Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Readers' Write (12): Spotlight On... Steve Gerber

While Karen and Doug are on vacation in January, our readers have been entrusted with carrying on the daily conversations.  Today's "Spotlight On..." is a do-it-yourselfer.  As we've done in the past, the first commenter gets to pick today's topic of conversation.

Generally speaking, "Spotlight On..." is for single creators.  For example, in the past we've started conversations on Rich Buckler, John Romita, and Joe Sinnott.  We'd appreciate conversations that lean toward the positive side of things; rip jobs should be avoided.  This is not to say that we don't tolerate honesty, but let's try to keep the focus on the meritorious aspect of a life spent in comics.

Thanks for holding it down for us!

Edo Bosnar puts today's Spotlight on Steve Gerber.


Edo Bosnar said...

Haven't kicked off any of these yet this month, so I propose putting the spotlight on one of those quintessential Bronze Age scribes, Steve Gerber.

Redartz said...

Good call, Edo. Gerber is near the top of the list of Bronze age scribes.

He was responsible for many of my favorite stories from that era: The Headmen arc from Defenders, Omega the Unknown, and the initial runs of Howard the Duck and Man-Thing. His writing came across as a personal exploration of Gerber's (and our) world, and characters such as Richard Rory and HTD spoke with Gerber's voice.His stories often ventured into some pretty strange territory (talking ducks, Mad Vikings, an Elf with a Gun). This fit well with the eclectic nature of 70's Marvel. It might have been interesting to see his take on and issue or two of Conan...

david_b said...

Echo that, great call Edo.

"What to say, what to say...."

Self-indulgent, talented, social satirist, purveyor of all things weird.

And yes Redartz, he fit PERFECTLY into the early Bronze Age. We've talked about certain Marvel Bronze 'architecs' per se, like Conway and Thomas. Gerber's right up there.

But pondering for a minute.., we could discuss whether Steve's weirdness have tertiary ripples into other's work..? I've mentioned HTD ish 16 on a couple of occasions here ~ Steve's travelogue as he moved from NYC to Nevada. Not a comic but more of a series of written pieces on writing comics, accompanied by several single page graphics drawn by Big John, Dick Giordano and others on staff.

How that got published under Archie Goodwin is anyone's guess..

As to more traditional stories, I LOVED his scripting. Not liked by DD purists at the time, I really liked his scifi turn on DD/BW quite a bit, culminating with his Terrex/Moondragon/MarVell storyline in ish's 104-107 (and some hints in earlier issues..). I enjoyed his Shanna/Black Spectre storyline a few issues later even more now (40 yrs later), having recently picked up his work in Shanna's brief mag (#1-5). And YES, his surreal storytelling fit the Defenders to a tee, and the timing (early, post-Avengers clash) was perfect as well. To me, it greatly solidified the Defenders stance as not only non-Avengers, but not-your-normal-team-book, an edge that the Champions, Inhumans, and other later team tryout titles could have really used.

The finest praise I can laud on Gerber is basically this:

Whether you love Gerber's brainchild (whether it be concept, story arc or character) or hate it, anything Steve Gerber creates falls miserably short when someone else picks it up and tries to run with it.

As I said a few weeks ago, a Gerber-less Howard is pointless.

That speaks volumes for all his work.

J.A. Morris said...

I'm generally a fan of his work. I like Howard, but I'd say his Defenders work was his best. While the book was fun before and after Gerber, his quirky stamp was left on the non-team for the next decade. The Nebulon/Headmen/Elf With A Gun saga is one of my all-time favorite stories.

And while it has its detractors, I've always thought his "travelogue" was brilliant.

And I also enjoyed the 'Phantom Zone' minseries Gerber wrote for the Distinguished Competition.

Doc Savage said...

Really can't think of any Gerber stuff I've liked. Howard the Duck was trying SO HARD, it just wasn't funny. The self-indulgence wasted how many pages of Defenders? The whole elf thing, I guess, is supposed to be cutesy and quirky, but to me it's just a writer wasting my time. Honestly don't know why anyone rates Gerber. To me he's emblematic of the negatives of Bronze Age comics.

