Today's the birthday of one of the comic book world's greatest writers, the late Steve Gerber. Here's a short tribute I wrote a few years back.
Steve Gerber was a mold-breaker. He had an individual voice at a time when many of Marvel’s writers—even the very best of them—were burying their individuality beneath a layer of Stan Lee-isms. He stepped into the Marvel Universe, looked around at the towering structures that Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had erected, bowed in deference to their collective genius, and then started kicking those towers down with ferocious glee. His work on Defenders (where he injected a Monty Pythonesque lunacy into the superhero genre), Howard The Duck (the first overground underground comic book) and Man-Thing (his most impassioned, and compassionate, writing) ranks among the best work of the 1970’s. Hell, it ranks among the best mainstream comics work by anybody ever.
I wouldn't be the writer I am today if I'd never encountered Steve Gerber's work. Every Gerber story I read—the ones that soared and the ones that went down in flames—was evidence that mainstream comics could be so much more than I’d ever imagined. That there was no creative door that couldn’t be kicked in, no creative wall that couldn’t be torn down.
©copyright 2017 J.M. DeMatteis
Gerber's work helped me look at the world the way I do today. I read it at a very influential time in my life, my teen years, and it is all so very good. Man-Thing and Howard The Duck hold a special place in my heart. I still wish they would have let him finish Void Indigo.ReplyDelete
I was a teenager, as well, when I read Gerber's work. And HOWARD and MAN-THING are probably my two favorites, with his DEFENDERS not far behind. That said, just about everything he touched in the 70s was, at the very least, interesting. I remember his short run on SON OF SATAN being excellent. And someone just reminded me that he had a run on DAREDEVIL that I'd completely forgotten about. He was one of those writers that—from the very first story of his I read—I knew was a cut above. Make that ten cuts!Delete
I first read Gerber as a teenager too.Delete
My local comic shop got nearly a full run when I was in High School. They sold them for cheap, and a buddy of mine, over the course of a month, would each go up there once a week, and grabbed them up. We probably had the whole run between us by the end.
Lots of interesting comic discussions, and I actually finished the run.
Before that I had the "A Book Burns in Citrusville." saga, and "Kids Night Out" was one of the first I bought in that race.
Maybe the two best to read as an adolescent.
Yes Gerber's Defenders(very underrated, the team book run that encapsulated the 70s comic scene), Daredevil, and of course Howard the Duck, but don't forget his Captain America, Sub-Mariner (wither Everett in parts), and Marvel Two-in-One.
I also really liked his Sludge series. Very good stuff.
I also think Gerber's Man-Thing was a major influence on Moore's Swamp Thing run. He never gets credit for it.
I really have to go back and re-read the MAN-THING run. Just reading those titles brings back amazing memories. I loved that series. In many ways, Gerber, for me, was to the 70s was Stan and Jack were to the 60s. His impact was that big.Delete
Someone else today reminded me about his TWO IN ONE run. As soon as it came up, my mind filled with images of covers.
He was one of a kind.
I have the two huge b&w Essentials of Man-Thing that I read about once a year or so. I was so happy to see TWO IN ONE is coming back to Marvel. They are also doing final issues for series that just got cancelled like Darkhawk and Silver Sable. I was sad to see that Sleepwalker didn't get one. And, for icing on the cake, they are bringing back Journey Into Mystery. I think I'm going to like this new Marvel Legacy thing.Delete
Don't forget his Tales of the Zombie, Omega the Unknown, and that Superman story with the Phantom Zone he did.Delete
Also his hatred of fat kids. Seriously, what a weird recurring theme.
Never read any of his TALES OF THE ZOMBIE stories. Didn't even know he wrote any!Delete
I should get my hands on those ESSENTIALS volumes, Douglas. It would be great fun to re-read those classic stories.Delete
Hope Marvel Legacy is a huge success ala DC's Rebirth. We need a health, vibrant industry.
