Writer. Creator. Large mammal.

Gerber and the Duck – Part 1

Running a FowlThe first time I met Steve Gerber we had an argument.

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.


More Strange Tales – President’s Day


Gerber and the Duck – Part 2


  1. kintounkal

    Sean Murphy,

    Bingo. That's honestly all I was striving to say in this thread. I never wanted to convey the message that the ambiguous stuff happened precisely the way I imagine. I was just pointing out there's enough room for doubt. This argument got ugly when things which aren't open to debate were challenged and I was ridiculed for being 100% correct.

    Personally, I enjoyed reading Identity Crisis but I can understand how that quick scene might taint the entire story for someone. I really have no desire to silence people who don't like Identity Crisis. I just want them to be upfront about the fact they haven't read it if that's the case. I don't join in discusses about things I've never read or watched first-hand so that request sounds reasonable to me.

  2. I don't think people are as far off as the tone of the commens would indicate.

    Can we agree (a) Identity Crisis did not show an actual rape; and (b) Identity Crisis did show a scene of at least attempted rape / non-consentual sex but left it to the reader to decide how far Dr. Light had gone?

  3. kintounkal

    Your inability to read doesn't reveal anything about my maturity, Pariah. Maybe you're not illiterate and just blind. Rags' artwork clearly indicates Dr. Light was stopped in the act. You're wrong and only a child refuses to admit when they make a mistake.

  4. Grow up that's all i have to say… seriously.

  5. kintounkal

    Furthermore, you obviously eigther don't own this comic or can't read, Pariah. Dr. Light was stopped. That's a fact. I'm so damn sick and tired of talking about Identity Crisis with people who have never read it.

  6. kintounkal

    Fuck you, Pariah. I'm not imposing my point of view on anyone. I'm simply intelligent enough to realize nopthing explicit happened on panel. It was all just implied. I guess grinding a woman against her will is the same thing as rape to your microscopic brain.

  7. Anyone who can defend the Rape scene in Identity Crisis as not "real rape" or only attempted rape needs to seriously get their head checked professionally.

    There has never been any debate that this was a rape scene and there was never any indication that he was stopped.

  8. kintounkal

    I lost my interest in having a discsussion with you even as soon as it began. Denouncing comics you've never read, claiming money you don't own belongs to people you've never met, and acting as though the publishing world should conform to your rules doesn't make me respect you in the least.

  9. Uh… okay. When a person loses the ability to be civil, that's when I lose interest in continuing a discussion with them. I think I've stated my point clearly anyway, so there's not much reason to continue going around in circles with this. If you need to have the last word, feel free to tee off on me one more time…

  10. kintounkal


    Apparently, you don't even own the comic book being discussed here so that may explain your lack of reading comprehension. It's a good thing your rants about inappropriate subject matter have no real impact on the industry.

  11. kintounkal

    Of course, czeskleba is shoving words down Meltzer's throat. He claims the absence of the "attempted" word indicates that Dr. Light must have been successful. Since when does leaving out a word prove that it cannot belong in a sentence?

    The scene in question involves unconsentual sex. I'm not debating that. The key question is what exactly did Dr. Light do? Brad didn't hint at that answer in this interview or any other.

    The only reason DC published Identity Crisis in the first place is because it's not a bonafide rape story. If a reader wants to view that tiny part as such, that's fine. If you hate the idea of Sue being treated that way, she could have been saved in the nick of time.

    Czeskleba's wacky claims about this scene keep getting more outlandish with each post. Did you fail to notice he said the scene lasted for pages as in plural? Expecting Meltzer to refer to the incident as anything other than a rape scene is frankly sick. Do you honestly want him to spell out what precisely each move Arthur had in mind?

  12. Thanks Cap'n. That's exactly the interview I was thinking of. I also came across this podcast: http://tinyurl.com/3qq7z9s wherein Meltzer discusses the story (starting at about 47:20). Meltzer doesn't flatly say "Why yes, Sue Dibney was indeed raped" at any point, but he also doesn't disagree with the interviewer when he says that Sue was raped. Frankly, I'm still surprised that anyone would interpret that scene as being ambiguous about whether a rape occurred.

    But once again, that isn't the point. Regardless of whether it's a rape or an attempted rape, it's an inappropriate scene for a comic that stars Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the JLA.

    In the podcast Meltzer says he thinks the comic medium should be able to deal with topics such as rape, and I agree with him. I just don't think such a scene should appear in a book featuring all-ages characters. If you want to do a superhero story in which a rape (or attempted rape) is shown on camera, create your own characters, a la Astro City or Watchmen.

