Howard the Duck and Other Brilliant Steve Gerber Characters
With Howard the Duck's new series hitting the stands, we take a look at his creator's many contributions to comics.
Marvel’s little Howard the Duck stinger at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy reminded fans of two things, one, no characters are off limits to the Marvel films juggernaut, and two, what a creative force the late Steve Gerber was during his long and tumultuous tenure at Marvel. Gerber is best known for Howard the Duck, but let us not forget that Gerber also penned an amazing run of the future Guardians of the Galaxy as well as surreal and groundbreaking runs on The Defenders, Man-Thing, She-Hulk, and so many more.
Sadly, during the majority of his career, Gerber and Marvel’s bond was difficult, with Gerber bringing a number of lawsuits over the ownership of Howard to Marvel’s door, but this is not a celebration of the bad times. This is a celebration of the life and creations of the late Steve Gerber, the man who dared stretch the boundaries of Marvel (and other companies) into sublime, poignant, and often hilarious places.
Here are some of the best creations that sprang from the creative fountainhead that was Steve Gerber…
Angar, the Screamer
with Gene Colan and John Tartaglione
First appearance: Daredevil #100 (June 1973)
One of Gerber’s recurring tropes was his satire of political ideologies. Angar was Gerber’s look at hippie culture. During his memorable run on Daredevil in the early Bronze Age, Gerber introduced social activist David Angar who volunteered for an experiment that would enhance his vocal cords. Because this be comics, Angar’s voice was mutated to the point that the sheer volume of his rants caused people to see things there weren’t there. Essentially, Gerber created Sean Hannity in the early ’70s.
Angar is an example of a problem that would plague Gerber’s creations throughout history; they were so quirky and so very much part of Gerber’s voice, that once they left Gerber’s hands, they became one off jokes. Angar was a satirical character that actually was a big league baddie of Daredevil’s for quite some time. Like many Gerber characters, there is an inherent silliness to Angar (the fuzzy vest doesn’t help) but there is also something that spoke to pure creativity and social awareness.
Band of the Bland
with Sal Buscema and Klaus Janson
First Appearance: Marvel Treasury Edition #12 (1976)
They were a team of villains that operated out of Cleveland. That in itself is Dali level genius. The team that consisted of Black Hole, Doctor Angst, Sitting Bullseye, Spanker, and Tillie the Hun teamed up to kill Howard the Duck when he ran for President in what was probably Marvel’s biggest event of 1976. All the villains had faced Howard before and we just kind of love the idea of the Duck’s own personal Legion of Doom.
Angst convinced his comrades in duck hate that he had enhanced their not to considerable powers with a placebo drug called Promethium, but they still got their asses handed to them by Howard and the Defenders. The Band would go on a reunion tour and face off against She-Hulk in Gerber’s run on her title, but they did not fare well there either.
The Spanker, huh?
with Gene Colan
First appearance: Howard the Duck #9 (1977)
Billed as Canada’s only super patriot in the days before Alpha Flight, Le Beaver was actually Pierre Dentifris, a man who was paralyzed except for his teeth. When he built an exo-skeleton that gave him the powers of a beaver, Dentifris became determined to defend the honor of his beloved Canada. How did he do this? By attempting to destroy an honest political candidate, namely…Howard the Duck.
In fact, it was Le Beaver that set Howard up to run for President and it was Le Beaver that tore the duck down in the eyes of the public. It was a brilliant political satire, a modern day Mark Twain pastiche involving anthropomorphic water fowls that ended with Le Beaver and Howard dueling on a tightrope over Niagara Falls. Because Steve Gerber.
with Gene Colan
First appearance: Howard the Duck #7 (1976)
Y,see, the Bellhop’s brother was an anti-aircraft gunner in the Vietnam War. One day, he fired at an enemy plane and hit a duck which fell on a landmine and killed him. When the Bellhop learned a duck was running for President, he swore to destroy Howard. So somehow, Gerber managed to juxtapose the anti-Vietnam War sensibilities of ’70s America with a kind of Taxi Driver type Bellhop, and created a story of social unrest involving an assassination attempt on a duck. This is why we celebrate Steve Gerber.
