Right after I posted last week’s column, I found out that comic veteran Steve Gerber had died.
I never had the good fortune of meeting Mr. Gerber. He was a fellow St. Louisan, so I always smiled when I saw his name on a comic. It’s always fun to see a local fellow or lady getting some national notoriety. And while Steve Gerber’s name might not be as instantly recognized as Chris Claremont, Kurt Busiek or Brian Bendis are, he was a prolific creator with a wide range of stories.
While I never met the man, I did know a man whom Steve worked for before getting into comics. Sid Savan was a leading figure in the advertising world in the late 60s and early 70s. Sid had Steve Gerber on staff for a time before Steve made the jump to Marvel. After he left the advertising field, Sid became a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where I received my bachelors degree. I had Sid for at least one class a semester for 4 or 5 straight semesters, and in at least one semester I had back-to-back classes with the man. Sid and I got to know each other fairly well, and I always enjoyed his lectures because he always brought that real-world view. He never taught out of a book and couldn’t care less about anyone else’s theories as to what makes good advertising. I appreciated that. I still think about his “rules” every year at Super Bowl time. And I remember on one occasion, our conversation turned to comic books.
I was taking Sid’s class on script writing, and our big project was to write a 30 minute TV show. Everyone else in the class wanted to write Seinfeld and Cheers and Friends. When it was my turn to tell him what I planned to do, I said, “Batman: The Animated Series.” Sid stared at me for a full 30 seconds before letting fly an exasperated diatribe about how there was no way in Hell he would grade a paper that had “POW!” “BIFF!” and “ZOWIE!” all though it. A few of my fellow students pointed out that the animated show was very sophisticated and mature. Sid then decided that, “Cartoons are out.” I was persistent. I finally got him to agree to let me bring in a tape of an episode in order to get the point across. If he wouldn’t let me after watching a few minutes of the show and giving it an honest, critical and yet objective look, devoid of his preconceived notions, I’d do something else he’d like better (I think I suggested Golden Girls under my breath which got some laughs, but Sid was slightly hard of hearing so he never got the dig). He relented and let me bring in a tape the following week.
As class was letting out, he mentioned, “Jeff, have you ever heard of a man named Steve Gerber?” Of course I had! He wrote all kinds of books I enjoyed at various times, including Defenders, Daredevil and Exiles (back when it was a Malibuverse title). “Did you know he used to work for me?” Get outta here, Sid! Really? “Tell you what, if this cartoon of yours is solid and not all ‘Slam!-Bang!-Pow!’ I will give you an honest try. I thought Steve was nuts when he quit my firm, but he made a career of it and a good one from what I know. So bring me a tape and if I allow it, you’re going to have to really hit it out of the park. I can’t promise I won’t be extra critical because of the subject matter.” I told Sid if he’d give me a fair shake, he wouldn’t be disappointed. So being the diabolical genius that I am, I went to every Bat-fan I knew and found a Mr. Freeze episode. The Mr. Freeze stuff always had a deep sense of lost, a longing for hope, and a somber quality that certainly wouldn’t be there in a Joker or Killer Croc episode. In fact, a few months before I was home sick on the couch when my Dad came home from work. I was half out of it but I had Batman on the TV and he didn’t change it. I barely noticed the show or Dad being in the room but I remembered Mr. Freeze and his beloved Nora falling into Gotham Harbor in a sinking iceberg. When it was over Dad said, “Man, that show isn’t really for kids, is it?” I was shocked he even sat through it, cartoons were never my Dad’s thing. Fast forward to do-or-die time and armed with my Dad-endorsed episode, I played about 10 minutes for Sid. He finally said, “Turn it off.” He was quiet for several minutes. Finally he looked up and said, “Jeff, if you really, really want to write that script, you’re going to have to get your peers to really give you constructive feedback through the process because I don’t think I’ll ever understand those cartoons. But you’ve convinced me that it’s not the same old Adam West show. Write your script.” In the immortal words of Stewie Griffin, “VICTORY IS MINE!” Honestly though, I always thought Sid was humoring me more because I recognized the name of Steve Gerber than any insight that Batman episode provided. And I must have hit it out of the park because not only did I get one of only two A-grades in the class on that project, I didn’t have a single negative comment anywhere on the script. Either that or he just gave up after page 4.
I had always hoped to some day have the chance to tell that story to Steve Gerber, and pick Steve’s brain for some good stories about Sid Savan. I’m sad that I will never get that chance now. Now will I get the chance to reconnect with Sid Savan, who retired shortly after Daron “The Dark Overlord” Kappauff took his classes. Sid passed away in August of last year. If there’s an afterlife, you can bet those two are getting somebody fired up somewhere.
Since funerary stuff is depressing as it gets, I thought I’d finish up on a happier note and recognize some of Mr. Gerber’s outstanding accomplishments. Steve Gerber is the creator of Howard the Duck. I admit Howard was never my thing, but a lot of folks liked the comics and George Lucas even made a movie about the character, so more power to Mr. Gerber. I wonder if Daron knows the bad guy from the Howard the Duck movie was called “The Dark Overlord?” Steve was a one of the founding fathers of the Malibu universe, and was instrumental in creating The Exiles and Sludge. He wrote some of the earliest adventures of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and is the creator of Starhawk, who I was a big fan of back then. I was surprised to discover that he invented the Silver Samurai in the pages of Daredevil. I don’t know how the Samurai ended up being a Wolverine/X-Men punching bag, but I always thought he was a cool character and rather sympathetic. For DC, Steve wrote Hard Time with fellow St. Louisan Brian Hurtt on pencils, and was working on the post-52 Dr. Fate stories right up to his death. I was also very surprised and extremely happy to discover that Steve Gerber invented Thundarr the Barbarian! Oh yeah! Who doesn’t know this:
The year: 1994. From out of space comes a runaway planet, hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic destruction! Man’s civilization is cast in ruin!
Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn…
A strange new world rises from the old: a world of savagery, super science, and sorcery. But one man bursts his bonds to fight for justice! With his companions Ookla the Mok and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his courage, and his fabulous Sunsword against the forces of evil.
He is Thundarr, the Barbarian!
To me, that’s as recognizable as the intros to The Six Million Dollar Man or the A-Team. I also discovered that Mr. Gerber was a story editor for other animated faves such as G.I. Joe, Dungeons and Dragons, and Transformers! Add those to Thundarr and I ain’t getting out of bed on Saturday mornings ’til Noon!
So thank you, Steve Gerber, for all of the comics I knew you’d worked on that I enjoyed, for all the great Saturday morning cartoons I never knew you had a hand in, and especially for being that bridge for me between Sid Savan and the comic book world. I don’t think I’d be here today without the confidence I learned while engaging in friendly battle Sid for almost three years, and that Batman script was the top of my college career. If Steve Gerber had any small roll in helping change Sid’s mind on the project, then I am in his debt. Farewell, Mr. Gerber.