  13. Oh, for the love of . . . look, here's an interview where Meltzer refers to it as a "rape scene," ok? Nobody's shoving words down anyone else's throat. Can we play nice, now?


  14. kintounkal

    You still didn't provide a source. Stop shoving words down Brad Meltzer's mouth if you can't find an iota of proof.

  15. Meltzer has referred to it as the "rape scene." I think if he intended it to be a depiction of attempted rape, he would call it an "attempted rape scene." But I could be wrong about that.

    At any rate, I'm not saying that attempted rape is the equivalent of rape as a crime. I'm not saying the circumstances are irrelevant as far as the crime itself. I'm just saying that in my opinion depicting a rape and depicting an attempted rape are equally inappropriate in a comic featuring all-ages superhero characters. The subject matter is inappropriate regardless of the exact specifics of what happens in that scene.

  16. kintounkal


    First of all, what are you quoting? Please list your source. Did Brad Meltzer ever blatantly say 'Dr. Light raped Sue Dibny'? I don't think so.

    Naturally, it was a rape scene. I'd prefer not to delve into specifics but let's not pretend all rape is equally disturbing. It makes a huge difference whether Arthur began to rape her and got interrupted before his pants were off or if he finished raping her and then got caught.

    I'm baffled why you act so skeptical towards the possibility that the rape was unsuccessful. Do you even own the comic? Dr. Light didn't get away with lewd crime he committed.

    I'm not suggesting he saw the error of his ways and quit before things got too ugly. I'm claiming the Justice League might have intervened soon after this incedent began. Meltzer's writing and Rags' artwork don't provide much evidence as to what went on. I totally disagree with your belief that the crcumstances surrounding the rape are irrelevant.

  17. Meltzer has stated that it was a rape scene. It certainly appears to be one to me. If you showed those pages to 100 random people, I would bet that at least 99 of them would say that it is a depiction of a rape.

    But even if we accept your premise that maybe Dr. Light only attempts to rape her but for some unexplained reason does not succeed, that does not change my overall point. A super-villain unsuccessfully attempting to rape the wife of a super-hero in a comic featuring established all-ages characters is completely inappropriate too. Whether it's a rape or an attempted rape, it's equally wrong to depict these characters in that situation.

  18. kintounkal


    What makes you so convinced Sue Dibny was raped in that story? I think the page being discussed here is sufficiently vague that it's possible Dr. Light barely touched her. Was he even naked? Of course, Brad Meltzer makes it clear Arthur intended to rape her but whether he truly accomplished that is debatable. It also makes the ethical questions raised more contentious if Dr. Light's crime isn't so clearly defined.

  19. In retrospect, "graphically" wasn't the best choice of words. It's true that the drawings are not sexually explicit. My point was that it's an on-camera depiction of rape, something I find to be completely inappropriate for a Justice League comic.

  20. kintounkal


    That's absurd. Rags Morales did not graphically show a sexual assault in Identity Crisis.

  21. kintounkal


    Your difficulty in understanding the new G.I. Joe ongoing series is probably based on the fact that issue 1 is not the beginning of the current storyline. The new direction for this franchise started in G.I. Joe: Cobra Civil War #0 which included prelude chapters for all 3 titles. The plot is not hard to follow. Cobra Commander was shot throught the head by an undercover agent named Chuckles. In IDW Publishing continuity, Cobra is a much bigger organization and the deceased Commander is not the first person to fill that role.

    A High Council exists to determine who's the best replacement. Since a former G.I. Joe member is responsible for the assassination, Cobra retaliates against them. Seven of the most cunning Cobra operatives are chosen to compete in a contest. Some characters are familiar like Baroness, Major Bludd, and Tomax while others are new like Krake, Rajah Vikrim Khallikhan, Oda Satori, and Vargas. Destro & Serpentor were featured on covers as 2 more candidates but they aren't official candidates anymore so than Storm Shadow or Zartan. The purpose of the competition is simple. Kill as many G.I. Joes as possible. Whoever gets the highest body count wins and will reign supreme.

    At the moment, the IDW Publishing home page lists the casualties as 39 for G.I. Joe and 50 for Cobra. All this information was conveyed to the reader. Did Chuck Dixon provide a thorough understanding of everyone's background, abilities, and motivations? No but this is a crossover that will continue in 3 series per month until December 2011. The goal wasn't to provide every candidate's life story one after another. G.I. Joe Volume 2 #1 contained plenty of hints on what makes them different if you paid close attention. What G.I. Joe: Origins comics did you try?

