Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Steve Gerber; 1947 - 2008

He's gone.

I couldn't believe the email when it hit my inbox this morning. Steve Gerber, writer of some of the finest comics of my childhood is gone. Sadness doesn't even capture how I feel right now, a sense of emptiness, a sense of loss, a sense of numb. There's a lot of emotions, sadness is but one aspect. But no matter how I feel others are feeling worse, and at the end of it all I'll wake up tomorrow and Steve will still be gone.

Plenty of other sites will be going over his career as a writer, they'll be talking about his creations, Omega The Unknown amongst them. They'll talk about his collaborations with Mary Skrenes on that book. They'll talk about possibly his greatest creation, Howard The Duck, and how that went sour. They'll bring up the fact that he sued Marvel Comics in the 1970s for the rights and ownership of Howard, and how he lost, yet won. He might have lost the battle but he won the war and it was his boldness and vision that set the path for creators who followed to own their characters, work for hire was changed forever with the advent of Steve Gerber. Other sites will talk of his abilities as a writer, they'll tell you, and rightly so, that out of all the Marvel writers of the 1970s Steve Gerber rose above the pack. He led the way with some of the oddest comics ever, from the text Howard The Duck issue through to the still amazing Kiss comic, his work was always entertaining. It didn't matter if you liked it or not, you still read it and even if you didn't like it you could see the talent shining out.

[Howard The Duck courtesy of Alan Kupperberg]

Having said all of that I'd like to talk about Steve Gerber, the person. In 2006 I began work on the biography of artist Jim Mooney. This put me in touch with a good number of people, from Stan Lee through to Libby Titus and almost everyone in-between, from fans to professionals. However there was one person I wanted to speak to: Steve Gerber. Steve had written several stories with Jim, amongst them Man Thing and the underappreciated Omega The Unknown. I knew Jim loved working with Steve, when I first interviewed Mooney in 2004 he raved about working with Steve. Eventually he said this about Steve, which I tagged for inclusion in the book proper, "Man-Thing was my favourite that I did there," said Jim, "I loved working with Steve Gerber. I admired Steve’s stuff tremendously. I thought the guy was an extremely talented writer, way ahead of his time, a little bit like Harlan Ellison. I enjoyed it immensely but we never had much contact with each other for some reason. We almost always worked on the phone and Steve was a very articulate guy but he never had much to say. I knew he liked my stuff, he indicated that, and I let him know that I enjoyed working with him. I think that Man-Thing was one of the most interesting and stimulating strips I’ve ever done.

"I never met Steve in the early days, when we were working on it. The scripts at DC were ‘panel one, panel two, panel three, the guy comes in on the left, goes out on the right’ and it was bore, bore, bore. So I was not very fond of that kind of an approach and when I got my first script from Gerber there it was, all full script. Usually with Marvel you had an outline and you broke it down yourself. Stan’s scripts were ‘Well, page one, something like this happens, you figure it out and use as many panels as you want,’ and that was fun. But I got this full script and I thought ‘Oh God, I’m back to DC’. I read through it a little bit and I said “This isn’t too bad, this works pretty well”. I was really glad I’d latched onto it. It was a very pleasant experience." With that glowing testimonial I knew that I needed to speak to Steve if I were to have a complete book.

I made contact, introduced myself and Steve instantly agreed to speak to me. We set a time and I phoned. I'm always somewhat intimidated with speaking to writers of Steve's calibre, but to his credit he made me feel right at ease and we whiled away the afternoon. Eventually I'll take the tape out and transcribe some more of it, but for now I'd now like to share some of what was said.

First up I asked when and where he had first become aware of Jim Mooney as an artist. Now when I asked that to most people they'd usually say Supergirl, Legion Of Superheroes, or Batman if the person was of vintage, or Spider-Man if, like myself, they were weaned on Marvel in the 1970s. A few, like Fred Hembeck, knew Jim via his Pussycat work. Not Steve. "I first became aware of Jim Mooney without even knowing that the person drawing it was Jim," he replied, with a laugh. "That’d be Tommy Tomorrow back in Actions Comics in the mid ‘50s. With the Planeteers in their purple and red Bermuda shorts. I first became aware of him at DC in one of Mort Weisinger’s letter columns. They were having a vote for a new hair-style for Supergirl and in the lead up Mort wrote that the drawings were all done by Supergirls’ regular artist, Jim Mooney. Then all of a sudden it was, ‘Oh, that’s who this guy is! He’s been drawing this stuff for ten years and I’ve been loving it as a kid and now I know who it is.'"

