What kind of material would you like to see in a line of magazines?
Everything. Absolutely everything. My plan for the proposed Howard the Duck magazine was to present a wide variety of features, not exclusively Howard. It would have been roughly 35 pages of Howard each issue and various backup features, no other series. I'd already done one crazy three-page thing that just came to me, a little humor spot. I was encouraging other writers at Marvel to submit ideas to me for anything they would like to do. I didn't want a regular backup feature in that magazine. I think that would have been death. Marvel was pushing for a regular Man-Thing backup. Here again, it's the instant impulse to shoot for the easiest possible thing. So immediately we'll have five or six more fossils on the stands, all of which have a regular lead feature and all the backup features designed and planned before the magazines ever hit the stands, I think that's a terrible mistake.
Obviously Marvel doesn't.
No, but I think you have an editorial team up there that doesn't know what else to do, and so they're very possibly incapable of producing any other kind of magazine if the situation were to demand it. There are very few people left up there capable of independent thought, let alone creative, innovative thought. Rick Marschall has just joined the staff. Ralph Macchio certainly has an appreciation for some of the more unusual material. Whether he'll be able to actualize that in his editorial capacity on this new line of magazines remains to be seen. Dave Kraft, who is handling the rock' n' roll books, has got imagination — Dave's got a lot of talent he can bring to those books, if they let him. And there are a handful of others fully capable of this, but right now I think the general trend, the main thrust of Marvel's whole editorial policy is homogenization, to make everything so much like everything else as humanly possible.
I guess their strategy is that if it worked once, it will again — or still.
Very sound reasoning. I mean, nothing else has changed since the 1950s, has it? Why should comic books? Speaking of movies again, there's now what I call the Peter Bogdanovich syndrome, where Â—
It sounds horrible.
Yeah. It amounts to a vain and futile attempt to recapture past glories. Nova is an example. Novawas supposed to be cast in the old mold of the early 1960s Marvel Comics, and it bears no resemblance whatsoever to those books. It's basically a fan's interpretation of what those books were like. To compare Nova with the early Ditko or Romita Spider-Man is fatuous. All the evocative elements are completely lost. It's an attempt, again, to formularize what was done in the early '60s. Every attempt at that has fallen just short of pathetic. What can I tell you? Nova is one particular book; there are others. Nova, strangely, when it first appeared, had its own interesting charm about it. I liked the first couple of issues. And then the degeneration was rampant and apparently irreversible. It didn't fool anybody.
I'll tell you the truth. I look so little at the Marvel line of the past couple of years that I couldn't tell you what's going on in the books. I don't know. I don't read them any more. They're dull to me. They bore me.
One title I happened to pick up the other day that interested me was "Seeker 3000" that Doug Moench and Tom Sutton did. That was at least a nice attempt at something. Here again, one of the funniest things about comic books is their literal interpretation of everything. Se we have a book called Marvel Premiere in which each issue must be a premiere. We cannot do two issues of the same characters, because then it's not a premiere any more. So, we're left with this Seeker 3000 bunch, which was one of the more interesting science-fiction efforts in the comics over the past couple of years, and God only knows if we'll ever see them again, because it would not be permissible to do a second issue of something in a book called Premiere. It's a little ridiculous.
This business of literalism says something not only about the nature of the medium, but also about a lot of the people who work in it, the thinking of a lot of the people. Something you cannot do in comics is have a character say one thing and mean something else — unless you slap a virtual Archie or Jughead smirk or the face of the dissembling character as the broadest possible indication that he or she is lying. There is no subtlety, no nuance in this medium.
Is the lack of subtlety and nuance a result of the comics' target audience Â— young kids?
No, I think it has more to do with the nature of the medium, the rotten reproduction process; even if the artist were to capture that nuance in facial expression, it would probably be lost by the time the plastic plates were out.
Aren't production values so shoddy because the target audience — young kids — has 35 cents to 50 cents to spend?
And the fact that the writers and artists only have about 35-cents' worth of imagination and they're not paid for more than that. The system rewards quantity of output, nothing else. The fastest artist or writer is the best, the most valuable.
Anyway, even when some very good people have attempted to do subtler things, they've almost always died. The one I can point to, and take the blame for, is Omega. That strip was an attempt to depict a certain ambiguity about a lot of the characters and a lot of the situations that were occurring — and it fell flat on its face. Everyone, anyway most everyone, interpreted everything we did literally.
Comic readers have been programmed to do that, haven't they?