Doug said...

Who doesn't like democracy?


William said...

I'm with Matt on this one. I've never been a fan. I guess I can understand why some people like Gerber's stuff, but I've never been one of them.

David B described his style as "surreal storytelling", which could be one of the reasons I never got into his writing. I'm not really a fan "the weird" when it comes to the kind of comics I like to read.

Doug said...

I think Gerber was capable of writing the "straightforward" narrative, but I agree that he excelled at finding niches for his "out there" stuff. Let's face it -- while any of the Defenders would be straight superhero fare on their own, the gestalt of the team cried out for weirdness.


Edo Bosnar said...

Since I had to run off to a meeting right after posting, I'll put in my two bits now: I actually avoided Howard the Duck when it was coming out, because I just didn't "get" the idea of a funny animal in my Marvel superhero universe. Man-Thing I never read back then either, because I kind of avoided horror comics.
So I think I first encountered his work when I read most of his run on Defenders when I was about 12 in the summer of 1980, and I just loved it. The Headmen, Sons of the Serpent and Guardians of the Galaxy story arcs were great, and have stood the test of repeated readings since. Gerber really owned the Defenders, and as much as I like the stuff that came before his run, and even some of the stuff after, nobody matches him as a Defenders writer.
As for his DCs projects, I'm with J.A. on the Phantom Zone mini. A very haunting, unusual Superman story with perfectly suited art by Gene Colan. I also really liked the last few issues of the revived Mr. Miracle that Gerber wrote. He followed on the heels of Englehart, and it seemed to me like he was about to take the character in a really interesting direction, i.e., I think he was going to use Mr. Miracle to explore the idea of superheroes as some kind of quasi-religious figures. But then the series was abruptly cancelled. Also a pity because Michael Golden was doing the art.

More recently, thanks to the Essentials I've been able to catch up on both Howard and Man-Thing, and contrary to Matt's view, I think both hold up well. Some of those Man-Thing stories in particular are really, really good (I'm thinking of the Dawg story in issue #s 9-10, wonderfully drawn by Ploog).
I can see why Howard wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, and some of the humor is now admittedly dated. Even so, I really love the idea of dropping a funny animal into a world otherwise populated by superheroes as a way to lightly satirize the genre and also convey broader social commentary.
Also, Gerber wrote a Howard mini in the 1990s which I was also really good as well, although it's been a while since I've read it.

Humanbelly said...

Gerber really did appeal to me a lot as a teenager, as he was capable of putting ANYTHING into his books and it would work. But I have to say that HTD #16 was a major pratfall, in my view. I was still a green enough collector to think that ANYTHING Marvel put out must be good, and wasn't developed enough in my critical thinking to realize that it was possible for a writer to commit a crime called "self-indulgence". That issue broke through the barrier for me, and made me look at writing differently. I really, really hated it-- although I've only read it the one time (Summer of 1980, wasn't it?). If memory suffices, it would fit in amazingly well with today's all-opinions-must-be-voiced-and-revered internet environment. So heck, I suppose he was ahead of his time. BUT-- when properly reined in and edited, he was of course quite a good, imaginative writer who had a pretty nice touch with character, dialog, and could tell a story and juggle plot elements with the best of them. I do think what both saved AND enhanced his work on The Defenders and HTD is that he was paired with two gifted, straightforward visual storytellers who had very realistic (albeit quite different) styles, and neither ever seemed to balk a bit at what they were being asked to draw. Sal's clean On-The-Spot-News style absolutely grounded the absurdity of the Bozo/Headman antics in the "real" world of the MU, which actually added to how off-putting they were in the context of the story. Stephen Strange in a Bozo mask?? Dancing?? Yikes! And Colan's lush pencils in HTD were a perfect fit for Funny Animal Howard, as it emphasized that he was part of OUR world (the one he never made, etc), with all of its detail, texture, wrinkles and warts.

