Posted by: Jeff Lester on February 13, 2008
It’s been said by much smarter men than myself (Jules Feiffer and Gerard Jones being but two) that Judaism is perhaps the real secret identity at the heart of the superhero experience–one doesn’t have to look much farther than Lieber and Kurtzberg, who built Marvel comics under the pen names of Lee and Kirby, to make a case for it.
Of all the many things I’ve thought about Steve Gerber–and believe me, I’ve thought about him a lot since learning of his passing earlier today–what sticks with me is that Gerber was the hero without the mask, the guy brave enough to forego the secret identity. I grew up in whiter-than-white Humboldt County and even I could tell that Gerber was Jewish: his stories were always of outsiders (outsiders even by Marvel’s standards) and usually focused on defiant, frequently angry, guys who viewed with both bemusement and amusement the world surrounding them. By the time I got to high school and started reading Malamud (a little), Bellow (embarrassingly less), and Roth (a whole shitload), I could see how Gerber and his work belonged as much to their tradition–that of the soulful shit-stirrer–as to Stan’s patented mix of soap opera and winking carnival barker.
The term “patented” is almost more than cliched hyperbole, by the way. What makes eulogizing Gerber difficult–and it will be even more difficult when other writers of his generation pass on–is that his most substantial work was done while stylistically imitating someone else. Every writer passing through Marvel in the ’70s had to write in Stan’s house style and now that styles and mainstream tastes have finally progressed, I find it’s a bit of tough sell to convince younger readers–and more than occasionally myself–that there’s good writing buried underneath all the labored rhetoric, and the expository diatribes and the “Dear God, no!” melodramas, and those last panel captions that read, “And somewhere, in the distance, comes the gentle weeping…of a clown.”
One of Gerber’s achievements–and I’m not sure if someone who doesn’t know the period can really appreciate what a strange achievement it is–was to develop his own voice while immersed within that of another: within the Stanisms were the Gerberisms, the things you found only in Gerber’s work, that held their own spell, bdspoke their own worldview. Cults popped up regularly in Gerber’s work; so did supporting characters who would get fed up and leave the story; plots would expand out and then suddenly collapse in. The rich tapesty of the multiverse would unfold but always in the periphery: in the Florida everglades, in the park on a quiet day, over the Cuyahoga River burning at midnight. And at these places, you’d find an angry but decent guy–Richard Rory or Jack Norris or Howard the Duck–aware of his relative powerlessness, frustrated and bitterly amused at that powerlessness. As I said, I recognized that guy in Bellow’s Tommy Wilhelm, in Roth’s Portnoy and Zuckerman. (With Wilhelm, the recognition was semi-literal: when I read Seize the Day for the first time, my mental picture of Tommy Wilhelm was Colan’s interpretation of Howard the Duck as a human man.)
Another Gerberism was the keystone for the idea of superhero as Jewish myth: Superman. At Marvel, Gerber created Wundarr the Aquarian, the superhero who is rocketed to Earth from a dying planet–except Wundarr arrives on Earth full-grown, with the intelligence of a child. With Mary Skrenes, Gerber created Omega The Unknown, a character that riffs equally on Superman and Captain Marvel–Omega is a hero come to Earth with a strange bond to a boy orphan. Later, Gerber went on to do several offbeat Superman projects. My favorite was the final issue of DC Presents where Gerber packed his entire pitch for Superman into one baffling Hail Mary: an insane Mr. Mxyzptlk destroys Argo City such that Metropolis is layered with a fine mist of kryptonite, and Superman, his power reduced, must live in pain and discomfort whenever he’s Clark Kent, treading over the kryptonite impacted sidewalks of the city.
In fact, at the heart of Gerber’s best work is Superman and Clark Kent: the powerlessness lurking in the heart of the powerful and, equally as important, the power lurking in the heart of the powerless. (After all, it’s usually Rory and Norris and Howard who are the tipping point in the battle between good and evil.) Such paradoxes transcended the two scoops of ego gratification and bathetic male self-pity served up in the work of Stan Lee and most of his successors. While far from immune to such weaknesses (Gerber’s worst work is like reading Harlan Ellison at his most histrionic), the duality of power-in-powerlessness and powerlessness-in-power which Gerber returned to thematically was a genuine belief in the world, founded on the way he saw it work: cults and corporations collapsed under their own weight; the little guy, though screwed, could still wrest victory from the jaws of defeat if he just kept at it.
I could type another ten thousand words and not get at the power of these and other achievements. (I didn’t even start in on that awesome Daredevil storyline where the villain is an intelligent malevolent baboon whose pheromones make every woman his slave and who slugs it out with our hero on the roof of the White House, to say nothing of Starhawk, the first transgender superhero, Angarr The Screamer, the showgirl and the ostrich, KISS, Doctor Bong, etc., etc.) But what I should say is, Steve Gerber kept at it. He kept at it after Cat Yronwode (I believe) wrote an editorial about how his work no longer moved her; he kept at it after Jim Shooter cruelly (and inelegantly) mocked him in the first issue of Secret Wars II; he kept at it after Nevada was unceremoniously dumped, after Hard Time was canceled, after Marvel published Lethem’s Omega The Unknown miniseries over Gerber’s initial objections. Steve Gerber kept at it six days before he died, working in the middle of the night working on his current assignment, Doctor Fate. I’d like to believe in an afterlife, and Steve Gerber is there, keeping at it, seeing his stories end the way he wanted them to, when he wanted them to. If such an afterlife exists, it would be a world Gerber never spent much time considering, a world he never made–which would bring him, I hope, both bemusement and amusement, even if it meant he was finally the angry outsider no longer.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.