Oh, yeah! One of the most amazing cases of this, for me, had to do with the Howard character. InMan-Thing #1, I think, we showed him grabbing up a gun tiring at some demons, quacking something like, "You better watch it, you guys! I happen to be a crack shot! (ha ha)." Later, much later, we had Howard using a gun again, firing wildly, and several readers wrote in to ask, why is Howard having so much trouble handling this gun when we know from Man-Thing #1 that he is crack shot!
Because you couldn't hear how the Duck spoke the line in Man-Thing #1, because there wasn't enough on his face to indicate the vocal intonation — the statement was interpreted literally by an embarrassing number of readers. You can't do an obvious bluff in a comic book without it being taken literally.
Omega was, then, a massive artistic failure and too small a financial success. The book was actually making money. The fact that they felt another book would make money, combined with the fact that nobody in the editorial office liked or understood the book, contributed to its demise.
What can we expect from Steve Gerber in the future?
Expect nothing, and you won't be disappointed.
No, actually things seem to be happening too quickly to keep track of them all. I've been approach by one independent publisher already to do a limited edition comics-format book. I'm working on a nonfiction book about the comics. Mark Evanier and I have been discussing a couple of magazine projects we'd like to do together. I'm writing some straight funny-animal comics for one publisher and having a ball at it. I've gotten the go-ahead from DC on a three-part Dr. Fate serial forAdventure Comics. And I still owe Marvel 20 or so pages — which will probably take the form of a "Lilith" story. Then there's the stuff I've already written for Marvel that's yet to be published, including four issues of a Shanna the She-Devil color comic, and one last Howard the Duck story I dialogued from a fill-in plot by Mark Evanier.
What do you see yourself doing 10 years hence?
I can't answer about 10 days in the future. I don't really foresee my staying in comics much longer.
Several reasons, actually. The limitations of the medium, as we discussed, is one. I think my work already — this has nothing to do with the quality of it, only with the nature of what I'm trying to do, I don't want to get too self-congratulatory — it's already — the balloon is about to burst in terms of how much further the medium can be stretched. If I ever wanted to do the stories that Howard is currently appearing in, but without a duck, there would be no way to do them in comics.
That's very discouraging.
It is. Unless I was willing to put someone with long underwear in the lead. That would be the only other way of doing the stories. I'm trying hard to avoid sounding pretentious, folks. My artistic expansion can't be contained by this medium any longer.
How pretentious. I agree. Y'know, it's just a matter of enlarging the scope of the subject matter, regardless of how good the material is. Comics just cannot contain it. Another factor, and at this point I'm willing to be absolutely frank about it, I don't like the way business is conducted in this industry.
In what way? Can you elucidate?
Yeah. There's very little in writing. Very few people are willing to live up to their promises even when they are made in writing. Because of the publishers' — publishers', that's plural — because of that lack of courage Paul Levitz talked about in his interview and their unwillingness to try new formats which could be, ultimately, financially more beneficial to them, the pay scale is going to remain at peon level. A person could do, at this point, virtually the same kind of material they're writing for Saturday morning TV and literally earn three times the money. And as crass as that may sound, it is a consideration. The really silly nature of the business — I don't like how professionals have been treated in this industry, what I've seen over the past five or six years.
How have professionals been treated poorly?
Well, Paul Levitz brought this up, too, in his discussion of the GACBAE — the Great American Comic Book Exhibition — that never came off. There is really a kind of of cloying paternalism interlaced with an essential plantation mentality, but it's so stifling...
Whoa! A cloying paternalism interlaced with a plantation mentality?
Yeah. I mean, I don't need a surrogate father. I don't want to be strung up by the wrists and whipped until I confess I'm not Steve Gerber, but that my name is really Toby. I don't need this. But essentially, that's the way it works. You're told to work for the good of the company, and then when the company returns your favors in less than honorable ways, you're expected to smile and take it like a good nigger, because essentially, they feel they own you, there's nowhere else for you to go.
What disgusts me even more, though, is that I think the writers and artists have really brought this on themselves. They don't want to know about the business of comics. They prefer to remain ignorant. They've allowed the publishers to convince them that they're a bunch of no-talent bums surviving on the goodwill the companies. Very few people in this industry really believe that their work has any artistic merit, or that it's salable elsewhere. Or that they deserve more than they're getting. You will actually hear them defend the publishers' ownership of their creations, the low page rates, the cowardice of the companies to explore new markets. That's why it's startling when someone like Gil Kane or Neal Adams or McGregor or Barry Smith — or Steve Gerber — shoots his mouth off. People in the industry find it disturbing that one of their number might actually take his seriously, take pride not only in being fast and dependable, but in the work. They're so completely brainwashed into thinking they're creating throwaway culture...!
Is it different in other media?
