Subjectivity and Its Discontents
The Uses of Disenchantment
Out of all the writers discussed in this book, Steve Gerber is the one who seems the least temperamentally suited to be writing comics in a mainstream superhero universe. Not because he didn’t like superhero comics; quite to the contrary, the path that brought him to work for Marvel could not have been more fanboyish if it had been flanked by cosplayers in full Spider-Man drag. Gerber had a fanzine while in high school in St. Louis, struck up a friendship with fellow fan and future Marvel editor Roy Thomas by mail, and, when his copywriting job on Madison Avenue proved detrimental to his mental health, he used his ties to Thomas to get hired at Marvel. In the infamous all-text, stream-of-consciousness issue of Howard the Duck (issue 16, produced as a last-minute deadline replacement while the writer moved West), Gerber imagines being grilled by Howard about all the useless trivia he carries in his head:
“By the way, when did the Human Torch first appear in a solo adventure in the Marvel Age of Comics?”
“Huh? STRANGE TALES 101. Why?”
“And who were the villains in the first fifty issues of FANTASTIC FOUR—in order?”
“Oh…Mole Man, the Skrulls, the Miracle Man, Sub-Mariner, Dr, Doom, Subby and Doom together, Kurrgo, Puppet Master, Sub-Mariner again, Dr. Doom, Impossible Man, Hulk, Red Ghost, Subby again, The Mad Thinker, Dr. Doom, Dr. Doom…”
Like most of the creators of his generation, Gerber was not just a consumer of Marvel Comics; he was a product of them. He was also not the only one to do his best work at a distance from the line’s core titles; as we’ve seen, I’ve already made similar claims about Doug Moench and Marv Wolfman.1 For Gerber, the Marvel Universe was a highly attractive and productive set of secondary worlds in which he was more than happy to play, but over time he showed less and less interest in the games for which these worlds were originally built. He did not so much reject the superhero or fantasy adventure as emphasize different types of pleasure and rewards that these narratives could yield.
By now it is old hat to recognize that there is something absurd about grown men with bizarre aliases donning skin-tight costumes in order to fight other grown men clad in form-fitting onesies. Much of the “deconstructive” approach to the superhero starting in the 1980s used this perspective as a point of departure (with Moore’s and Gibbon’s Watchmen as the most famous example). But deconstruction tended to fight against the genre’s absurdity, often with an almost pathological naturalism that is caricatured as “grim and gritty” (Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns): bloody, grotesque violence and frank sexuality are the antidote to superhero silliness.
This is not what Gerber did, although Gerber’s influence on the superhero renaissance of the 1980s is, while rarely emphasized, rather obvious once you look for it. Gerber did not run from absurdity: absurdity was the point. Gerber was the French Existentialist of the Marvel set, Albert Camus with a heavy dose of Eugene Ionesco.2 Absurdity is the default position of Gerber’s world, sometimes almost joyous (as in the end of his “Bozo” storyline in The Defenders), sometimes suicidal (as on the first page of Howard the Duck 1). His characters oscillate between embracing the absurdity of their various plights and withdrawing or dissociating (Howard’s nervous breakdown; Man-Thing’s emotional overload). Gerber’s approach to the daft premises of the Marvel Universe is far more accepting and catholic than that of many serious comics writers to follow him, because absurdity is neither a negative in and of itself, nor an antipode to the “real world.“ Our world, like Marvel, is absurd by definition. We just dress better.
New Ears Have Arrived
Gerber’s Marvel output included comics that put the superhero front and center. His earliest work on The Sub-Mariner (58-69) (1973-1974) displays few of what would eventually be Gerber’s hallmarks; he was initially scripting from other people’s plots, and even when he became the sole writer of record, his stories were unremarkable.3 His Daredevil run (97-101, 103-117) (1973-1975) began on a similar trajectory, but here, at least, he made some gestures in the direction of social commentary (the gender and racial politics of Mandrill’s revolutionary, vaguely anti-capitalist Black Spectre organization).4 Only in The Defenders (20-29, 31-41, Annual 1, Giant-Size 3-5) (1975-1976), a book whose misfit characters are part of a “non-team” that Gerber would later liken to an "encounter group,” would Gerber successfully put his mark on a superhero book.5
Whether it was the result of lifelong reading habits or the simple exigencies of comic book publishing, Gerber was at his best when superheroes, heroic fantasy, or the supernatural were a given, but not necessarily the main concern. Decades later, writer Kurt Busiek and painter Alex Ross would have a hit on his hands with Marvels, which told the stories of the Marvel Universe from the point of view of ordinary people who happened to intersect with the drama at various points (Busiek would further refine this formula in his creator-owned Astro City series). But this is not quite what Gerber was doing. For one thing, few of his characters, even the non-powered ones, could quite count as “ordinary”; for another, his protagonists tended to be part of the overall weirdness of the superhero/fantastic world. They differed from the standard hero in plot (they tended to join the battles reluctantly) and, most important, in perspective: though superhero conflicts often drove the action, Gerber’s viewpoint characters looked on these entanglements with bemusement, resignation, or outrage.
