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Meta-Messages – Jim Shooter’s “Secret War” on Steve Gerber

In this feature I explore the context behind (using reader danjack’s term) “meta-messages.” A meta-message is where a comic book creator comments on/references the work of another comic book/comic book creator (or sometimes even themselves) in their comic. Each time around, I’ll give you the context behind one such “meta-message.” Here is an archive of the past installments!

Today we take a look at Jim Shooter (himself the “victim” of the previous Meta-Message) taking on then-former Marvel writer Steve Gerber in the pages of Secret Wars II.

To set up the issue, Steve Gerber left Marvel in the late 1970s over a dispute over Gerber’s creation, Howard the Duck. Upon leaving Marvel, Gerber gave a famous interview to the Comics Journal where, besides airing his grievances with Marvel, he talked a lot about the “deterioration of culture” and explained how much he didn’t like certain depictions of violence in cartoons and comics, noting:

The problem with many comic books and with much of children’s television is that the effects of violence are rarely presented honestly. The buildings the Hulk would tear up were always abandoned warehouses; Spidey and Doc Ock can punch each other in the face for 38 consecutive panels and neither gets a nosebleed. An impressionable child might be misled to believe that punching, kicking and maiming were all good clean fun — and that he or she could get away with it, that the violence would have no ramifications, that no one would really get hurt, least of all himself Prettied-up violence is, to my mind, the most vile of all.

In the 1980s, Gerber became a very successful writer and producer for animated children’s cartoons, and Gerber’s most popular works, Thundarr the Barbarian and G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, certainly seemed to bear a resemblance to the types of cartoons he described above. All the while, he continued to publicly take issue with Marvel frequently.

Therefore, perhaps in response to Gerber’s complaints about them, in Secret Wars II #1 in 1985 (RIGHT before Gerber actually went back to work for Marvel), Jim Shooter, Al Milgrom and Steve Leialoha introduced a character known as Thundersword who is clearly just an extended parody of early 1980s Steve Gerber…

Besides Thundersword having a similar name to Thundarr, Thundarr also had a lightning sword…


The rest of the issue just chooses to point out hypocrisies in Gadwall’s behavior (he commits violence while denouncing violence. He vows to be a liberal while acting quite un-liberal, etc.)…

Gerber, to his credit, later said that he enjoyed the issue.

NOTE: I am well aware that both Gerber and Shooter were involved in other similar meta-messages. Please do NOT discuss these other meta-messages in the comments. If you really want to share them, you can e-mail them to me at bcronin@comicbookresources.com. Thanks!


Proof positive that Jim Shooter was a tosser with no idea who Steve Gerber was and what he thought.

“I destroyed the places I worked” takes on a whole new meaning!

Having read this at age 12 (issue thirty-something of the British reprint version, in magazine format), naturally I had no idea that the character was anything more than a new super-villain. I do remember that I really liked his costume and sword (ah, the 80s and taste levels).

I also really loved the issue because it had the New Mutants (my favorite characters) alongside the Avengers and the X-Men – thus one-upping the original “Secret Wars”.

I remember a period when I didn’t like Al Milgrom’s pencils, but I have to say the story-telling skills here are excellent. The flow of the action is great and everything is extremely clear.

Am I the only one who sees Thundersword also looking like a Weaponer of Qward from DC?

“Blast it!” is one of those comic book-isms that nobody ever says in real life.

Comics sure were wordier back then, huh? That’s a ton of dialogue.

Also, I remember how disappointed I was that Byrne didn’t do the art on the book after seeing that gorgeous cover to the first issue.

Cute Michael Jackson cameo.

I too love this costume. And the horse. We need more flying horses in comics.

It may be because I’m super sick right now and correspondingly crabby, but this one irks me. I’ve enjoyed some of Shooter’s writing (not this series, which was terrible, but some of his earlier stuff), and I get why he’d take umbrage in his capacity as The Man, but (a) Gerber was 100 times the writer Shooter was, and (b) it’s not satire when you’re doing it from a position of power.

But yeah, he really does look almost exactly like a Weaponer of Qward.

Gerber expressed the same sentiment in Howard the Duck, through an interview wtih Howard during his presidential campaign; that Howard was okay with violence in media as long as the consequences were also displayed.

And I wasn’t aware that Colossus was a fan of McDonalds, though since Russia didn’t have a McDonalds until 1990 it must have been incredibly exotic for the young Peter Rasputin.

I have to admit, I’m a huge Steve Gerber fan but this still tickled my funnybone. The thing is that one could attack Shooter for being so un-subtle, but Gerber’s own satire in Howard the Duck or Captain America was equally over-the-top.

I like how he made his first name “Stewart” since Gerber created “Stewart the Rat” with Gene Colan as his own version of Howard the Duck after he left Marvel.

