Sunday, February 17, 2008

Bye Bye Baby

Steve "Baby" Gerber died last week. For the average Pop Culture American, if they know his name at all, he's the guy who had something to do with Howard the Duck and the average Pop Culture American probably only knows Howard the Duck from that legendary bomb of a movie. Davey posted his full obituary here a few days ago and it appears a little further down this page.

But Steve Gerber was a singular authorial voice in comics and as a fan, he was one of the creators I enjoyed most back in Marvel's Bronze Age (1970's or so). Gerber's work always had a strong satirical bent. At his best, he dissected the super-hero and monster comics genres and stood them on their head. As a kid, I didn't know the term "deconstructionist," but that's exactly what Steve Gerber was.

He brought a slice of the bizarre to super-hero comics, taking them far beyond the standard twenty-page punch-up. I first came to know him on a second-tier Marvel super team book called The Defenders, whose premise was sort of deconstructionist even before Gerber took over: The Defenders were a "non-team," a group made up of Marvel characters who didn't play well with others. The group when I started reading it featured the Hulk, Doctor Strange, the sword-wielding Valkyrie, Marvel's Batman knock-off Nighthawk and a revolving door of other oddball heroes. Gerber took advantage of the book's off-the-beaten-path milieu to craft some of the weirdest super-hero sagas ever.

In one memorably convoluted story arc, a third-rate batch of villains called "The Headmen" tried to infiltrate the Defenders' ranks by kidnapping Nighthawk, removing his brain, and sticking the brain of one of their own in his head. But once the evil Headman, now in Nighthawk's body, made contact with the Defenders, Doctor Strange (who knew everything) quickly figured out the scheme and neutralized the villain by mystically transferring his mind out of the brain and into the head of the first innocuous creature he found. In this case, it was a young faun.

But wait. We haven't even gotten to the complicated part yet.

So now Nighthawk's body, with the mindless brain of the villain inside, is reduced to being a zombie. Doc Strange gets the bright idea of turning the Headmen's plan back on them and transfers the mind of Valkyrie's husband, Jack Norriss, into the brain of the villain which is inside the body of Nighthawk, then sending him (them?) back to the Headmen to infiltrate THEIR ranks. Meanwhile the faun with the mind of the bad guy stares at them with ineffectual menace.

Jack Norriss, his mind in the brain of the villain in the body of Nighthawk (like one of those Russian nesting dolls), meets up with the Headmen and discovers that Nighthawk's brain, surgically removed from his head, is being kept in a bowl full of "life-preserving chemicals." For the rest of the story, the heroes chase around after the villains trying to sort this mess out, playing keep-away with Nighthawk's brain while the life-preserving chemicals slosh perilously out of the bowl.

Whenever some lazy critic knocks a movie for having a "comic-book plot," I always think of this story and wish that most movies had one tenth of its insanity and invention. It's reprinted in Marvel's wonderful Essentials series (Essential Defenders 3).

Gerber also wrote memorable tales for Daredevil and Man-Thing. His signature creation was Howard the Duck, of course. It's a shame that people only know that horrible movie. "Howard the Duck," the comic, was one of the satiric high points of the seventies, equal parts comics parody and social criticism. It also is collected in Marvel's Essentials series (Essential Howard the Duck 1).

Steve Gerber will be missed.

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