It's entirely possible that Steve Gerber was the finest writer working for a genre-oriented comic-book company in the 1970s; his influence was certainly palpable within that framework. One of the first wave of comics writers to enter the Marvel Comics stable after Stan Lee's encyclopedic run of comics in the 1960s, Gerber shared with his compatriots both a love of superhero comics and a set of interests and influences that tied him more to the coutercultural ethos of the times than the comics culture of decades past. While his early work on The Defenders began to get him noticed as an exceptional writer — admittedly not a difficult thing to do in early '70s Marvel comics — it was Steve Gerber's efforts on the Man-Thing series and his creation of two signature characters, Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown, that cemented his reputation as perhaps the best writer to work in New York corporate comics. Howard the Duck was originally a walk-on player in a Man-Thing story published in Adventure into Fear #19, but the duck quickly took on a life of his own. More Fritz the Cat than Donald Duck, Howard was a bitter, cynical outsider through whose eyes we saw the inherent insanity of 1970s U.S. culture, and Gerber used the character to lampoon politics, religion and pop culture to a degree never before seen on a drugstore spinner rack. Gerber's popularity with Howard led the character not only to its own series but even a syndicated newspaper strip drawn by Gene Colan.
|The panel from Adventure into Fear #19 containing Howard the Duck's first appearance, ©1973 Marvel Characters, Inc.|
Gerber's other major creation, Omega the Unknown (co-created with fellow writer Mary Skrenes), was an existential, idiosyncratic take on the superhero genre that wouldn't be equalled for well over a decade. In 1978, Marvel dismissed Gerber from the Howard the Ducknewspaper strip, instead giving the job to Marv Wolfman; Gerber retaliated by suing Marvel to assert his ownership over the character, one of the first major creator's-rights cases in American comics — which in turn led to his firing from the Howard comic. Gerber eventually settled with Marvel under undisclosed terms. The following interview, originally printed in The Comics Journal #41 (August 1978), and reprinted in the book The Comics Journal Library Vol. 6: The Writers, took place shortly after Gerber's dismissal from Marvel. It began with a letter that Gerber wrote to TCJeditor Gary Groth:
Dear Gary: I've been deliberating with myself for several days now just what sort of public statement I wanted to make regarding my parting of the ways with Marvel. Obviously, I've also been thinking about the matter itself for a great deal longer than that, and frankly, it's become a bother and a bore to discuss it. There's a potential mountain of mud to be slung, but very little point in slinging it. So, rather than present a long, laborious and largely speculative account of just what happened, suppose you, your readers, and I settle for the following. I was dismissed from the Howard the Duck newspaper strip in a manner which violated the terms of my written agreement with Marvel. Marvel was advised that I was contemplating legal action which would likely result in my ownership of the Howard the Duck character and all rights therein. As a consequence of the notice given Marvel by my lawyers, the company chose to terminate my contract on the comic books as well. Marvel's action was not unanticipated, and my only regret is that, for a while at least, the Duck and I will be traveling separate paths. Those are the facts, stated as simply and plainly as possible. Aside from the above, the only statement I can make with complete certainty is that the situation was, and is extremely muddled. I know nothing about the status of the proposed $1.50 HTD Magazine, nothing about the future of the four-color comic, nothing about the future of the strip. No lawsuit has been filed to date. And that about sums it up. What matters now is tomorrow, and that's more enough to think about.
In recognition of both Gerber's passing and his considerable achievements in late 20th-century genre comics, we are proud to present this interview. For further context on Gerber's Howard the Duck series, we also present critic Dale Luciano's essay (3.7MB Adobe PDF file) on the subject, scanned from The Comics Journal #63, which explains Gerber's achievements with the work far better than I ever could. My thanks to Kristy Valenti and Adam Grano for preparing the materials posted here to the website. Gary Groth's introduction and interview with Steve Gerber follows.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of writers: the commercial writer and the artist. The commercial writer caters to public taste. If the public wants to watch Westerns, the commercial writer writes Westerns; if the public wants to read mysteries, the commercial writer writes mysteries; if the public wants to read parodies of Close Encounters the commercial writer writesClose Encounter parodies. The commercial writer may be a meticulous craftsman, a creator of fine, energetic entertainments; or he may simply be a tawdry and talentless merchant, a peddler of popular bombast. The artist, on the other hand, writes out of an inexplicable need borne out of a creative temperament, a need to realize himself through his imagination. The artist does not use popularity polls and current public predilections to guide his imaginative thought. Certainly not all independent spirits with a yearning to create something turn out masterpieces, but it's hard for me to imagine art being created in another way. I won't profess to know where Steve Gerber fits into all this, but I'll hazard a guess that he is at least a meticulous craftsman. For the full expression of Gerber's talent, I think we'll have to wait a little longer, for that expression is not likely to surface on the pages of superhero comics. While we wait for Gerber to find his own unique voice, unhampered by house styles and tunnel-visioned editorial considerations, we present this interview with one of the most promising talents in the comics medium.