  22. Jim,

    No need to apologize. It was actually Mike Loughlin and Czeskleba who first used "sensationalistic" and "gratuitous" to argue that that's NOT what Gerber was doing, apparently because they misread my initial post. I was just clarifying what I had actually said.

  23. This post could also have been titled "The Secret Origin of Stewart Cadwall"… 😉

  24. Dear Tony,

    Sorry. However the word "gratuitous" came up, I just wanted to make it clear that I hadn't meant to imply that Gerber wanted to do gratuitous stuff.

  25. Actually, I never said anything about gratuitous or sensationalized imagery. I don't read modern mainstream comics, so I don't really know if the blood & gore or sexual depravity is gratuitous or not. I just know it's there. Such imagery was not available to Gerber at Marvel in the '70s. Such imagery would be available now. That's all I was saying. I understand Gerber's work just fine, thanks. I wasn't comparing him to any other writer, I was commenting on the different editorial standards between Marvel (or DC) then and now.

  26. Jim,

    You asked on your column where one gets one of those ridiculous cartoon hammers.

    Acme, Inc., of course… Every Wile E. Coyote fan knows that!

  27. I love Alan Moore's and Frank Miller's works from the 80s. In fact, reading copies of "Dark Knight" and "Daredevil: Born Again" in the 90s was what opened my eyes to how creative and mature comics could be, since Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli used several interesting techniques to tell the stories without sacrificing clarity. I still find them great, even today. So I will always be grateful to Frank Miller cause he made me search for more quality comics, present and past, instead of quitting comics with adolescence.

    What Miller and Moore (and other creators, to be fair) did in the 80s was not accepting a formulaic way of telling stories in comicbook form, and perhaps rebelling against a forced sunshine view in superheroes. Moore's later stuff, such as Tom Strong, was him rebelling against a forced dark view in superheroes. The key here is trying to be creative and fresh, not following a trend and milking it to death.

    I'm glad Moore's and Miller's 80s comics happened. Like I said they opened my mind regarding comics. Blaming them for what followed them would be like blaming Lee and Kirby for doing such a great job with superheroes that it led to the American mainstream comics scene being dominated by that one particular genre. The fault always lies with the imitators who cannot realize what made great work, great.

  28. Well — Matt Fraction and Keiron Gillen always introduce the UNCANNY X-MEN with brief and effective captions. EMMA FROST: Superiority complex. Also telepathy and can transform into diamond.

    It's not hard!

  29. ireactions – basic storytelling seems to be a thing of the past, at least as published by the major publishers. You're expected to jump into a story without any real previous knowledge and wade through 6-12 issues all for the price of 2.99-3.99 (by the way, these are stories that, with better and tighter storytelling decisions could probably be told in 1-3 issues max).

    Is it any wonder that the civilians see comics as an also ran, if they even think of them at all, when it comes to entertainment value. To be honest I've seen parents tell their kids no just by looking at the price of an issue. Granted, most civilians still think comics costs a dime. I can only think how much worse it would be if the parent had bought that comic and seen how little it contained in terms of entertainment value.

    I'm starting to work on my comic. It's only 24 pages, but I want to see how much I can pack into that story and still produce a clear, satisfying read, using the basic 6 panel grid (with variations). As soon as I'm done I'll post a link when it's uploaded ( 2 mos from now as I'm creating the whole thing). Also, sorry, but it's not superheroes.

    I guess the thing to do is for the comics fans who want good storytelling to not support bad storytelling with their dollars. It might mean a painful withdrawal from the majority of the output of the majors.

  30. Anybody else flash on the old horror and crime comics that held sway in the 1950s, EC and the like, during Jim's reminiscence of his conversation with Steve?

    I'm no writer; anything I've tried to do was really trying to stay creative while not acting, my primary vocation. And any writer with a voluminous output just blows my mind–it feels like pushing out a baby when I sit down to the computer.

    That said, I've always thought that rules force creativity rather than restrict it. Plenty of times I've seen performers told to do "anything they want" and watched them bounce around with no focus or thought. But give them some guidelines to bounce into and watch the wheels start turning. I'd like to think that Steve railing against restrictions gained us as an audience a superior experience as opposed to him going off full tilt boogie.

  31. You know — on the subject of storytelling. I was trying to find a good place to start reading GI JOE comics since Jim's blogs regarding the Joes were very interesting. I picked up the first two issues of IDW's GI JOE series and couldn't understand what was going on. Who were these characters? What was happening? No idea.

