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Trapped In A Friday He Never Made!

This week I got to fulfill yet another one of those little collector-acquisition dreams.

Well, not really COLLECTOR. I buy comics to read. Let’s say I got to make an addition to my personal library that I’ve been wanting to for a while, and as a result I finally get to do a column I’ve been thinking about since Overlord Cronin made me the offer of a weekly writing gig all those months ago.

Regular readers of this column will no doubt recall how fond I am of 70’s Marvel, and I have mentioned various writers of that era in passing as being favorites…. but I have avoided talking about my VERY favorite, because I wanted to give him a whole column’s worth of appreciation and call your attention to some good stuff of his that often gets overlooked. That creator is Steve Gerber.

Now, most fans today, when you mention Steve Gerber, think of Howard the Duck, if they know the name at all. And if they know the Duck, they probably know about the attendant lawsuit. And a few more might chime in with Hard Time. And that probably would be it.

However, as much as I loved Howard the Duck, my favorite books from Steve Gerber were not really the usual picks. The reason I waited to do this particular column, and the reason I’m finally getting around to it this week, was because yesterday my copy of the trade collection of the original Omega the Unknown arrived.

Quite possibly the most ambitious -- and the most misunderstood -- book Marvel ever did in the 70's.

I adored that book when it came out and wanted to refresh my memory before writing anything about it. It was, sadly, an unfinished work, for all intents and purposes. It ran ten issues and it was so far ahead of its time that I think that if it came out today, it would be a hit. I reread it again this morning and was shocked by how fresh it felt, compared to most of the other reprint books I’ve been looking at lately. Now, I love the old stuff, but no matter how excited I am to get hold of the latest Marvel Essential or back-issue eBay lot, there’s still that vague feeling that it’s not quite the same, some of the magic has gone… I can see the zipper on the monster suit now.

But Omega reads like something current. It really was a novel unfolding at the rate of a chapter an issue, rather than an open-ended serial. Today that’s the norm. Back in 1976 it was a lunatic idea. The amazing thing to me is that it was ever greenlit at all…. and the second-most-amazing thing is how ACCESSIBLE the thing is, considering the complex storyline that was unfolding and the multi-faceted mystery that was being presented.

I love long-running stories that have clues and a mystery to solve, and Omega was a great example of that kind of storytelling; there was a real Laura Palmer-Twin Peaks vibe about the whole thing. Except with a superhero. The tagline of the book read: ENIGMA THE FIRST: the lone survivor of an alien world, a nameless man of somber, impassive visage, garbed utterly inappropriately in garish blue-and-red. ENIGMA THE SECOND: James-Michael Starling, age twelve, raised in near-isolation by parents who (he discovered on the day they “died”) were robots. ENIGMA THE THIRD: the link between the man and the boy, penetrating the depths of mind and body, causing each to question the very reality of self.

That was the caption that ran on the first page of each issue, and it sums up the ongoing mystery pretty well. But the real enigma of the book, as far as Omega and James-Michael were concerned, was the insanity of the human condition. The underlying engine that drove the stories was the need for both characters to, essentially, learn to be human, and the thing that made it interesting was how reluctant they were. They didn’t WANT to be human. As far as they could tell, being human meant being vulnerable and getting hurt. And who needs that?

It was an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking, the more so for being a mainstream Marvel book in the mid-70’s. Omega was set squarely in the Marvel Universe, he fought Nitro and the Hulk and Electro; but there was a distinctly un-superheroic take on it all. Both Omega and James-Michael lived in a Hell’s Kitchen quite a bit less noir and cool than Frank Miller’s. They had to deal with money issues and crappy plumbing and roaches… and in James-Michael’s case, a really vicious public school and social services system. Yet there were shining moments of nobility from the flawed humans around them, often followed by moments of surprising venality from the same people. Just like real life, in other words.

