In this very special episode of Classic Comics Cavalcade, Daniel Elkin and Jason Sacks explore the amazing world of Steve Gerber, his ducks and sheer comic book vengeance. Also they talk about music, because what do you expect when Daniel and Jason get together?
Jason Sacks: So you're like 18 months younger than me, did you read Gerber's comics when you were a kid?
Daniel Elkin: I know I got DD in 1982 at the Comic Shop, but, to be honest, I didn't have any idea what I was stumbling into when I got it. I was just intrigued by it, and I wanted me some Kirby art. I had no idea about the whole Howard the Duck fiasco that Gerber was going through at the time. I had read some Howard, but wasn't sure what to make of it. It wasn't a Gerber thing, I guess I would say. Not a Gerber baby?
Elkin: Thought you would like that.
Elkin: So what was the deal with the Howard the Duck thing? I understand that Marvel took ownership of the property and Gerber wanted it back.
Elkin: And total freedom, I assume, meant things like getting a green light on projects like Howard the Duck?
Sacks: He very quickly started writing four or five comics a month which gave him the ability to write that metaphorical 10,000 pages to become good very quickly. In some ways his style was a '70s version of Stan Lee's '60s patter, but with sincerity.
Sacks: As he says in DD #4, "…among those missing elements was the playfulness that characterized much of my stuff during the seventies. Howard, the Defenders Bozos, the killer elf, et. al., all owe their creation to a certain silly, reckless streak in my writing personality."
Howard grew, completely accidentally, as a throwaway character that just caught peoples' attention.
Elkin: It was, if I recall, attention-getting.
Sacks: He was literally a throwaway character, appearing in Fear #19 in an awesome story about many dimensions and times merging together, waddles onstage and just as quickly literally falls into a cosmic abyss. But this was the '70s and people were weird, so Howard caught the zeitgeist and he very quickly was given his own series. And the comic took off. It was huge. And it was all — absolutely every little neurotic feather on Howard's head — purely Gerber's creation.
Elkin: How did they manage to get it out without being sued by Disney — I mean Howard looks a lot like Donald.
Sacks: They did get sued towards the end of Gerber's run. Disney made Marvel change Howard's beak, and most absurdly, forced him to wear pants!
Elkin: Pants make the man… er… duck… I guess. That sounds like Disney logic, though. So why did Gerber get all butt-hurt with Marvel?
Sacks: Gerber became a minor celebrity from the comic. They created a newspaper strip that was well syndicated and everything seemed to be golden. But when Gerber decided he deserved to own the character, Marvel basically claimed the character was created work-for-hire, Gerber got mad and quit, and of course Marvel tried to continue with the character regardless. Bill Mantlo wrote many issues of the comic and the subsequent black and white magazine.
Elkin: So was it a matter of cash or creativity for Gerber?
Sacks: Really more the cash, I think.
Elkin: So his whole creator-owned tirade was because of cash?
Sacks: He claimed he was fired, though.
Elkin: Poor Bill Mantlo, by the way.
Sacks: Yeah, that's so damn sad.
Elkin: How long was it between Gerber's getting "fired" and the release of Destroyer Duck?
Sacks: The August '78 issue of The Comics Journal has an interview with Gerber with the awesome cover blurb "Fired from Marvel & Duckless, Steve Gerber Speaks Out!" DD came out in '82, and Gerber makes comments about the suit being four years old.
Elkin: Duckless? Wow. It takes a strong man to take being called Duckless.
Sacks: You can't tell me you've never been duckless. That's one of those painful experiences we all share.
Elkin: Thank God, I thought I was alone…
Sacks: I still dream about my duckless days.
Elkin: Don't go all Duckless on me now, Sacks.
Sacks: My eyes are misting up, just thinking about my duckless days
Elkin: That was a Springsteen song in the 80's, wasn't it?
Sacks: I remember the Cure did a few songs about being duckless.
Elkin: Robert Smith is a duckless wonder — although he sure did write some fucking great songs. Damn, I promised myself I would stop swearing so much.