I have the Tales of The Zombie one along with a catch all series called Marvel Horror that has a bunch of great stuff in it. Also, both volumes of Werewolf By Night. I'm ashamed that I read that series for years before I picked up on the joke of his human name.Delete
Don't be ashamed. I had no clue either till you just mentioned it and I went... "Oh! I get it now!" : )Delete
The Essentials look really well for Tales of the Zombie since they were already in black and white Magazine form.Delete
I'm actually not surprised you hadn't read them. Considering that hick town you lived in back in the 70s. If there was one thing that place is known for it a lack of periodicals, especially in the 70s.
As for Man-Thing, given how many Essentials are out of print and sky-rocketed in price, the OMnibus might be a better choice. I just own the issues (except the origin which is a 70s reprint) like an idiot. AN IDIOT!
I think everybody hopes Legacy pans out. The industry needs shot in the arm... bad.
I will say I think Man-Thing and its backdoor anthology style (not only was borrowed by Alan Moore in my opinion) but also would be great for a Netflix show... along with OMega the unknown s a mini series. Especially if it were a period piece and cleaned up the ending form Defenders a bit.
Now we just need to figure out what was with Gerber and fat kids.
There's a MAN-THING OMNIBUS? Great! I'll check it out!Delete
I would watch a Man-Thing series. I wouldn't want it to be an origin story, though. More an anthology like Jack suggests. They could run down his origin in the opening credits and then run with the ball from there. I can't afford the Omnibus. There is a new edition in paperback that is less, but since I already have many issues and the Essentials no reason to triple dipDelete
I'll have to hop over to Amazon and see what's available. Thanks, Douglas!Delete
You know you could just tell Marvel you have an idea for a mind blowing Man-thing story, get one of your big name artist pals to go along with it, use all the words they want to hear, and then say you need to do research. They'll probably just leave you alone in the morgue.Delete
Hell, just go in and SAY you were greenlit for a a Man-Thing story. Who is REALLY going to stop you. You have name recognition. It isn't like they have a horror department anymore with one editor to check with. Who know where Man-Thig falls anymore.
Or you could just buy the back issues. With teh exception of the first issue of Howard teh duck, can't believe many issues will go for more than $5.00... if that.
Or just steal them from comic fans/vendors at shows. I don't think it would even make teh rumor mill these days.
Your ideas are brilliant, Jack. Slight demented, but brilliant. : )ReplyDelete
I think buying the books it the best way to go!
I'm pretty sure as long as you smile and give pleasant conversation before you take the comics, I'm pretty sure you'll just be comics' "lovable scamp."Delete
And is anybody REALLY checking Marvel's morgue? Is there even a lock? I don't know.
Well, if you don't want to save money that isn't my issue. Spending money is just like turning a a faucet for you, isn't it?
But in a world were a comic for for an iconic character for one of the big two bragged in an interview about going on a message board as someone else and caused enough havoc that the person's wife had to contact the asking them to stop... it is kind of a high bar for demented these days.
Not to mention, when you are pulling the lovable scamp routine, you could always pull an uncle Leo from Seinfeld.Delete
"I'm an old man, I'm confused. I've been writing funny books for decades, I don't know what's what anymore."
Evey group needs the lovable scamp.
Just call me the "Uncle Leo" of comics.Delete
On second thought: don't! : )
That's funny. Better yet, see if telling someone at Marvel that you've been approved to write a MAN-THING book could actually get you a MAN-THING book...Delete
Inspired by your post, I read a lot of Gerber comics over the weekend. The man really was a mad genius.
I thoroughly enjoy his work on MAN-THING, but I actually prefer HOWARD THE DUCK. I'm especially in love with the Gerber/Colan collaboration on the book.
Given the political climate today, I can see where Gerber's themes would really resonate again, especially the individual's quest to carve out an identity for themselves apart from pre-packaged labels. I'm really impressed with the way he uses humor to navigate terror and sadness.
I hope more people find his work in the coming years, and I thank you, Douglas and Jack for bringing it to my attention.
Look forward to diving into more of his comics this afternoon!
The MAN-THING series I did with Liam Sharp back in the 90s was one of my favorite mainstream Marvel projects ever. Too bad they cancelled us...three times! If we'd been allowed to keep going and growing, it would have been something memorable.Delete
Yes, Gerber and Nolan were an amazing team. I think Gene's work on HTD is some of his finest ever and that's saying alot.
