Archive for the ‘Steve Gerber’ Category

Howard the Duck

November 23, 2014


I was two years old when the George Lucas–produced Howard the Duck film was released, and by the time I became a comics reader nearly ten years later, it was largely forgotten except as a cautionary tale. Though I’d heard of the character from time to time, I don’t think I ever encountered him in comics form either until Marvel published the Essential Howard the Duck collection in 2002, at which point I was a freshman in college. It was also my first prolonged exposure to Howard’s cocreator Steve Gerber, and the collection made me an instant fan.

As I wrote when Gerber died, I was immediately struck by how angry the writing in Howard is, a quality I would later find in other Gerber-written comics I read on the strength of my love for Howard. It’s right there in the tagline, “Trapped in a world he never made”: life is unfair and so much of the world’s suffering—suffering being a theme Gerber returned to again and again, notably in his final work, Dr. Fate: Countdown to Mystery—is created by the callousness of forces beyond our control and people beyond accountability. A classic outsider, Howard has the insight to question elements of society that those who grew up within it take for granted and the lack of social graces to make those questions forceful. A classic outsider, much like Gerber himself in many ways.

Over the years I’d go on to read a lot more of Gerber’s work and learn more about his history with Marvel Comics, including his lengthy and hard-fought series of legal actions over Howard’s ownership and the suits filed against Marvel by Disney over an allegedly infringing similarity to Donald Duck. While Robert Stanley Martin assembled a very compelling case earlier this year that Gerber repeatedly affirmed his understanding that Howard was created in a work-for-hire environment and was unambiguously owned by Marvel (going so far as to promise never to sue over ownership), the case was still valuable in shedding light on how work-for-hire has been and is interpreted by the major publishers and the courts, and in spurring debate over the difference between a character’s legal ownership and its connection to its creator, who I believe can and should be said to “own” the character in a sense. That ownership is more meaningful to me than instruments like trademarks and copyrights, but as Gerber’s situation shows, the two can come into conflict, and the company’s rights to the character easily trump what since 1928 have been known as “moral rights.” (Correction: Disney’s actions regarding the Howard/Donald situation did not actually include a lawsuit. See Martin’s comment below for a better explanation.)

After all, the circumstances that led Gerber to attempt to claim ownership over Howard appear to have less to do with his ability to profit from Howard—he already licensed the character from Marvel for posters and buttons, which reportedly sold in great quantities—than with disagreements with Marvel stemming from his firing from the Howard comic book and strip, and Marvel’s acquiescence to Disney, in a settlement over the Donald Duck lawsuit, which allowed Disney to redesign Howard and enforce that design on Marvel and Gerber. (The Disney suit appears to have had more to do with overseas confusion in translation than concerns that Howard represented any threat to the Disney brand domestically, and the enforcement of the redesign, which mostly involved the shape of Howard’s head and a mandate that he wear pants, was lax to begin with, and abandoned after the failure of the Howard movie, until the last decade.)

Gerber’s attempts to win ownership of Howard has always seemed to me (and in case it’s not already clear, this essay is entirely my point of view not an objective declaration of how things are) something Gerber had to do because Howard meant so much to him personally. Gerber’s situation was not like the one faced by Jack Kirby, who had cocreated the bulk of the Marvel universe in a time of vaguer contracts and was repeatedly promised more than he received. Gerber appears to have completely understood the legal side of Howard’s ownership when creating the character, but the degree to which legal ownership allows businessmen with no investment in the character itself, only its earning potential, more say than the creator to whom that character is incredibly personal seems to be a grievance that built up over time, until he felt he had to take action. The case was ultimately settled out of court and nondisclosure agreements have kept the exact terms of the settlement private.

In the years since, Gerber has written the character a few more times, most memorably in an in-story smash-and-grab of the character in a crossover with the Savage Dragon and Destroyer Duck (a character Gerber cocreated with Kirby to fund Gerber’s suit against Marvel) and later a mature-readers miniseries from Marvel’s MAX imprint, in which the Disney redesign was obviated by Howard’s transformation into a mouse, surely a move aimed at tweaking Disney, if the company still cared at that point. Howard has shown up in occasional miniseries by other writers, none of which I’ve read, with the exception of Fred Van Lente’s Marvel Zombies 5, which includes Howard as part of an ensemble. I’ve never had much interest in Howard not written by Gerber.

