Tuesday, 8 September 2009
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.