Jim Mooney was the artist on the book and he was damned near perfect, as far as I was concerned. He could handle whatever craziness Gerber and his co-writer Mary Skrenes could throw at him, and the regular Marvel characters all looked right on-model…. but at the same time the normal people all looked really, well, normal. It was sort of the anti-Kirby look, and it really fit the story in a way that you didn’t see all that often in those days.

The book was canceled abruptly in mid-storyline with #10, with a promise that the story would eventually conclude at some point down the road in The Defenders. Which was all very well but unfortunately, Steve Gerber left Defenders right around the same time and I think he left Marvel itself not too long after that. It took something like two and a half years before they stuck Steven Grant with finishing out the story in Defenders #76 and #77. He did a better job than he’s given credit for, but really when people complain about that conclusion I suspect that what they mean is simply that Gerber didn’t write it. I can understand that; nobody else could really write Omega quite like Steve Gerber, despite a couple of nice fill-ins during the original run by Scott Edelman and Roger Stern.

For that matter, nobody wrote the Defenders like Steve Gerber either, which made Steven Grant’s job doubly thankless.

Even more than today, a team book needed some kind of a hook, a raison d’etre. The Fantastic Four were a family. The Avengers were an official government-sanctioned organization. The X-Men were a school. Etc.

The Defenders’ hook was that they weren’t a team at all, at least not officially. They just happened to hang out from time to time when they needed to. They took a kind of reverse pride in it — “Yeah, okay, we’re the Defenders, but we’re not a TEAM.”

Gerber’s run paid lip service to that idea, but what he keyed in on and really made work was that the core group of Defenders — Dr. Strange, Nighthawk, Valkyrie, and the Hulk — were social outcasts. A couple of years later Chris Claremont would get the X-Men assignment and really milk the outcast thing, but the Defenders under Steve Gerber got there first and for my money did it better. Gerber’s Defenders weren’t feared and hated because they were mutants, but because on some personal level they were socially unacceptable. Nighthawk and Valkyrie were both reformed villains, Dr. Strange was a weird mystic, and the Hulk was, well, a monster. The thing that made this so brilliant was that Gerber played them like the weird kids in high school… the freaks and nerds that become friends in self-defense because no one else will have them. Valkyrie was the tomboyish girl that everyone thought was a lesbian. Nighthawk was the emotionally-damaged kid from the messed-up family that was always acting out self-destructively. The Hulk was the slow-witted kid with the anger-management problem that took a lot of patience and understanding to deal with. And Dr. Strange was the smart one that knew a lot of weird stuff, the one whose house they always hung out at because nobody wanted to go home. You just KNEW Strange had the coolest record collection EVER in that Greenwich Village pad. And Clea was sort of around too, not really one of the gang but she had an in because she was Stephen’s girlfriend.

You never get over your first.

My first issue of Defenders was #21, introducing the Headmen, and Gerber had my 13-year-old self at hello with the opening scenes of Valkyrie’s horrified realization that her former incarnation Barbara Norriss had a family, she was married… and Nighthawk storming off in a self-centered rage over how that ruined HIS shot. It was high school with superpeople, way more then the X-Men ever was. Plus lots of the usual pedal-to-the-metal Marvel action… Gerber was ambitious enough to want to tell stories about real people, but he was pro enough to get the superheroics and spectacle in too.

It was an irresistible combination, at least for me. I loved Gerber’s Defenders because they were like me and MY group of outcasts… except they were, you know, superheroes that saved the world, and my gang were just geeks that read a lot of SF and listened to bands no one ever heard of like Camel and the Rezillos. But we were brothers in spirit.

The Defenders under Steve Gerber were also forced to learn the hard way what it meant to be human, vulnerable, and hurt. There was lots of wacky trademark Gerber satire and weirdness, but always underlying it was some serious human pain. Nighthawk in particular really went through the wringer, with his girlfriend losing an arm to a car-bomb attack and his fortune being stolen out from under him to fund the hate group the Sons of the Serpent, before he was captured by the Headmen and had his brain removed, forcing him to spend months reliving his life’s mistakes in a sort of hallucination flashback, trapped in the ultimate sensory-deprivation tank in a nightmare he could never wake up from.

