Steve Gerber died last week at the age of 60, and so ended one of the most spectacularly creative and cursed careers in comic books. Readers may wonder if it’s wise to celebrate the literary accomplishments of the writer responsible for 1977’s KISS comic, but, from 1972 to 1979, when Gerber worked at Marvel Comics, he was a one-man counterculture. The clunky comic books written for Marvel and DC (the two biggest comic book companies) in the 1960s and ‘70s may have acquired a certain retro chic, yet they bear almost no relation to the comic books of today. Marvel was the House That Squares Built, and in the kingdom of the unhip, Gerber was the only writer who had a clue.
In the early ‘70s, most comic book writers were content to churn out insular, out-of-touch tales about the superheroes they worshipped in their childhoods. But when Gerber was first assigned a lemon of a book—Man-Thing, about a pile of sentient swamp ooze with a carrot for a nose—it didn’t take long for him to turn it into freaky lemonade. He wanted to use comics to write about the real world, and, living in Hell’s Kitchen, he was obsessed with landlords, slums, and moving to another city. In his books, El Gato was lord of the cats on the Lower East Side, welfare mothers ate dog food, and a black financier turned self-loathing racist founded the white supremacist cult Sons of the Serpent. He delighted in sneaky juvenile wordplay—for part of his run on Man-Thing the book was called Giant Size Man-Thing; and one of his later creations, known as the Black Hole, would activate his supersuction powers to a caption trumpeting, “The Black Hole sucks!” But one of his characters stands above the others: Howard the Duck.
Howard was the last of the angry ducks, a pants-eschewing cigar smoker who was trapped on our planet in—shudder—Cleveland. Shacking up with the curvaceous Beverly Switzer, Howard came off as a waterfowl Woody Allen, an oversexed, overly intellectual anti-hero who was constantly in the throes of an existential crisis, and who delighted in puncturing pomposity. He battled Pro-Rata, the Financial Wizard; the Deadly Space Turnip (“We were a breed of aggressive, dynamic, success-oriented vegetables. …”); Bessie the Hellcow; and Dr. Bong.
Howard the Duck sent up the ‘70s and parodied Marvel’s purple prose style (“The ghastly rumble of the explosion reverberates off the Pocono mountainsides—a sonorous death burp echoing into eternity. …”), but the book grew into something deeper. Howard raged against the glorification of violence, had a nervous breakdown, lost Beverly to Dr. Bong, was transformed into a man, and, in the end, rejected his friends and bitterly set out on his own, trying to forget a past of pointless superfights. One issue was all text; another took place entirely on a long bus trip. These were surreal flights of fancy with razor-tipped wings, America’s answer to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
But Gerber himself was trapped in a vulturelike publishing industry. A dispute with Marvel over payment terms for the artist on the Howard the Duck newspaper strip led to Gerber leaving the book, only to realize too late that his creations were all work-for-hire, property of Marvel Inc. He engaged in a protracted legal battle that was eventually settled, but the comics industry broke his spirit. When novelist Jonathan Lethem was hired by Marvel last year to revive Omega the Unknown, a series created by Gerber and collaborator Mary Skrenes, Gerber blasted the younger writer for validating the theft of his creation. Even after meeting with Lethem, he said, “I still believe that writers and artists who claim to respect the work of creators past should demonstrate that respect by leaving the work alone.”
Gerber was the amphibian stage in the evolution of comic books, from when they swam in the funny-book oceans to the modern age, when graphic novels walk the earth and earn glowing reviews in the New York Times. But here’s what overshadows all of Gerber’s accomplishments: During his lifetime, Steve Gerber created dozens of popular characters and comic books. He died owning none of them.