A Sunday sequence from theHoward the Duck newspaper strip, written by Gerber and drawn by Gene Colan; ©1977 Marvel Comics Group.
GROTH: Was writing the Howard strip important to you?
GERBER: Yes, it was, both financially and because the strip reached 10 to 20 times as many people as the Howard the Duck comic book.
What did you want to do in the strip that was so important to you?
Phrased that way, it's a difficult question to answer, because actually we had to be more inhibited with the strip than with the comic book. Newspaper editors are very squeamish, even more so than the Comics Code. There are things we have that I have written, for the ordinary 35-cent Code approved comic that in the comic strip. But there are precious few strips on the newspaper right now that address themselves in anything other than the very stale gag-a-day type material. Howard was something different, and in most of the cities where it was run, it acquired a rather devoted following. I hate to see people robbed of it. Also, I thought the strip to be a very important advertisement for the comic book — or for that proposed $1.50 magazine. I wanted the strip to reflect the content of the book to whatever degree possible. Now, in Marv Wolfman's version of the strip, about all that remains of the feel and thrust and the general artistic direction of the magazine are the names of the characters. It has descended into simple-minded parody. They've amputated its social commentary as if it were a vestigial tail. It has been lobotomized. There is no content to the strip any more. It's entirely without substance. Marvin's first episode, the one running now, is a parody of Close Encounters.
I'm surprised you had to be more conservative with what you did in the newspaper strip. Presumably, it reaches an older audience — working men and women who read the paper over a cup of coffee in the morning, etc.
The problem with the newspaper is that, like television, it's supposed to be for everybody. There is only so far they will let you go, because not only Daddy and Mommy, but also the little kids look at the comic strips, to check out Dennis the Menace, or whatever.
What would you do that might damage their minds?
The story we did on Beverly inheriting a massage parlor stirred up a little furor. Even though the material, to look at it, is perfectly innocuous, there were editors who objected to the use of the words "massage parlor" in the strip. On the other hand, that particular episode also evoked a lot of positive reaction from senior citizens. The premise of the story was that the old folks were using the massage parlor as a front for a nursing home in mid-Manhattan. It was a turnaround on an old Damon Runyon story in which the bookies used an old folks' home as the front for their betting operation. Our thesis was that it was easier, more acceptable to put the corruption up front.
Because of the shifting morals?
Sure. And because a nursing home in the middle of Manhattan would be a target for, as some of the old ladies in the strip put it, "anyone who ever lusted after a Social Security check." By hiding behind the camouflage of a massage parlor, they blended into the neighborhood. They were not harassed by cops or street people, and they were able to live out their lives in relative comfort while maintaining financial independence, because they had a profit-making operation going on also. A group called the Senior Citizens Anti-Crime Network wrote a letter to the New York Post, which appeared in their letters to the editor column, praising the story. But it's the kind of so-called "controversy" you have to be careful about in a newspaper strip, whereas we would utilize a massage parlor without fear in the comic book. The only restrictions would be in terms of what we could graphically depict. The very mention of it on the newspaper page, though, stirred up a little bit of controversy.
Pop psychology gets the Gerber treatment in this sequence from a Howard the Duck Sunday newspaper strip, ©1977 Marvel Comics Group.
And now we'll be subject to parodies of Close Encounters?
Yeah. Parodies of just about everything that isn't controversial, I imagine. I am very, very sad about what they're doing to the strip.
What is the difference between a parody of Close Encounters and your parody of Star Wars inHoward #23 and #24? I was pretty unimpressed by those issues.
Actually, I wasn't too happy with them, either. The story needed a more unifying element about it. And in fact, the Star Wars parody happened almost by accident. I was going in an entirely different direction with it when I plotted the first half, and then suddenly realized that I had Man-Thing, who was the Chewbacca figure, and Korrek, who was the Han Solo figure, and the Princess Leia, as portrayed by Jennifer, and Howard as the Luke Skywalker figure, and the temptation was irresistible. The difference, though, is that rather than settle for simply parodying the Star Wars movie, we took the premise on another level, satirizing the commercialization of the Star Wars phenomenon, the commercialization of the universe, with the Death Store and the various other elements tossed in — the idea that Berserk Joe, the villain, intended to transform the universe into a gigantic shopping mall. Marvin told me that he does not even intend to go this far with the strip. It will beMad-type parodies, basically, except the Duck will be the star.