The Congress of Realities
with Val Mayerik
First appearance: Man-Thing #1 (1974)
Just in case you are thinking Gerber was just all about ducks and political satire, we give you the Congress of Realities. These guys are agents of the cosmic entity known as the Living Tribunal who are responsible for holding their realities together. It’s all rather trippy and the introduction of concepts like the Congress took Man-Thing from a Theodore Sturgeon clone to a uniquely strange, mind bending reality trip during Gerber’s run.
Some of the members of the Congress, while going unnamed, were clearly meant to be characters from other companies. So can we postulate that Gerber spearheaded the first unofficial multi-company cross-over? Perhaps.
The Living Mummy
with Rich Buckler
First Appearance: Supernatural Thrillers #5 (1973)
In the early ’70s, Marvel was enjoying success with their newly introduced horror characters. They had a Dracula, a Frankenstein’s Monster, a werewolf, a couple of swamp beasts, and thanks to Gerber, they had a mummy. Gerber introduced the world to N’Kantu, an ancient and tragic figure who was revived in the modern world. Like many Gerber characters, the Living Mummy was an observer of the chaos of the modern world, a tragic cipher in which Gerber could expose modern trappings.
In his first appearances, N’Kantu was a mute and rampaging creature, but Gerber filled the mummy’s past with a back story rich in tragedy and atmosphere. Gerber know his way around ancient Egypt and was able to successfully merge the story of the ancient world with the modern day. The Living Mummy may not have had a huge impact on Marvel history, but the bandaged beast stands as a testament to Gerber’s storytelling ability. Thanks to Gerber, Marvel’s tribute to the Universal Monsters pantheon was one Manphibian away from being complete.
with Buzz Dixon and Tom Artis
First Appearance: Sensational She-Hulk #21 (1990)
Gerber did not have an easy task at hand when he followed John Byrne of the Sensational She-Hulk. Byrne established a very particular voice and tone in his run on the Jade Giantess, similar to the way Gerber made Howard the Duck his own. But Gerber found his own humorous rhythm to She-Hulk and one of the legend’s mission statements seemed to be to build She-Hulk’s rogues gallery.
Enter Abominatrix, a former manager of a savings and loan company who was mutated by an experimental cure for PMS. As insane as that may sound, the Abominatrix was actually a condemnation on sexism in the work place, showing that Gerber always found a satirical purpose for even the wackiest of characters.
Dakimh the Enchanter
with Val Mayerik
First appearance Fear #14 (1973)
Dakimh was a Merlin like eccentric sorcerer who paled around with Man-Thing, Howard the Duck, and sorceress in training Jennifer Kale. He sent the odd group on a number of reality saving mission before dying from a fatal heart attack and willing his power to Kale. He might seem pretty generic until you take into account the revelation that in Gerber’s tales, Dakimh was actually relating the stories of Man-Thing and Howard to Gerber himself. So through Dakimh, Gerber entered his own narrative. Steve Gerber did meta way before Grant Morrison made it cool.
with Jack Kirby. Yes, I said Jack Kirby
First appearance: Destroyer Duck #1 (1982)
Speaking of meta we have Destroyer Duck. Not happy with his position at Marvel or the treatment of creators by the company, Gerber struck out on his own. He had a lawsuit against Marvel regarding Howard and created Destroyer Duck as a way to vent his frustrations. With Jack Kirby, Gerber produced the Destroyer Duck anthology, the lead feature featuring a duck soldier than lived on a world of talking animals. Destroyer’s best friend was a duck only referred to as The Little Guy who disappeared in front of Destroyer’s eyes. When The Little Guy returned dead, Destroyer swore revenge on Godcorp, the mega corporation he blamed for his friend’s destruction.
