Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Steve Gerber: Music

Occasionally, a comic book will contain a reference to a singer or musical group, or a character might sing a line from a popular song, but when it comes to Steve Gerber, "occasionally" doesn't apply.  The comics he's written throughout his career contain numerous references to music.  As Gerber tells it, his most famous creation, Howard the Duck, came to him during a trance-like state brought on by a neighbour's salsa music, pounding incessantly while he was at his typewriter plotting FEAR #19, which was to feature the duck's first appearance.

Things were obviously looking up for DD when he sang this pleasant tune from the Beatles' Revolver album.  From DAREDEVIL #56 (September 1969).

Musically, Gerber was stuck in the 1960s, a decade when he was in his teens and early 20s, and a lot of the lyrics of that generation's music never lost their relevance for him.  "People have asked me what the major influences on my work have been," said Gerber, "and it's the tone of the late '60s rock music...that's what I'm interested in conveying in comic books."

He often cited the Beatles in particular as a big influence.  "I think my sense of rhythm and words derives as much from the Beatles as it does from any of the writers I've ever read."  But it was more than just the Beatles' music itself that inspired his work: "The way they approached their art -- as a living, growing, ever-evolving, ever-changing endeavor -- has been the way I’ve chosen to approach my work as a writer." 

There were others, of course: "...early Stones, early Dylan, Frank Zappa, the Fugs, Simon & Garfunkel, a lot of early rock and roll, early Motown and Stax/Volt soul, some jazz."

While attending St. Louis University in the 1960s, Gerber worked as a disc jockey on KBIL (later KSLU), a student-run radio station which served as a training ground for a career in broadcasting, something he'd been considering.  Instead, he found himself writing advertising copy, the spurious claims eating away at his soul.

In 1972 Roy Thomas was able to put Gerber out of his misery by getting him a job at Marvel Comics.  Gerber, a comic book fan since childhood (he'd launched his own fanzine, HEADLINE, at the age of 14), had known Roy long before he'd started working for Marvel in 1965.

An extreme case of road rage, from FEAR #14 (June 1973).

Gerber's first regular writing assignment was ADVENTURE INTO FEAR, which featured a swamp creature known as the Man-Thing.  The monster was incapable of speech -- in fact, had no intellect at all -- motivated solely by the emotions of others.  It quickly became evident that Gerber had a penchant for satire and social commentary, and the Man-Thing became a catalyst for human interest stories.

Gerber's obsession with Superman resulted in a parody, Wundarr, who made his first appearance in FEAR #17 (October 1973).  As you can see by the credits, Credence Clearwater Revival also inspired the near-litigious character.

Gerber's tales also became increasingly bizarre.  In FEAR #19 (December 1973), a sword-wielding barbarian named Korrek emerged from a jar of peanut butter, and then readers were introduced to a talking duck, who would soon become famous.

Howard the Duck, spawn of evil salsa music, makes a dramatic entrance in FEAR #19 (December 1973).

After that issue, the monster received his own title, and MAN-THING #2 introduced a hapless character named Richard Rory, one of Steve Gerber's alter egos.  Rory was named after "Richard Cory", an old Simon and Garfunkel tune.  The record happened to be playing on the stereo when Gerber needed a name for his character.

In MAN-THING #7 (July 1974) Rory gets a job at a radio station in Citrusville, Florida.  The station's call letters, WNRV, was a reference to Gerber's self-published high school humour magazine, Nerve.  The job didn't last long: Rory was fired in issue #18 (June 1975).

According to the next panel, "a more apropos selection might have been 'Bad Moon Rising'..."  Indeed, things were heating up in Cirtrusville.  For instance, there were book-burnings, and a mad viking on the loose, burying his axe in "sissies, hippies, cowards"...and anyone else that didn't live up to his standards of manhood.  From MAN-THING #17 (May 1975).

The Foolkiller, a decidedly demented character (Gerber's antagonists are never villains in the classic sense), was introduced in MAN-THING #3 (March 1974).  Gerber says the Foolkiller was inspired by "Return of the Son of Monster Magnet", an experimental piece of music from Frank Zappa's first album, FREAK OUT! (1966).

