TCJ ARCHIVE

The Steve Gerber Interview

Could you explicate a few of your feelings on some of your targets? For instance, Howard #3 deals with violence in the media. Could you tell us exactly what you think of violence in media? Obviously, you think it’s a bad influence…

No, that’s not true. I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, I think a group like Action for Children’s Television, while they certainly have the right idea, are going at the problem from a totally wrongheaded approach. I don’t think it’s the depiction of violence itself that’s the bad thing. It’s the question of how the violence is presented, the artistic rationale behind it, and how much of its consequences are shown. Then, too, the nature of the violence itself, and the even more basic question of honesty — are these actions and emotions representative of human behavior in the context of this set of events, or are they contrived? It’s a very complex question, and you may be interested to know that violent actions are not the only concern of ACT and similar groups. They’re also opposed to the presentation of violent emotions. I have it on good authority that one of the major problems with the new Fantastic Four cartoon series has been the characterization of the Thing. Now get this — they are afraid that his nasty temperament and his arguments with Reed and Sue Richards will “encourage sibling rivalry.” The networks and the various pressure groups hope, with the tool of television, to wipe out a complex pattern of human behavior that dates back to Cain and Abel by excising strong emotions from theFF cartoon show. What frightens me, given the statistics on the viewing patterns of today’s kids, is that it may actually be possible. The Soofis’ Blanderizer machine may be television. The problem with many comic books and with much of children’s television is that the effects of violence are rarely presented honestly. The buildings the Hulk would tear up were always abandoned warehouses; Spidey and Doc Ock can punch each other in the face for 38 consecutive panels and neither gets a nosebleed. An impressionable child might be misled to believe that punching, kicking and maiming were all good clean fun — and that he or she could get away with it, that the violence would have no ramifications, that no one would really get hurt, least of all himself Prettied-up violence is, to my mind, the most vile of all. But now we have a whole host of other questions to consider! What about that cannon that backfires on Wile E. Coyote? What about Elmer Fudd running down Bugs Bunny with that steamroller? The coyote is charred for a few frames; Bugs is flattened, but snaps back to three dimensions. Is that violence without consequence, too? Personally, I don’t think so. I believe a child can distinguish between Bugs Bunny and a human being. I could at that age, and I never expected the physical universe to conform to the laws of reality as presented in the Warner Brothers cartoons. On the other hand, you have the kung fu movies that we were dealing within Howard #3. The best of them depicted violence as a kind of poetry, a savage, exotic kind of ballet. In the worst of them, violence was presented as a near-sexual means to gratification. Worse, the gouging, jabbing, and chopping were treated as acceptable, and not even extraordinary, forms of behavior — as something everyone takes for granted, because we all know there’s a martial arts expert lurking around every corner in New York City, and you’d better be prepared, because he’s going to beat your brains out. There was a real-life incident that stimulated the story in Howard #3. Originally, I’d planned to do a parody of the Master of Kung Fu book, with Howard doing the first-person narration, and so on. Then, Mary Skrenes and I were sitting in The Market diner at 44th Street and 11th Avenue in New York, trying to work out that plot and a couple of others, when some sort of incident took place out on the sidewalk. We couldn’t even see clearly what was happening, but by the time we got up and left our seats to see what sort of insanity was going on out there, a kid came staggering into the diner, his face bloodied, stab wounds all over his body, and collapsed on the floor. We were told by one of the waitresses the next day that he had died. It was at that point, after that incident, after walking up and down and 9th Avenue and Times Square in New York and seeing the kids play with nunchaku sticks as if they were squirt guns, that I decided a story like “Four Feathers of Death” had to be done. It meant something to me. I don’t know how well we carried it off, if it produced the desired effect, I mean. A lot of people liked it, a lot of people didn’t. But the idea of using the Duck in that fashion, of making him the target of that kind of brutality was a valid and important one. No one expects to see a “funny animal” bleed. It was a very, very graphic way to make a point about what those films were saying, how easy it is to become inured to violence when it’s presented in that fashion. But I am definitely not in favor of the elimination of violence from television, from film, from any medium. First of all, that would be utterly unrealistic and dishonest. Secondly, I grew up watching Roy Rogers and George Reeves’ Superman and Sky King, and they certainly didn’t turn me into a rampaging monster… opinions differ on that matter. [Laughter.] But, no, I mean, I was a conscientious objector. None of the supposedly violent programs I watched made me a more violent person. None of the current films that utilize violence for artistic ends would really have that effect on anyone who wasn’t already severely disturbed.

