Weird Worlds:

The Minor Mainstream Works of Steve Gerber, Part 1 – Dr. Fate

When I first started my comics blog in 2008, the first post I made was a brief obituary and tribute to Steve Gerber. I think it serves as a nice introduction to the project upon which I’m embarking in this series of articles:

(Originally written Feb. 17, 2008)
Rest In Peace, Steve Gerber

I came to Steve Gerber’s writing through a Vegas showgirl and her dancing ostrich. I kid you not. The story “Piss on Earth” in the Vertigo Winter’s Edge anthology introduced me to Nevada, the dancer, and her ostrich, and when the series came out, I picked it up, and found out that the genesis of the series had come in an issue of the late 70′s comic, Howard the Duck.

Wasn’t that that crappy movie from the 80′s, you may ask, and yes, yes it was. It was a crappy movie. But, intrigued as I was, I searched out the 16th issue of Howard the Duck, one in which Mr. Gerber ruminates on the creative process and his cross-country move. It was, in a word, revelatory.

Now, I’d been reading the ‘big names’ for a few years. There was little that Grant Morrison, Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman wrote that I didn’t voraciously devour. I prided myself on being a literary comic fan, not doting on artists, but on writers (though I’ve since revised that pompous practice). I was stunned to have found this wonderful dissertation and never have heard of the writer. Dutifully, I tracked down every issue of Howard with his name in the writer’s credit (even the terribly expensive 1st appearance of KISS in a comic book) and read them. And it was brilliant. A vibrant and witty slice of the 1970′s in the USA. A satire of the ideas and ideals sweeping through the nation in the wake of the hippy generation, a more cynical, yet every bit as optimistic, lens through which to read the culture. It was wonderful.

Unlike those other names I talked about earlier, I did not immediately go out and find all of Mr. Gerber’s works right away and read them. But when I did come across one, it was always picked up and read and enjoyed. More recently, on an excursion into the 1970′s Marvel output, I focussed on his work (Defenders, Man-Thing, Tales of the Zombie) in the excellent Marvel Essentials series, and again I was blown away.

Just yesterday (Saturday), I was in a comic store, rummaging through their $2 bins for copies of Superman presents The Phantom Zone and Omega the Unknown. I found the two issues of Creatures on the Loose that he scripted, and the first installment of the Shanna the She-Devil story that was serialized in Marvel Fanfare. I came home, entered them into my database and read them. Then, while surfing the net last night, I found out that he had died a week earlier.

I won’t go all weepy, and say it was like losing a friend or anything, because it wasn’t. I only knew him through his words, and most of them were things he wrote 30 years ago. But for talent, passionate talent, like that to be lost to us is terrible. It is useless to sit and wonder what he might have produced with another 10 years, but I do it anyway. I’m glad that I still have so much of his work to find and to read, but the sad bit is that when I have tracked it all down—which, I’m a little obsessive; I will.—that’ll be it.

I pulled out my Howard the Duck collection today. I think it’s time to read them again, and pay my own little tribute to a guy who wrote comics like no one else did before, or has since. Thank you, Mr. Gerber. Your presence will be missed.

As the above piece of writing notes, Gerber is best known for his work at Marvel Comics in the nineteen seventies. His most inspired creation, Howard the Duck, attained a damaging notoriety in the eponymous film of the eighties, but the comic upon which it is based is a scathing critique of the social and political climate of the United States in the turbulent decade following The Summer of Love. Gerber’s unique point of view obviously has its genesis in this vibrantly optimistic moment in the twentieth century, but at the same time struggles to understand what went wrong, how the utopian forces of the counterculture became the cynical and destructive forces of the seventies.

But this isn’t going to be about Howard the Duck. As I said, it’s the series that most consider to be Gerber’s masterwork, followed closely by his tenure on Marvel’s Man-Thing titles. They are what we might term “major works” in the oeuvre of a writer. For these articles, I’m more concerned with the minor ones. A consideration of the minor works of major writers gives us a way of parsing just what it is that gives an individual writer his or her individual voice, clear of all the acclaim or controversy that might follow of the heels of a better-known work. Thus, over the next little while, I’ll be having a poke about in Gerber’s bibliography and I’ll be pulling out some of the smaller works, the work-for-hire pieces, the minor mainstream works of a major writer. We’ll start in the early eighties with the Dr. Fate back-up strips that appeared in issues 310 – 313 of volume 1 of The Flash.

