Steve Gerber: Marvel comic-book writer

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.

Ian Abrahams

Stephen Ross Gerber, comic-book writer: born St Louis, Missouri 20 September 1947; married Margo MacLeod (one daughter); died Las Vegas 10 February 2008.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Life and Style

The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes

Video: It is the type of thing no parent wants to hear

Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: Business Development Manager

Competitive: Opilio Recruitment: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a Bu...

Recruitment Genius: Systems / Network Administrator

£35000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning internet, do...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunity for someone l...

Opilio Recruitment: Technical Recruiter

£35k - 42k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting oppo...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game