I am feeling very saddened by the news of comics creator Steve Gerber's passing from pulmonary fibrosis at the too-young age of 60. I stopped reading comics when I discovered higher forms of literature in my mid-teens, and it took Gerber's HOWARD THE DUCK to bring me back to them in my twenties.
I can remember with great clarity the day I discovered the book on the racks, when it was in its third issue, and it quickly became a passion that left me seeking out the back issues and Howard's back history; it also got me started drawing cigar-smoking ducks which adorned our refrigerator and were also left scattered about our apartment to convey messages to my wife. I bought duck posters like "The Duccaneer" and another one that depicted a Howard-like duck wielding a tommy gun in a scene out of THE UNTOUCHABLES. It was a sweet time of life. I got so deeply into Gerber's brand of comic book existentialism -- that's exactly what HOWARD was, a populist form of Sartre mixed with Groucho Marx -- that I also wrote my first and only letter to Marvel Comics in a lifetime of devoted reading, which appeared in HOWARD THE DUCK #10.
I never met or communicated with Steve Gerber directly, but somehow -- I don't recall how it came together -- I learned that the inspiration for the Duck lived in my hometown of Cincinnati and I tracked him down. Howard Tockman, apparently a college buddy of Gerber's and an aspiring writer, came to our apartment on Dixmyth Avenue with his wife and consented to an interview for CINCINNATI Magazine -- as the first in a series of projected interviews with so-called "Cincinnati Dreamers" -- which they never used. I must still have the article somewhere in my attic files, but I do have a comics newspaper with Howard the Duck on the cover that Howard himself cordially signed. A nice souvenir of those heady times.
Steve Gerber left behind him a good deal more accomplishment than many do, but his death remains a bitter pill -- not just because he was comparatively young, but because we know that he spent much of his prime fighting with his employers over issues like character rights, which ultimately prevented him from leaving behind as much as he might have. It seemed that the initial run of HOWARD THE DUCK ended almost as soon as it hit its stride, and its second incarnation under Gerber was forced by the looming shadow of Disney to evolve into a bizarre mutant strain of its original self, with Howard becoming a rather ratty-looking mouse. But the worst insult of all was the atrocious 1986 Lucasfilm movie adaptation, which eclipsed the actual character in the consciousness of most people and gave the whole franchise -- which included a daily newspaper strip -- the bouquet of stinky cheese.
A couple of years ago, a surge of nostalgia and the right price on eBay inspired me to plunk down for a complete set of HOWARD THE DUCK -- the original comic, the black-and-white magazines, the reboot, the specials, the early appearance books, everything. It held up splendidly, and while it certainly took me back to a specific time and place in my life and heart, I also found it possessed of a certain timeless quality that comes only with art that earnestly speaks the truth. The satiric humor of the book was undeniable, as was its warmth and wit, but what stood out most for me was the pride and passion of Howard's war cry: "Waugh!" Times like ours need that cry, and heroes like Howard the Duck. That's why our world tried to crush and conform him.
I did not know until reading about his death that Steve Gerber had a blog. It is now being handled by his friend Mark Evanier, who hopes to keep it online in an effort to preserve the writing that Gerber did for it and also to give fans a place to vent their feelings of loss over this and coming weeks. Evanier also wrote a moving piece about Gerber on his own blog, News From ME, which you can find by scrolling down here. If Steve Gerber's work meant something to you, you might want to click on these links to read more of and about him. I must plead guilty to unfamiliarity with the greater breadth and depth of his work, but I knew enough of it for his loss to mark a difference in my life. His work will be cherished as he will be missed.