Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On Steve Gerber

You've gone, as they say, to some world or other...

Steve Gerber died working on a script for a character called Doctor Fate. His very last blog post was called Even Quicker Update. Like a doomed character in Man-Thing, I imagine him typing as fast as his dying fingers will let him, a clock thumping on the wall, conscious of how few seconds remained, and how much was still to do.

He'll never do it now.

I should enumerate his achievements: Man-Thing, Defenders, Omega the Unknown. A string of others, stretching from those early seventies - the most inventive, exciting period comic books ever produced. He was the outstanding writer of a great generation. And Gerber's finest work was Howard the Duck.

By turns outraged and affectionate, daring and inventive, and always hilarious, Howard the Duck was the greatest comic book series ever written. It had no rivals and produced no successors. Sure, it had its wrong turns and off-issues, but it never dropped below brilliant. And this in an industry which rarely rises above plodding competence.

I'm not going to be sentimental. Let's be clear about what happened to this man: he created something superb and developed it for a few short years. Then legalised robbery took his masterpiece, and they set about bastardising it. They gave lesser, unmotivated writers free-range to carry on Gerber's work. Their magazines and mini-series were feeble and embarrassing. If you want to understand why Gerber fans are still so angry about his treatment, it's right there. Marvel could have just let Howard the Duck slide into anonymity. But that wasn't enough. They wanted to prove the writer was dispensable. They were wrong.

You can say it if you want: that Marvel, in denying Gerber the rights to Howard, was just protecting its corporate asset, that Ditko and Kirby and who knows else would have wanted their share. That the economics of comics would have collapsed. That Gerber, damn it, should have made an effort to ingratiate himself with the powers-that-be.

You know what? I don't care. Writers aren't cuddly teddy bears. Some are prickly and anti-social, and some are downright nasty. A glance at Howard the Duck shows that Gerber might have had a negative side. Jim Shooter, apparently, didn't get on with him. So what? The job of managers and editors is to get the best, the very best, out of what is available. Even up to last week, the very best that Marvel could have produced was Howard the Duck. Thirty years passed between Gerber leaving Howard the Duck and his death, and Marvel produced six Gerber-written issues. Pathetic. Right now, there's nothing on Marvel's website about Gerber's death. Why aren't I surprised?

Somewhere out in the ether, there are a hundred or two hundred unwritten Howard the Ducks. The ones they gave Gerber no opportunity to write. Where would the industry be now with a regular infusion of literate, funny, satirical comics? I can't help feel it might be in a better position.

Anyway, those non-comics were stolen from Gerber and us by nobodies, bean-counters and mini-Napoleons. I don't know the behind-the-scenes details, so I won't accuse individuals. But I'll say this to the front men: doubtless you had your reasons, Shooter-DeFalco-Harras-Quesada, but does it feel uncomfortable to have torn the head off that golden-egg laying goose?

So now Marvel has its corporate asset, and no Gerber to launch irritating lawsuits. What future is there for Howard? Absolutely none. There's not a writer on the planet who could compose a new Howard the Duck.

The duck died with the man.

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