Gerber died in 2008, and in 2009 Disney acquired Marvel, placing ownership of Howard with the company that once claimed he infringed on its trademarks. This year Howard appeared in an after-the-credits sequence of Disney/Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know anything about the Howard part beyond the still frame below, but there he is, wearing pants, owned by the second largest media company in the world. Looking at that frame makes me feel, in the kind of reductionism comics readers like me sometimes fall prey to, like the bad guys have won.


People remember Howard exists now, so naturally a new comics series has been announced. I like the work of both its writer and artist, and I wish them well with this series and their future endeavors, but I can’t feel anything but disappointment at this announcement. I don’t begrudge any writer or artist taking on a gig like this—for all I know they are huge fans of Gerber and Howard and intend to create this comic in his spirit—but I am saddened that the series will be published at all. There is already evidence that Marvel misunderstands Howard and Howard‘s value: in explaining who Howard is for readers unfamiliar with past stories, the word “everyman” has been thrown around. That’s incorrect. As mentioned up top, Howard isn’t an everyman; he’s an outsider. And more to point, in many ways he is Steve Gerber. Howard’s worldview, his anger, and his bouts of depression are Gerber’s. The series is full of things that interested and angered Gerber personally. Over the years, this has been remembered as general social satire, but it was explicitly satire from Gerber’s point of view.

It’s not that no one else can write angry, outsider work or skewer social mores that offend them personally, it’s that Howard is an alter ego of his creator, and the idea of someone other than the person to whom a character is an alter ego writing that character is uninteresting to me. I wouldn’t be able to care about someone other than John Updike writing Henry Bech, someone other than Kurt Vonnegut writing Kilgore Trout, someone other than Hunter S. Thompson writing Raoul Duke, or for that matter someone other than Woody Allen directing a film about Alvy Singer or someone other than Francois Truffaut directing a film about Antoine Doinel. And so on. I feel the same way about Steve Gerber and Howard the Duck. I’m confident that other creative teams, including probably this one, can create funny, clever Howard the Duck stories, but I read Howard the Duck for its look into Steve Gerber, and no one but Steve Gerber can provide that.

P. S. Earlier this year I sold my Essential Howard the Duck reprint and started assembling a collection of the original comics. It’s been a brand-new experience reading them in their original colors and with the letters columns and ads for the Howard for President buttons and so forth, and simply a pleasure rediscovering the work itself, which I hadn’t read for a few years. When Guardians of the Galaxy was released and word of the Howard cameo came out, I was worried this would boost the prices I was paying for the old comics, but that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. The series is available digitally, and Marvel is reissuing the Howard the Duck Omnibus, so hopefully the newly curious will be able to find out how great the original material is without making my efforts too much more expensive. (I’ve put together about half the series so far, with the Howard the Duck Treasury Edition standing in for the severely underprinted #1, and including issue #13, which costs more than the rest for the irrelevant-to-me reason that it is KISS’s first full appearance in a comic.)


A look at Steve Gerber’s final writing, two years later

February 10, 2010
Dr. Fate: Countdown to Mystery
By Steve Gerber, Justiniano, Walden Wong and others
DC Comics – softcover, $17.99

Steve Gerber died two years ago today of pneumonia while hospitalized for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. At the time, he was writing the Dr. Fate half of the DC double-feature series Countdown to Mystery, and three and a half months after his death, the final issue was released. Gerber hadn’t finished writing when he died, so the sixteen-page finale was split into four four-page endings, each written by a different writer in tribute to Gerber. A paperback was released later that year, but despite the inclusion of the multiple endings by the four guest writers, the book retains the feeling of an unfinished work. It’s a rewarding and personal-feeling final piece by one of the most idiosyncratic writers ever to work in the superhero genre.

