Tuesday, 12 February 2008


In case you haven’t heard this sad news already, comics writer Steve Gerber died in Las Vegas last Sunday.

Though Gerber had lately returned to comics after a stint working in animation, I dare say it’s his original Seventies years with Marvel comics which were his finest. In fact I don’t think it’s going too far to call Gerber the Alan Moore of his generation. He looked an immature medium in the eye and refused point-blank to recognise its limitations. His output was admittedly uneven, but that’s what you get with pioneers.

Tom Spurgeon makes a good point when he describes Gerber as “imbued with an underground comix sensibility but as overground as the spinner rack at your local supermarket.” Though of course his relationship with Marvel was to sour, his work still best exemplified the aspiration that radical ideas can sometimes be brought intact into the mainstream. Before I’d heard of either Alan Moore or underground comics, I was able to buy Gerber’s stuff via British Marvel reprints in my sleepy English hometown. I’m really not sure I was ever the same again…

Another good point was made in Mark Evanier’s tribute: “He was a sharp, brilliant human being with a keen understanding of people. In much that he wrote, he chose to depart from reality or (more often) to warp it in those extreme ways that make us understand it better.” I quickly lost interest in most of Gerber’s contemporaries (Starlin, Englehart, etc), who seemed to quickly get lost inside the cosmic. It was like their work became a hermetic arena where their crazy ideas could rattle around endlessly, but never actually get out and signify anything. Gerber could go cosmic too, but always managed to keep one foot plonked firmly in the everyday. While he strained at the leash of what could be put in a Marvel comic, he never forgot that Marvel comics had started with Spider-man sewing up his own costume in his tiny bedroom.

He had a fascination with losers such as Richard Rory, who were fairly transparent stand-ins for himself. These losers never turned green or mighty nor even saved the day all that much, they mostly just bumbled slightly uncomprehendingly from one issue to the next. This would reach its epitome with Howard the Duck, an autobiographical character barely disguised by being given a Donald Duck look. “Trapped in a world he never made” ran Howard’s strapline.

Though he could seemingly write anything from horror to comedy or absurdism to melodrama…though he could seemingly write all of those at one and the same time… at heart Gerber was a satirist. The old-fashioned Hogarthian kind who mocks the world not to titter but to rail. He’d put himself into his comics then pillory the fads and dud ideologies that surrounded him. He felt himself insulted by those things. He felt you should be insulted too.

Despite Howard and unlike Moore, Gerber never got to be as well-known as he should have been. Perhaps his return to Marvel was never blazing, more of a guarded rapprochement. Perhaps comics fans were never as keen to grow up as he was to give them grown up material. Though much of his classic material is now available it’s mostly crept into reprint, via the consolidated repackaging of Marvel’s Essentials volumes. At my local comic shop there’s a hefty one-stop section dedicated to Alan Moore, just like there should be. A fair and just world would have one for Steve Gerber.

Some Steve Gerber you really should read:
Essential Man-Thing Vol. 1
Includes the earlier strips from Adventure into Fear, but doesn’t really hit its stride until he’s given his own title.
Essential Defenders Vol. 2 & 3
Unfortunately Gerber’s issues are caught in the change-over, meaning you have to buy two hefty volumes when his strips alone would have fitted inside one slimmer one. You could of course read the issues not by Gerber which get included here… it’s a free country…
Essential Howard the Duck Vol. 1
The whole kit and kaboodle!
We also need an Essential Daredevil Vol. 5 solely for the Gerber stories therein!


  1. I love those Defenders stories, some of them are REALLY bizarre. You can believe he got away with stuff like that in HTD, but not in what was supposed to be a mainstream superhero book.

  2. Yes, Marvel was a very different creature back in the 70s I think. In some ways it was easier to get away with stuff then than now...

    Defenders I think was always about the absurdity of superhero comics (a "non-team" being pretty absurd to start off with). Whereas Howard was more of a social satire.

  3. Or as

    "One of the virtues of writing for Marvel in the 1970s is that much of the era was a free-for-all. Organization wasn't the company's strong suit then... The editorial staff was small, the functions often indistinct, malleable and pragmatic... It may not have been the greatest business structure ever invented, but it was an unprecedented moment for mainstream comics creatively. It was a culture Steve Gerber thrived in; that he has rarely thrived since says more about how our culture has changed than it does about Steve."

    It's a good tribute in general, and even goes into some of Gerber's later comics - of which I'm woefully ignorant, in the main.