Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Neez. Piano. And Other Expressions of Grief.

When I got home from work today, John immediately told me that Steve Gerber was dead. If you've never been a fan of Marvel Comics, that name may mean little or nothing to you. But when John and I met in 1977, Steve Gerber was doing some of his best work, certainly his most famous work. As I remember it, my first date with John consisted of our walking into East Lansing together to buy a Steve Gerber-written comic book. I can even tell you exactly which one. It was Howard the Duck #16, cover-titled "Deadline Doom." Inside it was titled “Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing: A Communique from Colorado,” and it was utterly brilliant.

Yes, that Howard the Duck, the character from a poorly-received 1980s George Lucas film. But if that's all you know about the Duck and his author, let me enlighten you.

I can't tell you when and where it began for Gerber himself. I gather he was already at Marvel in the early 1970s at age 25. But my acquaintance with his work began at a science fiction and comics convention in or near Cape Canaveral, Florida in the summer of 1976. Someone, possibly a friend of my mom's, recommended to me a character I'd never heard of, Man-Thing. This near-mindless, empathic muck monster, a former human scientist (aren't they all?) appeared in the titles Fear, Man-Thing and Giant-Size Man-Thing in that era, all of them written by Steve Gerber after the initial few stories. My mom's friend showed me the cover of Giant-Size Man-Thing #4, and chuckled at the brilliance of the back-up story, blurbed on the cover as "Gorko the Man-Frog." The actual character's name was Garko, it turned out. He/it faced not Man-Thing himself, but a supporting character introduced in Fear #19, Howard the Duck.

The Man-Thing, according to Gerber, had some connection with the Nexus of All Realities. Due to a shift in the Cosmic Axis, or something, Howard was sucked through the Nexus into our world (or at any rate Marvel's), and ended up in Cleveland. It was all bizarre and wonky, funny and satirical, full of likable characters and respectful of the comics medium without taking it all too seriously. John calls Howard "the ultimate outsider," and that's what he was, a soft-hearted cynic commenting acidly on the absurdity of the "hairless apes" around him, but getting involved in their lives despite himself.

So for the rest of the summer, whenever I had enough allowance money, I would make my way over to the mainland, to a comic book shop and used bookstore in Cocoa. There I would buy mostly-"stripped" copies of the Man-Thing titles. One memorable day I bought one too many of them, knowing it meant I had insufficient cash left to take the bus all the way from Cocoa to Cocoa Beach. It was 50 cents from the mainland to Merritt Island, and another 50 cents from Merritt Island to Cocoa Beach. I walked to Merritt Island, hoping to take the bus the rest of the way. It was 94 degrees, and 94% humidity. Someone saw me on the edge of heat stroke and drove me the rest of the way.

I don't regret it, because I got G.S. Man-Thing #5 out of it, and a story I've been telling for over thirty years now.

Somewhere in there, Howard got his own title, and I bought it new when it came out. By the time I was at the Clarion Writer's Workshop the following summer, Howard the Duck was up to issue 16. Gerber apparently moved to Las Vegas by car about the time the manuscript was due. Rather than let the title "go reprint," he wrote a stream of consciousness piece about moving, and comics, and the Howard character, and his own state of mind. Each two-page spread was illustrated by a different artist. some of them were quite trippy; I remember Howard's face in a flower, a la Bullwinkle, or Daffy in Duck Amok. I believe the center spread was an obligatory fight scene, involving Howard, an ostrich, a newspaper and a telephone pole.* Or something. I haven't read the thing in years, so please forgive the fuzziness of memory.

(*Close. It was Howard watching in disgust as an ostrich and a Las Vegas show girl faced an evil table lamp.)

Anyway, this guy I liked at the workshop, John Blocher, loved the issue as much as I did, which was a point in his favor. Another issue that was a favorite for both of us involved Howard's mental breakdown. One of the random words that appeared in Howard's thought balloons in that issue was "Piano." There was no particular thought or reason behind it; it was just a disconnected word disgorged by Howard's short-circuiting mind. At one point he was in a large box, and for years "ducks in boxes" became a code in the Blocher household for...actually, never you mind what it meant.

When we married in 1979, I dumped my stripped copies of the Gerber Man-Things because I was "marrying into a better collection." By then I also had some of Gerber's work on The Defenders, an off-beat superhero team mag with Doctor Strange and the Incredible Hulk in it. True to form, Gerber had the childlike Hulk sent off to make coffee in one issue. Great stuff!

At some point, though, Gerber had a falling out with Marvel over a Howard the Duck newspaper strip, and they took Howard and the other titles away from him. Gerber sued, and wrote some other stuff for other companies, some of it thinly-disguised Howard, some not. But even when he returned to Marvel much later, the Marvel Age of Gerber Quirkiness was definitely over. And that's a shame. When he was on form, back in the 1970s, there was no better writer in comics.

Gene Colan's art for Howard was great, too. Somewhere here at the Museum of the Weird is Gene Colan/Steve Leialoha art from a Howard the Duck issue. I haven't seen it in years, but it's either from #4, featuring Paul Same, the Winky-Man, or #2, featuring the Incredible Space Turnip, in which case the art is by Frank Brunner, which it isn't; so it must be #4. John's done a great job of getting most of our undisplayed art into our library, but that piece and the American Flagg art are eluding me. I suspect it's behind twenty boxes, five pieces or large furniture and other obstacles in the front room.

I was aware that Gerber was writing comics again, but comics and I parted company long ago. I didn't know he was ill, or living in Las Vegas, waiting on a lung transplant. On February 4th, he blogged from his hospital room that he was working on a Doctor Fate story while waiting for his lungs to improve enough to even have a biopsy to determine the source of his latest medical setback. On February 11th, Gerber's friend and fellow writer Mark Evanier broke into the blog with his family's permission, and announced Gerber's death. The obituaries said he was being treated for pulmonary fibrosis.

As I was getting ready to write this entry, I also heard from my friend from college, also named Howard, conveying the sad news. Howard G., I hope this entry meets with your approval.

So long, Gerber. Thanks for Howard and Bev and Paul Same and the Kidney Lady, a cop named Tompkins, Richard Rory and Dakimh the enchanter. Dr. Bong was less of a fave, but spawned the memorable word "Neez" and the Howard the Human incident. And thanks for doing all that it the perfect time to connect me with another of your fans, and help to cement our relationship. Godspeed.


(I'm blatantly ripping off some scans of comic book covers here. I'm claiming fair use as it's for non-commercial use in critical commentary and they're not high enough resolution to be used for commercial purposes, blah, blah, blah.)


Becky said...

Oh wow...I remember Man-Thing and Howard The Duck on the stands back in the day. I was never a fan. I would pass them over looking for other books. Primarily comics with female leads; SheHulk, Dazzler, Spider Woman, Wonder Woman...yadda. Still, it's sad. I would thumb through these other comics while I was browsing and would probably have bought every issue of everything, if I could have afforded it. It was hard to make the money stretch as a kid, wasn't it? We always seemed to want so much, yet we had so little. :-} Kids these days don't know how lucky they are. Spoiled rotten, the lot of them (including my boys.)

Chris Duffy said...

Nice post! He was an important writer to a lot of people, including me.

Thanks for that!