The story is set in Gerber’s home, Las Vegas, which allows Gerber to work in a running interplay between “Chance” and “Fate,” which sees Kent dubbed first an “accident of Fate” and later “Dr. Accident” by a foe. In keeping with Gerber’s tradition of featuring extreme outsiders—Howard the Duck or Void Indigo’s Jaghur, trapped in worlds they never made; Hard Time’s fifteen-year-old Ethan serving fifty-to-life in an adult prison; the robot-raised and perhaps autistic James-Michael in Omega the Unknown; alienated showgirl Nevada—the new Dr. Fate is Kent Nelson, a descendent of the original and a down on his luck former psychoanalyst—so down on his luck that he is homeless when the story begins, participating in a brawl video inspired by the real-life “Bumfights” series. When he loses the fight and is left in a dumpster, he discovers the Helmet of Fate and begins his education in sorcery.

Gerber’s mandate with the series was in part to redefine the role of magic in the DC universe in the wake of Infinite Crisis and its effects on DC’s line as a whole, and it’s tempting to connect his illness to his decision that magic essentially runs on suffering, though of course Gerber has focused on suffering throughout his writing career, notably depicting Howard the Duck going through intermittent bouts of depression.

This time, depression is the whole point, and Gerber wastes no time establishing the downward spiral that brought Kent to the point where we find him in the opening. Gerber’s also quick to introduce the series’ antagonist, Negal, the Lord of the Self-Despised. We learn we’re in the hands of an uncommon type of superhero writer when Negal attacks Kent by pelting him with “semi-digested mortal suffering,” which looks like a glob of slime in Negal’s hand, but forms itself into black birds with sharp wings and beaks to attack Kent.

When Gerber died, I wrote that his work was among the only mainstream comics I had read that sometimes felt genuinely angry, and I’ve since been unsurprised to read other appraisals of his work that credit him as one of the first, if not the first, superhero writers to imbue his work with not just the references to social issues that others were beginning to include but with a truly personal worldview, taking corporate characters and finding in them vehicles for self-expression. Like much of his work, Dr. Fate is really about deeply human issues, filtered through the iconography of superhero comics. When it comes to depression, Negal is that filter, and he is actually stripped away in a scene in which Kent asks Maddy, the magic shop owner who’s been helping him, if she’s actually faced Negal. “. . . No,” she says. “I’ve confronted the concept of Negal and struggled with it from time to time.” That is, she’s been depressed.

Kent does physically fight Negal and some of his creatures a few times, but it’s clear that what this really represents is a disgraced psychoanalyst and broken man wresting with his own depression. Kent really is fighting Negal, and the fight has real consequences, but he’s not the cause of Kent or anyone else’s pain. Late in the book, when Kent has succumbed to his feelings of powerlessness and Maddy is wearing the helmet, Gerber presents a more nuanced view of suffering when an underling of Negal’s, Ymp, shows her “the real world.” Here, “people suffer just because” and pain is “a daily fact, a condition of existence.” Justiniano provides a great transition from the outward appearance of the people Ymp is showing her and their self images, using the same angle in panels of the same size, but on the second example depicting all the people from the previous first as fat, clumsy, or terrified.When Maddy says that all their suffering is too much for her, Gerber goes a step further, positing that people are self-centered enough that what really bothers her is not their pain at all but her experience of it.

We’ll never know whether Kent was going to permanently renounce Negal and embrace his fate wearing the helmet of his ancestor or simply muddle through with more suffering to come. Given Gerber’s history, it seems likely that Kent’s journey would have originally been a much longer one, and given such a small space, the character is not as well drawn as Howard, Ethan, Nevada, and others before him. Still, Gerber gets in some good details, like Kent internally psychoanalyzing Negal as they fight (breaking into comics in the seventies, Gerber is of the generation of writers who include a lot of captions detailing internal matters, and is one of the better practitioners of the style); using the helmet to win at slots, but only enough to pay off a particular debt; being too drunk to speak his magic words; and more. His Kent is a capable man, with talents that are second nature to him, and emotionally damaged enough that he forgets them when evaluating his self-worth.

When Gerber’s plot leaves off, Kent has been transported to Negal’s realm in a cocoon-like state, while Maddy possesses the helmet but is made helpless by despair, and another character Kent has befriended, Inza, has been almost completely dissolved into the suffering-substance Negal threw at Kent earlier. It’s at this point that the guest writers take over. A text page in the paperback claims that each writer finished the story as they believed Gerber would have, but it seems unlikely that Gerber was planning to end the story with a tribute to himself, as each of the other writers do in their own way.