In "Song-Cry...of the Living Dead Man" (MAN-THING #12, December 1974), a young lady named Sybil Mills gives shelter to Brian Lazarus, found stumbling around in a rain storm.  It turns out Lazarus is a writer who's lost his mind.  Like Gerber, he had been a copywriter for an ad agency.  "Tap your toe to this," wrote Lazarus:

"Put muh wallet in muh pocket -- yeah, yeah.
Put muh keys in muh pocket -- yeah, yeah.
Put muh change in muh pocket -- yeah, yeah.
Take muh eyes from da sockets -- umh, yeah!"

from MAN-THING #12 (December 1974)

In "A Candle For Sainte-Cloud", the young lady pertaining to the title recalls 1967, when she was just a 17-year-old hippie girl.  She'd met military scientist Ted Sallis, years before one of his own experiments turned him into the Man-Thing.  Though political opposites, the two are attracted to each other, and, despite their considerable age difference, it isn't long before Ted hints at marriage, with disastrous results.  Cloud leaves him.

The wick of this Man-Thing candle was laced with a hallucinogenic drug.  The above panel, and the two which follow, are from MAN-THING #15 (March 1975).

1975: Cloud spurning her neighbour's advances.

1967: It seems the Lovin' Spoonful was responsible for Ted Sallis' rash decision to tie the knot.

Rock musician Eugene "Star" Spangler got his 15 minutes of fame in MAN-THING #16 (April 1975), before succumbing to a battle axe in the chest, courtesy of the Mad Viking.

The lyrics to one of Spangler's songs, "Star Bed", are given on the first page:

"Well, c'mon, let's you 'n' me die, babe.
Don'tcha know it's the only way ta fly, babe?
Under the earth, I find what you're worth,
Makin' love in a cradle in the sky, babe."

This glam rock star is soon to meet his worst critic: a viking!  From MAN-THING #16 (April 1975).

The crowd thrives on their idol's decadence, and are saddened when he announces that he'd be going into seclusion for a year to compose his magnum opus.

Said Gerber, "The whole thing with Bowie in that particular story was just this kind of 'Gee, look at me, I'm decadent.'  That's why I did the story, essentially, to kind of do somebody who carried that act over into real life."

Star Spangler comes up with some lyrics while rolling around in the mud.  From MAN-THING #16.

Gerber took over the writing chores on DAREDEVIL, starting with #97 (March 1973).  Three issues later the blind superhero met Jann Wenner at the offices of Rolling Stone magazine, where he's interviewed.  Neither Gerber nor artist Gene Colan knew what Wenner looked like, so Colan drew him according to what Gerber "thought he should look like", based on what he'd read of his writing.

Being that he's blind, Daredevil doesn't realise that this guy looks nothing like Jann Wenner.  From DAREDEVIL #100 (June 1973).

These elite gentleman were discussing music and wondered what Matt Murdoch's favourite opera might be.  Harumph!  From DAREDEVIL #104 (October 1973).

Another early assignment for Gerber was TALES OF THE ZOMBIE, part of Marvel's black and white line of horror magazines.  The zombie of the title was Simon Garth, who, in his former life as someone who was living, was a wealthy coffee baron.  His secretary, Layla, was still in love with the tall, decaying corpse.  And Gerber was now writing the adventures of two characters who couldn't speak, and one who couldn't see!

The Zombie is compelled to do the bidding of anyone who possesses the charmed medallion designed to compliment the one around his neck.  Unfortunately, it fell into the hands of these thrill-seeking dolts, who use it to humiliate poor Simon.  From TALES OF THE ZOMBIE #8 (September 1974).

Gerber found a more proper outlet for his humorous side with Marvel's SPOOF comic, which debuted in 1970 (though it would be over two years before the second issue came out).  In the 3rd issue, Gerber, with old friend Bruce Carlin, wrote a parody of the Partridge Family and poked fun at teen idols and manufactured groups.  In "What If...Famous People Were Santa Claus?" (SPOOF #4), Gerber, who appears throughout the story, interviews John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

You know you've made it when your records can be cut out of the backs of cereal boxes.  From SPOOF #3 (January 1973).

