Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Steve Gerber

Why do I think Steve Gerber was so great? Well for starters, there's that scene where Doc Strange says to Nighthawk: " Am I making myself sufficiently ambiguous? "
30 odd years later, I still love throwing that into conversations.
When I was a kid, I followed Steve throughout his great Bronze Age quartet of books ( Howard The Duck, Omega The Unknown, Man-Thing & The Defenders ) as well as the occasional side trip he took, like The Son Of Satan or Tales Of The Zombie. However, I'm the first to admit I often had a hard time with his work. Often, reading something by Steve made me feel vaguely uncomfortable, like I was reading something I shouldn't really be looking at. It was so weird. Equally, as a kid, you might have to gird yourself a little before taking on a Gerber script. Basically because you knew you were gonna have to put in a little work. This wasn't Spidey being chased around by The Spider-Slayer or a simple slug-fest. You were gonna enjoy a Gerber book, sure, but you were gonna have to think a little too. But it was always worth it.

Let's look briefly at each of the main books:
The Defenders was always my favourite Gerber book, even though I don't generally like team books, and taken individually, I never much cared for Dr. Strange, The Hulk or Nighthawk. But put 'em together, and put 'em together with Valkyrie especially, and you have the best team book of the Bronze Age by far.

What made Steve great was simple: he always wrote about outsiders. Not in the way that has since become a cliche thanks to every moaning mutant on the stands, but genuine, bitter & twisted outsiders who have no choice but to seek the comfort of their own. The Defenders were so unpopular in The Marvel Universe, all the other characters thought they were bad guys.
In fact, The Defenders were clearly the unpopular gang at school. Nighthawk was the rich kid with a troubled childhood who everybody hated 'cos they all assumed his life was a bed of roses. The Hulk was the overweight, bad tempered kid with anger management issues and an inability to communicate. Valkyrie was the angry tomboy who just wanted to be left alone who everybody thought was a lesbian. And Doc was the weirdo bookworm whose place they all hung out at 'cos he had the best record collection in the world.

And apart from all that, it was just brilliantly insane fun where you genuinely had no idea what would happen next: Nighthawk's brain, The Headmen, The Sons of The Serpent, Val in prison, Nebulon & The Bozo's, even The Elf, a gigantic pie in the face that Steve strung us along with for a year. Not to mention all the great guest stars. No comic was ever so effortlessly simultaneously fun & intelligent, until...

Steve's signature book, and one that every time I reread an issue, astounds me that he got away with it. Howard is, of course, the ultimate outsider, as well as the ultimate little guy railing against an unjust society. A funny animal transplanted into the real world with infinitely more finesse than the underground comics he bears a passing resemblance to. I guess you either like Howard ( the book and the character ) or you don't, but I think it speaks a lot for The Bronze Age that such a book was even possible. Strange to think now that we accepted it without batting an eye, as Steve ( and his feathered alter ego ) took a journey across '70's America laying waste to fake politics, false religions & insipid media along the way. Howard is a fantastically angry book, sure, but it's also, behind all the gags, a brilliantly humanistic book. Only bruised romantics can be this virulently sarcastic & cynical. It was real and true, and fantastical and hysterical, and one of the greatest comics ever. Moments to treasure: Howard facing up to that month's baddie ( The Beaver ) for the obligatory comic-book fight scene, then simply walking away from the fight out of ennui. Howards interior voices during his stay in the asylum. The whole of ' The Night After You Saved The Universe '. Howard's realistic ( ! ) love for Beverly. Beverly herself, surely one of the greatest, most three-dimensional female characters in comics. And what about: "He died a caterpillar. The kid died a butterfly."
Anyone doubting Gerber's greatness, check out this scene, where Howard becomes one with Cleveland:

That line with the old man and his grandson has stuck with me since the first time I read it, and I still think it's one of the saddest, most poignant, truest things I've ever read.

But even when Steve wasn't working with his own creations, even when he was given a poisoned chalice like Man-Thing, he still managed to produce gold.