We then moved onto talking about Man Thing and Omega. "Omega was a departure for Jim," he said, "although it had all of the elements that made a strip like Supergirl really appealing. The way he drew kids was just remarkable. I’m sure that an editor brought up his name and I agreed to it immediately of course, but I don’t recall the exact process of his selection. We did have a lot of phone conversations and I liked him a hell of a lot, he’s a wonderful guy to talk to and he really understood what Mary (Skrenes) and I were going for with Omega, and what I was trying to do with Man-Thing. He was a very, very perceptive artist with a keen appreciation of story.

"I’ve said this about a handful of artists and it sometimes gets misunderstood, but there were a few people I worked with, Gene Colan who had very distinctive stuff, and Sal Buscema and certainly Jim Mooney, who really understood that the story in comics was primary. Not the writing, but the story itself. The job was to convey the story to the reader. Jim was just fabulous at that. He was really interested and not a show off and I really appreciated it. He did what he did and he did it really, really well, and as I was trying to do, he did it in service to the story, rather than making a spectacle of himself. I found that incredibly appealing and I still do.

"I think that one of the reasons why Jim was so fond of Omega and Man-Thing was because he was allowed to ink them himself. I think it’d been a while since he’d been given a chance to do that. I think he felt more proprietorship with that. Jim made those characters so appealing to look at and so interesting to follow while still maintaining the gritty feeling of Hells Kitchen in New York. That’s a rare talent, to be able to combine all of that.

"I have to say that I really was sceptical of it at the beginning until I saw the work. Jim had such a clean, crisp line to what he does so I really did wonder if he could draw a muck monster. It seemed like a bad pairing at first, but of course the work was beautiful."

I had to mention the fact that one of the supporting cast in Man Thing bore a strong resemblance to Linda Lee/Danvers, Supergirls' alter ego that Jim had drawn back in the '50s and '60s. At that suggestion that it wasn't entirely accidental I recall Steve laughed out loud. "Carol Selby, who appeared in the book burning stories, is Linda Lee. Was it deliberate? Absolutely! I told Jim, ‘This is the character I want you to draw’ and he did it. And she is exactly that character, we just coloured her hair differently."

[Image courtesy of Dave Simons]We then moved onto Jim's merits as an artist and how it was odd to see him drawing material like Ghost Rider and other horror comics. "He did really well with that (Son of Satan) as well," he said, "I think that he been forced essentially to draw these very kind of clean and wholesome things all through his career, even up to and including the Spider-Man material, which is pretty straight forward stuff. All of a sudden he was assigned to these other things and it is as if there’s a whole unexpressed side to his artistic personality that came out while he was working on these stories."

That was it for our conversation about Jim Mooney. We spent the rest of the time talking about Howard The Duck, about the Marvel lawsuit, the Destroyer Duck books, Omega The Unknown (and how that series was supposed to end) and all the stuff that I'm sure he'd covered with other interviewers many times over the years. With some people, when you speak to them, you realise that they've been asked these things so many times that they have a stock answer at the ready. I never got that impression with Steve. His voice was young, full of laughter and lightness. He became slightly bitter when he spoke about what happened with Marvel, but we soon moved on and insisted that we end the conversation laughing. We managed to do that, and in the end that's the thing I took away from the conversation - end it all on a high note. With laughter. Our lives are far too short to worry about the negative things, focus on the positive and have a chuckle.

I spoke to Steve Gerber once, emailed him a few times and got replies, but his work, and our brief conversation, had a great effect upon me without me even knowing it. I'll miss Steve Gerber, but I can go back and re-read his work. I can rediscover it and laugh out loud once more and rejoice in the gift, the legacy that he left us all - his words.

Go easy Steve, I'll miss you. We all will.

1 comment:

SB said...

The sadness is overwhelming. Great man. Great writer.