Steve Gerber, Creator of Howard the Duck and Much More

June 29, 2007

     Remember Howard the Duck, that sassy, slightly obscene, hilarious bird from outer space?

    He landed in Marvel Comic Book's Fear: Man-Thing horror series, and then took over, earning a series for creator/writer Steve Gerber and artists Frank Brunner and Gene Colan. Aside from the spicy humour and zinging satire, one of the greatest accomplishments of Howard the Duck was to shine a spotlight on the issue of creative ownership. Publishers prefer to hold all rights, but shouldn't the creators have possession of their work? Steve Gerber's attempt to hold onto what he considered his property laid the groundwork for new rights of cartoonists in all genres of the art.

     Howard the Duck made his cigar-chomping comic book debut in 1973, having dropped in from Duckworld, another dimension in space. Immediately popular with adult readers, Howard's comics franchise started in 1975, spoofing other comics and, well.. any available target. How can you not laugh at one tough, intellectual, wise-cracking duck who doesn't wear pants? Running in 31 colour issues through to1979, the Duck also developed into a black and white adult-type magazine that ran for two more years.

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Howard the Duck movie, 1986

     Differences of opinion and clashes over creative control between Gerber and Marvel lead the prolific writer to leave the comic book giant. Gerber considered Howard the Duck his property and wanted to take the character with him. At the time his creation, Howard was not a leading character, and according to information on Don Markstein's Toonopedia, Gerber "claimed his contract didn't give them sole ownership of ancillary charcters he created for their stories." Marvel disagreed and the matter turned into an ugly legal battle.

     Steve Gerber lost the case.

     Marvel was able to keep Howard the Duck on its roster of comics characters. But the comic book world, and comics industry in general, was shaken by the case and forced changes between publishers and their creators, making things somewhat more equitable for the creators. Though it was not a success for Gerber at that time, all genres of cartoonists and creators benefitted from the lawsuit, enabling them to access more rights when it came to their creative properties.

    Disney threatened a lawsuit against Marvel around the same time, claiming Howard was too similar to their Donald Duck character. Howard the Duck was given a pair of pants and the matter was cleared.

     Howard the Duck ran as a newspaper comic strip from 1978 to 1979, initially drawn by Gene Colan and written by Steve Gerber. After fading somewhat in popularity, the character was revived by Hollywood's renowned director, George Lucas, who brought Howard to the big screen in 1986.

     Not to be defeated, Gerber wrote a cross-over comic between Destroyer Duck and Savage Dragon. After an action-packed confusing scene, a duck walked away - Leonard the Duck. He is a replica of Howard with one big exception. The character is all Steve Gerber's. No property fight to be had here.

     A productive comics generator and writer, Steve Gerber has a long list of creations to his credit at Marvel Comics, DC Comics and others. Some of his famous titles include:

    Tales of the Zombie
    Shanna the She-Devil
    Guardians of the Galaxy
    The Phantom Zone
    Nevada
    Dr. Fate
    Destroyer Duck
    Witchblade
    and Exiles, just to name a few.

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Howard the Duck comic book, 1973

    Gerber moved into television and film with projects such as Dungeons and Dragons, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Superman: The Animated Series. He found the media to be very different from print. "You have to tell your story in 44 minutes, no more, no less. You don't have the option of making the story a two-parter, let alone drawing it out over ten issues... ", he said in an interview with Adrian Reynolds on popimage.com.

    Seemingly a dedicated comic book man, Gerber was enticed to return to Marvel Comics to write a new Howard the Duck comic book series. Though pleased to be working again with cartoonist Phil Winslade, cover artist Glenn Fabry and editor Stuart Moore, Gerber still has little faith in the management of Marvel Comics. Looking for the positive, he told Darren Schroeder of SBC Interviews that, "It would be a nice change of pace, after all these years, to be able say something positive about the company."

     Looking ahead, Gerber believes "the future of comics is digital" and is excited to explore the possibilities offered in e-books and on the internet. If he were younger, he told Reynolds, he would "amass all the knowledge I could about html, web design, Photoshop, and Macromedia's Flash, and head straight for the net." And pass by the publishers and their demand for complete control altogether, no doubt.

    Steve Gerber was born Stephen Ross Gerber on September 20, 1947 in St. Louis, MO. He makes his home in Las Vegas, Nevada. His latest Duck comic book is Howard the Duck: Don't Ask, published September 2002 by Marvel Comics. Art by Phil Winslade. Don't be misled - this is not a children's book.

See Steve Gerber's website.

Howard the Duck at Marvel Comic's website.

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© Susanna McLeod 2007
TheCartoonists.ca