    I tried GI JOE ORIGINS, which was presumably an entry-level series, and found myself totally baffled again.

    Then I tried GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO #1, which came out when Mr. Shooter was still in the EiC chair. Merciful heavens: characters were introduced and identified with a clear explanation as to what they were about!

    It shouldn't be this hard.

  32. demoncat

    have to agree with you about writers hired by marvel and dc are hired to do the work that fits their set up of their universe for that is one does on the job . plus can not believe steve was upset over not being allowed to be as violent as he wanted by marvel and thus decided to try and rectify that with creating howard the duck.

  33. Dear Czeskleba,

    Thanks. Sorry if I seemed defensive. The trouble is that others besides you read your comment and my reply. If I accept without clarification your shorthand characterization of that story it seems like I'm legitimizing it. Regarding the Hulk appearing in a magazine intended to present stories with more adult themes, as I said, that decision was made before I was EIC and I don't know the entire genesis of it, but I believe the rationale had to do with appealing to the Hulk TV show audience, which had a large, non-comics-reading, adult component.

  34. Thanks, Cap'n Neurotic.

    Jim, what czleskleba said.

    And I wasn't laughing at the story, or it's content, it was the stunned disbelief at my own naive childhood obliviousness, and sudden adult realization.

    It's a hoot sometimes when your perceptions get flipped around.

    There was a 30 year gap in there, but thanks, Jim, for the experience.

  35. http://integr8dfix.blogspot.com/2011/02/gerbers-defenders-file.html I was toddling at best when Steve's work began to shine at Marvel, but for anyone who is not familiar with him, I've studied him a lot over the past year and a half. I believe his praises and rather interesting mistakes are well sung here, but when you dig into what he was doing, as I do in several posts, you come away with a hunger for well-rounded stories and thoughtful, naturalistic discretion, even when creating a colorfully absurd day in the life of a character.

  36. Although Jim has talked about the Hulk/YMCA story, I'm pretty sure it's only been in comment sections, like http://www.jimshooter.com/2011/07/epic-interfereence.html

  37. The Hulk/YMCA/rape story was already covered in one of the previous blogs.

  38. ja


    I wrote half my post, then went to pick up a friend from work, came back to finish my post, only to see that czeskleba clarified himself already.


  39. ja

    Distinctions, distinctions.

    It's a distinction between publishing mainstream comics, and publishing something more adult in a magazine format that's distributed differently. It's a distinction between those mainstream books (and all the parameters that come with publishing them) and publishing something like Alan Moore's WATCHMEN or Mike Oeming's POWERS (and countless other publications), that's meant as something more adult.

    It's also the same kind of distinction between Pee Wee's Play House on Broadway vs. Pee Wee's Play House for kids on TV. These distinctions have existed for decades.

    It's much easier to play a retroactive 'gotcha' game when someone doesn't seem to understand or wish to accept certain distinctions, like czeskleba. Especially when he falsely characterizes Jim's Hulk magazine story as a "Hulk/YMCA/rape story".

  40. Apologies if my shorthand reference to the Hulk story gave offense. I wasn't trying to trivialize the story, but just to describe it in a quick way that would let everyone know which story I was talking about. I know there was much more to the story than that one scene, and I didn't mean to suggest otherwise with my quick superficial description.

    I'm not sure that I agree that the Hulk (or any other character who is considered all-ages) should appear in stories that deal with adult themes such as rape. Perhaps I'm overreacting, given the fact the pendulum has swung so far in that direction, with violent and sexual situations abounding in many of today's Marvel and DC comics. Certainly there is a huge difference between hinting at the threat of a sexual assault (as you did) and graphically showing it on camera (as was done in the JLA Identity Crisis series a few years ago). Perhaps that's where the line should be drawn. Diacanu read your story and didn't know what was going on because he was younger, whereas older reader like myself did know. Maybe that makes it okay.

    BTW, I hope you didn't feel put on the defensive with my "mistake" question. Your willingness to answer tough questions is what keeps things interesting here.

    -Jason Czeskleba

  41. Dear czeskleba,

    Gerber, indeed, as far as I know, never wrote a story for Marvel during my tenure that had gratuitous violence or sensationalized sex. That wasn't what he was arguing about. He was talking about sex and violence used as intrinsic parts of the story in a well-crafted way. That was still not what Marvel was buying back then, however. Gerber was an excellent writer. I doubt if he ever did anything gratuitous.