Being that he's blind, Daredevil doesn't realise that this guy looks nothing like Steve Gerber.  From SPOOF #4 (March 1973).

Gerber enjoyed a brief stint on MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE.  Here, in "Death-Song of Destiny" (#6, November 1974), a young girl plays a haunting tune on the harmonica -- before some creep pushes her in front of a subway train, where she explodes in a shower of colourful sparks.  Nothing is ever what it seems in a Gerber comic.

It's hard to play a harmonica when your lips are made of rock.  From MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE #7 (January 1975).

SPOOF was cancelled after the 5th issue, but Marvel replaced it with an infinitely superior humour magazine, CRAZY, part of their black and white line.  CRAZY was the perfect vehicle for Gerber's particular brand of insanity.  MAD magazine tried to make sense of the world through satire, whereas CRAZY descended into madness, unable to cope with the world.  It wasn't long before Gerber took over as editor.

In CRAZY #3 (March 1974), Gerber parodied ROLLING STONE magazine, with articles on fictitious artists and reviews of fictitious records, such as Paulette Goddard, a rock band whose song, "Hungry Means Never Having To Vomit", was at the top of the charts; and Flea & Tick, with a sampling of lyrics from their single, "I Don't Love You Since You Ate My Dog":

"There is a bridge across the junk heap
I built it with my brother
Three guys came and spit on it
And I spit on my brother
We built another bridge that day
Across a farm."

Gerber even scoffed at his own comics when it's mentioned that one of the songs on Voodoo Kisser, an album by a macabre group called Plague, begins with a shrill scream "exactly halfway between the pitch of Johnny Weismeuller's [sic] famed Tarzan yell and the Women's Liberation rhetoric of Shanna the She-Devil".

Record reviews, from Gerber's Rolling Stone parody in CRAZY #3 (March 1974), his first appearance in that mag.

Making fun of Tom Laughlin's sanctimonious character; sung to the tune, "One Tin Soldier", used in the 1971 movie, BILLY JACK.  The song was originally a 1969 hit for a Canadian band called the Original Caste.

Ad parody.  From CRAZY #8 (December 1974).

In Gerber's articles, stories, and magazine parodies for CRAZY, somebody, somewhere, was always singing or playing a song.  There was Isabelle Pogorny singing "Embraceable You" (CRAZY #4, May 1974); Igwana O'Gawannee crooning her hit, "Why Don't We Do It In The Pigeon", an obvious reference to "Why Don't We Do It In The Road" from the Beatles' White Album (CRAZY #7, October 1974); A muzak version of "Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Old Barcalounger" is playing in a McRonald's restaurant in the story "My Boyfriend Was A Flagellist Monk" (CRAZY #8, December 1974); Avery Hardheart and the Plasticussion are set to release a new record, "We're Wonderful And You're Dirt":

"I stand on the mountain,
Lookin' down on you,
Lookin' down on you,
Lookin' down on you"

(CRAZY #9, February 1975); and Theodora Yoxymosh playing "Nearer My Crawlspace To Thee" on her pipe organ (CRAZY #10, April 1975).

Gerber mentions Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Brian Jones in his rather morose, lengthy tale of a suicide pact, "And The Birds Hummed Dirges" in CRAZY #14 (November 1975); quotes Johnny Rivers ("Beware of pretty faces that you find / A pretty face may hide an evil mind") from "Secret Agent Man" in the same issue; and paraphrases Paul Simon ("And so you see I have come to doubt all that I once held as true") in CRAZY #9.

According to the contents page of this issue of Man, Myrth & Magic, the cover picture is titled "Mime Dance of the Young Pumpkin", a reference to "Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin", an instrumental piece from the Mothers of Invention's ABSOLUTELY FREE (1967).