Yes it is. Certain things are, certain things are very, very different in other media. I'm not saying that there isn't as much dirty dealing in the movies or television or book publishing or magazine publishing, because there certainly is. But there are more buffers. There's a Writer's Guild. There are agents. There are lawyers. There's a classic story about one publisher who refused to negotiate a contract with a writer, because the writer dared to bring his lawyer into the publisher's office.
This is in comic books?
This is in comic books. I won't say which publisher. I won't say when it happened. It's true. The publisher was so outraged that the writer couldn't accept the company's word, that he felt he had to have a lawyer, that the contract could not be discussed. Actually true. This would be so outrageous in television or film that nobody would even believe it. It's almost beyond the imagination of people who work in other fields of entertainment.
Do you think that will ever change in the comics industry?
I don't know. It won't change until the nickel-and-dime mentality of the publishers' changes.
What about independent publishers? Do you think there is any hope there?
I think that may be the only hope. But magazine distribution, as Gil Kane told you, and he's correct about this, is so difficult, and there are so many influences of savory and unsavory kinds operating in it, that unless the venture is backed with a lot of money and an already established name, chances are very, very slim. Not hopeless, but slim.
Jesus, this all sounds so miserable.
It is! And yet, at the same time, there are ways all of these things could be circumvented. There are people with large amounts of money who might be willing to invest in a magazine of this kind. And who might be willing to do it on the basis of the demonstrated success of Heavy Metal.
Where are they?
That would be telling. But there are people who have no interest in controlling the editorial matter, who simply want to get into it as an investment. These people exist. Could it compete with Marvel or DC? You betcha. You betcha. It really could on a large scale. All it takes now is the bankroll. Marvel is losing a lot of their talent to some very ratty publications just because they're offering more money.
What ratty publications are these?
Oh, let's not mention names. They're spin-offs of the various skin magazines. That sort of thing. But when an artist is suddenly offered $600 a page, which is comparable to what he could earn in advertising...
He's not going to be drawing Marvel Two-in-One for long.
Not really. He's not going to worry about whether he wants to draw Marvel Two-in-One, if that's been his life's ambition. It's just not enough to make somebody stick around anymore. But that's what the companies have fed off since the early '60s — the fan mentality. I was tempted to say "psychosis." Many of them, the artists and writers, are still up there solely because it's always been their ambition to write or draw whatever characters — Spider-Man or Dr. Strange, or whatever it may be.
Attack of the Kidney Lady! Sequence from Howard the Duck #2, ©1976 Marvel Comics Group.
What do you mean by the fan mentality? I'm not sure I understand the difference.
"Quality" assumes an objective scale for judging a comic book. "Merit" is a subjective judgment. We can discuss the quality of the printing and paper, not the story matter.
Isn't artistic or literary merit difficult to define?
Yeah, absolutely. But the one thing that's certain is that given a bunch of hacks in the office — were that to be the situation, I don't think it is — any literary or artistic merit in any of the books would be purely accidental. Dedicated personnel is the positive side of the fan mentality.
But dedication to comic books — a total immersion in them—can produce some pretty weird side effects. You can't read that stuff, extensively and exclusively for years, without absorbing some of its explicit and implicit assumptions about the way the world operates. And that's going to be reflected in the stories, too. Writer's write about what they know, and what many of these people know, is comic books. It's an artistic cul-de-sac.
Then, there's the consistency bug. They're likely to become more obsessed with whether Thor's polka dots are arranged correctly in one panel than about the literary or artistic values of an entire story. I have seen this happen, not with Thor's polka dots but with other things. There's a sequence in an old "Our Gang" film that has Alfalfa arguing with, I believe, Porky, and the dialogue consists of: "Flash Gordon is too stronger'n Tarzan." "No, Tarzan is stronger'n Flash Gordon." On and on, interminably. Sadly, this about the level of much of the conversation day-to-day at the Marvel offices.
The fan mentality also produces an extreme resistance to change. They are resistant to any kind of expansion of the medium. The Kiss project was viewed with horror around the office for a long time. It was felt to be a pollution of the Marvel mythos. As was the Superman/Spider-Man book, which was one of the most ingenious ideas I have ever seen — regardless of how well it was carried off, and I think it could have been much, much better. But it was a stroke of genius both in terms of marketing and in terms of just an event. People were tearing their hair out over that. A certain amount of it is jealousy.
You mean just because of the DC character?
Yeah, right, because of the DC character crossing over into the Marvel Universe, or vice versa. That was the major objection to it. The other, unstated, reason was that a current Marvel writer was not scripting it, or co-scripting it. Similar objections were not heard over at DC. The third was that each individual himself was not writing it. At the same time they were bemoaning the idiocy of the project, there was a mad scramble to get their names on it, somehow — consulting this advisor, that. It was pathetic. Funny, but pathetic. As I said, there's a lot of petty jealousy in this business, much more than I would like to see.