    I never wrote a "Hulk/YMCA/rape story." I did write a story starring the Hulk in which there was a brief scene in the YMCA, germane to introducing important concepts about Banner/the Hulk. No rape occurred. The story was appropriate for the magazine in which it appeared. The Hulk's appearance in a magazine intended to feature more adult stories was, in my opinion, a reasonable publishing decision, and one that I did not make. I thought it was a good story. So did Stan. It was about the misuse of drugs, especially prescription drugs, and real-world human interactions, some of which can be more heinous and cruel than any super-villain's diabolical plot. A mistake? No.

  42. Dear moklerman,

    I don't think super-hero comics, as a whole, should lean any which way. Plenty of room for every kind.

    Realism and reality need not be depressing. Lots of writer use dark and depressing as a route to shock value and drama. That approach usually falls flat, by my reckoning.

    I think anything from 1950's and 60's DC-style no continuity to stringent continuity can work well for comic book characters. Whatever the approach, it has to be done well. I believe success has more to do with people caring about the characters than with making sure a shoe is still untied like it was last issue.

    When Mike Hobson started as publisher at Marvel he spent the first month reading comics and doing little else. His conclusion was that we had many more people who could draw than could write. All of the artists, in fact, could draw pretty well, though some were lousy "cinematographers," or storytellers. Some of our writers, however, were steeped in the comics but strangers to the craft — and we had the best in the biz, on average. It takes a very good writer to bring characters to life in a way that makes them worth caring about to the readers. Most comics writers aren't up to it. Too many rely on tricks, gimmicks, recycled bits and false drama.

  43. Dear DJRJAY,

    My Grandma Kate was Ukrainian-Russian but her husband, my paternal grandfather was Polish. She learned to "cook Polish" for him. Shooter is a translation from the Polish. Strzelecki, or something like that.

  44. Dear Mike Loughlin,

    For all of his protestations on the subject, I don't remember any Gerber story where the violence called for or delivered was graphically over the top. And "singular writing" is a good way to put it. He was an amazing writer, one of the best word-wielders ever. More on that tomorrow.

  45. There was quite a bit of violence in Gerber's stories, not all of it was physical and none of it was gratuitous.
    Piperson, I believe that Alan Moore did not "get" the Comic Code Seal of Approval removed from Swamp Thing. He wrote a story, the code wouldn't approve of it and it was decided by DC to publish the thing without the seal. As for Moore regretting the "dark trend" that Watchmen spawned, he tried to make up for it by writing lighter comic book fare (1963 and Supreme, for example)and I, for one, am glad he did; his pastiche of old Marvel comics and Weisinger-era Supermans are great fun.
    But, like some of you, I bought Watchmen and Miller's Dark Knight when they came out in 1986-87, and thought they were great. I remember an older friend of mine who owned and operated a comic book store rhetorically asking the question of whether or not these stories would be, ultimately, good for comic books in the long term and not in terms of sales, but in terms of how comic book storytelling is perceived by the public and practiced by the creators…something about a door being opened that maybe shouldn't be opened and could never be closed; a loss of some kind of innocence that comic books couldn't ever go back to. I didn't get it….at that time. But it's now quite a few years later, and I definitely see what he meant.
    First of all, I respect what Dark Knight and Watchmen accomplished and, as I said earlier, I loved it at the time. However, throughout the years, whenever I take them out and re-read them, I see flaws in them I didn't see before, and they really don't work for me anymore (especially Dark Knight). I guess you could say that my standards were raised by those two series and it's those very raised standards that now cause me to see these stories in a less favorable light. And too, their success has spawned a whole bunch of inferior, imitative crap that we're still putting up with today.
    And for all of his possible faults as a human being and a writer, when I re-read most Gerber stories from the 70s through the 90s, they still hold together pretty well. Void Indigo was not Steve at his best; it was coming from some pretty ugly personal and professional places even though, in some ways, it was ahead of its time. It does seem that Gerber and other very talented comic book writers of his generation never seemed to surpass what they produced under company restrictions, when they had total freedom.
    I'm curious for Jim to get to the part where, after the lawsuit Steve waged against Marvel was settled and he was invited to submit a new Howard the Duck story, Jim allegedly mercilessly edited the thing, gutting it according to Gerber and the Comics Journal (#101). Now, I hope that at last, we can finally hear Jim's side of the story.

  46. I think Alan Moore is right to regret what he spawned. I read a volume of Bendis' Powers but it was so padded out and unnecessary I never felt the urge to read anything else. The 'mature' content, i.e. saying 'fuck' a lot was unpersuasive. It was a superhero story.

