We’ve established I was a pretty strange kid, spending hours and hours alone in my bedroom, obsessing over my favorite records and comic books, instead of outside in the sunshine playing ball with the other boys and girls. My idea of physical activity was maybe going to our backyard pool for a swim, then capping it off with a few rounds of “Kaboom” on the Atari 2600. Basically, I was a brainy geek with tastes in music, books and television that ran counter to the norm – a bad thing to be in junior high, but a good thing to be later in life.
While my mostly like-minded nerd comic book buddies preferred Spider-Man and the Avengers (NO ONE read DC – that stood for “DUMB COMICS” – der hey), I can still remember the first two comics I ever sent away for subscriptions to, way back in the fourth grade; “Howard the Duck” and “Captain Marvel”. “Captain Marvel” I read mostly because he had a kick-ass costume and the action took place mostly on other planets and in outer space. But, why was a nine-year old boy in Elyria, Ohio reading “Howard the Duck,” a notably more adult in tone comic?
Stop. Quit thinking about that awful movie. “Howard the Duck” began life in the comics as a fully rounded, strangely human character who just happened to be a duck. He was left-leaning, but aware enough to notice lunacy on both sides of the political fence. He railed against status-jumping materialists, greedy industrialists, politicians, rock stars, movie stars and even numb middle-class morons, mostly to no avail.
Shit, Howard even suffered a nervous breakdown and got committed. That was, until he got possessed by a demon and the rock band KISS broke him out. Then, he suffered the ultimate fate – a mad genius with a bell on his head named Doctor Bong stole his girlfriend and turned Howard into a…a….HUMAN.
Yeah, it was that kinda book.
How exactly I discovered this comic at an age when my peers were still on Uncle Scrooge has been lost to the mists of time – I vaguely remember seeing a news report on it (probably because most of the action took place in Cleveland), and our local late night TV horror hosts, WJW’s Houlihan & Big Chuck, used to read the Howard comic strip out loud while showing the pictures on a 5-minute segment between the local news and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” (yeah, it was that popular in Cleveland at the time). Perhaps that’s how I got into it. However it happened, boy, did I love it.
As I grew older, I paid more attention to the credits and noticed Howard was written by Steve Gerber, or Steve “Baby” Gerber as he was nicknamed. Gerber had also written other titles, including “Man-Thing,” a dark horror comic about a shambling muck monster, and “The Defenders,” a “non-team” of heroes including Doctor Strange, Sub-Mariner and Hulk who hated each other but had to work together. I soon started picking up back issues of these books, digging on the bizarre and twisted takes Gerber would impose on these usually predictable genres.
Take the “Headmen Saga” in the Defenders, for example. This nearly year-long story involved a brilliantly evil collection of intelligentsia calling themselves “The Headmen” – all of their heads were freakish in some way, thanks to various experiments, accidents, what have you. The best of the lot was a woman named Ruby Thursday, who created a sentient, plastic computer she promptly transferred her consciousness into. She then lopped off her real head and placed her new red plastic orb of a head onto her body.
Drugs are fun!
The Headmen Saga involved an army of rampaging clowns called Bozos, a celestial asshole named Nebulon, a plot to shrink the White House, and an evil elf who would pop up in a running subplot and shoot random people in the face. For no reason.
It sounds like a mess, but Gerber was so fucking brilliant, he not only made it all come together in the end (except for the elf…he was supposed to be random and unexplainable), he made it GREAT and compelling. As a kid, I thought “I like this, but I don’t know why.” As an adult re-reading it, I’m in awe.
Steve Gerber was a huge inspiration to my budding creative mind, alongside Michael O’Donahue and Jack Kirby. Nice company to be in. All three taught me to never be happy with the easy way out, the first draft, the pandering method. Strive, strive and then strive some more. The right people will get it.
Gerber is still writing great stuff, most notably a new series for DC called “Hard Time,” about a young teen partially responsible for a Columbine-like shooting. He’s now in prison for life without parole…only he seems to be possessed by an other-worldly force. It’s sort of like “Oz” meets “X-Files” – that’s my crappy Hollywood log line, not Gerber’s. It’s available on Amazon and Borders-ish stores everywhere.
Thanks for fucking up my young mind, Steve Gerber. I owe you one.Check out Steve Gerber's blog.Steve's entire Howard the Duck run is still in print, cheap, along with Vol. 1 of "Hard Time" at Amazon.