Glad you're enjoying Gerber's work. He truly was one of a kind. And his work had a HUGE impact on me.
You know, it's not like MAN-THING has had a ton of stories to keep up with since the 90s. And Liam Sharp is better than ever. Theoretically, is there any reason why you couldn't pick up where you left off and finish the story you intended, assuming you could convince someone at Marvel it was a good idea? (I know that it's still not likely, I'm just saying never say never, right?)Delete
I can see where Gerber would be a huge influence on you, especially with regard to using absurdity and humor as a way to explore a deeply felt humanity. It's funny that people try to label these kinds of things, but you can't conveniently package that kind of humor. JLI has gags about Oreos...but also the Grey Man. And that's really cool.
It would be interesting picking up where we left off—and I'd love to work with Liam again. But I suspect Marvel wouldn't go for it. Of course, you never know...!Delete
Humor and drama together. What a novel idea! Someone should mention it to Charles Dickens! : )
Ha! I suppose it does date back a little further than the 1980s. I trust you'll forgive my enthusiasm if I discovered your work before Dickens and converse with him less frequently. :)Delete
I was just chatting with Chuckie D this morning. He's a helluva guy!Delete
LOL Well tell Chuckie I said hi!Delete
Someone should also tell Dickens that his name has become a replacement for swearing "What the Dickens." And in the end, isn't that his greatest accomplishment?Delete
Also that two Williams (Eisner and Murray) cleaned up his work. He should really send a thank you note.
I always figured that 90s Man-Thing along with Werewolf by night (both under the 'Strange Tales' name) was Marvel's ...probably like 3rd... attempt to do their own Vertigo.
I personally feel that Epic would have been turned into a Vertigo cooperate if Shooter (or a non-corporate raider, who had a love of comics) had succeeded in purchasing Marvel.
I actually still think that would be a good idea, setting aside four or fice books that are well-regarded by fans, but have a problem gahering longterm readers for long periods of time, and forming a 21st century Vertigo with the. Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, MAn-Thing always had a similar feel to Vertigo in its heyday... Often providing Vertigo tales before their was a Vertigo.
Maybe Sabra book, or Invaders. Something with potential for mature stories and themes... minus the mystical and sci-fi elements. A more grounded and DEEP socio-geo-political or historical look and complex issues of keeping the world safe.
It would have to operate at a loss for a bit, but it would most likely grab more steady readership. LIke what happened to Vedrtigo, also like Vertigo grab positive coverage.
Insteerested of making odd choices with smart cult characters to appeal to people who don't have that much interest in the first place.
Well, Epic was Vertigo before there was a Vertigo. Challenging, adult-oriented, original creator-owned material, done with broad creative freedom. It was only as time passed that the line changed.Delete
Re: Strange Tales. In the beginning, the line was meant to be very Vertigo-esque in that we were allowed to use "adult" language, more blatant sexuality, etc. Then someone upstairs changed his mind. I'd already written the first issue and was very annoyed at the change. But after talking with Said Executive (no, not Shooter), I realized that toning down the language and the nudity made my story no less adult than it was WITH the language and nudity. And that also gave us the freedom to use other Marvel characters (including Sub-Mariner and the oft-mentioned Howard the Duck) without worrying if we were "adultifying" them and shutting out a portion of the audience.
I think the SON OF SATAN book planned at the same time was scrapped because of those changes, but it didn't impact our story at all. The story, the characters, the themes, remained the same.
And that's today's glimpse into Comic Book History!
I don't think that calling Epic Vertigo before Vertigo is accurate. While the creator owned aspects were probably what most attracted writers and certainly the largest output, that isn't what most fans think of.Delete
Fact is most of those were what was being pioneered like that by Vertigo would later be adopted by it's big brother IMAGE. It is exactly why creators like it and sales will very rarely get very high. It created the idea of a company accepting the idea of readers being able to and often did, say,"This is really well done... I just don't care."