  47. ja


    For anyone out there who has 'writer's block', or are having general troubles finishing their comics script or screenplay, I present to you the hilariously encouraging words of the great Patton Oswalt:



    After you listen to this, it might just give you a bit of insight as to what Jim has to go through in order to produce his fine work, when all around him, people are crapping out projects such as Death Bed: The Bed Who Eats People!


  48. Just to ask a quick question. Since the Comics Code Authority, or whatever it was called, was still in existence and, presumedly, still quite powerful, how did Mr. Gerber propose that Marvel circumvent it's authority? Admittedly Stan Lee was able to do so with the drug story line in Spiderman, but that was Stan Lee and his most popular comic of the day.

  49. Tue Sorenson-

    Jeez, I thought I'd been reading along, I think I'd remember…

    "Hulk", "YMCA", and "rape", aren't hitting as search terms..this is gonna be a slog…*rolls up sleeves*

  50. I really appreciate the conversation so far. The early 70's was a remarkable time in comics. So many fans becoming creators and trying to create their vision of what comics could and should be. I can appreciate their frustration at having to contend with editorial restrictions. It is quite fascinating to see how history unfolded, with Miller pushing the boundaries of what was excepted, and Moore getting the comic code taken off the Swamp Thing. It seems that even now the battle is fought to make comics live up to their potential. Now people like Bendis are given permission to push the boundaries. The interesting question is "is it really furthering the 'art' of comics". I know Moore has said some things indicating regret for creating the 'dark' trend.

  51. Diacanu said:
    "Jim, you HAVE to blog about this after the Howard thing!

    You gotta, man, that should been one of the FIRST stories here!"

    He did. Just go back and read the blog posts.

  52. OM

    "Ironically, it was much better than what he came up with (Void Indigo) when he didn't have those limitations."

    …Keep in mind that Void Indigo was a recycled pitch Gerber had submitted for a Hawkman relaunch. Even with Carter and Shiera replaced with an alien and a stripper, it was still too much in the adult range for the DC higher-ups to tolerate in those pre-Vertigo days. For those interested, the script synops for issues 3-6 can be found here:


    …As I told Steve in one of our last e-mail exchanges before he died, it was always a shame that VI didn't come out a few years later, as the Vertigo crowd would have eaten the book alive and kept it running for at least a hundred issues.

  53. I don't think Mr. Shooter was saying that Gerber wanted gratuitous sex and violence — only that Gerber wanted to be able to show sex and violence in ways that Marvel couldn't publish in its mainstream superhero line at the time. Obviously, what Gerber wanted was to work for Vertigo before Vertigo existed. At the same time, in this discussion Mr. Shooter recalls, Gerber felt the inability to do Vertigo-style material (I'm just using that as shorthand) in Marvel comic books was unfair and made restrictive towards creative freedom.

    Lots of comic book writers have complained about editorial interference. I think of editorial interference as failing to communicate well with creators or abruptly changing the conditions of the creator's work without advance notice. Editorial interference, to me, is like Bob Harras giving Mark Waid clearance to write a creepy Red Skull story, then changing his mind at the last minute. Editorial interference is Bill Jemas demanding a sudden change in direction from Mark Waid and then firing Waid three days later even though Waid made an effort to incorporate the changes. Editorial interference is approving Mark Millar's scripts and Frank Quitely's art on THE AUTHORITY and then censoring it and adding spurious fill-ins between parts one and two of Millar's final story arc.

    But content restrictions? That's the nature of the game, and any writer who agrees to play the game accepts those terms.

  54. czeskleba-

    "Jim, in light of your comments about the discussion with Gerber, I'm curious if you view your Hulk/YMCA/rape story as a mistake in retrospect?"

    Hey, whoa, wait, WHAT?!?!

    *Does some googling*

    *Doubles over in laughter*

    Holy crap, I HAD that issue as a little kid!!

    I couldn't read very well yet, and I didn't know what sex or rape were anyway, so, from the images, I just thought the dudes were going to beat him up.

    Then, that issue got destroyed somehow, left in the rain or something.
    I suspect my parents now.
    Totally forgot it after that.

    Now, all these years later I find out…

    Jim, you HAVE to blog about this after the Howard thing!

    You gotta, man, that should been one of the FIRST stories here!

    "Hank Pym wasn't a wife beater", then Hulk rape.

  55. Anonymous


    As czeskleba wrote, Gerber's work should be judged on its own merits, themes, and effectiveness. My problem is comparing stories which were quite often anti-violence (several issues of Howard and Man-Thing leap to mind) with stories that do not have any moral stance when it comes to violence (e.g. Teen Titans comics in which supporting characters are devoured by a dog as a sick gag). Considering violence and its effects *is* "realism and maturity," whereas spicing up a story with gore and calling it entertainment is not.

