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Comic-book writer created Howard the Duck and worked on TV series

OBITUARIES : Steve Gerber, 1947 - 2008

February 15, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Steve Gerber, a cutting-edge comic-book writer and creator best-known for Howard the Duck, the ill-tempered, cigar-smoking Marvel Comics character whose adventures satirized American life in the 1970s, has died. He was 60.

Gerber, who also wrote for such animated TV series as "G.I. Joe" and "Dungeons & Dragons" and was known in the comic-book industry as a strong advocate of creators' rights, died Sunday at a Las Vegas hospital from complications of pulmonary fibrosis, said Mary Skrenes, a longtime friend and writing collaborator.

"He had an unusual way of writing human stories, whether it be a supernatural, a superhero, an occult or a semi-realistic world," said Skrenes, who co-wrote the 1970s Marvel superhero comic book "Omega the Unknown" with Gerber.

"So many people could identify with his characters, and his characters spoke the truth about the real world in a comic-book world he created," she said.

Observed Mark Evanier, another writer friend who collaborated with Gerber on TV cartoon series and comic books: "He was a distinctive, fresh voice in the '70s, telling personal stories in a medium that was not always known for that."

Gerber, who joined Marvel Comics as an associate editor and writer in 1972, began by writing stories for "Daredevil," "Sub-Mariner" and other superhero titles and became known for injecting absurdist humor and social satire into them.

Gerber later recalled that he was in his Brooklyn apartment working on a plot one night when he got the idea for Howard the Duck, whom he described as "the living embodiment of all that is querulous, opinionated and uncool."

The iconoclastic duck from another world, originally drawn by artist Val Mayerik, made his first appearance in 1973 as a one-shot character in "The Man-Thing" feature in Marvel's "Adventure Into Fear" comic book.

Immediately popular with readers, Howard returned to make guest appearances and became his own comic book title in January 1976.

The all-too-human Howard -- "Trapped in a World He Never Made!" as the cover catch-phrase declared -- was prone to depression, struggled to pay the rent and had a sexy human companion, Beverly Switzler -- "Toots" to Howard.

The unlikely hero battled such villains as Pro-Rata, an insane financial wizard who lived in a castle made of expired credit cards.

In writing "Howard the Duck," Gerber satirized such elements of '70s culture as kung fu, anti-gay activist Anita Bryant, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and self-help groups.

Howard even ran for president in 1976 on the All-Night Party ticket and reportedly garnered several hundred votes.

"Howard the Duck really stood out against the backdrop of superhero comics that took themselves very seriously," said Tom Spurgeon, who runs the Comics Reporter, a comics industry news blog.

But "Howard the Duck" was more than just a humor comic book, he said.

"On the surface, you had kind of a straightforward comedy that lampooned culture," he said. "But at the same time, a duck character walking around in a world full of humans is a classic symbol of alienation and being different and feeling different.

"That was a subject Steve would often bring to his titles. . . . That's why people feel so fondly about his 1970s [comic] books, because they kind of struck a chord with kids who similarly felt different or not in the mainstream."

Howard, which the Village Voice called "the last angry duck," became a cult phenomenon, although not everyone fell under his caustic spell.

One disgruntled reader wrote to Gerber blasting the character as a "pseudo-sexual, liberal, pseudo-intellectual premise obviously written by an oversexed manic depressive."

Gerber called it "my favorite fan letter."

Dubbed "America's newest comic juggernaut" by the Washington Post, "Howard the Duck" spawned a newspaper cartoon strip, originally written by Gerber, that ran for a short time.

Spurgeon said Gerber, who left Marvel in a dispute in the late '70s, had "very little to do" with the 1986 "Howard the Duck" live-action movie, which famously flopped at the box office.

A protracted legal battle between Gerber and Marvel over ownership of Howard the Duck ended in a settlement in which Marvel retained the rights to the character. But the sealed terms of the settlement, Gerber later said, were "such that I am no longer angry."

"He was a big fighter for creators' rights," Evanier said. "One of the reasons that people can make a decent wage in comics these days is because Steve stood up to some of the more onerous business practices."

Among Gerber's numerous creations or co-creations during his 36-year career were "Nevada," "Void Indigo," "Sludge," "Destroyer Duck," "Hard Time" and the graphic novel "Stewart the Rat."

For television, he was chief story editor on "G.I. Joe" and a story editor on "Dungeons & Dragons." He shared an Emmy Award as a staff writer on "The Batman/Superman Adventures," and he co-created and story-edited "Thundarr the Barbarian."

Before his death, Gerber was writing "Countdown to Mystery," an eight-issue monthly series for DC Comics featuring an updated version of the mystical hero Dr. Fate.

Born Sept. 20, 1947, in St. Louis, Gerber developed an early love of comic books and as a teenager published a comic-book fanzine called Headline.

After earning a bachelor's degree in communication at Saint Louis University, he worked as an advertising copywriter in St. Louis and wrote short stories before joining Marvel in 1972.

Gerber is survived by his mother, Bernice; a daughter, Samantha Voll; two brothers, Jon and Michael; and a sister, Lisa Bidell.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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