Sacks: Gerber, May '78:
"I was dismissed from the Howard the Duck newspaper strip in a manner which violated the terms of my written agreement with Marvel. Marvel was advised that I was contemplating legal action which would likely result in my ownership of the Howard the Duck character and all rights therein.
"As a consequence of the notice given Marvel by my lawyers, the company chose to terminate my contract on the comic books as well. Marvel's action was not unanticipated, and my only regret is that, for a while at least, the Duck and I will be travelling different paths."
(All the old issues of The Comics Journal are on line these days!)
Elkin: So then four years later he hooks up with Kirby?
Sacks: First Gerber put out a graphic novel called Stewart the Rat, by him and Gene Colan. (Colan said many times that Gerber was his favorite collaborator)
Elkin: Was it "satire"?
Sacks: Yeah, but honestly not a very good satire. Then Dave Sim organized the F.O.O.G. portfolio to raise money for Gerber's legal defense.
Elkin: Then Kirby? I want him to meet with Kirby already! KIRBY KIRBY KIRBY!
Sacks: Oh wow, the interwebs are great.
Elkin: They are not duckless. "It is" not duckless.
Sacks: I can follow my beak on all kinds of tangents tonight.
Elkin: Focus, Sacks. Focus.
Sacks: Yeah, so Kirby, who obviously had his own problems with the House of Ideas, agreed to help Gerber raise cash for his lawsuit. So Kirby drew DD #1 gratis, as a donation.
Elkin: How magnanimous of him….
Sacks: Kirby was furious at Stan and especially Jim Shooter at the time
Elkin: So instead of duck and cover they went Destroyer Duck.
Sacks: Exactly. What did you think of the comics?
Elkin: When I first read them back in '82, I was totally blown away by how weird they were. It was like nothing I had ever read before, having consisted on a pretty staid diet of superhero comics up until then.
Sacks: They're still pretty weird.
Elkin: Oh yeah, they are. This was a real turning point for me in my development as a person, though. Instead of being turned off by weird things or things I couldn't quite understand, which had been my modus operandi up until then, I found myself being strangely drawn to this book BECAUSE it was weird and I didn't understand it.
Sacks: Huh, that's really interesting. I think Gerber would have really liked that.
Elkin: Noob question here: Is Gerber dead?
Sacks: Yes, he died of pulmonary fibrosis in 2008.
Elkin: Wow. That's sad.
Sacks: He actually wrote almost to the day he died, writing "Doctor Fate" stories in a hospital in Las Vegas. We were very casually friendly in a web sort of way in his last few years.
Elkin: Did he ever get to write another Howard story?
Sacks: Yes! He did a six-issue revival of Howard with art by Phil Winslade in 2002 and it was really pretty good! Howard is transformed into a mouse in the first issue.
Elkin: Hah! Did the mouse look like Mickey?
Sacks: Not quite.
Elkin: Heh. That ain't no mouse, Sacks — that's pretty ratty.
Sacks: Ha! Pretty much the point I think! So Gerber fucked up your mind, too?
Elkin: I wouldn't say "fucked up" (and thanks for making me curse again), more like "opened up some doors." Things could be weird and interesting and thoughtful — and that could be good. And other people understood this too and we could get together and talk about weird and interesting and thoughtful things together. Like I said, it was a real change for me. It didn't hurt that I was a teenager — in high school in Dallas, Texas at the time — and anything that was different than what the hell was being foisted upon me as normal was alright with me.
Elkin: And I liked the whole "fight the power" thing that DD had going on in it. Godcorp — "Grab it all. Own it all. Drain it all." Very punk rock.
Sacks: That's a good way of thinking about Gerber to me – he made it feel okay to appreciate stuff that was weirder and more interesting than real life.
Elkin: Especially in Dallas, Texas.
Sacks: DD was sticking it to the man! With guns and knives. There are some sections of DD #1 that are so dark and cynical.
Elkin: I love the bit at the beginning in the bar when the boar tells him that ducks are born whiners and how "dem dat counts get rich! Dem dat don't party." and then DD says, "I'm too mean to know I'm little! I get angry, Benny! I forget I'm s'pozed ta stay in my place, an' Party!" and then he slams the beer mug into the boar's face and pushes him through the wall.