It wouldn't take a Beatles fan 60 days to figure out that the title of the Son of Satan story for MARVEL SPOTLIGHT #16 (July 1974) is a reference to a line from "A Day in the Life", from SGT. PEPPER (1967): "four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire".  From MARVEL SPOTLIGHT #15 (May 1974)

Trailer park troubadour Tom Pritchett is about to get shot by an elf with a gun, who possibly mistook him for John Denver.  The homicidal homunculus first appeared here, in DEFENDERS #25 (July 1975).

It's hard to believe that Bill Haley will still be remembered a thousand years from now.  From MARVEL PRESENTS #9 (February 1977).

Some of the titles of Gerber's stories alluded to songs: "Hands Across the Water, Hands Across the Sky", from Paul McCartney's Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey (SUB-MARINER #58, February 1973); "Vengeance in the Sky With Diamonds" (DAREDEVIL #101, July 1973); "Silent Night, Deadly Night" (MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE #8, March 1975); "Breaking Up is Death To Do" (MARVEL PRESENTS #9, February 1977); "School's Out" (MAN-THING #18, June 1975), which begins with a mob of book-burners singing the old hymn, "Onward, Christian Soldiers"; "Bring Back My Body To Me, To Me" (DEFENDERS #35, May 1976); also, "50 Million Bozeaux Can't Be Wrong", the title of a chapter from DEFENDERS ANNUAL #1 (1976), is taken from the greatest hits album, 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong (1959).

OMEGA THE UNKNOWN was one of the greatest comic books of all time, from writers Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes, and artist Jim Mooney.  It's incredible that it was ever even published, considering how violent and gritty it was.  The story was never properly finished, as the comic was cancelled after ten issues.  As with "Edwin Drood", it'll remain a mystery forever.  Here's some folks having a grand old time in a greasy spoon.  One of them is about to get beaten to death with a pipe wrench.  From OMEGA THE UNKNOWN #6 (January 1977).

After making only four appearances in the Man-Thing books, fans of Howard the Duck clamoured for more -- and they were rewarded.  The first issue of HOWARD THE DUCK hit the stands late in 1975, and quickly sold out, mostly to speculators who bought them by the stack.

Arthur Winslow has only one request of the space turnip controlling him: that his life be accompanied by a soundtrack!  From HOWARD THE DUCK #2 (March 1976).

Beverly Switzler singing the 1960 Barrett Strong hit, "Money (That's What I Want)".  Howard blew that quarter she found on a Quackie Duck comic book.

While hitch-hiking (#6, December 1976), Howard and his companion Beverly Switzler are picked up by a country-and-western star named Dreyfuss Gultch, on his way to New York to sing the national anthem at the All-Night Party's National Convention.  He's able to find employment for the strange pair, and Howard soon finds himself elected as the party's official -- if reluctant -- candidate.  On the issue of a Beatles reunion, Howard responded, "I say fiddle-faddle to the critics who think the four mop tops can never live up to their public's expectations.  It's an artist's duty to extend his audience's expectations, not merely fulfill them."

Sitting Bullseye sings "Oh! Susanna" while some of the sorriest supervillains ever to disgrace the pages of a comic book roast marshmallows.  From the HOWARD THE DUCK TREASURY EDITION (1976).  It's possible Gerber got the title from a whacked-out Mamie van Doren movie called "Three Nuts in Search of a Bolt" (1964).

A Hare Krishna chanting nonsense from the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" (1967), while Howard punches the Kidney Lady in the face.  It was a bus ride from hell, but one good thing came of it: Howard met the lisping Winda Wester (whose real name may or may not be Linda Lester).  From HOWARD THE DUCK #11 (April 1977).

Howard finally loses his mind and ends up at the Sauerbraten County Mental Facility, an insane asylum, along with Winda, who insists that she's possessed by the devil, and her mind conjures up demons that look just like the rock band KISS.  Daimon Hellstrom, an exorcist, assures everyone that the visions were a psychic phenomenon, unlikely to occur again.

