Yesterday, I fawned over one of my favorite writers of all time. A truly unique man full of edgy, bizarre ideas.
Today: My Ten Favorite Steve Gerber comics. At the break.
Picking the ten best Steve Gerber stories for this list was impossible. For one thing, much of his work is out of print and impossible to find. For another, there’s so much of it. So damn much!
THE TOP TEN STEVE GERBER COMICS
Note: These are my favorites. By no means do I disparage the works not included. I’ve never read a Steve Gerber comic that I thought was bad.* In fact, most of his work was truly groundbreaking.
*Except Void Indigo.
So, I’ll start with a caveat. These are noted Gerber books that I still need to read, so they aren’t included here:
- Omega the Unknown;
- A. Bizarro (does anyone have .cbzs of this book? I can’t find it ANYWHERE?!?); and
- his Daredevil run.
I’ve read just about everything else he’s written (or at least tried to—some of his stuff was a swing and a big, bad miss: Like Void Indigo).
10. Man-Thing #22.
In his final issue, “Pop Goes the Cosmos,” Steve Gerber includes most of the important characters from his too-short, bizarre run with the character: Wundarr (a Superman cypher that brilliantly deconstructed the Man of Steel mythology), Howard the Duck, Foolkiller, Spider-Man, Conan the Barbarian, Thor, Hulk, Human Torch, and Steve Gerber himself. Among others. In it, Gerber reveals that he was hired by a mystical wizard named Dakhim to write the true biography of the Man-Thing, as told by Dakhim. Gerber gets transported to Man-Thing’s dimension, meets his creation, and works with him to defeatthe villainous Thog.
9. The Phantom Zone.
A 4-issue miniseries about Superman trapped in the PZ, featuring the JLA, General Zod, and lots of melting-clock style bizarreness drawn by Gene Colan, master of occult artistry.
8. The Avengers #178.
A done-in-one solo story of The Beast that is truly magnificent. It’s so good, I already my panel-a-day post on it. It was nominated for a “best single issue story” Eagle Award in 1979.
But you can’t read it until it is time. Sorry.
7. Man-Thing #5-6
Titled “Night of the Laughing Dead,” this two-parter was about a clown who kills himself in Man-Thing’s swamp. MT finds the suicide note, it moves him, and he decides to bury the dead body. Naturally, he’s spotted by other circusfolk who think Manny killed the clown. All the while, there’s some Foolkiller stuff lurking about and some ghosts haunt the clown’s survivors with memories of the clown’s life. Beautifully drawn by Mike Ploog (perfect name for a swamp artist, no?), the book exemplifies how Gerber would layer his stories with plots and subplots, and was content to have complex character development for even the most minor of players. He was also comfortable introducing elements and letting them remain unresolved at the end of an arc. In this way, he was like a “slice of life” writer who developed full lives for all of the supporting characters, but would leave those characters behind when the star of the show moved on to another adventure. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, writes like that in comics these days. In fact, I don’t think anyone else ever did write like that.
6. Marvel Two-In-One #1-9.
The Thing’s answer to Spider-Man’s Marvel Team Up began its run as a collection of offbeat tales featuring Man-Thing, Molecule Man, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Sub-Mariner, Wundarr, Daredevil, Black Widow, Ghost Rider, Dr. Strange, and a bunch of other characters from all of Steve Gerber’s then-current and future works. These are underrated gems largely lost to the ages but they’re really great comics. Besides, I can’t fill this list up with just Man-Thing and HtD, can I?
5. Howard the Duck #1.
The 1977 Eagle award nominee, “Howard the Barbarian.” The character had already appeared in backup features and other folks’ comics, but his hotly anticipated debut as a solo artist did not disappoint, and immediately catapulted him to cult icon status. Art by Frank Brunner.
4. The Defenders.
Long before the X-Men became the pariahs of the supergroup world; in the days before The Thunderbolts; and before Suicide Squad was even a blink in Ostrander’s eye, Steve Gerber took a band of misfits and made them work as a team in The Defenders: Hulk, best known for breaking things other people were still using; Nighthawk and Valkyrie, both former supervillains; Dr. Strange, the mystic nobody seemed to be able to write good stories about, banded together to fight very odd villains (and usually satanic ones). This was before Grant Morrison started deconstructing all of DC’s heroes—long before that—and I daresay there’d be no Morrison if not for Gerber. Most will single out the Eagle-award-nominated #31-41 as the best Defenders saga ever—and some of the best Steve Gerber comics—but don’t underestimate his first 9 issues of the title (#20-29). Those were the ones with guest spots by Thing and Yellowjacket, the first appearance of The Headmen, the team becoming depressed and hiring a motivational speaker, and a hate group stealing Nighthawk’s millions to fund their racist propaganda. Real odd, high concept stuff.
3. Howard the Duck #3.
In issue #3 of his solo series, Howard was drawn by the legendary John Buscema in an issue that focused on “Quak-Fu.” It was such a timely, brilliant move by Steve Gerber: The year was 1977, karate movies and blacksploitation were everywhere, so Gerber made a B-movie comic book that was so good it won the Eagle Award that year.
2. Foolkiller #1-10.
I’ll be saying this again later about “Hard Time,” but Fookiller is one of my favorite short-lived comics of all time. It’s about an imprisoned vigilante and a copycat on the outside. Coming out in the age of Son of Sam and Bernie Goetz, it was a scary look at how a person becomes a killer-with-a-cause.
Foolkiller also appeared in one of my favorite Amazing Spider-Man issues of all time, #225. He is one of the few villains I really resonated with on a personal level, because it’s my fantasy that all fools should die. He’s also the only Marvel character I ever came close to writing fan fiction about. But that’s probably just ‘cause I’m a fool…
1. Hard Time Seasons 1 and 2.
This, simply put, is one of my favorite comic books of all time. Unlike most of the other books on this list, Hard Time was a serious, completely non-satirical story with powerful human moments and unparalleled character work. It’s about a boy sentenced as an adult to prison for a murder that he committed by accident—partly as a result of having a superpower that he doesn’t understand and can’t control. The comic told two stories: One, how a boy gets hardened as a result of doing hard time; and two, how he discovers his super-potential. Only season 1 is available in trade. Damn, damn shame. This was part of DC’s short-lived predecessor to Vertigo, “DC Focus.”
Honorable mentions. Limiting a list to ten items means some deserving “deeper cuts” won’t make the grade. These were:
- Howard the Duck #16, “Zen and The Art of Comic Book Writing.” This was really a series of essays, so I decided not to include it in my top 10, but it was truly avant garde and was nominated for an Eagle Award.
- Nevada. An extremely underground book about a stripper and an ostrich. Odd, dark, and troubling, it was a rare example of a “completely serious” Steve Gerber comic that still maintained an absurdist angle.
- Sensational She-Hulk #10-11, 13-23. Just great.
- Shanna the She-Devil #1, 4-5. These issues from the early 1970s are a little dated, but Shanna was one of the first women to get her own Marvel title.