No one before Gerber or after him, has ever managed really to make this strip work in any meaningful way but, just as he did with Tales Of The Zombie, Steve turned a mindless, shambling non-entity of a character into an unmissable experience. Using Ted Sallis' slimy alter ego as a kind of silent narrator, Steve simply sidestepped the strip's inbuilt limitations and just went ahead and told the stories he wanted to tell. Man-Thing's swamp became a theatre of the soul, where people passed through and laid their lives bare for the readers morbid delight. Who else told tales of failure and death like 'Night Of The Laughing Dead'? Or lamented the end of the hippie ideal in 'A Candle For Sainte Cloud'? Or failed to cope with the 20th century and descended into madness in 'Song-Cry Of The Living Dead Man'? Or layed bare the reality of censorship in the incredible 'A Book Burns In Citrusville'? Who else would even attempt it, let alone get away with it?

Of all of Gerber's Bronze Age work, Man-Thing is the one that tends to get lost in the shuffle, yet in many ways, it's the purest of his books, almost an anthology series, and always worth reading and rereading.

And Omega is probably the one that annoys most people. Omega is many things: A post-modern Captain Marvel ( with James-Micheal Starling standing in for Billy Batson ). A deconstruction of the superhero itself. A mystery that'll never be answered. A surprisingly gritty ( for the time ) tour through the mean streets of the city. And in James-Micheal & Omega's parallel journeys through Hell's Kitchen, another vivid description of what it's like to feel a total outsider.
Omega is an alien, but so is James-Micheal. Neither of them have a clue how to cope with this strange new world they find themselves in, and I, for one, don't care about the mystery surrounding their connection. I don't care if they're each other's future selves, or clones, or robots or whatever. That doesn't matter. It's the feeling of aloneness, of being in a terrifying new place where no one's explained the rules that counts.
And it's such a rich, detailed strip that rewards endless rereading. Notice how Omega only ever fights third division villains, as befits both his locale and status in the superhero world. ( In fact, he isn't a superhero. He never really wants to fight ). Or James-Micheal's pubescent crush on the M.J. like Amber, brilliantly subtly written. Or the way that Gerber so perfectly places the reader into the sheer hell that is school, where people actually die ( and unlike every other comic, never come back ). Or scenes like this:

Omega, behind all the fight scenes, is actually a book about the small things in life, good and bad, and the fact that it'll never be finished with all plot threads tied up, matters not a jot to me. Sometimes, the journey is better than the destination. And again, like all of Gerber's work, there's a human edge to it. These people matter. For all the weirdness, the surrealism and insanity, what made Steve Gerber great was simply that. Even outsiders matter.
And I haven't even touched on the time The Son Of Satan met both God AND Adam.
Still not convinced? Tch. Bozo.


  1. Great post! I expect to hear your thoughts on Gerber's Guardians of the Galaxy and KISS work soon, Pete. I know you said you did't much like teams, but hey, this was some ka-razee, primo Gerber stuff!

  2. Pete, that post knocked me out! I was going to leave a comment about what Gerber's work means to me but you've really said it all - Spooky!
    I will just say that I'm glad you highlighted the Man-Thing "book-burning / Mad Viking" story, one of the most sublimely moving and thought-provoking comics stories ever.
    "Even outsiders matter": so true.

  3. All of the above seconded wholeheartedly. The Defenders as "the unpopular gang at school" is definitely a fresh way of looking at the team, and may explain why I loved them so much.

  4. Pete:

    Wow, ask and I shall receive. Well done, my friend.

    Yet, sadly, I fear I'm no closer to liking Gerber’s stories than I was before. I think you touch on something when you mention the "weirdness, the surrealism and insanity" of Gerber's work. For me — and especially for 10-year-old me — these elements often get in the way of the humanity he's so obviously trying to explore. The weirdness undermines my suspension of disbelief, making it difficult for me to connect with the characters. Without that connection, Gerber’s stories don’t carry the requisite emotional weight.