If it looks like a superhero and quacks like a superhero, put them in a comic book.  From HOWARD THE DUCK #12 (May 1977).

He was wrong.  KISS was to appear in their own comic book a few months later in the first issue of MARVEL SUPER SPECIAL (1977), which was conceived, edited and written by Gerber.

Prior to his involvement with KISS, Gerber hadn't "heard so much as a note of their music, or even seen their costumes and painted faces."  He felt some reservations, felt that, at the age of 29, he was too old to get involved: "Strictly Beatles generation.  Aversion to over-loud music in general and heavy-metal in particular.  ('It all sounds alike!'  A sure sign of encroaching senility.)  Haven't been to a rock concert in years.  Album purchases on the decline."  The magazine was an enormous success.  It sold out immediately and had to go into a second printing.

Gerber only had to put his sweat and tears into producing this mag; KISS put their blood into it.

That's not KISS performing on this cruise ship -- it's just a lounge band.  From HOWARD THE DUCK #15 (August 1977).

There's a reason Paul Same is mentioning Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" (1966): boulders just inexplicably fell from the sky.  Also from HOWARD THE DUCK #15.

Howard's arch enemy was Doctor Bong, who wore a bell over his head, and whose hand was replaced with a clapper the size of a soccer ball.  For Howard, he was just another annoyance in his life.

Lester Verde: before he became Doctor Bong he tried his hand at rock journalism.  Here he joins Mildred Horowitz and His Band on stage.  From HOWARD THE DUCK #17 (October 1977).

Mildred Horowitz and His Band return in HOWARD THE DUCK #21 (February 1978).  Carmine Infantino was a great comic book artist, but someone should have told him that it's unusual for a heavy metal band to include a saxophone, and drums played with timpani sticks.

Howard the Human gazing at his former self in the mirror, recalling the old Gene Pitney tune.  From HOWARD THE DUCK #19 (December 1977).

In this and the next two panels Beverly and Winda ad-lib the lyrics to "Lullaby of Broadway" after a carpet flies them all the way to Bagmom.  Original Howard the Duck artist Val Mayerik returned for the duck's one and only annual (1977).

This is just the beginning of HOWARD THE DUCK #22 (March 1978).  It was about to become a harder day's night.

A drunk slurring a Band tune and slobbering all over Winda Wester.  From HOWARD THE DUCK #26 (July 1978).

The '70s was awash with brain-washing cults and self-help gurus.  Pop Syke (get it?) was just as sincere as any of them.  Sunday funnies are supposed to be in colour -- and they're supposed to be published on Sunday.  Waaaugh!  From the HOWARD THE DUCK newspaper strip, July 10, 1977.

Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin teamed up for this Man-Thing story in RAMPAGING HULK #7 (February 1978), just for old times sake.  They'd done one other Man-Thing story together, but that was way back in FEAR #12 (February 1973).

Some weirdo called the Manipulator is living up to his namesake.  From THE AVENGERS #178 (December 1978).

And here the Beast is singing his own version of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby", from REVOLVER (1966).

Trouble arose when Gerber was fired from the HOWARD THE DUCK newspaper strip.  According to Denny Allen, president of the Register and Tribune Syndicate, Gerber's tardiness was resulting in numerous cancellations.  "I normally get a strip in 10 weeks before publication.  Gerber's came in on Thursday before the Monday it was supposed to hit the stands."  When Gerber threatened to sue Marvel over ownership of Howard, he was fired completely.  Years of litigation followed.

Gerber had much to say about the Me Generation and the vapidness of disco in "Death By Disco", a Lilith story which appeared in MARVEL PREVIEW #16 (Fall 1978).  Gerber had already been fired, but he still owed Marvel "20 or so pages", he told THE COMICS JOURNAL in 1978.  22 to be exact.

Gerber teamed with Gene Colan once again for STEWART THE RAT (1980), published by Eclipse.  Molecular biologist/nerd Stewart Dropp finds himself transformed into a talking rat.  Unfortunately, there wasn't much difference between this graphic novel and any number of issues of HOWARD THE DUCK.  But it did have a dancing zombie with a speaker embedded in its chest, from which disco music blared at a great volume.