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Sequence from “Four Feathers of Death” in Howard the Duck #3, ©1976 Marvel Comics Group.


How would you differentiate using violence for artistic ends, and…

It’s much easier to give examples. It’s essentially the difference between Taxi Driver and The Street Fighter.

Street Fighter I haven’t seen.

Don’t bother. It’s Sonny Chiba ripping out people’s tongues and tearing off their genitals. WithStreet Fighter the violence is the entertainment. In Taxi Driver, it is there to make a very important character statement about Travis Bickle. Although the scene in Taxi Driver is incredibly bloody and incredibly violent and difficult to watch, its intent is entirely different. It’s the act of a man who cannot express his emotions any other way, whereas, for Sonny Chiba, it’s all in a day’s work — and Chiba is presented as the hero of the picture. There is no similarity at all between the two films, and no similarity in the meaning of the violence.

The Dr. Bong episodes confused me. Who or what did Dr. Bong represent?

That story started out, too, as something very different from what it became. It began as a parody ofThe Island of Dr. Moreau, with an attempt to create a villain for Howard of the stature of Dr. Doom or the Red Skull, someone we could bring back periodically. The origin of the name is funny, too. I was over at Gene Simmons’s apartment — this was during the time we were working on the Kiss book — and he was showing me some of the group’s fan mail. Someone wrote them a very strange letter that said, “Come over to the house. We’ll have some good music, some good wine and some bonging.” Whatever that meant. Gene didn’t know, and neither did I. We had different assumptions about it. But it struck me as very funny, and it stuck with me, and when it was time to create this new villain, Dr. Bong was it. Marie Severin and I designed the costume with the ding-dong school bell on his head, and the clapper on one hand. It began, really, as nothing more than an exercise in silliness, combined with a number of my own dream images. Howard #15 was comprised almost entirely of strange images from my own dreams. Then, a fellow by the name of Bob Greene, with the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote an incredibly vitriolic article about our Kiss book — prior to its publication, with no solid, factual basis for the criticism except his own negative attitude toward the group. The article was syndicated to some 100 newspapers around the country, and the mail began pouring in to Marvel from outraged people who, though they hadn’t seen the book either, were certain we were out to corrupt the moral fiber of the nation’s young. They warned us they would never buy Marvel comics again if we dared publish the book. They vowed to burn every copy that reached their neighborhood newsstands. It caused a great deal of trouble for me with Marvel. So I decided to have a little fun. Bob Greene had previously written a book called Billion-Dollar Baby, about his experiences touring and performing onstage with Alice Cooper. Knowing nothing of Greene’s past other than that, I set out to construct a character as loathsome as Greene was in my eyes at that time — a former yellow journalist who utilized the power of the press amorally to his own ends. Strangely enough, Greene’s brother, who lives in Colorado, is a Duck fan and brought Howard#17 to Greene’s attention. Greene loved it, called me up again, and wrote a very favorable article about Howard the Duck in which he gave me a chance to rebut some of his statements about the Kiss book. So Mr. Greene and I are now on, I think, fairly good terms. He said it was a lifetime ambition fulfilled, becoming a comic book villain.

That’s everyone’s ambition.

I’ve done it myself. I was Winky-Man.

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A young Doctor Bong is sduced by the evils of journalism in this sequence fromHoward the Duck #17, ©1977 Marvel Comics Group.


You also put your friends in the strip, didn’t you?