Sacks: Like Page 7: Duke enlists in Vietnam, graduates college magna cum laude with three degrees, becomes a cop, seems to live the American dream, just to end up alone, exhausted, sighing in his overstuffed la-z-boy thinking "So I busy a junkie chicken… haul in a rapist rabbit… so plucking what? My neighbors snort coke, pirate videotapes, an' bounce checks as a matter of course. Somethin's turnin' us into casual criminals…" I love the casual way that Duke is completely fed up with the world.
Elkin: How about when Packer, president of Godcorp, says to his mother, "I prefer dealing with junkies… the nature of the addiction doesn't matter… as long as Godcorp remains the connection… All of Godcorp's employees and freelancers are junkies, mother. We encourage that dependency relationship. Self-reliance breeds self-esteem… and self-esteem breeds discontent. And Godcorp wasn't built on discontent. We NEED our happy junkies." Ouch!
Sacks: To his MOTHER! Vulpa Packer — the Battle-Ax!
Elkin: Or at the end when he is about to crush Packer in the um… machine that crushes things… and says, "You've leeched off other guys talent an' blood for too long, Packer! Ya don't remember how ta do yer own bleedin'! Well, here's how!" and then crushes him. That's a lot of anger. And darkness. And cynicism.
Sacks: "I spotted the maggots crawlin' outta yer mouth the minute ya opened it!" Yow!
Elkin: When I reread this, I started to draw some parallels between Gerber's anger at Marvel and the Occupy Movement's anger at corporate America.
Sacks: Hmm, that's intriguing.
Elkin: How this sort of rage at faceless entities still exists — and it exists because of some of the same reasons that Duke is spewing in these pages. But I am prone to overthink these sorts of things.
Sacks: Ned Packer could have walked off of Wall Street circa 2007.
Elkin: He would have flown in his flying sofa. Which is a beautiful touch, by the way.
Sacks: Man, I loved that. And I'm such a comics geek I immediately thought of Metron of the New Gods flying around space a
nd time in his chair. Yet another level of satire in this comic, I guess.
Elkin: You are a geek. And I guess, since I know exactly what you are talking about, I am a geek too.
Sacks: Shit man, we write for a comic book website, we have to embrace our inner geek!
Elkin: Let your Geek Flag Fly!
Sacks: Pseudo-intellectual geeks, but geeks nonetheless.
Elkin: I like to think of myself as Proto-intellectual instead of facing the reality of my pseudo-ness. It helps me get up in the morning.
Sacks: At least you work in academia, they expect that there.
Elkin: Yeah, and you work with computers — that makes you a geek and a nerd! Which puts you one up on me. JEALOUS.
Sacks: In one of my first days at Microsoft I met a woman named Denise who was pretty, interesting — and had a poster of Dreadstar on her office wall. I knew I was with my peeps.
Elkin: Did you ask her to marry you right then and there?
Sacks: LOL. This was when Liisa was pregnant with our 3rd kid.
Elkin: I loved Dreadstar, by the way. Starlin rocked the sheeeet out of that early on.
Sacks: Oh yeah, more great '80s rebellious comic art.
Elkin: That little frickin' axe-sword and the cat guy — awesome stuff. Like I said, my brain was getting bent in that direction at that time
Sacks: I liked that skull-headed guy… Szygy or something?
Elkin: Bless you for trying to remember — I think you may be right. Is that lady single and do you have her number?
Sacks: Ha! She married Scott the gym rat lab engineer and they moved to Switzerland.
Elkin: Damn the gym lab rat engineers of the world (wait, did I get that wrong)!
Sacks: Man, Scott had the greatest biceps this side of Duke Duck!
Elkin: Could he shove a boar through a wall using a beer mug?
Sacks: See how cleverly I got us back on track?
Elkin: Well done.
Sacks: Not my first time at the rodeo.