I often wonder how those two quintessential pros felt about those Gerber assignments.


david_b said...

HB brings up a good point (as he always does....), 'bout the early green collectors reasoning that 'anything Marvel did was awesome', the very definition of a young, naive Marvel Zuvembie, which I PROUDLY was, circa 1973/4.

HTD wasn't my cup of tea early on either, the writing went over my head at times, plus it just got depressing. How many kids want to spend a quarter each month to read about his character being straight-jacketed and locked away..? A bit too world-weary for these eager eyes..

But, one idea I thought of when reading HB's and Edo's posts was, again the timing of HTD in Man-Thing and his own title..: It came acrossed best during the age of the 'anti-hero', between 1972 and say 1977 (pre-Star Wars). When heroics became vogue again, this type of writing becomes anti-climatic.

It's just the changing currents of interest, that's all. That's why I never saw any possible good coming out of an '80s movie about Howard. Unless you went extremely dark, it wouldn't play to the source material at all. It would be like, 'Geez that stunk, let's go see Ghostbusters again..'

Which... is what happened.

Anonymous said...

Despite, or perhaps because of, the unevenness of his work, to me Steve Gerber IS the Bronze Age - or at least the quintessential weird-writer of the era.

Like others I loved his Defenders and Omega the Unknown was a cool experiment (I liked Lethem and Dalrymple's redo of it, too - despite the fact that Gerber himself didn't).

I have nearly all the issue of Howard the Duck, sans 2 - which I am waiting to get my hands on before diving into those - but I am greatly looking forward to it. I read a few issues back in the day and thought it was so weird and was over my head - but as an adult that is exactly the kind of thing I want to revisit, so I can have a better sense of what the heck was going on.

Edo Bosnar said...

Just a few more thoughts: first, HtD #16 - I only read it the first time about 5-6 years ago when I got the HtD Essentials book, and I have to say, much as I like Gerber and Howard, I'm more inclined toward HB's position on that one: a really overwrought and self-indulgent way to deal with a missed deadline. I think the one good thing that came out of it is that in the 1990s he wrote an entire Vertigo mini series based an image on one page of a Vegas showgirl walking an ostrich, i.e., Nevada, which is really rather good.
And speaking of his other, later work, I also highly recommend A. Bizarro and especially his Superman Elseworlds stories, Last Son of Earth and Last Stand on Krypton.

By the way, HB, I'm sure there might be interviews somewhere in which Messrs. Buscema and Colan comment on working with Gerber, although I haven't come across any. However, as for as Colan goes, I think he really liked working with Gerber, as they also later collaborated on the aforementioned Phantom Zone mini and Stewart the Rat (also recommended).

And Osvaldo, I loved the original Omega, but man, I really, truly, utterly disliked Lethem's redo, reimagining or whatever you want to call it. Sorry...

Anonymous said...

No need to apologize to me, Edo! We can't agree on everything! People will start to think one or the other of us is a sock-puppet account for the other! :)

Oh and speaking of Howard the Duck - I rewatched the movie a few months ago (I last saw it when it first hit cable or VHS back in the day) and WOW. . there is nothing redeemable about that movie and this coming from a guy that LOVES Congo! :)

Edo Bosnar said...

Wait, you mean Congo, the one based on Michael Crichton's novel? Hmmm, I recall watching it once, and now I'm trying to remember if there was anything redeemable about that one...
As for the Howard movie, geez, I agree, it's all kinds of bad (just thinking about Leah Thompson horribly miscast as Beverly Switzler makes me shudder), but there is one scene that I remember that was a bit funny: when he's standing by a fountain or something, and there's some guy staring at him, so he waves his arms (wings?) and kaws like a crow to scare him off. All right, maybe not funny, but a bit amusing...

david_b said...

One more idea on the legacy of Steve Gerber and HTD....

Did it in fact, open the gates for Ninja Turtles..? Certainly not a direct relation, but the pathway of action-surreal anthropomorphic animals in comics didn't come from Warner Brothers or Disney.

