Steve Gerber: Alone on the Planet of the AbsurdA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Jason Sacks
"B O Z O You’re bozos, bozos, bozos!!"
- the Celestial Mind Control Movement, Defenders, 1976
You've probably read by now that the great comics writer Steve Gerber passed away recently of pulmonary fibrosis at the age of 60. His passing meant a lot to me. I've loved Gerber's writing since I first discovered it as a kid in the mid-'70s. Gerber's work had an amazing power and honesty to it that few writers ever even thought of approaching. His comics were autobiographical, which is astonishing in light of the fact that among his most popular characters were a mindless, muck-encrusted creature that lives in a swamp and a giant talking duck. Somehow that fact didn't matter. Gerber's stories were compelling in their neurotic genius. Robert Crumb's neuroses are haunting; Gerber's were charming. That's the coolest thing about Steve Gerber to me.
He was most prolific in comics between about 1974 and 1978. During that time Gerber often wrote four comics per month in addition to innumerable letters pages. For some writers, having to produce at such a blistering pace forces them to write formulaic stories. The feeling among most writers in that situation is often that they have no time to be original.
But with Gerber the opposite seemed to be true. Because he had to write so quickly, Gerber didn't have time to censor himself, to really analyze what he was writing. His writing in that era seemed to flow from Gerber's id straight onto the page. Innermost thoughts became written words with a minimum of mental censorship. His angst and concerns and crazy, loopy ideas were all flung onto the page with a passion and energy unique to him. And far from being self-indulgent hackwork, Gerber's writing was astonishing and compelling. There was an honesty and passion in Steve Gerber's writing that has rarely appeared in a Marvel or DC comic of any era.
I never met Steve Gerber, but I feel like I saw inside his soul. How could I not? Gerber bared his every time he wrote a story. His stories may often have featured super-heroes, but they really were about the most compelling stories of all: the battle of one man against his inner voices and against the random and bizarre society around him.
Gerber's comics were full of turmoil of a very different sort than was found in most comics stories. Where most comics were morality stories of one type of another, Gerber's stories always seemed to be about something deeper and more compelling: the struggle with personal identity, the random crazy forces of life, the dislocation that an intelligent, well-spirited man feels when surrounded in a world full of, well, bozos. Gerber once wrote a comic titled "Planet of the Absurd." To Gerber, it seemed, his whole world was absurd.
As Tom Spurgeon has pointed out in The Comics Reporter, Gerber was unique in that he brought an underground mentality to an overground world. Gerber was brilliant, perhaps the best ever, at channeling the witty and slick patter that Stan Lee originated while at the same time subverting the very form that he was embracing. In Gerber's stories, scenes flow by with such charm, rhythm and cleverness that you hardly realize that characters are miserable, the world is full of random actions, and strangeness is right around the corner.
Only Gerber could create a transgendered superhero, Starhawk, in 1976, and not have the character feel like a freak. Only Gerber could create the Gerber Elf, a little man in an elf costume who kills random strangers, in 1975, and somehow have the character not feel like a bizarre non-sequitur. (Well, okay, it is a bizarre non-sequitur, but that's kind of what's cool about it.) Only Gerber could create a comic about a showgirl and her pet ostrich and have it work wonderfully, as he did with Nevada in 1998. And yes, even today, I doubt anyone other than Gerber would have the audacity to remake the great mystic hero Doctor Fate as a down-on-his-luck alcoholic ex-psychologist who could care less about fighting evil, as he has been in Countdown to Mystery.
See, there's the problem with writing about Steve Gerber. Most all of his comics were so rich in content, so audacious in thought, and so intelligent in conception, that I want to shout from the roofs about every single one of them. Omega the Unknown, his funhouse-mirror take on Superman, was haunting and beautiful and poignant. His take on the Thing in Marvel Two-In-One is an underrated look at a man, Ben Grimm, who has come to terms with the demons that used to haunt him. I could go on and on. And I'm tempted to do so, but, you know, there's several dozen articles about Gerber out there floating on the Interweb. Heck, the gray lady The New York Times even published an obituary for Steve Gerber.
Can you believe that? The damn New York Times cared enough about Steve "Baby" Gerber to give him a nice obit.
But in the end, after all this passionate, pseudo-intellectual praise I give to the dear, departed Mr. Gerber, the best praise I can give you is that his writing has really touched me deeply for most all of my life. Steve Gerber's comics have been constant companions to me over the years. As a kid I was haunted by the mystery of Omega, and continue to be haunted by that comic today. As a kid I thought Gerber’s stories in Defenders were weird and wacky; now I see the inherent existential power of the characters and their true, transcendent humanity. As a kid I thought his Howard the Duck was funny; now I see it as the brilliant, subversive creation of a man whose life was slowly driving him crazy.
Steve Gerber was the rarest of the rare: a genuine comics genius who was funny, self-effacing and tremendously intelligent. He was truly one of a kind.
I never met the man, but I knew Steve Gerber intimately.