    Now, the contention that ultra-violence, etc. had no place in '70s Marvels makes sense to me, and I see your point. The major works Gerber produced at Marvel (Howard the Duck, Defenders, Omega the Unknown, Man-Thing) rank among my favorite comics, and he wrote them without including gratuitous elements.

    – Mike Loughlin

  56. Jim,

    about writing conveniences: Let me introduce you to a site that will consume waaaay too much of your time.

  57. Tony, it's not a matter of being touchy about Gerber, it's simply a matter of judging him by the stories he actually wrote rather than by some extreme statements he made in the heat of a discussion 35 years ago. Gerber never wrote a story with gratuitous or sensationalized sex or violence. Likening his work to some modern comics which do those things betrays a lack of knowledge about what he wrote.

    Jim, in light of your comments about the discussion with Gerber, I'm curious if you view your Hulk/YMCA/rape story as a mistake in retrospect? I know it was published in a magazine theoretically aimed at adults, but the Hulk was(is?) an all-ages character and certainly more than a few of those magazines ended up in the hands of children. Is it appropriate for an all-ages superhero character to appear in such a storyline?

  58. I guess some people are a little touchy about Steve Gerber. I'm sure modern creators don't consider their work "gratuitous, sensationalistic or superficial," but are trying to bring "realism and maturity" to comics. Regardless of Gerber's intentions, ultraviolence and sexual depravity had no place in Marvel Comics of the '70s.

  59. Jim, do you think super-hero comics should lean more toward idealism and fantasy or realism and reality?

    Personally, I much prefer the former. I have just about given up on reading newer comics as I found that not only did I not enjoy them, they were depressing.

    I mean, there is the 6 o'clock news if I want to see all of the wonderful things happening in real life. Comic books used to be an escape. They used to be a fantasy land where I went to be entertained.

    And speaking of cartoons, why does it seem that cartoon characters can exist so easily without stringent continuity but comic books can't?

  60. Mike L. hits the nail on the head… Gerber was NOT about using graphic violence in a gratuitous, sensationalistic or superficial way, but about wanting to bring realism and maturity to comics. Expecting he should be allowed to do it with all-ages characters for a publisher whose audience was still largely children and adolescents was certainly naive, and I would guess Gerber ultimately realized that since in his later years he found more appropriate venues for such work.

    Piperson, even though I think Gerber's issues of Defenders are some of the most creative, moving, hilarious and well-written superhero comics ever, there's a lot more to him than that. You should check out Void Indigo, Foolkiller, or especially Hard Time to see what he was wanting to do as far as more gritty, realistic work.

  61. DJRJAY

    Jim, your duck story really hit home for me.

    I grew up in surburban NJ and my grandfather was a wholesale butcher (you see where this is going) from Wilkes-Barre. One day he came to visit us and brought three ducks.

    Now a typical suburban NJ kid does not have ducks as pets so of course I thought I was the coolest kid on the block. Well my reign as the coolest kid was short as three days later my mother informed me that the ducks "flew away."

    Flash forward 20 years later, in passing my mother mentions the ducks and I come to find out that my grandfather took the ducks out in our shed, lopped their heads off, and made czernina.

    My childhood memories were dashed that day.

    If your aunt was making czernina, I assume you are Polish. Given your yinzer roots, this makes sense. Was Shooter an Americanized version of a Polish name?

  62. I guess you didn't get 20 feet tall into you hit puberty Jim?

  63. "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."

    This reminded me of that TV show from earlier this year, "The Cape" in which the opening movie had the hero standing right beside a car that explodes. He is completely uninjured (despite no protection or powers to protect him). Right then and there I knew the show would suck.

    I was right.

  64. Anonymous

    To some of the commenters,

    To get an idea of what Steve Gerber was talking about when he said he wanted realistic violence in Marvel comics, I suggest you read Howard the Duck #3. In that issue, a fight breaks out after some people watch a kung fu movie. While Gerber and John Buscema never show excessive gore, the narration and dialogue makes it clear that the violence happening in the "real world" is scarier and more awful then the stylized violence found in the movie.

    To suggest Gerber would be at home writing comics that use violence in a sensationalistic manner is to not have a true understanding of the man's work. He decried the effects of violence in the pages of Howard, Man-Thing, Hard Time, Foolkiller, and other comics. Gerber was indeed ahead of his time, however, in that he pushed comic book storytelling forward. I bought just about every Gerber comic I could, and still miss his singular writing.