Numerous familiar songs were represented, sometimes in parody, and only in bits: "Stayin' Alive", "You Should Be Dancing" and "Jive Talkin'" by the Bee Gees; "Boogie Fever" by the Sylvers; "Shake Your Booty" and "That's the Way (I Like It)" by KC and the Sunshine Band.

To help raise money and support for his case, Gerber enlisted the help of Jack Kirby for the excellent DESTROYER DUCK comic book, also published by Eclipse.

The Shirley Temple-ish Vanilla Cupcake sings her signature tune for Ronnie in DESTROYER DUCK #4 (October 1983).

Eventually, the case was settled out of court in a non-disclosure agreement and Gerber began working for Marvel again.  He teamed up with Val Mayerik for a graphic novel called VOID INDIGO.  A subsequent comic book series was cancelled after only two issues.  Gerber's comic book output during the 1980s was very little, though he managed to find lots of work in animation.

Believe it or not, this alien changed his name from Jhagur to Mick Jagger ("Michael Jagger" on his fake ID).  From VOID INDIGO #1 (November 1984).

Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind".  From VOID INDIGO #1.

"I Think We're Alone Now" (1967) by Tommy James and the Shondells.  From VOID INDIGO #2 (March 1985).

Colonel Sanders runs amok.  From SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK #11 (January 1990).

She-Hulk, Howard the Duck and friends fly through Don't-Worry-Be-Happyverse, where the 1988 Bobby McFerrin hit plays constantly, despite the fact that it seems to be Ragnarok.  From SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK #17 (July 1990).

HOWARD THE DUCK #16 (September 1977) -- a comic book that wasn't a comic book, by any stretch of the imagination -- contained a two-page spread featuring an ostrich and a showgirl.  Mail poured in about that notorious issue, some demanding more of the ostrich and his female companion, as though a similar concept didn't already exist.  The requests continued, if only occasionally, until Gerber acquiesced and came up with NEVADA, a six-part mini-series for DC.

Nevada sings "She Said, She Said" from the Beatles' REVOLVER (1966), while jogging with her pet ostrich, Bolero.  From NEVADA #1 (May 1998).

Much later in the same issue Nevada is still singing "She Said".

Nevada performs the amusing "Ballad of Osiris".  From NEVADA #1.

Obviously a Beatles fan, Nevada sings "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" from the White Album.  From NEVADA #2 (June 1998).

It wouldn't be a Gerber comic if things didn't keep getting weirder.  Here the (what ever that thing is) is mixing lyrics from songs, including the Beatles' "Yer Blues", the McCoys' "Hang On Sloopy", and the Who's "My Generation".  On the next page, "it" breaks into Whitney Houston's song, "I Will Always Love You", which Gerber obviously found annoying.  From NEVADA #4 (August 1998).

Gerber eviscerates the "Backdoor Boys".  From HOWARD THE DUCK Vol. 2, #1 (March 2002).

Howard is losing his mind, as usual.  Here he starts singing a Ramen noodles song.  From HOWARD THE DUCK Vol. 2, #3 (April 2002, though it should probably read "May").


Cease said...

That's pretty great! I didn't realize just how much music played a part in Gerber's writing- best exemplified by the Howard the Duck True Origin!
Did I miss the Yellow Submarine reference from SUBMARINER? It's quite late!
They were a rock and roll lovin' generation of Marvel writers. It's funny to think, at 29, Gerber felt too out of touch with new rock; without the teens in my life, however, I don't know that I'd be doing any better!
Never enough Gerber commentary and thanks!

Jason Atomic said...

Great article! Really enjoyed it, this is something that caught my attention reading Gerber comics too so I thought I should mention the great Doors reference in his Defenders 15 or 16 I think.. where he has Magneto quote Jim Morrison “we want the world and we want it now!”

Richard Beland said...

Thanks, Jason. But Gerber didn't start writing THE DEFENDERS until issue #20. Maybe it was Len Wein.