Gerber used the proceeds of the sporadically published anthology to fund his lawsuit with Marvel and such luminaries as Kirby, Mark Evanier, Dan Spiegle, Shary Flenniken, Martin Pasko, Joe Staton, Frank Miller, Val Mayerik, and even Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel contributed to the project. The book stands as a testament to the maverick spirit of Gerber, a man who wasn’t afraid to take on the status quo of the industry or burn bridges in order to stand up for his beliefs.
with Marie Severin
First appearance Howard the Duck #15 (1977)
Yeah, Gerber got away with this in 1977. No, Dr. Bong was not a villain that had the power to give his victims the munchies or attend Phish shows; he was Lester Verde, arch nemeses to Howard the Duck. Verde was a journalism student who accidently had his hand severed by a miniature guillotine while he was performing with his punk band Mildred Horowitz.
He is the ex-husband of Howard’s lady love Beverly Switzer and for the love of all that’s holy, Steve Gerber got away with naming a character Dr.Bong! You hear that Disney? You own a character named Dr.Bong! Anyway, of all Howard’s oddball villains, Bong was indeed the greatest and still pops up from time to time in the Marvel Universe.
with Tom Mason, Dave Olbrich, and Chris Ulm
First Appearance Exiles #1 (Malibu, 1993)
Nope, not the dimension hopping mutants led by Blink, but a team of heroes introduced in the first wave of Malibu’s Ultraverse titles. It was very exciting to see a company launching a comic line with talent like Gerber aboard, because you know where Gerber went, the unexpected followed. The Exiles consisted of Catapult, Deadeye, Dr. Rachel Deming, Ghoul, Amber Hunt, Mustang, Tinsel, and Trax and their mission statement was to- it doesn’t freakin’ matter because Gerber killer or maimed every single member of his newly created team in issue #4 and the title just ended.
Malibu even solicited a fifth issue which was summarily cancelled after Gerber shockingly killed his entire team. Awesome.
with Val Mayerik, Jim Mooney, and J.J. Birch
First Appearance: Man-Thing #3 (1974)
Gerber actually created three different versions of the Foolkiller. The first Foolkiller was a man named Ross G. Everbest and targeted the Man-Thing for termination. The Foolkiller was Gerber’s way to examine violent behavior on those that stand on the periphery of society. Everbest would warn his victims 24 hours before he went after them with a calling card that read “Foolkiller / e pluribus unum / You have 24 hours to live. Use them to repent or be forever damned to the pits of hell where goeth all fools. Today is the last day of the rest of your life. Use it wisely or die a fool.” The first Foolkiller was dispatched by Man-Thing.
The second vigilante to take up the flamboyant costume and the ray gun of the Foolkiller was Gregory P. Salinger. While the first Foolkiller was religious in nature and dispatched those he considered sinners, the second had the soul of a poet (a bad poet) and killed those tainted by materialism. The second Foolkiller took on fellow Gerber creation Omega, the Unknown and the Defenders.
The third Foolkiller starred in a 1990 mini-series by Gerber. This Foolkiller, inspired by the now insane Salinger, was more of a traditional vigilante but the series was still steeped in the trademark Gerber strangeness. In fact, much of Gerber’s late Marvel works after he buried the hatchet with the publisher were hidden gems in an era dismissed for thoughtless excess. So seek out some of that ’90s Foolkiller goodness. You’ll be glad you did as Gerber had a thoroughly fresh take on the already tired urban vigilante genre.
with Sal Buscema
First appearance: The Defenders #21 (1975)
Just because Gerber worked on the fringes of the Marvel Universe doesn’t mean he didn’t have a sense of its history. Take the Headmen for example. During his must read run on the Defenders, Gerber delved into the mist of Marvel past to find Dr. Arthur Nagan, the Gorilla-Man, from Mystery Tales #21 (art by Bob Powell); Chondu the Yogi, from Tales of Suspense #9 (art by George Evans); and Dr. Jerry Morgan, a.k.a. Shrunken Bones, from World of Fantasy #11 (art by Angelo Torres).