Would you have preferred writing a magazine-format Howard over a 35-cent comic book?
Yes, definitely. It's a format aimed at the readers who are much more likely to appreciate Howard. Older readers, excluding hardcore fans, just don't browse through the comic rack — people who would buy the National Lampoon or Heavy Metal on the newsstand, I think people would notice it. Canceling the 35-cent book in favor of the $1.50 magazine would have been a very smart move on Marvel's part. In fact, I suggested it to them last July. At the time, they told me that I must be insane.
Who is They with a capital "T"?
They is Stan [Lee] with a capital "S." They didn't think — Stan didn't think it would be feasible to cancel the 35-cent book at that time. They wanted to do both magazines, the four-color comic and the Super-Special format. Their master plan was to convert the regular comic into a slightly more sophisticated funny-animal book. And I was opposed to that. I felt it was a bastardization of the concept, and really didn't want to see it done. The decision was made at that time to stay with the 35-cent book. Now, almost a year later, they are considering exactly what I proposed. So I wouldn't have been unhappy with it at all. Better this than Howie Super Stories.
I assume that's next.
I have no idea. I'm not privy to much inside info from the House of Ideas these days.
The cantina's full of Californians, not aliens, in this sequence from Howard the Duck#23, the "Star Wars parody issue"; ©1977 Marvel Comics Group.
One of my major criticisms with the Howard book is that you've aimed at obvious targets: violence in media, the Moonies, Star Wars, etc. It is all essentially social satire, and I think it's been done better in other media, though I don't discount its importance in comics — since it's not been done in comics at all.
I both agree and disagree. I don't think anyone else has ever examined the fascist implications in a movement like Anita Bryant's on television, for example. Or the Moonies, except perhaps on a news program or a talk show. If they try to tackle these subjects in situation comedies, the results are just ghastly. The seriousness of the phenomena, the potential danger, is always sacrificed to the one-liner. But in essence, I know what you are saying; I've been going for obvious targets. That is, perhaps, true. But I think Howard has gone much farther than any television show, in terms of setting those potshots within a dramatic structure. The Howard the Duck strip is not merely a series of comedy sketches. It's also a continuing storyline about a group of characters living out their lives. In that sense, comics have a far greater freedom than the television medium. Our characters can change; things can happen to them that affect their subsequent behavior. They can go through stage of development, physically and psychologically. The Howard character today is not the same character that appeared in Fear #19. He couldn't be, after having been through what he's experienced in this world. This could be debated, but I have the feeling that with the Howard strip and book, that the readers got more of a sense of real people living through those incidents than they would have from a television series.
I had a feeling that what you were really waging war against was the superficiality and hypocrisy at the core of the American culture through popular media stars like the Moonies and Anita Bryant.
In a sense, that's what the whole Howard series was about. And I don't know if that's such an easy or obvious target. I do know that it's not a target that you can attack in a single issue of a comic book. You'd almost have to look at the whole run of the magazine before you could understand that that's been the general theme through the series since the very beginning. And it makes no difference, really, whether the target in any given issue is 200,000 decency crusaders bent on saving our children from reality, or barbarian comic books, or the various mindfads like est. Each is just another manifestation of a deteriorating culture. Each little idiocy offers a slightly different peephole into the core insanity. One of the themes I'd been playing with since the Star Wars parody was that Howard himself, in order to deal with this world, has had to function on a more superficial level than he would have liked to. In "The Night After You Save the Universe," he finds himself walking the streets, wondering why he doesn't have any opinions about what's happening to him. In the next several issues, 25-27, circumstances force him to confront all those depth-emotions that he has been suppressing since his separation from Beverly. It's a very serious sequence, and there is no external, sociological target at all. Instead, we employ the Ringmaster and his Circus of Evil as a metaphor for the various influences on everyone's lives, and in particular, for the recent events in Howard's.
Another excerpt from from Howard the Duck #23, in which Howard learns about the Achilles' Heel of Californians. ©1977 Marvel Comics Group.
Wasn't it a one-note strip, then? Even with American culture being what it is, you may run out of satirical targets.
I don't think so. The culture keeps on coming up with so many new aberrations. It might have been true if we had a one-dimensional protagonist, but I don't think we did. Howard is a very real character to me, as are most of the rest of the characters in the strip. Beverly, certainly, Paul and Winda to a somewhat lesser degree, because I just haven't had the opportunity, or perhaps the inclination, to develop them as fully as they could be. But, no, I don't think we would have run out of material. The characters themselves were story matter.