Scarier even than this cover lets on.

Valkyrie didn’t do much better, stalked and harassed by an ex-husband she had no memory of and no feelings for, before getting thrown into jail on a trumped-up charge and having to adapt to the vicious predatory environment of prison.

These stories all hit a theme that Steve Gerber comes back to again and again… the alienated loner that perceives the world more truly than the people around him can, but because of that becomes more vulnerable and endures more pain. I read a review somewhere of Hard Time that was busting Steve Gerber for using that theme, and I remember thinking at the time, Jeez, if you feel that way, why are you bothering to read a Steve Gerber book at all? Look at Howard the Duck and Man-Thing and Defenders and Omega… they’re all outsiders looking in. That’s what Steve Gerber does best. I think it was Stephen King that said that if you’re a lit’ry sort of writer you can get away with exploring the same theme from different angles, but if you do it in a pop culture outlet people will assume your head’s so empty it has an echo. The alienated-yet-empathetic loner idea is something Gerber came back to in not just in the books I’ve mentioned already, but also in an unlikely DC miniseries that will never ever be collected in trade, probably, but you really should hunt your back-issue bins for it — the Phantom Zone.

Weird but awesomely cool Superman!

This is a little overlooked treasure from the early 80’s, from the era that my friends and I always privately referred to as the Big Talent Swap — when suddenly everyone we knew from DC had huffed over to Marvel, and everyone who was a star at Marvel was suddenly kicking ass at DC, and both sides swearing they’d never had such creative freedom before. But it did give us a lot of really good comics and fresh takes on old stuff, and this one’s one of my favorites. Lots of patented Gerber surrealism as Superman tries to fight his way out of the Phantom Zone, and by the end of this four-issue mini things really get apocalyptic; the whole JLA shows up as General Zod and the other Zone criminals run amok. And of course, it’s a terrified regular guy named Charlie, swept up by events too big for him, that finds the way out of the Zone and saves Superman and everyone on Earth.

The art is amazing. Gene Colan is just about the last guy you’d ever expect to see working on Superman but it really works for this story. His Superman has actual mass, you can feel the impact when he shatters asteroids and smashes through walls. He does a nice Clark Kent too; in fact all the Planet scenes look great. Seriously, track this one down from one of the back issue dealers, because DC is too stuffy about continuity to ever collect it in trade, I think, and it’s great stuff. People should see it.

I could go on and on, but I don’t have to; blessedly, we live in a day and age where you can find damn near all of this (except Phantom Zone, get with it, DC) in paperback for cheap. Essential Defenders Volume 2 and Essential Man-Thing are finally on the schedule and you can bet I’ll be first in line. If you like good comics you’ll be right there with me, and in the meantime you might look for some of these others.

See you next week.

16 Comments

FunkyGreenJerusalem

August 5, 2006 at 1:03 am

You know Greg, I quite enjoy your friday columns, but man do they hurt my wallet.
First you kicked me into high gear on e-bay tracking down books from my youth (the boy from the 70’s gets better nostalgia reads than the boy from the 90’s it seems), and now I’ve got to go and add the Essential Defenders books to my list of things to get (I’m considering breaking my Marvel boycott for Essentail Nova and Moonknight so I may as well get Defenders while I’m at it).
Is Omega in trade?
May as well add that to the list, to keep me company as I spend the rest of the week eating 2min noodles, due to the amount of money you’ve cost me Mr.Hatcher.

Omega’s in trade, yes, at an absurdly high price for retail; but online you can do a little better. Try Amazon or InStock Trades.

The Gerber Defenders run is pretty much just in the upcoming volume two; the advance listing seems like it has to be wrong because it would not include the last two issues of the Headmen story and usually the editors of the Essential line are a lot better about not quitting in the middle of a story. I’d pay a couple of bucks extra to have it all right there.