Yes, everyone has their Vertigo creator owned works that they love, but most people connect it with books that already had connections to the DCU. Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Doom Patrol, Animal Man, a lot of minor series, and Sandman. With the exception of the last one, no creator control, and varying writers and artists.
In fact before Vertigo, those books were looped in with Green Arrow, Question, New Gods, Vigilante, and a few others as the 'New Format' books, or as they became around fandom the '10pm drama books.'
That is the real thing I believe propelled Vertigo, name recognition that could give a certain amount of faith, but be out of the way enough to be experimented with.
In actuality a lot of lesser known DC characters seemed to march towards flirting with the Vertigo style in the post Crisis era. Hell, maybe that was even part of the draw. A capsule of a time with so much energy and freedom/
Yes, a lot of talented creators and Karen Berger's editing was great, but talent and skill does not ensure success.
Epic had smatterings of well known characters, Elektra, Silver Surfer, and Wolverine & HAvok. It should have been pushed more.
And if we are being honest, Epic had a lot of great adult books. It also had a lot of not so adult material. It never seemed as focused. Which was not a problem for what it was, it just defines what it was.
MArvel seemingly tried to do Vertigo several times after Vertigo got traction. Marvel Select, that Typhoid mini series by Nocenti was part of something, Strange Tsles, Icon, and the second take at Marvel Knights and a few others, they just never committed. For I'm guessing a multitude of reasons.
Some would argue DC doesn't even really have a Vertigo anymore, it has changed so much post-Berger.
Eventually DC created MAX, which is widely considered the anti-Vertigo.
But hoe important is a Vertigo type series? Well, complicated.
A book doesn't have to have adult themes to be smart. But it does open up other doors to write about. Things perople want to write, draw, and read about.
Now Marvel (and DC for outside Vertigo for that matter) has books , stories, and series that explore those ideas. However, Sometimes they are tweaked, cancelled, or are lost in the shuffle.
Vertigo type banners do two important things, 1) it allows for lower sales to be excepted with different standard and goals and B)it gives people looking for those types of stories a place to seek it out.
What MArvel doesn't have is a way to direct people to what they are looking for, and to match creators goals with the best place to do that. It is all one big casserole, with people having varying views on the ingredients, when what they need is a buffet with a big enticing entree most people love.
As for the uncle Leo stuff, the industry needs a lovable scamp now more than ever.Delete
Hell, with one foot out the door, I need a lovable scamp in comics. Be that lovable scamp. Don';t just let me leave and get a...ewww... normal hobby.
Interesting points, Jack; but, being someone who was part of both the Epic and Vertigo launches, my feeling remains the same. Epic was, in many ways, the blueprint for Vertigo. But feel free to disagree!Delete
Re: Uncle Leo. All I can say is: "Jack...HELLO!"Delete
Really fascinating discussion about Epic and Vertigo.Delete
If I had to guess as to why Marvel never fully committed to a "Vertigo" style line, I'd say it's because Marvel has always felt pretty comfortable with what it is, while DC has been suffering an identity crisis since Stan Lee's Marvel revolution.
I hope no one thinks I'm criticizing DC when I say that, because an identity crisis is neither inherently good or bad. Soul searching can lead to some great things, on a collective or individual level, along with the inevitable missteps that come with trying to find yourself.
When I think of Marvel in the 80s, my mind mostly turns to runs, but with DC, it's more the swing-for-the-fences projects. WATCHMEN, BATMAN: YEAR ONE, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. I don't think it's any coincidence that Vertigo flourished during that same era, when DC was still unsure as to what their heroes should be on a monthly basis. And Marvel could never quite get their alternate universes going, or at least they were only relevant to the extent they affected the 'main' universe, but DC had a creative explosion with ELSEWORLDS.
This is, of course, a broad strokes oversimplification, but I think there's truth in it. In the early 80s, when Marvel was experimenting with EPIC, its superhero books were still suffering. But by the mid-80s Marvel had benefitted from GI JOE, STAR WARS, and TRANSFORMERS, while its core superhero books were reaching new heights.