Elkin: So, the rest of the Destroyer Duck series… kinda loses focus, if you ask me.
Sacks: Agreed. By the time we get to the terrorists in the Pac-Man masks, it's just kind of outrageous for its own outrageousness.
Elkin: Yea. Although I do like it when Vanilla Cupcake (TM) starts yelling at everyone to stop saying "TM" after they say her name.
Sacks: Yeah that was awesome.
Elkin: And Cherries Jubilee is an awesome name for a comic character (or a stripper).
Sacks: But Gerber himself admits in the letters page of #4 that he kind of lost what he was going for in the story.
Elkin: Yea. And then he and Kirby bail.
Sacks: By Issue #4 I was more interested in the backup story, to be honest. Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, writing a story that involves alien rape. Surreal!
Elkin: I know, right?
Elkin: Issue #7, the final issue, looks like it has a Frank Miller cover.
Sacks: Oh yeah, that's America's Most Controversial Comic Creator (TM).
Elkin: It's kind of ironic that he would agree to do the cover for a comic all about some disenfranchised individual standing up against corporate power… Funny what happens to us as we get older.
Sacks: Ha-ha, that's pretty fucking hilarious
Elkin: Or sad. The cover is pretty awesome.
Sacks: Yeah, isn't it? He would have been doing preliminary work on Dark Knight at that time.
Elkin: Although the Kirby one for the first issue is still my favorite. Especially the teeth in the bottom left hand corner.
Sacks: It's so over the top and so Kirby.
Elkin: The fact that Duke has his left eye half closed is such a subtle and perfect touch.
Sacks: So on my continuum of Great Gerber, DD actually is pretty low on the scale.
Elkin: What tops the list?
Sacks: Defenders, especially #31-40 and Annual #1. And Omega the Unknown.
Sacks: Those comics are really breathtaking, and Omega is a fascinating mix of a satire on Superman, childhood daydreams, and the crushing reality of life in ghetto New York in the Abe Beame era.
Elkin: Now that's a "pitch" for Omega. Did you know that when DD came out, the Replacements released Stink and Lou Reed released Blue Mask?
Sacks: That's a good year for music.
Elkin: Imperial Bedroom, X's Under the Black Sun, The Furs' Forever Now.
Elkin: Bauhaus' The Sky's Gone Out. Sonic Youth.
Sacks: XTC's English Settlement. Oh, maybe my favorite live album ever, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads.
Elkin: Violent Femmes, Plastic Surgery Disasters. by Dead Kennedys. Damn. '82 rocked
Sacks: Split Enz's Time and Tide — Yeah, great year for music. Oh, the album we all danced to: Rio.
Elkin: God, now that song will be stuck in my head. Oooh, Eye of the Tiger also. And "Maneater" by Hall and Oates.
Sacks: Feel old yet?
Elkin: "867-5309" by Tommy Tutone. I can't feel old if all this music is still playing. "Come On Eileen," "Mad World" by Tears for Fears. '82 was really a great year for music
Sacks: American Flagg!, Nexus, Miller on Daredevil…
Elkin: Oh yeah… Comic books. Like I said, this was a pretty life altering year for me. And maybe, just maybe, I owe it all to Gerber. Actually, I think I lost my virginity in '82… or is that too much information?
Sacks: Did Gerber help you with that too?
personally, but maybe, in some small way… yes. Like I said, DD helped me see the world in a new way. This, along with all the great music, led me to meet new people. One of those people was a lady named Gloria…
Sacks: G L O R I A
Elkin: She was hot.
Elkin: A real Vanilla Cupcake (TM)
Sacks: STOP SAYING THE TM!!!
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.
Daniel Elkin has been reading and commenting on comics since the mid '70s. He also used to wear a great deal of brown corduroy. He lives in Northern California surrounded by Great Danes, a fact which he insists was never part of the plan. Daniel has worked in bars, restaurants, department stores, classrooms, and offices. He is a published poet, member of MENSA. He is also a committed father, gadfly, bon vivant, and can over-intellectualize just about anything.
P.S. He keeps a blog, Your Chicken Enemy.