It becomes a sad little contest. Who is the most popular, who is getting the best fan mail, who got the interview spot in this month's Comics Journal, who got quoted in the New York Times. Certain assignments take on a prestige that others supposedly don't. It's some sort of honor to be writing Spider-Man or the Hulk or the Fantastic Four. That's status. They don't pay any more for writing those books, but that's status.
The big sellers, the major books, are rarely fought over, though. There's never much argument over who's writing the FF on a given month. It's whoever Stan or Shooter have decided will write it. Seeing as those four or five books — plus Conan, which no one else ever writes — are beyond question until the anointed writer vacates, all the other books become targets. It's amazing. There are several writers at Marvel who are known, through political maneuvering, to leap onto a book that's doing well in sales or is a fan favorite and abandon ship at the first sign of a drop. So they're never around to take the flak when the book goes under. This happens constantly.
You will hear people say — I'm picking this character out of thin air; I don't want anyone to assume it's a special case — "I deserve to write Dr. Strange" or "I deserve to write The Defenders," or that sort of thing. I got to the point where I was ready to say, "Well, listen, if you feel that strongly about it, you probably do."
It's incredible what goes on. Every time a book comes along whose success they can't explain — and we all know which book we're discussing now — the place is in an uproar about who could do it better. No — who could do it right. There have been people who have been trying to get their hands on Howard the Duck for I don't know how long. They will mark this down to paranoia on my part. It is not.
Frankly... no, no, I better not mention names. When I lost all those other books at Marvel — The Defenders, "Guardians of the Galaxy," the whole complement of books I was doing besidesHoward, back at the time when Howard was just getting started — if there had been a way to take the Duck away from me, they would have. But it would have been a serious public relations problem. Who would've believed, this will be a juicy one, all right.
Really. Do I get approval of any of this before it goes out?
Yeah, I'll send you a copy.
No, no, wait a minute! Oh, all right, print it. Who the hell cares? Other people's work is out there just as mine is, and it's open to criticism from all comers. But launching personal attacks is another question entirely. I don't think I've done that.
People are very sensitive to criticism.
Oh, yes. Actually, except when I'm feeling very insecure, I'm less touchy about that than most people. I find the criticism very useful. And I've always done my own letters pages for that reason. I like to read all the mail that comes in, particularly on a book like Howard, where I was very deeply concerned with the subject matter. About the only kind of criticism I can't listen to is the variety that tells you something you're doing should be more like something else. Virtually anything else I'm open to and eager to discuss, whether it comes from fans or from people in the business.
I think that it would be impossible to maintain a consistently high level month after month.
It is impossible. We're human beings.
Denny O'Neil once told me that 20 percent of his scripts he's proud of, 50 percent fall into the level of mediocrity; and 20 percent he doesn't want to think about. I'm not sure if I've quoted the percentages correctly, but it struck me as a realistic view of a working professional.
It's probably like that for me, too. I would consider myself unusually fortunate in the fact that of theHoward the Duck series, I think there are more than 20 percent of the scripts that I'm proud of. But it's true. I've written a lot of tripe. So has everybody. I'm not excusing it. Again, particularly given the quantity of material a comic writer has to turn out to make a living, it's amazing that more of it isn't crap. Or is that possible?
Postscript: Following his dismissal from Marvel, Gerber wrote various titles for DC Comics, and also began branching out into several creator-owned properties published by Eclipse Comics, including Stewart the Rat (drawn by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer) and Destroyer Duck (drawn by Jack Kirby — this latter title was explicitly created to fund both Gerber and Kirby's respective fights with Marvel). He even returned to Marvel from time to time, where in 1983 he created the notorious and shortlived series Void Indigo with artist Val Mayerik, which spurred protests from retailers and distributors due to its violent content. Mostly, however, Gerber spent much of the next two decades writing for television, and in 1998 won a Daytime Emmy for his work on The New Batman/Superman Adventures.
Gerber eventually wrote a final Howard the Duck miniseries in 2002, this one drawn by Phil Winslade, but even after several decades, he found himself unable to tolerate Marvel's actions — last year, when the company a launched new version of Omega the Unknown without his or Mary Skrenes' consent, Gerber lashed out at Marvel. His final comics work included the series Hard Time for DC Comics' failed Focus imprint, and was working on a Doctor Fate series when he died on February 10, 2008 from what was reported to be pneumonia. He was 60 years old. Gerber had been staying in a Las Vegas hospital, where he was being treated for an early stage of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and had been on a waiting list for a lung transplant at UCLA.