Friends, enemies, unsuspecting strangers off the street. The Beverly Switzler character was based very loosely on Mary Skrenes; Arthur Winslow was a kind of McGregor type. The Kidney Lady is real, I encountered her on Times Square. Other characters were either combinations of various persons, or, in many cases, just invention. Iris Raritan, who appears in the Ringmaster stories, is a character not so much based on anyone individual as on a trend I’ve perceived in people lately — the feeling that they have absolute license to monkey around with anyone else’s by whatever means they choose, basically for their own amusement or to satisfy their own needs. It’s a logical extension of the “Looking Out for Number One” concept.

What do you say to people who accuse you of being too negative, and of great institutions like shopping malls and television violence?

I don’t know. I just know I never apologize… I think all the explanation that’s required is contained in the stories themselves. Something has happened to this country in the past 10 years or so. We’ve become much more willing to accept anything — again, it’s hard to escape the clichés Madison Avenue or the Government shoves down our throats. The truth has become unbearable to contemplate. There’s a terrible apathy that’s engendered a new movement back to the Self. The society seems to have accepted the notion that by simply becoming oblivious to what’s happening in the world outside our skins, the horror will go away. It’s not going to go away. Isn’t that the nature of escapist entertainment? It is, but I think we are being deluged with escapist entertainment. Aren’t comics escapist entertainment? Not exclusively, no. Not by definition. Virtually they are, don’t you think? Virtually, yes. Most of the Marvel line is, yeah. And DC, and the rest. You’re certainly not going to find a great deal to think about in the average issue of Casper the Friendly Ghost. But I think there’s enough of that stuff around that we have room for a magazine like Howard, maybe even a need for it. There are other books that deal in social criticism and serious characterizations.Howard may differ from Master of Kung Fu or various strips that McGregor and Englehart wrote, because of the presence of the Duck, the inherent humor of that character. We may have found a format in which these kinds of stories can be made more palatable, a little easier to swallow.

It seems paradoxical that you’re working in an industry that specializes in escapist entertainment, and yet you cited escapism as a bad trend.

No, I don’t mean to say that. I think there’s definitely a place for escapist entertainment. Films likeStar Wars or Close Encounters, or a comic book like Marvel Team-Up, definitely have their place. You can’t have social commentary jack-hammered into your head constantly, either. It becomes a case of sensory overload after awhile. There’s only so much of it you can absorb at a time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting way from it all occasionally. But most American entertainment is escapist — movies, television, most magazines, paperbacks, comics, all the way down the line, and I think there’s a glut of that kind of material. I think something else is needed. What amazes me is that so many people find one itsy-bitsy comic book like Howard so threatening.

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Howard and Beverly debate an age-old subject in this sequence from Howard the Duck #2, ©1976 Marvel Comics Group.


Do you think Howard is an important book because of your willingness to tackle social issues head-on?

No, I don’t think that’s the major breakthrough with Howard. To an extent, we dealt with social issues in The Defenders, in Man-Thing. The main contribution, if any, that Howard has made to comics has been its departure from the standard formula of comic-book storytelling — of what can constitute a comic book, what it can do, what it can say, and what it can mean. Glance through a typical Marvel or DC book, you’ll find that, regardless of which character the magazine features, the material will be arranged in roughly the following way: a three-page fight or chase scene to open; about two pages of the character in his secret identity; three more pages of the character back in costume, either engaged in a second fight with the villain or swinging around the city look for the villain and encountering other little obstacles along the way; a couple more pages of the alter ego; and then the big fight scene at the end. That’s the formula for the DC books. All of it looks alike. All of it reads alike. The pacing of every story is virtually identical. I think that formula has just about outlived its usefulness. Largely, the sales figures, except on the most established characters, back me up on that. Spider-ManSupermanHulkThor, and The Fantastic Four — all of them still do very well. But when you start moving below the crème de la crème of comics characters, you will find that most of them are just bumping along, both in sales and in terms of readability.

Where do you think they’ll go if the formula does indeed break down?

Frankly, I don’t know. I don’t see any evidence on the part of either company to explore any vastly different kind of story. Well, actually, that’s not simple. That’s the basis of everything. I’m not talking about different kinds of characters, or tossing out the superhero format entirely, or anything that superficial. The very nature of the stories being told may have to change if the medium is going to survive. That’s all-encompassing, really.

What do you mean by the nature of the story?