All these forgotten characters were brought together and joined by Gerber’s own creation Ruby Thursday to form the Headmen and a stranger grouping of villains would be almost impossible to find. So you had this lady with a big red pliable orb for a head teaming up with a dude with a gorilla body, an old guy that looked like a sentient prune, and whatever the heck Chondu the Yogi was. This kind of strangeness would define Gerber’s Defenders run.
with Sal Buscema
First appearance Defenders #31 (1976)
Teaming with the Headmen wasn’t nearly the weirdest thing that happened to Chondu during Gerber’s run on The Defenders. Bambi was a deer (duh) saved from hunters by the Hulk and kept as a pet in Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Santorum. Hulk loved his deer and it became a regular presence in the pages of The Defenders. Until it was possessed by Chondu and made evil.
It was common to see an evil, scowling deer stomping around Defenders headquarters and causing twenty different types of adorable turmoil. Yes, an evil Bambi. Let’s not let Disney in on this little piece of Marvel history, hmm?
with Jim Starlin
First appearance: Giant-Size Defenders #3 (1975)
Even when he didn’t mean to, Gerber created characters that become legends. In 1975, Gerber created a throwaway villain named Korvac, a victim of the murderous Guardians of the Galaxy foes the Badoon who fused Korvac to his computer console for his crime of falling asleep on the job. As a floating cyborg with vast intelligence, Korvac was a pawn in the Grandmaster’s attempt to destroy the Defenders and that was supposed to be it.
Except…there was something tragic and wonderfully odd about the character, so much so that other creators, most notably Jim Shooter, utilized Korvac again and forged him into one of the greatest threats the Marvel Universe had ever faced. Don’t be surprised if there’s some cinematic Korvac in our future all thanks to Steve Gerber, a man who created legends, even if they were by accident.
with Carole Seuling and Ross Andru
First appearance: Shanna the She-Devil #4 (1973)
We covered this villain in our Greatest Apes in Comics article, but he is worthy of further exploration because he really is that gross. Only Gerber (with writing partner Carole Seuling) could have conceived of a caped monkey whose powers are to essentially to roofie women with his monkey pheromones. Gerber utilized the disguistoid red assed baddie in the pages of Shanna, the She-Devil, Daredevil, Marvel Team-Up, and The Defenders.
Gerber never pulled punches with the Mandrill making it clear that the evil doing monkey was taking full advantage of his female slaves. Gerber made readers want to see Daredevil punch the creep’s lights out. Again, there was a political message to the character as Gerber used the Mandrill as a condemnation of misogyny.
with Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema, and John Verpooten
First appearance Captain America vol.1 #157 (1973)
Not the green haired one that has bedeviled Wolverine, the other one, the brother of the villainous Eel, the one that helped form the original Serpent Squad. Yeah, he was kind of a loser, but once again, even Gerber’s throw away characters played key roles in the Marvel Universe. The Serpent Squad went on to become a major criminal organization, and the first Viper here, well; he was killed by the aforementioned green haired Madame Hydra who then went on to take his name, birthing a major Marvel villain. This Viper was another example of other creators taking an idea of Gerber’s and running with it.
with Gary Martin and Aaron Lopesti (1993)
First appearance Sludge #1
Published by Malibu, Sludge was another great example of late Gerber work. Sludge proved that there was a great deal of creative strangeness left in Gerber’s tank in the 90s. Unlike the Exiles, Sludge, a former cop transformed into a shambling sewer creature, was not summarily killed off in the fourth issue of his series. Instead, Gerber explored many of the same themes in Sludge that he did in the pages of his now legendary Man-Thing.