Maybe Marvel didn't need its own Vertigo like DC did; maybe for Marvel a separate line wasn't even icing on the cake, it was a cupcake next to the cake. But for DC it was a chance to be seen as the 'literary' brand.
Or maybe I'm waaaaay off. Fun to speculate!
The Vertigo line was really a natural outgrowth of the books Karen Berger was editing, David. She had a very specific sensibility and her books, many written by the new wave of British writers, reflected that. They were almost a line of books BEFORE they became a line of books, if you know what I mean. It wasn't that they were looking for a "literary brand." It's that they recognized Karen was naturally creating one. DC thought Karen's unique collection of titles should become a line of their own.Delete
So if there question is: Why does Vertigo exist?—it's a two word answer: Karen Berger.
Is Karen Berger why Vertigo exists, as an outsider I would say 70% yes. Now I am sure you are going to jump down my through at that.Delete
However, my point is simply that in life timing is everything. She was the driving force, but more importantly she was the driving force at the right time. No matter how good it was, if it wasn't released when the industry wanted it, with fans who were interested, and people at the top willing to take the sales cuts, it would have just sizzled out.
As for the creative explosion from DC, it had a lot more to do with loosened reigns post-crisis, and the looming threat of having books farmed out to Marvel.
DC was in a bad place before Crisis saved them.
However, Vertigo came out in 1993. DC had already bounced back quite a bit, and was still basking in the Death of Superman and Knightfall glow, only highlighting the new readers following Batman '89.
Marvel on the other hand, at the time still outselling DC (until they weren't for several years at the decades end and the next ones beginning), but the 90s saw some weird problems managementwise. When Wall Street investors and Corporate Raiders took over, something as 'artsy-fartsty' as Vertigo would have been too much of a gamble.
By the time the new millennium rolled around and things had settled, comics were in a weird place. More importantly Joe Quesada took over, an I don't think Vertigo was really his thing. And he did have a history of giving much more focus to what HE liked, until Brubaker made Captain America a breakout success.
AS for the Epic for Epic and Vertigo. Whether it was the blueprint or not, you would have yto ask Ms. Berger.
However, I wasn't saying it wasn't a forbear-er to it. But Vertigo was a much different animal. Certainly at least seeming, more deliberate in what they chose. And keeping ties to DCU visible, albeit off in the distance.
Vertigo may have had ancestors, but it was its own animal.
P.S. since you didn't say hello to David, does that make him Elaine?
David is Elaine? Well, y'know, I've never seen the two of them in the same place at the same time, so... : )Delete
But, if it weren't for Epic we would not have had Moonshadow and for that I am always grateful to Epic for bringing that to us.Delete
Thanks, Douglas! We're laying the groundwork for a new, hardcover "ultimate" edition of MOON to come out in 2018. Very excited about it.Delete
Elaine? I guess that makes me the commonality between our earth and its bizarro counterpart...Delete
As I've always suspected!Delete
There seems to be a VERY inaccurate belief that I don't like EPIC books.Delete
However, if VERTIGO was indeed a calculated plot for literary comics than that removes it even more from EPIC.
EPIC was designed to keep creators from going to the then sprouting indie companies, I believe. Which is why some books are adult... and others are not.
It was actually very smart. Nowadays, many writers abandon MArvel and DC first chance they get, often times admitting they held back their best ideas until they could get a new book of their own.
OF course, Adult comics were nothing new.They are decades old attempts. Vertigo just curbed all the pitfalls, intentially or not.
-The Spirit - a newspaper insert, unable to get traction.
-E.C. Comics - Impact tales originally in Shock Suspenstories, then later IMPACT! comics. Mixed (literally) with gory tales of monsters, and sci-fi with brutal ends (Bradbury originals as well), and dark crime stories. The tales of Racism, drug addiction, psychological looks at what creates a criminal, and more, were lost in the shuffle. ANd slaughetrs after the rieals.
-Silver Surfer- unable to distinguish itself from the average superhero tales on the cover.
-A handful of Marvel 70s tales- combined with commercialism for sales.