Well, all right. I think the time is coming when the kids are not going to be willing to settle for about six pages of Peter Parker’s neverending, never­-changing problems with Aunt May sandwiched between two fight scenes with the Vulture. That era is rapidly drawing to a close. It’s a style that became a formula accidentally. It was, I think, the natural way of writing comics for Stan Lee in the very beginning. Something that he did instinctively. I don’t think it was anything he ever wrote down as Ten Rules of How to Write Comics. He followed certain guidelines — snappy opening scenes that involved the reader immediately in the action, major climactic scenes around page 17 (when comics were 20-page stories). It was no more than the same basic dramatic structure one would apply to a play, a film, or anything else. You build to a climax, the climax occurs, and you resolve the conflict. What has happened, though, is that over the years that simple dramatic structure has ossified into a page-by-page formula that has become so predictable and so mind-numbing to the readers that it’s hard to tell, except by the colors of the costumes — and they’ve all begun to look alike, too — whether you’re reading Ms. Marvel or Spider-Man. The formula today doesn’t merely dictate an exciting opening scene. It requires the hero, in costume, as the largest central figure on the page. In cases where the hero cannot appear on page one, some or another representation of the hero — a phantom figure, a statue, a newspaper photograph, whatever — must be present. Theoretically, this is supposed to help sales. That’s just one example. Not only do the books read alike, they all look alike. This also was an accident that, I believe, had its origins in Stan’s wanting certain artists to emulate certain very good things in Jack Kirby’s work. As progressively less creative types took the reins at Marvel, this mutated into a slavish imitation of Jack, and later of John Buscema, to a degree where all the artists are becoming indistinguishable from one another.

You’re starting to sound like Gil Kane, Steve.

I read the Gil Kane interview. He and I agree on certain points, but not all. My major argument with Gil is his assessment of the writing in comics. Gil considers it far below the level of the artwork. In my opinion, the majority of it is exactly at the level of the art, and that’s the problem. You have a situation now where most comic-book artists do not know how to draw human beings. They know how to draw Kirbyesque machinery and the ray guns and the conventional muscular heroic figure, one stereotyped watermelon-busted female figure, and about six facial expressions. And that’s it. The exceptions to that rule can be counted on the fingers of both hands — without using up the fingers. For me, Gene Colan is probably the most fabulous exception to it. Gene has a way with nuance in facial expression, body movement, camera angles, and lighting — I’ve never seen an artist who could touch him on that. There are more dynamic artists, some who are better storytellers, but there is no one in the field that can match Gene’s subtlety. Unfortunately, a lot of it is lost in the printing process and in the inking. That’s not a comment on the inkers; it’s just that some of the stuff Gene does relies so heavily on delicate pencil shading that the effect cannot be duplicated in opaque ink. My feelings about what Gil had to say — God, we could do a whole interview on that — I disagreed with him profoundly on a number of things. I don’t believe that a comic book is just a collection of pretty pictures. I don’t believe that the pictures alone can or should tell the story. Image Image


A Hallucinatory sequence from Howard the Duck #10, ©1976 Marvel Comics Group.


Do you agree with Gil’s assessment that the writer is just as important to a comic as the artist?

Did he say that?

Yes.

I must have glossed over it. I didn’t see that. But I think the writer is at least 50 percent of the book.

At least?

At least, yeah. Possibly more, for the simple reason that that’s where the story originates.

Let’s talk about the nature of the medium.