First up is Adam Beechen, who also scripted the second-to-last issue over Gerber’s plot. In his four pages, Beechen goes the furthest toward tying all the characters and plot threads (including the one featuring Inza and the comic book character she’s created, a rich subplot which I haven’t had space to go into in greater detail) together, feeling like a straight continuation of the story until the killer elf from Gerber’s Defenders run shows up. Mark Evanier comes next, and while his conclusion is essentially solid, it’s a fairly pat instance of Kent simply snapping out of it. Mark Waid also writes Kent coming to his senses, but more believably and more in keeping with Gerber’s style, as Kent acknowledges that it’s probably only temporary and he’ll naturally have to grapple with this depression again, but he doesn’t bring the subplots to conclusion. Waid integrates some of Gerber’s stylistic touches as well, most notably a text page that recounts one of Kent’s sessions with a patient mentioned at the book’s beginning. Finally, Gail Simone’s ending most overtly addresses the loss of Gerber, mentioning his specific ailment, lamenting all the stories that will go unwritten, and including a note Gerber had written to her. Possessing the satirical voice closest of the four to Gerber’s, Simone also provides an interesting twist to the ending.

Obviously, at four pages each, none of these endings has much room to breath, and not being psychic, none of these writers really knew how Gerber would have ended his story, so none can be truly satisfying. I think this Dr. Fate has appeared since this series ended, but I don’t know how other writers have dealt with the conflicted, potentially fascinating character Gerber created. Nonetheless, taken on its own, Dr. Fate: Countdown to Mystery is an engaging read for its clever approach to magic, thoughtful take on depression, and inevitably, the insight into the mindset of a brilliant writer who didn’t know for sure the hospital bed he was working in was his deathbed, but was keenly aware that it may be.

Steve Gerber Moves On From A World He Never Made

February 11, 2008

There goes another of our culture’s truth-tellers.

I feel a lot like I did when Hunter S. Thompson died almost exactly two years ago. I may not have been Steve Gerber’s biggest fan––I hadn’t read nearly all his work––or his best––I think I took his brilliance for granted––but what I read meant a lot to me, a reminder that rogue voices are out there, and truth means something. It expanded my mind and helped shape my worldview at a tender age. Thompson I began reading in high school, Gerber a few years later as a poli-sci major at USC.

I was spoiled; my first real exposure to Gerber’s work (little did I know that as a child I had been subverted by his writing on G.I. Joe and The Transformers) was Marvel’s Essential Howard the Duck in early 2002, collecting nearly Gerber’s entire run, from Howard’s first appearance in Adventure Into Fear #19 to Howard the Duck #27. I absorbed it gluttonously. As satire, it’s not terribly deep, but it’s astute. Like the rest of Gerber’s work that I’ve read, as well as his interviews and blog, it cut through the bullshit.

And a lot of it seemed angry, as was so much of Gerber’s work that I read. Not enough mainstream comics are angry. Mainstream films can be angry, mainstream music can be angry, mainstream novels can be angry, but Gerber is one of the only mainstream comics writers I can think of whose work seemed angry during decades when there was a lot to be angry about, both in the comics industry and especially in the wider world.

Fearless, too. This is a man who turned even a blown deadline into an opportunity for creativity. And got Marvel Comics to publish it. Who fought hard for his creations and even staged a daring in-continuity rescue mission of his most popular character. Who was working on the new Dr. Fate series on what we now know was his deathbead.

Since Howard, I’ve read more Gerber, things like Hard Time, Void Indigo and Destroyer Duck. Some have haunted me, all have made me think. Omega the Unknown is high on my reading list, probably even higher now. I muddled through The Essential Defenders vol. 1 to get to his work in vol. 2, which I’ll be reading soon. I was eagerly anticipating the collection of his Dr. Fate work, having followed his thought process in writing it through his blog. I don’t know what will become of that now, with the final issues unfinished.

As for the blog, I followed that with a mix of interest and mild fear. As he described his illness and its many complications, I would check it both to read his ideas and also just to see how he was. Sometimes I’d forget for a week or two and then be afraid that he’d have stopped posting in the interim and what that might mean, but I eventually convinced myself he’d pull through, since he was always there. Until today.

RIP Steve Gerber.

Tom Spurgeon and Mark Evanier have more.