Though originally only a cameo figure in a 1970s horror title, Marvel Comics' Howard the Duck went on to a high-profile comic-book career as a wise-cracking, cigar-chewing character. His range and appeal transcended the traditional audience for four-colour superhero fare and contributed to the opening up of the comics medium to a more adult constituency.
Howard's creator, Steve Gerber, was part of the 1960s comic-book fandom that supplied many of the following decade's industry leaders. He was friends with Roy Thomas (editor of the seminal fanzine Alter Ego, and future Marvel Comics editor-in-chief) and produced his own mimeographed publication Headline. But while many of his contemporaries took up employment with the big two publishers, Marvel and DC, Gerber, armed with a communications degree from St Louis University, joined a copywriting agency – only to find it stifling his creativity.
Thomas recruited him to Marvel in 1972 and Gerber started scripting some of their second-string characters. His sense of the absurd, however, soon lifted him on to The Defenders, about an ill-matched team of dysfunctional superheroes. There, Gerber's knack for juxtaposing the bizarre with the flat-out ridiculous produced a storyline featuring an "Elf with a gun" who assassinated minor characters in a sequence which almost certainly represented Gerber's view of the anarchic nature of existence.
It was while scripting the horror comic Man-Thing that Gerber devised the character that best articulated his own skewed view of the human condition, Howard the Duck. "The Duck" was supposedly a three-dimensional projection from an alternate reality; Gerber creating him whilst he worked in a "trance-like state" attempting to block out the repetitive sounds of a stereo. "The next thing I knew, a cartoon duck was waddling out of the Man-Thing's swamp." Howard survived only two appearances before seemingly being killed off, but such was the clamour from readers that he was awarded his own series.
Howard the Duck ran for 27 issues, becoming akin to a state-of-the-nation road movie, with Gerber describing it as "the living embodiment of all that is querulous, opinionated and uncool". Howard and his human companion, Beverly, battled their way through a myriad jobs, with Howard even running for President of the United States. It fought against the dominance of the superhero, years before Alan Moore and Frank Miller arrived to reconstruct the genre with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.
Gerber was a groundbreaker in this regeneration of the comics industry, through Howard and also the short-lived series Omega the Unknown (written with his girlfriend Mary Skrenes). In the latter, Gerber explored the disconnected relationship between a mysterious superhero and a young boy in Hell's Kitchen, New York. By presenting his concept in a deliberately enigmatic way, Gerber's work prefigured the multi-layered approach that Moore particularly would bring to the comics medium.
Howard proved to be a one-writer character, needing Gerber's own voice to provide the appropriate tone. At this time, however, there was no recognition of creator-rights. In 1978 Gerber parted company with Marvel acrimoniously and sued for control of his creation.
Marvel was already in litigation with the artist Jack Kirby over the ownership of characters such as The Fantastic Four and sensing common cause, Gerber and Kirby produced the comic book Destroyer Duck to help cover their legal costs. Gerber settled out of court, though the agreement failed to deliver him copyright on the character. His involvement with the 1986 film version of Howard the Duck was minimal and proved another example of others failing to convey his voice. Instead, George Lucas delivered one of Hollywood's legendary turkeys. "What can I say?" Gerber commented. "It sucks."
By then he had left the comics industry and was scripting animated television shows such as GI Joe and Dungeons & Dragons. But comics remained in his blood and he wrote the highly rated graphic novel Stewart the Rat (1980), the sex-and-violence Void Indigo (1983), and even returned to Marvel for a new Howard series in 2001.
Stephen Ross Gerber, comic-book writer: born St Louis, Missouri 20 September 1947; married Margo MacLeod (one daughter); died Las Vegas 10 February 2008.