It was the summer of 1974. I had flown to New York to meet with Roy Thomas and other people at Marvel, looking for writing work. Roy offered me Man-Wolf, which Dave Kraft was giving up for some reason.
After meeting briefly with Roy, I went to lunch with a group of guys who either worked in the office or were hanging around waiting for a group of guys going to lunch to congeal. Among them was Steve Gerber. Who else? I’m not sure. A couple of people who were Marvel assistant editors at the time. Maybe another freelancer or two who happened to be in the office? There were at least six of us, maybe seven or eight. We went to a Brew & Burger or some such similarly classy establishment.
Of course, we talked comics.
And Gerber and I got into it.
It wasn’t a heated argument. More like a discussion. And it wasn’t even a heated discussion. Just a conversation in which we expressed clashing viewpoints. A debate, I guess. But low key. Very polite.
I had never met any of these people before and I’d been out of touch with what was going on in mainstream comics for a while, so all I knew about Gerber was that he was a writer, which I’d gleaned from things said earlier.
I was the stranger at the table, the new guy to the group, so I suppose it would have been wise to merely sit and listen. But, no, I weighed in with my opinions. Because Gerber was saying the damnedest things.
I don’t know how it came up—I wasn’t the one who started this tack in the conversation—but Gerber started lamenting the fact that he was prohibited from doing the kind of things he wanted to do in Marvel Comics—sex and violence. Mostly violence. Graphic violence. Up close and personal, ripping-eyeballs-out, extracting-lungs-through-the-nose, multiple-compound-fracture, let’s-see-if-we-can-make-Peckinpah-blow-chow violence. Lovely conversation over rare burgers, no?
He also was in favor of graphic presentation of drug abuse, the depths of human depravity, the gamut of psychopathia sexualis, the heartbreak of psoriasis and whatever else you got.
His rationale was more or less show the awful stuff as it really is. Anti-violence is best served by rubbing peoples’ noses in the real consequences and horrors of violence. Etc. He abhorred the “happy violence” in comics. And cartoons, for that matter.
So, we had some common ground. I was generally against violence without consequences in comics. Every time a character in comics was hit on the head with a heavy, blunt instrument, went to sleep for as long as it was convenient for the writer and woke up just fine and rarin’ to chase the miscreants, I wondered, no concussion? All bones intact?
You saw that idiotic “knocked out” convention oft employed in TV and movies of the time, too. That and crashing through plate glass without so much as a nick.
Now, somebody’s going to dig up some such scene I wrote in my early years. Come on. I was a kid. I grew up and got better. Even after I grew up a little, I probably succumbed to temptation here and there. Writer’s convenience is a voluptuous siren. I probably took the easy way out once in a while. That’s almost always a mistake. But, eventually, I got a grip. As Editor in Chief I campaigned against concussion-free head trauma and other consequence-free violence.
Stan had always been conscious of the blow-to-the-head thing. To his credit, most Marvel characters either had some degree of invulnerability (Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk) or part of their power-set was the ability to avoid being hit (Spider-Man, Daredevil, battle-savvy Captain America). I remember battles between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus raging through the city during which cars were overturned, water towers were shattered and walls were smashed down, but no significant blows were landed.
Now, that’s happy violence. Comics violence in which the human-level hero has a bomb go off at his feet but is “thrown clear by the blast” is not.
I didn’t care so much about what happened in the cartoons. Generally, the violence was so over-the-top unreal, it didn’t relate to real world experience. Even as a little tiny kid watching Tom and Jerry I knew that cartoon logic did not apply to my life. I knew that hitting someone on the head with a hammer wasn’t a good idea. Besides, where could one get one of those giant, silly-looking cartoon hammers anyway?
Where I parted company with Steve was at the notion that somehow Marvel comics ought to allow him to get as X-rated for violence and degeneracy as he wished in the pages of their books.
It seemed simple to me. They’re paying you, Gerber, to write stories that fit their specs. If those specs are anathema to you, why not go elsewhere? Write novels. Write movies. Write for non-mainstream comics publishers.
Marvel was not in the business of publishing X-rated stuff. They published comic books that were sold, almost exclusively in those days, on spinner racks that said “HEY!! KIDS COMICS” and “WHOLESOME ENTERTAINING.” They belonged to the Comics Magazine Association which included all newsstand publishers, the distributors and printers and were bound by that organization to adhere to the Comics Code. And, they were in the business of licensing their properties for Saturday morning animation and children’s products.
Whatever I thought about the wisdom of Marvel’s business model, and I had many issues with it, wasn’t it the right of the people who owned the company and the people they hired to run the company to decide what line of business they wished to pursue?
It would be different if Marvel, say, also published a line of mature-themed or adult comics sold in places where magazines and books were sold. I guess they’d tried that with Marvel Comix, but it didn’t work out so well. However, at that time, Marvel wasn’t a buyer of what Steve wanted to write.
Might as well go to Disney and insist on introducing graphic violence to Duckburg. And wherever Mickey lives.
Couldn’t convince Steve. He was dead set on jamming his philosophy down the throat of mainstream comics publishing.
So, let me get this straight—they should pay you to write whatever the hell you want to write, which clearly is not what they want you to write, and in no way suited to the business they are in?
His stance was, more or less, yes. Marvel was standing in the way of his creative freedom. It wasn’t that he wanted to work from within toward changing Marvel’s business. To me, he seemed to feel that the business should change to accommodate him. Right now.
Creative freedom. Doing work-for-hire writing. Jumbo shrimp…postal service…military intelligence…business ethics….
Understand, I had no problem whatsoever with Gerber wishing things were different. I did too, albeit not for precisely the same reasons. My problem was with the disconnect between what he was espousing and the reality of mainstream comics publishing at that time. And the fact that he didn’t seem to have a plan for effecting change other than maybe holding his breath till he turned blue.
By the end of the debate/lunch, I had gleaned that Gerber had written a throwaway character into some story that was a cartoon duck in the real world (Marvel “real,” anyway). The duck had apparently gotten some traction and Gerber had written a couple of stories starring this “Howard the Duck” that tested the limits. Okay.
A cartoon duck tests the limits of violence and depravity. That makes about as much sense as cosmic rays turning someone into a being of living fire.
I didn’t end up writing for Marvel right away after that. On the same trip DC offered me Superman and Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.
I would have had to read a lot of comics that were not readily available to me, by the way, to catch up on the continuity enough to even take a crack at Man-Wolf. But the DC characters were pretty much the same as I’d left them. Stuck there, you might say. Same old DC. Sigh.
So I took the easy way out. Almost always a mistake.
A couple of years later I ended up working at Marvel as associate editor. Head-to-head, blue pencil to fowl script with Gerber.
NEXT: Say the Secret Word
P.S. I know something about handling ducks, as this photo proves:
|Young me and an unidentified co-abducktor.|