Friday, February 15, 2008

Steve Gerber Passes On

A fellow Missourian and one of the giants of the comic book industry died recently. Steve Gerber, best known as the creator of Howard the Duck, died on Sunday at the age of 60 from complications of pulmonary fibrosis.

Steve Gerber was born in St. Louis on September 20, 1947. As a youngster Gerber corresponded with legendary comic book fans (and also fellow Missourians) Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas. While he was in his teens Gerber founded one of the earliest comic book fanzines, Headline. Gerber attended the University of Missouri-St. Louis, finishing his degree in Broadcasting at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He later attended St. Louis University where he earned a degree in Speech-Communications. After graduation he worked as a copywriter for a St. Louis ad agency.

Gerber entered the world of comic books through is friendship with Roy Thomas. In 1972 Thomas was editor in chief at Marvel Comics. He brought Gerber on board as an associate editor. This being a time when most editors wrote as well as edited, Gerber started fill in work on second string titles, such as Daredevil, Sub-Mariner, and The Defenders. He eventually moved onto Marvel's more popular titles, such The Fantastic Four, as well as writing for Marvel's various horror titles such as Creatures on the Loose and Adventure into Fear. It was during this period that he would either create or expand upon such characters as the Guardians of the Galaxy, Morbius the Living Vampire, and Shanna the She-Devil.

It was while writing for the series Man-Thing in the pages of Adventure into Fear that Gerber created his most legendary character. Howard the Duck first appeared in Adventure into Fear #19, December 1973. He was soon given his own series as a back up feature in Giant-Size Man-Thing. By 1976, Howard had graduated to his own title. Howard the Duck was primarily a work of satire, with the anthropomorphic, surly duck facing a variety of bizarre opponents from Bessie the Hellcow (a vampiric cow) to Relf the Elf with a Gun. Howard the Duck developed a large cult following that survives to this day. Just as things did not always go smoothly for Howard the Duck in the pages of his own comic book, so too did things not always go smoothly for Howard in the real world. Disney, believing Howard the Duck resembled their own Donald Duck a bit too much, sued Marvel Comics for what they felt was copyright infringement. While Disney's suit failed, it did result in Howard starting to wear trousers. When Howard the Duck finally made it to the big screen 1986 (produced by George Lucas), the movie failed at the box office and failed with critics as well.

Although best known for Howard the Duck, Gerber made other notable contributions to comic books as well. He was the creator and writer on the cult series Omega the Unknown. He was also the creator of one of Marvel Comic's better supervillains from the Seventies, The Foolkiller. a psychopathic murderer bent on killing fools. He also wrote what may have been the best run of The Defenders.

Gerber left Marvel around 1979. It was at that point that Gerber began a long struggle with Marvel over ownership of Howard the Duck. Sadly, Gerber never won ownership of Howard, although Marvel did eventually reach a settlement with him. In the years after he left Marvel, Gerber wrote Destroyer Duck (meant to raise money for his legal battle with Marvel) and Stewart the Rat for Eclipse Comics and various bits of work for DC Comics. Eventually he would return to Marvel, once more writing Howard the Duck as well as Void Indigo for the company's Epic Comics imprint. He would write Nevada for DC Comics under their Vertigo imprint, as well as the Hard Time (a mix of the superhero and prison genres...).

Although best known as the creator of Howard the Duck, Gerber's influence on the comic book industry goes much further than that. Gerber endowed so much of his work with his own creativity and his own personality that it is inconcievable that anyone else could write his characters. Quite simply, he took the medium of comic books and turned it into a tool for his own self expression. In this respect, he paved the way for such writers as Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison, Gerber also took comic books to places where they had rarely been before. At a time when the medium was still dominated by superheroes, Gerber not only turned Howard the Duck against many of the comic book cliches, but pop culture and current events. Of Howard's many opponents, Reverend Jun Moon Yuc was clearly a poke at Reverend Sun Myung Moon, while the leader of the group called S.O.O.F.I. (Save Our Offspring from Indecency) was clearly Anita Bryant. If writers in the comic book industry are now freer to express themselves than they once were, we largely have Steve Gerber to thank.

Beyond the impact he would have on writers in the comic book industry, Gerber would have an impact on the comic book industry in another way as well. Gerber was one of the first writers to express the idea that a creator should retain the rights to his characters. From the very beginnings of the comic book industry, it had always been understood that characters created for a comic book company belonged to that company. Gerber challenged this view. While he may not have been the first to do so, and while he ultimately lost in his fight to gain ownership of Howard the Duck, in the end he did succeed in legitimatising the rights of creators to control their creations. Today it is very common for creators to retain the ownership of their characters. This was certainly not the case in the Seventies when Gerber began his fight with Marvel. Steve Gerber was outspoken, bluntly honest, and even courageous. He once said, "I wouldn't describe myself as fearless, but I think you have to accept the possibility of failure if you want to achieve anything, in any field." It seems no one conquered his fear better than Steve Gerber.

Special Thanks: I must thank fellow mid-Missourian Winter of the Mid-Missouri Comics Collective for alerting me to Steve Gerber's death. You can read his eulogy of Gerber here.

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