Sludge’s arch-nemesis was Dr. Gross so that really tells you all you need to know. In addition, if Malibu was said to have had a franchise baddie, it would have been Lord Pumpkin who first appeared in the pages of Gerber’s Sludge. Malibu had some shining lights in their stable of heroes, and thanks to the imagination of Gerber, Sludge was one of their slime encrusted diamonds in the rough.
with Ross Andru
First appearance: Shanna the She-Devil #5 (1973)
What’s better than a pheromone wielding, red assed evil Mandrill? A pheromone wielding, red assed evil Mandrill that pals around with a chick who thinks she’s a vampire. That’s Nekra, another deliciously wild Gerber villain.
Nekra was introduced in the pages of Shanna, the She-Devil along with her love monkey and is one of Marvel’s most vicious femme fatales. In one particularly memorable Nekra tale Gerber penned for his run on Daredevil, Mandrill and Nekra plotted to use a gang of pheromone controlled black women to take over the country. Yeah, Gerber wasn’t afraid of hot button issues.
Omega the Unknown
with Mary Skrenes and Jim Mooney
First appearance: Omega the Unknown #1 (1976)
One of the most surprising and well crafted series of Marvel’s Bronze Age, Omega the Unknown was the tale of a laconic young man as he dealt with the challenges of modern life. Into his world stepped Omega, a caped Superman cipher and last survivor of an alien race who was somehow connected with the young man. When the title was canceled with the 10th issue, Gerber, in his own inimitable fashion, just killed the title character, never giving readers a full explanation of Omega’s origin.
A modern reread of the series shows that Omega was Gerber at his best, playing with super-hero tropes in a modern context while exploring very real world problems. It’s a shame the thing only lasted 10 issues, as this book could have been a classic in the same vein as Miracleman.
with Sal Buscema
First appearance: The Defenders #27 (1975)
When the Guardians of the Galaxy began, the team consisted of four members, all of them kind of generic if truth be told. It was Gerber who grabbed hold of the team in the pages of The Defenders and later in Marvel Presents and made them something special. Not only did he inject that trademark Gerber oddness to the series, but he also added the team’s first new member, the complex space being known as Starhawk. Along with the fiery young female sharpshooter Nikki, the inclusion of Starhawk made the Guardians feel anything but generic.
Without Gerber’s imagination and the addition of complex and mind bending characters like Starhawk, the Guardians would have remained a footnote in Marvel history. Instead, thanks to the work of Gerber and those that followed in his footsteps, we are all currently hooked on a feeling.
with Val Mayerik
First appearance Fear #17 (1973)
Wundarr, later known as Aquarian, was basically Gerber’s take on Superman combined with a generous helping of Jesus. Like Omega, Wundarr was a Superman parody but there was something wonderfully compelling about the character’s innocence. Wundarr first appeared in Man-Thing, again taking the once one-note horror character into some very unexpected places.
At first, Wundarr assumed Man-Thing was his mother because Gerber is awesome. Using Man-Thing as a surrogate for Jonathan and Martha Kent? Just genius. Wundarr would go on to big things in Marvel Two-in-One and was one of the early indications that this Gerber guy wasn’t afraid to embrace the strange and unexpected.
with Bob Brown
First appearance Daredevil #111 (1974)
Silver Samurai has been a major player in Marvel’s X-Men Universe for decades, recently making his big screen debut in The Wolverine. But the legend of the Silver Samurai began with Gerber in the pages of Daredevil. When fans first met the Samurai, he was hired by Gerber’s go to villain, the Mandrill, to take down Daredevil and the Black Widow. Like many of Gerber’s characters, the legend grew from there and the Silver Samurai has become a big time player.
Fifi the Duck
with Gene Colan
First Appearance: Howard the Duck #7 (1977)
She was sexy duck with great legs created by Dr. Bong and spoke with a French accent. She also piloted a craft called the Flying Bonger. How Marvel has not teamed Fifi with Batroc ze Leaper is really beyond our understanding.