One Saturday I went to the magazine store at the mall, and there were no new Transformer or GI Joe comics, and I almost picked up some Dreadstar (from the house ads I decided that would be my back up if Joe and Transformers were sold out if there were no new issues), but Secret Wars II really caught my eye, and I bought 1 and 2 (leaving 3 on the shelf for a week or two). Been reading super heroes ever since.

As for the parody, I have no problem with it, and would have never known about it if I had not read about it hear and earlier columns.

Maybe I should be bothered by the satire, but I dunno… Shooter receives so much IMO underserved flak, Gerber is not always a subtle guy himself, and Thundersword is above all a failure. Sum the three factors and I just can’t care too much.

Considering Gerber’s willingness to satirize himself in the form of characters like Richard Rory and the Kurt Gerhard version of the Foolkiller, I can’t imagine he was especially bothered by this except insofar as it reflected Shooter trivializing his existing complaints about Marvel.

Thundersword turned up shortly after this in Iron Man v.1 #197, where Denny O’Neil wrote him as less specifically Gerberesque in his disgruntlement; outside of muttering about “banal” writing and “mediocrtity,” he mostly talks like a supervillain. Thundersword vanishes in the Pacific Ocean at the end of that issue, and he never came back. I think we can all breathe a sigh of indifference to that.

@buttler- Gerber himself made fun of Don McGregor in Howard the Duck with a delusional security guard, so he has no right to complain when Shooter did the same to him. (And to his credit, he didn’t.)

I think there’s a difference between two writers taking meta-potshots at each other and the editor-in-chief of a comics company doing it. It’s definitely pettier.

Did Magneto just call Rogue “Rachel”? Is that a thing I somehow missed, or did someone accidentally color skunk-hair on someone else?

The only thing that stands out as “odd” to me is the inclusion of the Gerber character’s girlfriend. That seems low. And then it gets creepy and strange when she is suddenly and for no reason just “asleep.”

Speaking of Gerber and Thundarr, was the character Korrek that Gerber created for Marvel in the 70’s the prototype for Thundarr?


Steve Gerber seems to have been one of those types who thinks that “philosophy” was a substitute for a little thing called “neurology” when it came to understanding human behavior. His statements about media influence on behavior — that of children’s or otherwise — are unscientific, stubborn, delusional, and willfully ignorant. The same kind of garbage thinking that led to Seduction of the Innocent and the CCA.

I remember reading this issue and not knowing what that was all about. And now, all these years later, I know. Thanks, Brian.

It’s strange, because “Gerber” here makes one argument that I am all in favor of. I never understood why it is alright to show lots of violence in media, as long as you don’t show the realistic results of violence. My own theory is that it is just laziness and people gaming the system to escape censorship, nothing more sinister than that.

All those censors needed to have some “objective” parameters to base their censorship, so they used the presence of blood, and things like that, as a shorthand. ‘We forbid them to depict blood, I suppose things won’t get too violent without blood.” And then you have characters beating each other with blunt weapons all day long, and that is totally allowed, so go for it, lots of cartoon characters with sticks, maces, laser guns, and other non-puncturing weapons, all very “pacifist”.

Citing “Neurology” as a measure of human behavior is as unscientific as you can get. Neurological models of the brain are nascent and simplistic, with barely any data to back them up. They are just the best explanation we have right now, and it isn’t even applicable is predicting complex human behavior.

Considering you didn’t even bother to read the quote properly, seeing that you equate his message to Fredrick Wertham’s, I’d say we already have more data supporting Gerber’s hypothesis than the Circuit-model of the brain.

@Mudassir —

As an actual medical professional there are several things I could respond to that comment with, but since most of them would get deleted by the mods I’ll just keep it simple and say you are making scientifically baseless claims.

I always thought SWII was THE worst mini-series ever done, bar none. Absolute garbage…

I seriously doubt Korrek was the inspiration for Thundarr. They’re both stock barbarian types, though Thundarr is a post-apocalyptic version.

But isn’t Shooter kinda right to point out the hypocrisy? I mean the quote above PERFECTLY describes GI Joe. An army battle show with thousands and thousands of “laser shots” where no one is ever hit or killed? I mean, really, do as I say, not as I do…?

On the subject of real world violence versus fictional : Comic books and cartoons like GI:Joe show some action oriented violence to please little kids (mostly boys) but to make it gory or realistic would have parents chomping at the bits.

given the way marvel and steve were getting a long right before they parted ways over howard the duck. nice to see steve had a sense of humor over jim taking some shots at him as thundersword

I wouldn’t say that it looks like Korrek “inspired” Thundarr so much as it looks like Gerber had a desire to play around with a barbarian character and sort of tested it with Korrek. The archetypes that show up in all the Korrek stories match up quite well with Thundarr’s crew, though: young beautiful sorceress that often speaks in grand pronouncements Jennifer Kale becomes young beautiful sorceress that often speaks in grand pronouncements Princess Ariel, and the large, silent physically unstoppable brute Man-Thing becomes large, silent physically unstoppable brute Ookla.

I suppose the people to ask if there was a connection would be Mark Evanier and Marty Pasko.

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