My man plok has been orchestrating a multiple-blog-spanning retrospective of Gerber’s Marvel work at A Trout In The Milk and it’s well worth checking out for more in-depth examinations of individual series and issues. (And I hope this plug helps make amends for the essays I’ve promised him but have yet to deliver.)

Beyond that, I can only add “What you said, Greg! Total agreement!” I especially concur with the props to the massively underrated Phantom Zone miniseries. Gene Colan’s art works so much better than anyone would have any reason to anticipate. And not just for the scenes set in the actual Phantom Zone — by the time we reach the climax Supergirl, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman have seen major action against the escaped villains, and Colan does justice to each one. And the script — apart from anything else, this is Gerber expressing his inner fanboy in the best possible way, penning a love letter to the accumulated lore of the Silver Age Earth One Superman, incorporating stuff that had been established in prior stories over two or three decades and then turning it into a genuinely chilling story of menace. Those Phantom Zone criminals aren’t jokes: they’re vicious psychopaths, each of whom have all Superman’s powers. This story does the best job ever of depicting just how terrifying that would be.

I still remember picking up the whole Headmen story at 50 cents an issue back in the late 90s. The speculator boom had broken just a few years back, and every store was rapidly liquidating their inventory starting with the least fashionable stock. It seems like a strangely appropriate way to discover the genius of Gerber’s sustained run on the book. I nabbed Omega around the same time.

As to Steven Grant’s efforts, he was not only doubly but trebly handicapped, in that the writers after Gerber, starting with David Kraft but really picking up with the tail end of Ed Hannigan’s work, had tried to simultaneously retain the superficial feel of the comic’s surreality while regularizing the cast and the format of their adventures into a multiple-subplot 1970s team comic.

Grant inherited Defenders who didn’t chance upon or find themselves forced into adventures, but were being regularly approached by villains and heroes alike. Despite a nice reversal of expectations move in his story, I have to think the infinitely more, well, superhero-y tone the book had was what damaged the Omega conclusion he put together. Instead of a resolution in keeping with Omega’s logic, he had to write what amounted to a big fight scene followed by a “cosmic” revelation.

That said, yeah, he did a much better job with an impossible assignment than people give him credit for.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

August 5, 2006 at 11:57 pm

Are the Defenders worth reading before Gerber came on or should I just skip to volume two?

Funky said…“Are the Defenders worth reading before Gerber came on or should I just skip to volume two?”

Mileage varies. I like volume one just fine, but partly because it was all new to me except for the Avengers/Defenders War, which I’d already seen the TPB collecting.

However, Defenders volume one is nothing like what is described in the above column. It’s totally okay early 70’s Marvel heroics, it’s fun, but it’s from Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart and Len Wein and they are more interested in the ‘non-team’ idea. Though I think Wein was starting to realize that was kind of a lame hook and he better start building some real friendships among these people; he might have done something with it but he was only there for a couple of issues before Gerber came on.

But it was all standard Marvel bickering superteam stuff before Gerber. That was why Gerber’s run was such an amazing standout; without him I think the book would probably have stuttered to a halt somewhere around #30.

So, survey says: volume one is fun and worth a look. But if you just want Steve Gerber, then volume two is the one for you. In the meantime, there’s Essential Howard the Duck out there and the Defenders have a guest shot in that one, too.

I remember having the full Omega run during the 80s, and being bitterly dissapointed that I couldn’t find the conclusion. Good catch :)

FunkyGreenJerusalem

August 7, 2006 at 7:21 am

Greg Hatcher: “In the meantime, there’s Essential Howard the Duck out there and the Defenders have a guest shot in that one, too.”

Already brought it, read it and loved it.

The thing that I think Marvel is missing every time they try to do a Defenders revival is that the magic of the team was NOT Dr.Strange, Namor and the Hulk. It was Nighthawk, Valyrie, Hellcat, Gargoyle, Beast etc…

They aren’t all from Gerber’s run, but it was that era that led to these great characters.

A ‘team’ that was formed out of ‘big names’ was carried by the ‘small names’.

