Comic book and animation writer Steve Gerber — most famous for creating “Howard the Duck” — died yesterday at the age of 60.
I loved “Howard the Duck” when I was a kid (I’m talking about the comic book Howard, the real Howard, not the awful movie that was made in the mid-80s).
But what makes Gerber especially notable for a political blog like “Alas” is the essential role his struggle for ownership of “Howard the Duck” played in changing how comic book creators in the US viewed issues of copyright and creative rights. The character of “Howard” was created as a walk-on gag character in an issue of “Man-Thing” Gerber wrote. It was thus “work for hire,” and the legal creator and owner of “Howard” was Marvel Comics.
Gerber found that he was able to express himself effectively though “Howard the Duck” in a way that was both satisfying to himself and resonant with an audience; soon Gerber was writing both a “Howard the Duck” daily newspaper strip and a “Howard the Duck” comic book. But Marvel Comics fired him from writing the “Howard” newspaper strip and then, when Gerber announced he was going to contest Marvel’s ownership of “Howard,” fired him from writing the comic book. A series of replacement writers proved unable to make “Howard” concept work, and the newspaper strip and then the comic book were canceled.
From The Comics Reporter:
“What disgusts me even more, though, is that I think the writers and artists have largely brought this on themselves,” [Gerber wrote] in 1978. “They don’t want to know about the business end of comics. They prefer to remain ignorant. They’ve allowed the publishers to convince them that they’re a bunch of no-talent bums surviving on the goodwill of the companies. Very few people in this industry really believe that their work has any artistic merit, or that it’s sale-able elsewhere. Or that they deserve more than they’re getting. You will actually hear them defend the publishers’ ownership of their creations, the low page rates, the cowardice of the companies to explore new markets. That’s why it’s startling when someone like Gil Kane or Neal Adams or Don McGregor or Barry Smith — or Steve Gerber — shoots his mouth off. People in the industry find it disturbing that one of their number might actually take his work seriously, take pride not only in being fast and dependable, but in the work itself.”
Steve Gerber did not win back Howard the Duck. He settled with Marvel and even returned to the company by the mid-1980s, although not in as devoted or prolific a fashion. Although the terms of the settlement were sealed, he told Art Cover in 1985 that, “It’s no secret how mad I was during and before the lawsuit. The terms of the settlement are such that I am no longer angry.” [...]
The notions that Marvel would take a character away from a creator, even the one best suited to it, and that a creator might fight back, became powerful ideas among a growing tide of younger creators asserting a series of creators’ rights in regards to their work with big, mainstream comic book companies or their moves to smaller companies or self-publishing where rights might be attained. One element of the cautionary story was that Marvel was more interested in keeping and controlling the character than it was in fostering a relationship with the creator, even when the benefits were obvious to both. Also, the fact that Gerber had created Howard in an offhand manner but that the character had come to be a valuable mouthpiece for the creator became a key part of the thinking of a lot of creators rights advocates, and spoke as a powerful counter to an argument often expressed that some characters you created for the big companies and some characters you kept for yourself. As many have cautioned in a thousand hushed conversations since, you never know.
EVANIER: One of the reasons Steve settled when he did – he’s too modest to mention this – is that the comics industry at the close of the suit was not the same as at the beginning of the suit. One of the things that prompted Steve’s suit in the first place was that at one point he wanted to try and work out a settlement with Marvel on parts of his contract that had been left dangling. I sent him to an agent of mine, and the agent phoned the appropriate people at Marvel, and they said, “We’re not going to deal with you.” They didn’t recognize the rights of people to speak on behalf of artists and writers.
MILLER: We’re talking about an industry that until maybe ten years ago, a contract could not be negotiated in the office of the publisher of a major comic book company, because the writer showed up with his attorney. The publisher just got up and walked out. This is a true story; I know the writer, I know the attorney, and I know the publisher. We’re talking about the Dark Ages here.
EVANIER: It was 1978, I believe. (laughter) Largely because of Steve’s lawsuit, and because of other people who said, “We’re not going to take it anymore,” the comic book companies grew up a little. They have yet to make proper redress on all of the old offenses, but they’re now dealing in a more mature manner. They will talk to attorneys, and they will draw up legitimate contracts. They now realize they can not conduct major comic book company business like a lemonade stand. Steve’s lawsuit was one of the main reasons for that.
Current comic creators — especially those who work for big, mainstream companies — owe a lot to Gerber’s work and activism.
Marvel has done a reprint of some of Gerber’s “Howard” comics, although unfortunately they expunged the ones with swear words and nudity. I read somewhere today that Image Comics is going to reprint “Destroyer Duck,” the protest/fundraising comic Gerber and Jack Kirby* created (Kirby, who co-created almost all the core Marvel comics characters, was also engaged in a nasty legal struggle with Marvel Comics).