Elf with a Gun
with Sal Buscema
First appearance: Defenders #25 (1975)
The Gerberest of all Gerber characters. Did we mention how awesome Gerber’s run on Defenders was? When I think of the Bronze Age, this (and Tomb of Dracula) are the first two titles that pop into my mind.
Why is Gerber’s Defenders so amazing? Many reasons, one of the primary ones being that it had a recurring subplot of an Elf that would pop up in random areas of the world and just shoot people. For no reason. And it was never explained. It looked like the Elf with a Gun was going to be a major story arc at some point but he just kept killing random people, never running into a member of the Defenders. That’s some Andy Kaufman level genius right there.
At the time, most super-hero titles would feature B and C stories, subplots that would soon become the main feature of the book. With the Elf, Gerber experimented with that format by taking a C plot and playing it forward. So in the middle of the adventures of Dr. Strange, the Hulk, Silver Surfer, Nighthawk, and Valkyrie, Gerber would have an Elf with a Gun commit violent murder again and again.
The Elf never became an NRA spokesperson nor did the little guy ever get an origin, but a very small piece of me sometimes still expects to see an Elf randomly blow a hole in someone in the middle of a comic at any time. In fact, during the Elf’s last appearance in a Gerber book, he simply had the elf run over by a moving van while waiting to ambush a hapless paper boy. The Elf did return, but in the pages of another writer’s Defenders. Giving an explanation to the unexplainable didn’t really work for the Elf who was better as a sublime addition to a brilliantly conceived comic.
with Phil Winslade, Steve Leialoha, and Dick Giordano
First Appearance: Nevada #1 (1998)
It can be argued that Steve Gerber created the style that ended up informing the Vertigo movement in the ’80s and ’90s. Gerber’s passion for the strange and his willingness to break from convention was just the sort of mindset DC’s dark imprint adopted in the wake of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. So it was a match made in heaven when Gerber arrived on the Vertigo scene with Nevada, the classic story of a girl and her ostrich.
Let’s take a step back and explain this one. In Howard the Duck #16 (1977), Gerber penned a sequence in which a Vegas showgirl and her ostrich were locked in a violent confrontation with a lamp. From there, Gerber wrote himself a fan letter, which he published, begging himself to tell the tale of that particular bit of wonderful.
Fast forward to the early internet age, where Gaiman left Gerber a message via Compuserve that he would love to see the tale Gerber first introduced in the pages of Howard the Duck. Gerber obliged, and Nevada was born.
Vertigo was a perfect place for Gerber as he was not confined by editorial restraints, he told the story he wanted with all the sex and naughtiness he desired. It was glorious. The series featured a gangster with a lava lamp for a head and was every bit as Gerber as his best Howard the Duck issues. So if you want to see a hot dancing girl kick some butt with an ostrich by her side (and who doesn’t?), seek out Nevada.
Howard the Duck
with Val Mayerik
First appearance: Adventure into Fear #19 (1973)
Which brings us to Gerber’s most well known creation, the most famous comic book mallard not owned (until recently) by Disney, the master of Quack Fu, the fowl trapped in a world he never made, the great Howard the Duck. When Howard was introduced in the pages of the Man-Thing feature in Adventures into Fear, the powers that be at Marvel balked: they thought that a funny animal didn’t belong in the pages of a horror mag.
So Gerber killed the duck.
You thought it was a big deal when Peter and MJ sold their marriage to the devil? Fandom nearly rioted, if the internet existed in the Bronze Age, the whole thing would have cracked. Marvel quickly brought Howard back, this time in his own title. Gerber had a place to be himself, and through Howard; he examined every aspect of modern society, popular culture, and politics. The character and his creator just went together so perfectly, other writers have tried to bring the Duck to life, but no one has approached the success of Gerber.
So from the beginnings of the Bronze Age to the sweeper at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, we salute Howard and the boundless imagination that birthed him, the one and only volatile and unique Steve Gerber!