    Another problem I seem to be having with Gerber is one of tone. One of the contributors over at the Marvel Masterworks Message Board (I’ve been having a Gerber discussion over there, too), wrote: “Gerber was mocking the industry, openly, but subtly, with a lot of class (in order not to get fired, for instance), but not in order to hurt anybody, but in order to have fun alongside with the reader, for the sake of sheer fun.” But that’s not how it felt to me. My response: “I think you might have put a finger on why Gerber didn't work for me as a kid. Back then, superhero comics were serious business to me, and Gerber's mocking of genre tropes felt like he was laughing at me, not with me. And, moving forward, I guess that would explain why Alan Moore's work appeals to me more than someone like Grant Morrison's. Moore certainly understands the inherent absurdities of the superhero genre, but treats books like Watchmen and Swamp Thing with seriousness and respect. Morrison, on the other hand, tends to share that mocking tone with Gerber, and, even today, it tends to go down sideways.”

    I really do appreciate your piece (I’ll never look at the Defenders the same way again after your spot-on description of the team!), just as I’ve been enjoying the thoughtful responses over at the Marvel Masterworks Message Board (I’ll make sure to add a link to this post there). The fact that a writer like Gerber was able to make such a deep connection with readers is a wonderful thing; it makes the world of comics a much richer place (Chris Claremont’s work “spoke” to me in much the same way.) I doubt I’ll ever grow to be a big Gerber fan (though I do hope to revisit his Guardians of the Galaxy stories soon; I’ve always been a fan of those). But, after all the heartfelt insights I’ve heard from Gerber connoisseurs this week, I'm certainly more aware and appreciative of what he's trying to do.

    Keep up the good fight, Pete. We’ll get ’em all reading Bronze Age comics yet!


  5. I forgot to add a link for the Marvel Masterworks Message Board's discussion about Gerber in my previous post:


    The man's work obviously touched a lot of people.


  6. I knew this one would polarize opinion, and I'm sure Steve wouldn't have it any other way. For instance, I can't see that Gerber was mocking the genre. Having read interviews with him, that just doesn't ring true at all. But at the end of the day, it is just a matter of taste, 'cos the inclusion I felt in his work alas didn't connect to you, Andrew. But again, in terms of emotion, I'd point to 'A Book Burns in Citrusville'and nearly all of James-Micheal's scenes in Omega, to name just two. But I totally understand people who're unmoved by Gerber. As I said, I had trouble with it when I was a kid, yet I consistently go back to it. It clearly has depth. I agree with you about Morrison by the way, and for that reason. Gerber meant it, and I don't think Morrison does, if that makes sense.
    And just to open up a whole other can of worms, I can't stand Claremont! ( I'm been cowardly avoiding that issue on this blog, but one day I'll get into it. Prepare your brickbats now, Chris fans... )

  7. Brilliant resume of a great nutty writer who I loved. Of all the thousands in my comic collection in the 70s that I sold in one go, his work was in the select few I could not part with. I still have his HtD and Man-Thing - beautiful writing, thanks, Norman

  8. Pete:

    Oh-oh. Hatin' on Claremont? The ocean between us grows! (Oh, wait, there actually is an ocean between us, isn't there?)

    Just kidding, of course. One thing I've been impressed with during all the Gerber discussions I've had this week is how civil fans of Bronze Age comics seem to be with one another. Apparently, the shared love of older comics trumps the like or dislike for any one particular creator or series. The conversations have been absent the acrimony so common in online discussions of recent comics.

    FYI, I'm not giving up on Gerber yet. Anyone who worked as hard as he did to challenge the medium deserves some effort on my part, too. I just put Man-Thing #17 on my shopping list and will review it as soon as I track down a copy.

    Thanks again for the great post.

    (Hatin' on Claremont. Sigh.)


