It seems to me that Steve Gerber was even more fearless than the multitude of super-heroes and surreal adventurers he wrote about over the course of his career in comics.
As has been widely reported already, Gerber died Sunday in a Las Vegas hospital as a result of pulmonary fibrosis. Others have written at length about his career in comics and the important contributions he made to the medium and industry, both creatively and philosophically, when it came to creators’ rights. That at the age of 60, he was still writing regularly for the biggest publishers in the North American market during a time when assignments tend to be consolidated with a group of younger, “hotter” talent is a testament to his skill, vision and the respect he earned.
It’s undeniable that Gerber was at the height of his innovation and influence in the comics industry in the late 1970s, with his creation of Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown. Now, I had only discovered comics as a kid in the late ’70s, but I didn’t read any of Gerber’s comics. I was a diehard DC devotee for several years, until the mid to late 1980s, when a friend urged me to check out some Marvel super-hero titles. It was really as an adult that I learned about Steve Gerber. I sampled a few old Howard comics here and there, and initially, I didn’t really get his oddball characters and concepts.
As I got older and smarter, the real strength of Gerber’s work revealed itself to me. In retrospect, it’s remarkably easy to pick out characters Gerber either created or molded into something more than they originally were intended to be. Everyone is aware of the bigger names to his credit, but as I sit here and reflect now, other, more obscure, surreal comics characters come to mind, such as the Headmen and the Aquarian.
Given the relative recency of my familiarity with Gerber’s work, projects he crafted in his 50s and up to his death that I recall with fondness and admiration. The first issue of Hard Time, publisher through DC’s Focus imprint, hooked me with its frenetic, intense examination of high-school violence in America, but it was the strength of the characterization that sustained my interest in the unusual prison-life drama. I think his most recent work on the Doctor Fate feature in Countdown to Mystery has gone unfortunately unnoticed; his blending of supernatural and psychological conflicts made for engaging reading month after month.
Gerber’s writing is well known for its satire and social commentary. In the 1970s, he helped mainstream American comics grow up, making for an easier maturation period to follow in the 1980s. The refinement of what he was doing at the time went unnoticed by many, no doubt. I know when I first learned of Howard the Duck, Dr. Bong and other oddball denizens of the Gerber-verse, I thought it was all gratuitously weird and silly, failing to see the point in all of it.
But in light of Gerber’s more recent writing and what he chronicled of his own personal challenges online on his blog, I see a different side to his work. It seems to me that Gerber wrote extensively about suffering, about obstacles in life and about self-discovery in the process. Howard the Duck found himself trapped on Earth far from home and treated like trash. In Omega the Unknown, a young boy (whom the title character watches over) loses his parents in a car accident but discovers their true nature, leading him to discover his own unusual nature. Ethan Harrow, the main protagonist in Hard Time, is a child forced to become a man when he’s incarcerated with dangerous and unusual men. Most recently, Kent V. Nelson is a former psychiatrist turned homeless drunk who’s given a chance to redeem himself in his own eyes when he comes into possession of the helmet of Doctor Fate. Note some of the names of his heroes. Ethan’s own surname indicates what kind of ordeal lies ahead. The new Doctor Fate’s middle initial makes it clear he is at war with himself.
As Gerber recounted his recent health problems on his blog, it was easy to see where he was coming from in his writing. He wrote of the pain and challenges he faced on a regular basis, but he never complained. There was a tone in his blog entries that made it clear that he accepted this part of life. His pain and fears made the happier moments all the more precious. Despite his concerns and afflictions, there was an undeniable optimism in his words.
There’s also a strong undercurrent of spirituality in Gerber’s work. In Howard the Duck, it takes the form of magic and the other-dimensional energies of the Nexus of All Realities in Man-Thing’s swamp. In Omega, the young James-Michael shares some kind of odd, undefined and miraculous connection with the alien hero. Ethan Harrow has a powerful spirit self whose powers seem rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism. The new Doctor Fate’s rational mind, immersed in psychiatric theory, must make sense of supernatural phenomena, and taking things on faith factors into his magical adventures.
Another lesser-known accomplishment of Gerber’s was his development of a comic script template for Microsoft Word. He made it available publicly on his website a few years ago, but took it down for tweaking, I believe for newer versions of MS Word. I downloaded it years ago and played with it… even wrote a couple of comic-book scripts that never saw the light of day. I had a blast doing it, though, and Gerber’s template added to the fun.
Just weeks before his death, Gerber penned an introduction to an upcoming Howard the Duck Omnibus book from Marvel. On his blog, he noted he dashed it off to Marvel behind schedule and didn’t seem sure if the publisher received it in time to include it.
Marvel Comics would have been crazy not to incorporate Gerber’s thoughts on Howard, even if they were late. If the introduction hadn’t been included, given developments this week, the publisher would be nuts if it didn’t revamp its plans to share Gerber’s final statement about Howard… which is no doubt about much more than an anthropomorphic duck.