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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

STEVE GERBER, 1947-2008

Steve Gerber was seventies comics.

As that's a subjective opinion I'm not going to qualify it as being only mainstream comics, or only American comics, or what have you. In my view his significance cuts across those artificial borders, making him the best representative of the era in which he began his comics-career, the so-called "Bronze Age."

The designation of "Bronze Age," which largely connotes the mainstream comics of the 1970s (I've yet to see it applied to a later period), may have come about so that comics-merchants could sell their back issues more easily. However it came about, the designation proves appropriate, for even though one can see rumblings of change in the mainstream comics of the 1960s, 1970 is the year that the paradigm of commercial comics irrevocably shifted. Sixties comics, for all of their inventiveness, remained pretty well under the thumb of the Comics Code Authority (even if it was a thumb attached to the fingers of the comics-companies that underwrote the Authority). But as sales slumped toward decade's end, it's evident that mainstream publishers sought to reach wider audiences by goosing their traditional adventure-tales with more adult content-- and thus the Bronze Age paradigm was born, which still has a substantial influence on Comics In Whatever Age We're In Now.

The words "adult content," however, don't necessarily signify the same thing to all people, though both main meanings are legitimate. The first type of "adult content" is the type that is purely kinetic in effect: scenes of violence or intimations of sex that are considered too intense for Junior. For this type of content, Marvel's launching of CONAN THE BARBARIAN in 1970 is emblematic. The second type is thematic rather than kinetic, in that this type of content deals with that range of thoughts and emotions that are deemed beyond the reach of children. Here too 1970 provides a clear example of a mainstream making such a transition into deeper thematic territory with the Adams/O'Neil revision of GREEN LANTERN, beginning in issue #76 (April 1970). It can be fairly argued that these "adult-themed" books were still solidly aimed at a readership of not-yet-adult juveniles, but that doesn't alter how the paradigm altered to allow such content, irrespective as to how maturely it was rendered. As with the underground comics that in some sense paved the way for both types of adult content in the comic-book format, the majority of the "adult-themed" books were either bad or merely unimpressive, with only a few standouts in either camp.

Steve Gerber was one of the few makers of good adult-themed comics, and it could be said that he was somewhat in both camps, though he's best known for giving us comics with the second "thematic" type of adult content, such as his most-celebrated series, HOWARD THE DUCK and MAN-THING. At the same time, he was an advocate of showing scenes of intense violence in comics, as against the more pervasive trend toward "clean violence." Therefore, he had a foot in both camps, which by itself is one reason to say that Steve Gerber was seventies comics.

But in addition, just as seventies comics represent an uneasy alliance between adult themes and juvenile audiences, Gerber pulled off the best balancing-act between giving audiences adult content without sacrificing the child's delight in polymorphosity, in beholding the confusion and interpenetration of separate realities.

The delights of polymorphosity have long been the best-known aspect of comics, manifesting in the rogues' galleries of Batman and Dick Tracy, Alex Raymond's impossible animal-people, Superman's nutty red-kryptonite transformations and Jack Kirby's panoplies of gods and super-weapons. But Gerber manages to give us our polymorphous delights-- what Freud called "the pleasure principle"-- even as he questioned the nature of those delights with a covalent "reality principle." In the midst of an exciting heroes-vs-villains battle in an issue of DEFENDERS, a Gerber narrator-panel intrudes to tell us, "Sadly, it all comes down to a punch in the face." Other writers often said similar things, but Gerber made one feel both the pleasure of a wild genre like superheroes and its limitations in other idioms.

"All is not. Nothing is," says the nihilist villain Father Darklyte in MARVEL PREMIERE #23, showing Gerber's Heraclitean flair for playing with the many contrarities of existence. Not everything he created was gold, of course, but most of his creations (and re-creations) contain some trace of this contrarian take on life, the universe and everything: Daimon Hellstrom, Winda, the Headmen, Omega, Pop Syke, Charley Kweskill, Foolkiller, Doctor Bong. In Gerber's world everything was a mind-game in which arguably parts of his own consciousness vied with other parts, all to the benefit of the comics-reader.

Naturally, Gerber's legacy goes beyond his seventies work, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that I think the 1970s will always be deemed his most creative period, as well as the one during which his works had their greatest influence, just as THE SPIRIT will always be seen as the pivotal work of Will Eisner.

Indeed, the image of the pivot isn't too bad to describe Gerber's influence. Certainly he didn't cause the paradigm to shift all by himself, just as the fabled lever of Archimedes wasn't supposed to move the world without some help.

Nevertheless, to paraphrase Galileo, it did move, and we as comics-readers are immeasurably better off for it.