Sunday, September 20, 2009

“My Artistic Expansion Can’t Be Contained by This Medium Any Longer.”

Writer Steve Gerber would have been 62 years old today.

Gerber died in early 2008, from pneumonia in combination with a terminal, progressive lung disease. The above quote is taken from an interview he gave to Gary Groth of The Comics Journal in 1978—a transitional, crucial moment in Gerber’s career.

To see what Gerber was saying, it’s important to understand where he was coming from. At that point in time, Gerber had just been fired by Marvel because he was seeking control of his creation Howard the Duck, and he had also seen the cancellation—due to a lack of support from the publisher, as well as a lack of commercial success—of Omega the Unknown, a superhero title he had co-created and co-written while at Marvel.

So, quite literally, Gerber was talking about a “medium” that had, in no uncertain terms, proven unwilling and unable to accommodate his creative endeavors on the terms and conditions that he thought were appropriate.

“I don't really foresee my staying in comics much longer,” Gerber tells Groth. Part of the reason is that he doesn’t “like the way business is conducted in this industry,” he says, but there’s also a more creative concern at the heart of his disenchantment with comics:
“I think my work already—this has nothing to do with the quality of it, only with the nature of what I’m trying to do, I don’t want to get too self-congratulatory—it’s already—the balloon is about to burst in terms of how much further the medium can be stretched. If I ever wanted to do the stories that Howard is currently appearing in, but without a duck, there would be no way to do them in comics. […] Unless I was willing to put someone with long underwear in the lead. That would be the only other way of doing the stories. I’m trying hard to avoid sounding pretentious, folks. My artistic expansion can’t be contained by this medium any longer.”
So, as it turns out, when Gerber talks about the “medium” of comics, he doesn’t mean the kind of platonic ideal people tend to have in mind today when they mention the “medium,” one that’s big enough to include mainstream bookstore successes like Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, and Jeff Smith.

Rather, what he refers to is the de facto state of American comics, circa 1978: a medium where the “mainstream” of “overground comics” is synonymous with generic, gaudily dressed, garishly colored superheroes who star in shallow, rigidly formulaic stories. (There was the occasional barbarian, martial artist or fowl, but those were the exceptions that proved the rule.)

The statements quoted here are not, by a long shot, the most controversial ones Gerber makes in this interview, and I have no doubt that there were plenty of ruffled feathers (and worse) as a result. By openly stepping up and demanding more for himself—and from himself—than Marvel was ready to go along with, Gerber challenged not just Marvel, but the entire comics industry along with it.

In retrospect, however, Gerber’s predictions on the medium’s capacity to “contain his artistic expansion” turned out to be true—tragically so, because, looking at the work he’s done, I’m coming to think that it’s both unfathomable and inevitable that they turned out to be true.

I haven’t seen all of Gerber’s work yet by a long shot, and not all of what I’ve seen of it is up to par. Still, the more I’m exposed to, and the more I think about it, the more I’m coming to the conclusion that Steve Gerber was very much the first writer in superhero comics who came to approach his work in a deliberate, proto-literary fashion, and with the kind of creative ambition that makes him sort of a missing link between the early Kirby/Lee/Ditko Marvel and the likes of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison.

Starting on Monday, I’m going to post a series of longer examinations of five of Gerber’s superhero works. They’re not necessarily the most significant ones—although Omega the Unknown is in there—but I do think they still demonstrate a certain progression that’s broadly in line with the writer’s own assessment of his prospects as quoted above. I’m restricting myself to the superhero stuff here, because it speaks directly to the point Gerber was making in the interview—in a sense, it seems he did cave in and put someone with long underwear in the lead, eventually.

There’s plenty of other material he produced that’s well worth examining, of course, including non-superhero stuff like Howard the Duck and Nevada, among many others, so I’m fairly confident that I’m not nearly done with Gerber’s work yet.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying, I don’t think the comics industry at large has quite recognized—let alone acknowledged—the significance of Gerber’s contributions to the creative evolution of the form, to anywhere near the extent that’s due to him.


Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on Gerber's work -- I've been a fan since 1976 -- and I hope you can tie it in to your earlier Guardians of the Galaxy post.

Marc-Oliver said...

The Guardians tie-in may have to wait a while -- I'm still scrounging for Gerber's take on the characters in DEFENDERS and MARVEL PRESENTS.

Thanks for reading!