Ish 16..? Certainly can be viewed as deplorable, self-important tripe. But I found it incredibly original and funny that it got published.

Sure beats a reprint.

Doug said...

David --

Good point on the rise of anthropomorphic animals in indie comics as perhaps Howard's legacy.

However, in regard to your "sure beats a reprint" comment, I offer you Avengers #s 145-146 (the Assassin story, dropped right in the middle of the Serpent Crown storyline). I'd have rather seen a traditional handling of the Dreaded Deadline Doom!


david_b said...

Doug, I **actually** never read those particular issues, I picked up ish 144 and 147 decades ago while I was filling my massive Avengers holes (stopped regularly collecting with ish 129..).

But the awe-inspiring team of Tony Isabella and our late-70s favorite Don Heck..??

"Who could resist that..?"

(Tongue now piercing the inner cheek layer...)

Edo Bosnar said...

I don't know, Doug, I think I agree with David on "better than a reprint." Obviously I didn't really like the issue as such, but still and all, I have to say it's a rather interesting little artifact of the Bronze Age.

Anonymous said...


Congo has:

1) Ernie Hudson delivering one of my all-time favorite movie lines "I'll be your great white hunter for this trip. I just happen to be black."

and 2) Laura Linney killing savage white gorillas with a laser in King Solomon's mines.

Also I love the exchange about the guy named Claude from Mumbasa.

Basically, if you watch the movie as a comedy - a satire of the "dark Africa" trope - it is fairly brilliant.

Sorry for the tangent. :)

Doug said...

Oh, no, Edo -- I wasn't disagreeing with that point specifically. I was making a general statement about "fill-in" sorts of issues. Sometimes a reprint might have been a better choice than something "stock". Hey, there's a reason it's excess inventory, you know? Again, Avengers 145-146 is the poster child for this.

I've not read HtD #16 -- it may be brilliant!


Doc Savage said...

Well, in the late '70s and early '80s I know Marvel commissioned extra stories to avoid having to do reprints. So just b/c they were on file doesn't make them inferior. It's not like they were held back due to their quality. Heck, look at some of the stuff that saw print and it's clear quality was not a priority oftentimes.

Edo Bosnar said...

Doug, obviously I wouldn't call HtD #16 brilliant, but as I indicated above, I'll grudgingly acknowledge that it's unusual nature might be a mitigating factor.
As to Avengers #145-46, I've never read those particular issues, but I have to say, after looking them up on the GCD, I really like the covers by Gil Kane.

And Osvaldo, I guess somehow, sometime I'll have to watch Congo again while keeping in mind the satire aspect.
I have to say, though, I also read the novel that it's based on, and I don't think there's any way glean some kind satirical angle there, unless it was really subtle (and having read quite a few of Crichton's novels, I think it's pretty safe to say subtlety wasn't his forte).

david_b said...


'Congo' sounds pretty cool actually. On a similar note, I discovered 'Black Dynamite' on DVD over in Kuwait.., just a fantastic send-up of the blaxpoitation films. The follow-on cartoon series is kinda dumb, but the namesake movie is really worth watching.

It's actually NOT a spoof, but a heartfelt homage to that genre.

Tongue in cheek, yes.
Boom mikes in accidental view, yes.
Fake-looking fight scenes with slightly out-of-sync sounds, yes.
Straight-on camera frame/subject composition.., yes.

But it's fantastic. As fans of the genre, the actors all earnestly loved doing it more as a 'labor of love'.

Doug said...

Edo --

Actually, Avengers #146 does have one of the coolest Avengers covers of the Bronze Age. Kudos to Gil Kane on that one.

OK, we really need to get back to the merits of Steve Gerber. But aren't tangential topics a fun sidelight to these days?


Anonymous said...

Fair Warning: I am not trying to argue that Congo is meant to be a comedic satire - but rather that if it is watched in that vein it can be quite entertaining.