All right. Before we move onto that, I want to say there is a strange rivalry between artists and writers in comics. I wouldn’t call it bad blood, but sort of semi-spoiled blood between the two divisions. It would be impossible for the writer to do what he does in comics without the artist. That’s absolutely true. The artist plays a gargantuan part of it. Percentages, I don’t think mean anything. There are some cases where I’ve had to do 80 percent of the work, because the storytelling was so bad, the artwork was so muddled, that I found myself explaining what was going on in the picture as well as just trying to advance the plot and delineate the characters. There have also been cases, and it’s always a bonanza when it happens, when the pictures have spoken as eloquently as the words. When that happens, it’s no less work for the writer, it’s the writer being able to concentrate, say, less on narrative than character development, being able to do something else better, because the art has done part of the job for him. As I say, it’s like 50 percent, 20 percent, 90 percent — none of that means anything. It has to be a true collaboration for it to work, and that’s the bottom line. Now, about the nature of the medium. Another thing Gil said — to use this as a kind of jumping-off point — where I think he’s really wrong, is that the writers in comics are writing comics because they can’t write anything else. Again, I have to say that in a lot of cases, that’s true, but I don’t think the real story will be told for another 10 years or so. Watch what I, Wein, Wolfman, Conway and the rest of the current bunch — Doug Moench and Don McGregor and so on — look at what we’re doing 10 years from now, and then we’ll know the score. I think it’s too early right now for the final tally. But some of us, certainly, have been working in comics because we like the medium. There are things that comics can do that no other medium can; there are things other media can do that comics can’t.

Can you give us some examples?

Let’s start with the very basics, all right? A comic-book page measures about 7″ x 10″. We’re working with a limited amount of space. Those 7″ x 10″ inches are divided into, say, usually three to six panels per page. Those panels contain artwork, and they contain lettering. There is only a certain amount of reproducible detail, due to a really rotten printing process, that can be presented on a comic-book page.There are only a certain number of words that can be written for that page without covering up all the pictures. This sounds very basic, but it’s strange how few people think about it. For these reasons, the medium has developed, and, in fact, is really kind of literary shorthand. You don’t get the depth of characterization that you can find in a 1200-page Russian novel. It cannot be done. The quality of the reproduction, the general quality of the art — this goes back to what I said earlier about the probability that your artists will only be able to do about six facial expressions — the fact that the images do not move, the fact that there is no supplementary text to give you any indication of how these lines are being spoken… the best indicators or vocal intonation you have are balloon shapes — the icicle balloon; the thick, wavy balloon; the mechanical balloon; the burst balloon; the news-flash balloon (the one they use to represent radio or TV voices)…

Aren’t there other alternatives? For instance, couldn’t you have descriptive narration with dialogue under or over the panel? In other words, instead of a balloon containing the words, “But, Howard, this exit leads to the tower,” you could place the words at the bottom of the panel to read, “But, Howard,” she said with urgency, “this exit leads to the tower.” Or would that approach ruin the nature of a comic, because the picture should express that urgency?

There are several answers to that question. First of all, at that point it becomes something other than what we know as a comic. I’ve tried doing this in various stories.

In Man-Thing?

In Man-Thing, “The Book of Edmund” [Giant-Size Man-Thing #4], in the Howard book — not issue #16, I don’t even want to discuss that; if you want to bring it up later, OK, but I don’t consider it an example of this — but there was a page in one story where we did a news conference [Howard#8], part of Howard’s presidential campaign, where we were able to fit literally about three times as much dialogue as we could have if they had been hand-lettered balloons. I’ve made other attempts at this. Other writers have tried it, too. Reader reaction is varied. My own feeling is that it works in certain contexts, but not always. It worked with “The Book of Edmund,” because the book was a story-within-a-story, self-contained. And it worked with the news conference, because that was like reproducing a transcript of the news conference. It worked in “Song-Cry of the Living Dead Man” in Man-Thing [#12], because that was a piece of prose written by a character in the story and intended to be read as such. I think in cases like these, it can be done successfully, but to try it on a regular basis for a comic book — number one, I don’t think it would sell. I think that’s something that has to be taken into consideration. Number two, the words are still limited by space; the depth you could achieve would still be limited. You would lose a lot of the continuity and storytelling techniques from panel to panel that we’ve developed over the past 20 years, roughly since the advent of The Fantastic Four. I don’t know. I could see a book done that way. It might be an interesting experiment. I’d like to see what would happen with it. I would not be inclined to do it. My own inclination is not to tamper too much with the nature of the medium, but more with the content. (Incidentally, I am aware that the format we’re discussing here isn’t exactly revolutionary. The text-below-pictures thing is, of course, Prince Valiant. The indisputable success of the strip notwithstanding, I’m still not sure it would work in a comic book.)

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