  9. I know, I know, I should be pummeled with a wet copy of Giant Size X-Men! Actually, I don't hate Chris, it's just that there are several writer's tics he has that irritate me, but more on that when I summon the nerve to do a piece on The Claremeister.
    True what you say about the civility of the older fans as well, everyone's entitled to their opinion after all. It's just comics!If you don't like what I like, fair play, all the more for me.
    And re: Citrusville. That story actually spans ish's 16-18. Best to get a copy of Essential Manny Vol 2, with the best of Steve's run AND all of Chris' run! Omigod, there's a battle royal in the offing...

  10. I've got to say i loved Steve Gerbers' Defenders as a kid,it was just so different from the rest of the super-teams published at that time,you had no idea what was going to happen from one issue to the next.It also didn't hurt having Sal Buscema as the regular artist as well.I've only just come across this site and am finding it a great read,cheers.

  11. Great post ...Gerber was always an interesting read.
    As you say Pete "He meant it"...He was always an individual.
    I fear that as the next few years play out in the comics industry some one like him will never be able to find a "home" or an audience in comics (If this hasn't become the case already)
    That cocky (SP) blue collar attitude that hid a vulnerable and almost sentimental side that wished... well why can't things be better, fairer...wasn't that the American Dream?
    All looked at in the pages of a comic book, powerful stuff to read as a kid.
    As I say Pete great stuff.
    (Who's probably had one two many Southern Comforts and Lime)

  12. Great post - it pretty much sums up my own thoughts on Gerber and then some. Thanks for this and for your great site.
    By the way, what did you think of Gerber's all-too-brief and almost entirely forgotten run on Mr. Miracle (together with Michael Golden)? It tantalizes me to think of how cool that series would have been if it hadn't gotten cancelled.

  13. Edo, I do have a vague memory of reading one issue of Steve's Mr. Miracle, but not enough to express an informed opinion. ( That's me back on ebay then! )

    Graham, Southern Comfort & coke! ALWAYS Southern Comfort & Coke!

    Kevin, Our Pal Sal on The Defenders. Oh, hell yeah. It was Sal's ( and Jim Mooney's on Omega & Manny ) classical realsim that offset so beautifully against Steve's insanity.

    And everybody else, thanks for commenting. Glad Gerber connected with you as much as he did ( and continues to do ) with me!

  14. I think that Steve Gerber was a writer ahead of his time.He probably was a great influence on writers like Alan Moore,Neil Gaiman,Frank Miller and others in the modern comic or graphic novel age.My personal favorites were the Defenders and Omega.Although I also liked to read a Man-Thing or two.Howard the duck was fun to read once in a while.I notice that Gerber did'nt write for D.C. or at least I'm not aware that he did.Which is interesting when you think about it,I guess Marvel really did pioneer the way more modern comics were written.D.C. was doing more traditional story telling at the time.But eventually,it would be known for groundbreaking comics like Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Dark Knight.Of course,Man-Thing was influenced by D.C.'s Swamp Thing.I thought the way you described the Defenders was funny,it made me think of the kids from the South Park cartoons.Imagine,the Hulk as Cartman.I actually thought you had a photo of Robin Williams,but it turned out to be Steve Gerber.What an uncanny resemblance!

  15. My 13 year old self couldn't get enough of Gerbers Man-thing, I read and reread every issue and this devotion continued with Howard the Duck even as drugs, sex and rock and roll began to dominate my adolescent pysche. And after all these years, I still have these comic books. Gerber, Starlin, and Don Mcgregor were and still are my favorite bronze age writers who worked for Marvel in the 70s. I'm glad someone out there beside myself appreciates them.

  16. Steve Gerber might be my favourite comic book writer of that era. It always depresses me that you can get virtually everything he ever wrote, at rock bottom prices on eBay.

    OK, it's good that you can get a zillion and one copies of "The Defenders" or "Guardians of the Galaxy" without bankrupting yourself but the fact that there's so little demand for them shows there's no justice in the world.