Edo, I read the book as well - back in the 90s and if I remember correctly it played it very serious. The film was made in that moment when Jurassic Park and Chriton were very hot commodities and his book were being made into films regardless of their merits. :)

Again, sorry for starting this tangent.

Doc Savage said...

Congo was pretty awful. I was embarrassed for Dylan Walsh and Laura Linney and Tim Curry. Deleted it from my DVR about an hour in.

Logan said...

MTIO was never the same without Gerber. Issues 4-5 and then 6-7 plus Defenders 20 (I think) just epitomize why I love Marvel's 70's output so much. I was never a fan of Man-Thing but read the Essentials a few years ago and became a huge fan due to Gerber's stories...highly recommend if you haven't read them.

Fred W. Hill said...

Gotta say that Steve Gerber is my favorite Bronze Age comics writer. I don't regard everything he did as gold, and as a kid I didn't specifically go out looking for his work, but certainly by the time I turned 14 (in 1976) I loved his stuff, especially the Defenders and Howard the Duck. Re-reading his stuff as an adult, I still think most of it is pretty good and often outstanding, such as The Mad Viking story in Man-Thing. I for one enjoyed his sense of humor, and appreciated his sense of outrage at the various horrors of real life, such as destruction of the environment, economic injustice, bigotry, rampant greed, religious insanity, etc., etc. Some people don't like that sort of stuff in their funny books, and that's fine, but I'm glad Gerber put it in anyhow for those of us who don't mind a little intellectual stimulation with our sequential art entertainment.

Fred W. Hill said...

Re Howard the Duck, the movie -- I saw it once, when it came out. To be honest, I was expecting it to be bad -- but it was even worse! Utterly witless and insipid. Oh, and count me among those who enjoyed HTD #16. Those reprints got to be too much, certainly, although I can't recall getting into the extra-sucky situation of buying what I thought was a new story and then finding out it was a reprint of a story I already had! Oh, wait, Avengers #150 was mostly a reprint of a story I already had a reprint of! As for that Avengers fill-in, it struck me as rather dopey, with a "surprise" (oh, the big bad guy is, gasp, a woman!) I found more annoyingly repititious than in any way shocking or interesting. It was amusing when Harvey Kurtzman did it in an early issue of Mad 20 odd years earlier.

Anonymous said...

Gerber = The Defenders in Bozo masks. And it worked!!!!

Gerber was a talent. Just not for meeting deadlines. The typical artist who worked best coloring outside the lines. He had that Kirby quality in that he didn't write a DD story, he would write a Gerber story starring DD. And it would work. Downside, he could take a character so far in a direction that most others couldn't maintain. But the trip? Oh, as they say, getting there is half the trip and once you're there, there you are!!!

As an aside to the asides, we have Dish Network and their new channel is HDNMV. Right now they're showing movies with no commercial interruptions. Monster House is on Thursday. Young Frankenstein (Fraahnkenshteen) was on Sunday. I'll be on the look out for Congo. I already have Howard the Duck.

Doug, I vote "NO" on democracy. All those who read CF's Peerless blog will know that I favor an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We would take turns being a sort of executive officer for the week...but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting...by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs... but by a two thirds majority in the case of...major crimes or plots of world domination.

The Prowler (building a large wooden rabbit).

William Preston said...

Gerber co-wrote this ST:TNG ep, notable for introducing (I think) Picard's interest in archaeology and his saying, "Tea; Earl Grey; hot." It's got some nicely Gerberish moments of humor and wild ideas (though the story idea wasn't his).


Bruce B. said...

Never got into Howard the Duck and I haven't read any Man-Thing (although I'd like to check it out). But I am a big fan of Gerber's run on The Defenders.

Gerber's oddball, humorous spin on superhero comics wouldn't have worked with a more established team like the Avengers or the FF. But on The Defenders, it served to set the team apart - the book didn't feel like a second-rate Avengers knock-off, but something different and unique. I just wish he had finished the Elf with a Gun plot thread before leaving the book!

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