(Heck, I even like the 100-125 era: Beast, Moondragon, Angel, Cloud… though it did get kind of screed up at the end.)

Greg, this is just a wonderful retrospective on Gerber’s work at Marvel in the 70s. You’ve perfectly isolated the themes that seemed to drive so much of Gerber’s work — not only the outsider looking in, but the general comic/tragic insanity of the human condition.

I was lucky enough to read these stories when they were published, and I still recall them as some of the finest that have ever come from the Big Two. Marvel’s writers in particular during those days were trying to introduce concepts that hadn’t been included in mainstream comics. (Although DC was doing some of the same in the O’Neil/Adams Batman and Green Lantern.)

For those interested, I’d recommend the following from the same period: Gerber’s Man-Thing run, Steve Englehart on Captain America, The Avengers, and Dr. Strange; Don McGregor on Killraven and Black Panther.
(Check the Grand Comic Book Database at http://www.comics.org for specific issue numbers.)

Again, great article, Greg! You’ve got a new fan (and RSS subscriber).

Hi,
I was checking out Gerber’s blog, which I don’t do often enough, and it lead me here. I’ve always thought Gerber’s Defenders was one of the best comics every printed, with one of the most entertaining and surrealistic storylines/ sequences in the medium that I like to point out to newer fans both predates and outdoes anything in Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol (which got the press for ‘introducing surrealism to comics’!). Perhaps the two most repeated ‘bits’ I recount to the uninformed are when Howard the Duck is possessed by the Son of Satan (“It’s two. It’s two. It’s two ducks in one.”) and when the sorcerer in the Headman (his name escapes me) is trapped in deer’s body in Dr. Strange’s home and he’s fuming while watching the Defenders meet his allies because he can’t perform any spells — he doesn’t have any hands to perform the incantations. I also loved the Phantom Zone book. It is a perfect mini and I thought the Colan/Dezuniga art team really worked. Also, I thought your analysis of the team in terms of high school dynamics was quite insightful.

I find it hard to believe that Gerber’s run as writer of The Defenders isn’t universally revered as one of the greatest comics every made. I also loved several things not mentioned here, with Nevada being a huge personal favourite, and I REALLY wish he’d had the chance to finish Void Indigo.

I actually buy every Steve Gerber comic I can find, but the Phantom Zone has so far eluded me…

Huh. The Steve Gerber Wikipedia article links here. Neat.

I followed an old link to this article and have to agree… the sheer, before his time genius of Steve Gerber was something that kept me hooked for years… I remember collecting Man-Thing, HTD, Defenders, for several years there I’d pick up any thing that boasted Gerber’s writing… and still consider him the best I’ve ever read.

Thanks for a wonderful review of a woefully underappreciated author. :D

I know I’m late to the party, but…

Gerber was awesome, the Headmen saga (with its great starts and stops) could be the best Defenders tale ever (though the shorter and more emotionally satisfying Scorpio saga is probably my favorite), and as the 70s came to a close Gerber’s exit from Marvel was the primary symptom of a general drop in excitement in the “universe”.

Besides the inability to wrap up the Omega saga, we were left with another writer to resolve the murderous Elf sub-plot. And no one used the Hulk in a group setting better.

I’d dig out all my old issue, but thanks for info on the trades, I’ll have to revisit these that way!

Percival Constantine

January 4, 2009 at 6:32 pm

I’ve been reading the Defenders back-issues recently. Right now I’m on Kraft’s run and I am not enjoying it at all compared to the genius that was Gerber. Whereas Gerber captured the whole non-team outsiders thing with a good dose of zaniness, Kraft seems to just be doing straight-up superheroics and that doesn’t interest me that much. I’ll read the Avengers for that, with Defenders I want something different.

Seeing how much Morrison is obviously a successor to Gerber, nothing would please me more than to see Morrison and Marvel patch things up and have him write the Defenders. It’d be like a mix of Doom Patrol and Seven Soldiers.

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