the world of comics outside of Marvel and DC was tricky in the early Eighties. Like Ditko before him, Gerber's independent work was sporadic and poorly read. He drifted in and out of work with the Big Two from time to time, but turned instead to television to earn a living, writing and producing poor quality, but often popular, animated serials for children, such as Dungeons & Dragons, Thundarr the Barbarian, and Transformers. Very little of his quirky Seventies style could be seen in any of this mainstream output for the 'glass teat' that was American television in those days. I like to think that a young Steve Gerber would have had a happier and more successful career had he started out in comics in the wake of the Alan Moore revolution. The industry didn't really know what to make of his post-modernist style at a time when mainstream comics were still living in the shadow of the traditionally stylised Sixties. He bounced regularly from title to title, never settling for too long, and had to fight to tell stories the way he wanted to. Along the way he gathered a hard core of devoted fans who had never read anything quite like his stuff. I still remember vividly picking up a copy of Howard the Duck #16 that had been hit by the 'dreaded deadline doom'. It was common place in the Seventies for an artist to have failed to finish an issue in time to print, and readers were resigned to opening an original cover only to find a hasty reprint tacked inside. Not with Gerber though. The man decided to publish an entire issue of madcap surrealistic prose, scattered with some pages of new Gene Colon artwork, in which he set out to explore a sort of Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing philosophy, plus an obligatory fight scene with an Ostrich and a Killer Lampshade, because comics had to have fight scenes in those days. I was only 13 at the time and I guess I only understood about 10% of what I read, but at least it wasn't another reprint!

Steve Gerber will be greatly missed by those who grew up reading his fantastic stories. Rest in peace, Steve.

4 comments:

Matt C said...

A shock. He still seemed to be working hard on various projects right up until the end, and if his recent Hard Time series is anything to go by, he never lost any of his bite.

Matt T said...

From the bits of Howard the Duck I've read the man will definately be missed, it's rare to get a writer who can weave comedy into a book so expertly.

Andy H said...

Wow! Saddened by the news. Another great has been lost. He leaves behind a legacy that will continue to be enjoyed for years to come entertaining old and new readers. RIP Steve

Matt T said...

here's a great article from Scott Tipton of Comics 101, detailing Steve's lesser known TV work;