    – Mike Loughlin

  65. JayWicky

    The "blow to the head" bit made me smile because coincidentally, I happen to have recently re-read Lewis Trondheim's "Désoeuvré", an autobiographical comic in which he mentions his meeting several French and Belgian comic book artists/writers to investigate what he calls "comic book writer-artists midlife crisis". Amongst the anecdotes he collected, there's this bit about Hergé, the creator of Belgian comic superstar Tintin: once, a doctor told Hergé that with the amount of blows to the head that Tintin received throughout the whole series of books, he should be dead already. And it apparently led Hergé to be really depressed to realize that.

  66. You were 5'10" in that photo, no?

    I remember my brother having to have that same kind of crewcut.

  67. I suddenly see in my head a Gerber story about Grandma Shooter's soup…

  68. Firestone

    I wonder how many people actually know 'and the duck comes down.' these days.

    That being said, there's a long history of creators who thrive under restrictions while railing to get out of them. I've always held that Morrison, for the latest example, is best with a firm editor over his back.

    … contrawise, Paul Dini and Mark Waid are best when people let them go. I suppose it's about the inner nature of the writer. The harder they buck to extremes, the more they should be restrained for the good of art.

    The old pushing the envelope argument, I suppose. The flight envelope is a graph. It measures altitude versus flight speed. You push it by trying to fly faster and higher. The top right corner of the graph. Thing is… that's also where the envelope gets canceled.

    I'm not surprised by Gerber's desire for ultraviolence. It always struck me as an undertone in his work. But… yes, one thing I have noticed, reading back, is how few of Spidey's battles actually involved solid punches here and there. I've read everything up to the 80s, thank you, phonebook reprints, and really… one or two shots tend to be the end of a fight.

  69. Dear Marc,

    My Grandma Kate kept a few ducks in a little shanty in her yard. When we went to visit her, my sister and I would play with the ducks. We'd chase them around the yard, they'd chase us around the yard…. Then, once in a while we'd go to visit Grandma and there were new feather pillows and czernina but no ducks. I used to wonder where the ducks went and I loved czernina until I found out it was duck's blood soup.

  70. Wow, I never knew the Gerber you are writing about. To me Gerber was the creator of the ludicrous Head Men in the pages of the Defenders, and the elf with a gun. I appreciate that people still love him, but I could never understand the appeal. On the other hand I never saw the violent side that you write about in his work. Knowing this about him brings out a whole other dimension to him that makes his work seem more well rounded and compelling to me, not just absurd. He wanted to do the Miller thing 10 years before Miller. I'll have to go back and reread some of it with this side in mind.
    On the other hand I'm not a fan of graphic violence anyway. I appreciate much more the tactful "implied between the panels" execution of violence in media. One person who could do graphic violence was Miller. He knew how to use violence to great emotional effect. It was graphic but it wasn't senseless, it was used to create an emotional climax to a great story like he did in the Electra story line.

  71. Sounds like Steve Gerber was about 35 years ahead of his time. He'd be right at home at either Marvel or DC these days, what with the blood & gore and explicit sexual depravity frequently on display in their mainstream titles.

  72. Dear Jim,

    Having grown up with Japanese comics and animation, I am accustomed to a more realistic, consequence-filled approach toward violence and have long been bothered by the consequence-free violence in comics and cartoons. I imagine that Steve Gerber — whom I consider to be one of the best scripters for the GI Joe cartoon — must have been frustrated by its death-free policy. I'd see cop-out scenes and imagined what had "really" happened.

    Nonetheless, like Kid, "I agree with you 100% on writers giving employers what they ask for." How would Gerber have persuaded his employers to permit anarchy? One can't just want change; one also has to sell it.

    It's strange to see the Curtis logo on Marvel's Comix Book.

    I look forward to learning the "Secret Word" from the author of Secret Wars.

    What were you doing with ducks as a child?

  73. Jeff Zoslaw

    Gerber's struggles against the constraints of his dilemma made for some of the best reads of the '70s. Ironically, it was much better than what he came up with (Void Indigo) when he didn't have those limitations. His work was fueled by unhappiness in general (making it extremely appealing to adolescents in the '70s) and his unhappiness with the realities of the industry made it all the better. His quirky/quacky voice is missed, but the work remains present.

  74. Kid

    Fascinating stuff, as usual. I agree with you 100% on writers giving employers what they ask for, instead of being given carte blanche as some kind of right.

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