Friday, February 15, 2008

R.I.P., Steve Gerber

Today's a sad Comic Art Friday...

Comic book creator Steve Gerber passed away earlier this week.

Gerber was one of the leading lights in Marvel Comics' "second generation" of writers, those who came along in the early '70s after Stan Lee had reduced his prodigious output. Gerber, in particular, quickly gained a reputation for an off-kilter, freewheeling style — punctuated by weird humor and oblique satire — that seemed especially well suited to some of Marvel's fringe characters.

It was while writing one of those fringe characters — the swamp monster called Man-Thing — that Gerber's unique voice found its ultimate avatar in an angry feathered creature named Howard the Duck.

Howard became Gerber's signature character, as well as the focal point of a long-running legal battle between the writer and the publishing company. While at Marvel, Gerber also co-created such memorable characters as Shanna the She-Devil, a jungle heroine, and Omega the Unknown, a mysterious superpowered alien who forms an unusual connection with a gifted Earth boy.

My favorite of Gerber's works was his two-year run on The Defenders, which I've mentioned previously in this space as one of my favorite comics of the '70s. Although several other talented writers preceded (Steve Englehart, Chris Claremont, Len Wein) and followed (David Anthony Kraft, Ed Hannigan, J.M. DeMatteis) Gerber on Defenders, the series really came into its own under his authorship in 1975-76.

In memory of Steve Gerber, let's look at a few artworks from my collection that feature members of the Defenders.

As "Marvel's greatest non-team," the Defenders usually brought together characters who weren't generally known as team players. Their founder and leader was sorcerer supreme Dr. Strange, master of the mystic arts. The good Doctor appears here by way of the potent pencil of artist Geof Isherwood.

The original triumvirate of Defenders partnered Dr. Strange with Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, and the gamma-irradiated green Goliath known as the Hulk. Bruce Banner's hulking alter ego locks horns with the mighty Thor in this artwork, penciled by Dan Jurgens and inked by Bob Almond.

One of the first expansions of the Defenders' non-roster added the sword-slinging superheroine Valkyrie, depicted here by penciler Michael Dooney and inker Bob Almond. As other early Defenders additions came and went (i.e., the Silver Surfer, the Black Knight, Hawkeye), the Valkyrie remained, becoming one of the team's most prominent members.

The group's next significant addition was Nighthawk, a sort of airborne Batman type. An established villain, Nighthawk switched sides from evil to good in order to help the Defenders defeat his former cronies, the Squadron Sinister. Nighthawk quickly became a popular Defender, ultimately becoming the team's de facto field general. Here, Nighthawk poses down with Kyle Rayner of the Green Lantern Corps, in a "Common Elements" spectacular by Kyle Hotz.

Steve Gerber continued to work periodically in comics after his '70s heyday. He also branched out into television animation, creating the popular series Thundarr the Barbarian and writing and story-editing such shows as Dungeons and Dragons, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. He remained a prominent advocate for creators' rights throughout his career.

If you're interested in learning far more about Gerber's life and impact on the comics industry than I could ever hope to share, you'll find an extensive list of links over at The Comics Reporter. Please take a moment and browse a few of the tributes — you'll be both astounded and moved.

At the time of his death from pulmonary fibrosis, Steve Gerber was 60. He was awaiting a lung transplant when he died.

He will, without question, be sincerely missed.

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