Writer Steve Gerber began his comics writing career at Marvel, where he soon displayed a knack for social satire and surreal humor. He is best known for creating the character Howard the Duck. He created the character for a Man-Thing issue in 1973, then wrote the Howard the Duck series from 1976 – 1979. Howard was a talking duck from another dimension, just the right size to be constantly taken for a midget in a duck suit. To Gerber, Howard was never a cartoon duck, but an actual flesh and blood person who happened to look like a duck. As an alien being from another world, Howard was the ultimate outsider, a status Gerber frequently used to make social commentary. This ranged from general observations on the human condition to comments about contemporary life and politics. Politics were addressed most explicitly in the famous issue (Howard the Duck #8) in which Howard ran for President of the United States as the All Night Party candidate during the 1976 campaign season. Gerber also satirized comic books, in a way that skirted quite closely to the “serious” comics Marvel was currently publishing. Howard’s absurd archenemy Doctor Bong was a clear swipe at costumed super villains, as well as one of Gerber’s most memorable characters. Gerber’s run had its ups and downs–Howard suffered a nervous breakdown at one point which went on for several interminable issues–but it’s still well worth reading. Gene Colan was the main penciler on the series, so it’s a visual treat as well.
One other issue of Howard the Duck stands out, the famous “Dreaded Deadline Doom” (Howard the Duck #16). It consisted primarily of text pieces about writing comics, written in place of a standard issue due to a deadline that Gerber could not meet, because he was in the process of moving from New York to Nevada. Each was illustrated by a large pinup, so the description “Special Once in a Lifetime Album Issue” appears on the cover. One of those pieces, “obligatory comic book fight scene” was the inspiration for Gerber’s 1998 Vertigo miniseries Nevada (illustrated by Phil Winslade & Steve Leialoha). The caption says it’s a fight between an ostrich, a chorus girl, and a killer lampshade, which seems a thin thread to base an entire miniseries on. But Las Vegas showgirl Nevada appears as fully three-dimensional character, portrayed as a real woman, albeit one who finds herself in very surreal circumstances. Her pet performing ostrich Bolero is quite a character too, although unlike Howard the Duck he’s a normal Earth ostrich who does not talk (other than saying “Wuk” a lot). And Gerber definitely took liberties with the killer lampshade, recasting it as a villain with a lava lamp for a head. Nevada has an unusual act–she appears onstage in an Egyptian outfit, dancing with her ostrich–but apart from that things look pretty normal at first. Something strange is happening to the hotel’s rooftop laser display, and a drunk vagrant appears to be stalking her (the mobster with the lava lamp head is interested in the vagrant for some reason). None of these things seem to have any connection to each other at first. But before long Nevada finds herself in another dimension, where she is called upon to do battle with beings trying to invade our reality. It culminates in a huge cosmic battle: obligatory fight scene writ large, with a sword! Nevada returns to our reality, presumably victorious. Some time has elapsed while she was away, so she has to break Bolero out of an animal shelter. As the series ends she is rebuilding her life. Gerber promised a sequel which never came. Nevada outdid Howard in the surrealism department, and Winslade was up to every challenge. His people are real (Nevada is one of the most realistically portrayed women in comics) and his cosmic transformations are believable. The series was collected in paperback form, and is worth seeking out that way or in individual issues.
When Marvel launched its MAX imprint of “mature readers” comics Gerber returned to write a six-issue Howard the Duck miniseries in 2001 (which is often identified as Howard the Duck Vol. 2). Phil Winslade was again the illustrator, and Marvel chose to reproduce the book directly from his pencils, which gives it a distinctive soft-edged look. One issue was done by cover artist Glenn Fabry, a rare appearance on interior art. While it’s great to see Winslade back, I think it’s a shame that Gene Colan didn’t get another crack at the character. At least Gerber was officially credited with Howard’s creation in the credits. The series finds Howard and Beverly Switzler living in a trailer in a junkyard. When Beverly lands an unbelievably good job, they discover that Doctor Bong is behind it. Howard winds up in a vat of chemicals which rearrange his DNA. For most of the series he takes on different forms, most frequently a large mouse (likely a Mickey Mouse reference, in response to Disney’s earlier lawsuit for Howard the Duck). There is once again a great deal of parody, and this time Gerber aims his big guns at Vertigo. There are parodies of Hellblazer, The Sandman, Transmetropolitan, Gerber’s own Nevada, and especially Preacher (to be fair, Witchblade takes quite a beating as well). Perhaps Gerber was still smarting from the failure to launch a Nevada sequel? At any rate, the big climax here finds Howard going to Hell with God. The whole of creation turns out to be a “work made for hire,” which may explain God’s apparent neglect. It’s considerably racier and more pointed than the original series, a reflection of how things had changed in comics publishing in 25 years.