The first caveat we have to acknowledge in looking at this short work is that it is co-written by Martin Pasko, another mainstay of the late seventies, early eighties mainstream. Both Gerber and Pasko are credited as writers on the four installments, though the third explicitly states that Pasko is the scripter. This uncertainty of duties, however, is very useful in pulling out what we can begin to think of as fundamentally Gerberian (well, we say Kafkaesque and Shakespearian – Gerber deserves that treatment too!) tropes.

The opening chapter, “American Gothic” (as well as the subsequent three), accomplishes what Gerber is quite adept at, something Kurt Busiek perfects in his Astro City series, which is to focus on the supporting characters of a story, rather than solely on the superheroic protagonist. The story deals almost equally with Inza Nelson’s struggles and her loneliness and separation from her husband as it does with Dr. Fate’s battles with the rogue Lords of Order and Chaos. The ramifications of the superheroic on the mundane are concerns Gerber addresses throughout his major and minor works, and is a thread we will be following closely in these considerations. Inza’s story in this short piece (totalling 32 pages) is far more interesting than the superheroic slugfest that occupies the title character. As a woman whose age has been supernaturally halted, Inza’s attraction to a similarly aged man, chronologically, underscores the difficulties of being exposed to the superhuman without actually becoming the superheroic. Gerber and Pasko’s story reminds the reader that, in a realm of gods and multiverses, sorcerers and demons, there still exists the all-too human struggle with infidelities and heartbreak. (The drama of the superhero occurs side-by-side with the drama of the human, which, in reality, are no less heroic or difficult.)

The notion of infidelity is addressed in the story, and is its over-arching theme. The defection of Ynar, a Lord of Order, and Vandameon, a Lord of Chaos, from their assigned realms is infidelity on a cosmic scale, but Dr. Fate illuminates this problem, that is questioning the responsibilities of the superhero, both in and out of costume. To be fair, this is not a trope unique to Gerber’s writing, but it preoccupies him. While Kent Nelson, according to this particular iteration of the Dr. Fate character, does not remember much of his time possessed by the heroic Lord of Order, he does make the conscious choice to surrender control of his body to Fate. Early in the story, gazing into the Crystal Orb of Nabu, he prophesizes destruction and determines that he must act to stop the disasters. Concurrently, Inza tries to articulate to him the problems she is having with their lifestyle: the isolation of the Salem tower and Nelson’s tunnel vision with regard to his mission. This, as much as Inza’s stolen kiss later in the tale, is an infidelity, a betrayal of the bond of marriage that exists between the two. The denouement at the end of the story offers no real answers, but reveals two characters, two human beings, who recognize the necessity of dealing with such questions. Perhaps there are no clear cut answers to the problem of responsibility and infidelity within superheroic relationships aside from the recognition of the conversation.

Responsibility is a good word for us to bear in mind moving forward. Howard, in his series, denies that he has any responsibility to the public good simply because he appears to be an exceptional individual in a world where such individuals accept the responsibility thrust upon them. Gerber continued to deal with the character of Dr. Fate, and the responsibility inherent in the mantle, decades later, both in the “Helmet of Fate” crossover series and in Countdown to Mystery, his final, unfinished series, stories I will investigate at a later date. We’ll take a step backward in time next time and look at Gerber’s closing work on the original run of Kirby’s Mister Miracle (asking what is responsibility from the point of view of a character who is a god, at the deployment of cosmic tropes—something the Fate story dabbles in—and at how Gerber uses the cosmic as metaphor for the mundane.

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Tom Miller currently resides in Calgary, Alberta, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Calgary which he hopes will not take him the ten years everyone keeps telling him it will. His research interests, aside from the ever-pervasive superhero comics, also encompass popular physics texts, H.P. Lovecraft, psychedelic writing and shamanism, modernist American literature, and the literary theory of Northrup Frye. And superhero comics. Always superhero comics. As well as collecting the aforementioned comics, Tom also collects blogs, though many of them sit empty and forlorn. His comic-related work, when it appears, can be found at

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