-The Warren books (CREEPY and EERIE for example) and Marvel's attempt to copy it (Tales of the Zombie and Savage word of Conan for example). Separated as more proper magazines. Many fans couldn't find them, and finding them became even MORE difficult.
-Many indie books of the 80s - Comic stores still to new. Many collectors still got them off the shelf. Even among comic shops small number of orders by percentage.
Over all the BIGGEST problem (not they only one) is availability and the ability to identify that is trying for something.
Identification of nitch products, and printing at lower numbers, to build a small, but reliable fan base.
It makes it easy to find for the market (and it isn't just 'literary it can work for, Shoooter did it for kids books), and get it to their audience.
It also separates form what needs to be more commercial to survive. You can keep an idea, that won't sell.
Marvel has a lot of characters that are only loved by some.
They are also on a bit of a quirky kick. Lets look at the cancelled Dan Slott Silver Surfer at how this could have saved it.
Dan Slott's Surfer was not for a Vertigo book, but a quirky one could.
It had a vide of Dr. Who and a Saturday Morning Cartoon. I am no fan of it.
And that is sort of teh point. Fanbases split. Fans of the Surfer tended to not be fans of the book. However people who didn't like the Surfer or never read him were much more responsive.
I didn't like it. For what it was however, it as well done. I can dislike something and still acknowledge it is good.
If you pout a fringe character in an area with a set idea, everyone knows what they are getting, no split, no anger. Okay, less anger. Also less pressure to preform, because you only print x amount, which is less than the average y amount.
You also don't have to work around cult characers when you bring them back, for a wider audience, which usually fails and angers the old school fans.
It opens up the ability to explore.
It also contains less WIDELY liked ideas.
'adult' and literary' are like porn and comedy. Subjective most of the time, and always at a "know it when you see it" way. Good and Bad sure as Hell are when you move way from conventional realms.
I don't think Vertigo was a "calculated plot" for anything beyond doing smart, adult comics where creators can have lots of freedom.Delete
And I didn't think you had a negative opinion of Epic at all. Didn't come across that way.
Comedy and porn, eh? What about comedic porn? Or pornographic comedy? (Excuse me, I didn't get much sleep last night.)
“Trapped in a world he never made!” – a phrase that I often felt applied as much to Gerber as to Howard the Duck!ReplyDelete
Reading his work from an early age, I didn’t always understand it, but it always left me wanting more. His Man-Thing, Defenders and Foolkiller runs were just superb.
Fantastically inventive, satirical, humanist, hilarious, downright odd at times – he was one great writer, and another one I wish I could’ve said, thank you, too.
Wherever you are, have a great birthday, Mr Gerber. You are missed.
He certainly is, Karlos. Can you imagine what Gerber would make of the world today?Delete
I already posted here that there was a Howard the Duck story involving Canadians manipulating a US presidential election.Delete
Now, I won't say what I do or don't believe, or that it is true or not. Simply that is similar to some allegations. One way or another, no matter what eh truth is. Someone wsa coming up with an H. the D. plot that was 40 years old.
Also, the story that spoofs Anita Bryant was probably read by more people than even remember Anita Bryant off hand.
Wait. You mean it wasn't the Russians...it was the Canadians?! I'm calling the NY Times!Delete
Anita Bryant. Now there's a name I haven't heard in years.
Also not a fan of Anita Bryant: Charles Schultz.Delete
Interesting side note, Schultz was good friends with Billie Jean King and her (obviously now ex-) husband.
Like I said, more people have probably read that comic through back issues or reprints, than have ever thought about Ms. Bryant past oh, lets say, 1979.
Hopefully you'll think of that before YOU try to stop groups of people from getting government jobs.
And all of your fruit juice sponsorship's won't help you.
Well... Anita Bryant taught a very important lesson.Delete
If you try to keep people from getting jobs based on bigoted half-truths, your career is going to suffer.
And a Duck who smokes cigars will mock you.
Truly a sobering lesson for us all.
sorry that should have said "bigoted non-truths"Delete
I lost my fruit juice sponsorships years ago, Jack!Delete
Haven't finished listening yet, but...ReplyDelete