The tag-line for Howard the Duck, Gerber’s most famous creation, was “Trapped in a world he never made!” In Howard’s case, the line’s applicability was clear. He was a talking duck in a world of humans (or, as Howard always called them, “hairless apes”). Perhaps the early success of the Howard the Duck comic was because it so clearly distilled the essence of most of Gerber’s Marvel work. All of his characters were “trapped in worlds they never made,” but, in most cases, the nature of their dilemma was not immediately apparent, because the conflicts were all internal. Gerber’s heroes are alienated. Other Marvel characters are alienated, too, though they might desperately wish to belong (the original X-Men, for example). Howard externalizes the problem so clearly that, in the hands of lesser writers (some of whom worked on HTD after Gerber’s departure), there is little need to pay attention to the character’s inner life: the duck among humans can function allegorically based on the visual discrepancy alone. But for Howard, being the only talking duck on Earth is not the true source of his depressive, world-weary skepticism; it is simply the visible representation of a pre-existing condition. 6
Gerber's characters (and plots) are built on their continual discomfort with their surroundings, their nagging sense that either they are not where they should be, or that something is wrong with the world around them. The plots are an excuse for commentary and critique that unfold on three levels. First is the generic: there is something fundamentally bizarre about the superhero world, as we see particularly in Gerber’s riffs on Superman (the childlike, alien Wundarr; Omega the Unknown) and the last year or so of his time on The Defenders. Second is social, which often runs the risk of being preachy, simplistic, or dated (the “Quack Fu” and SOOFI issue of Howard the Duck (3 and 20-21, respectively)); virtually any political or environmental topic in Man-Thing). The third is existential: take away the other two, remove all obvious obstacles, and the heroes are still mismatched with the worlds around them.
This third level is facilitated by the most distinctive aspect of Gerber’s work. The real stars of his comics are not characters, but frameworks: perspectives, points of view, and, especially, voice. He is not wordy like McGregor, nor does he usually favor the first-person narrations used so well by Moench, but Gerber’s comics have no room for silence. The voice and viewpoint must be maintained at all times.
The persistence of voice is demonstrated most clearly (and cleverly) in the last pages of Howard the Duck 11. Half of the issue is a methodically-developing farce on a bus ride to Cleveland, featuring Howard’s misery as a parade of eccentrics refuse to leave Howard in peace. As Howard engages in a fist fight with his nemesis, the Kidney Lady (more on her later), a tire blows out, and the bus careens of the road. Howard laments that the last thing he’ll see in life is the Kidney Lady’s face:
“And yet…it could be worse.
“I man…what if I’d hadda watch my whole life flash before me?
“Now that would b—“
Howard never finishes the thought, interrupted by the sound of the crash. Suddenly, a third-person narrator appears for the first time that issue:
“Does a bus scudding off the interstate amid billows of dust and smoke make a sound if no one is present to hear it?
“And it’s disgusting.
“However, when the clouds of vapor disperse, all is ominous silence…
“…but the smell makes up for it.”
Then, on the top of the next page:
“Morning. Birds tweet, people eat, and the sun smiles down on the wreckage. <sigh>.”
Colan provides a huge sound effect: “RRRUMMMM”
“Note the 'RRRUMMM.’
“New ears have arrived.“
At which point we hear a cop talking to the driver. Only when their “ears” have arrived can the narrator finally stop talking.
With Howard (and everyone else) unconscious, the burden of sardonic narration simply had to be picked up by someone. Events could not be allowed just to happen without the expression of a bemused opinion. The narration plays with the old cliché about a tree falling when no one is there to hear it, but the circumstances that lead to its invocation suggest that we understand it slightly differently: if an event happens and no one is there to comment on it, has it really happened?
Comics are, of course, a visual medium, as Gerber was acutely aware. But it was nonetheless a medium that was primarily the vehicle for his authorial voice. He could only hope that if he spoke engagingly enough, new ears would arrive.
Can the Subhuman Speak?
The case for the primacy of voice in Gerber’s work starts to look flimsier when we consider the strange fact that this scripter of epic talkers (Howard the Duck, Vance Astro in the Guardians of the Galaxy, several of the Defenders) found himself repeatedly telling stories about characters who were anywhere from mute to mindless. These include N’Kantu, the Living Mummy, addled by thousands of years of tortured wakefulness and capable of only grunting out a few words at a time; the undead Simon Garth from Tales of the Zombie, who cannot speak and has difficulty formulating thoughts, and the title character of Omega the Unknown, who doesn’t say a thing until the fourth issue of his comic, after which he continues to ration his words as if he were afraid of running out.
Gerber’s time with the Living Mummy was brief, and the black-and-white magazine Tales of the Zombie ran for only nine issues (conaining a fair amount of material by other writers); Omega the Unknown was unceremoniously cancelled with issue 10. But the character with whom Gerber first made his mark, and with whom he stayed for 36 issues over four years, was Man-Thing.
Besides being the Marvel character with the most inadvertently hilarious name (his monthly adventures were supplemented by a quarterly comic called Giant-Size Man-Thing, with no one in the Marvel Bullpen realizing quite how the title sounded), Man-Thing stood out as one of the more difficult concepts to make work. His origin was simple enough: scientist Ted Sallis, who had been trying to recreate the super-soldier formula that gave the world Captain America, is murdered in the Florida swamp after injecting himself with the serum. He is transformed into a creature made of muck and slime, losing his identity and his ability to think. Instead, Man-Thing is motivated by his “empathic nature”: he responds to the feelings around him. The one emotion he cannot tolerate is fear: “For whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch.” Man-Thing looks rather scary, so there is a steady supply of kindling.
For a character with literally no personality, Man-Thing (at least in Gerber’s hands) had a surprisingly successful run, somehow managing to maintain a comic series for four years (Adventure into Fear 11-19, 1972-1973, and Man-Thing 1974-1975). Early on, Gerber developed a version of the formula we saw in Tomb of Dracula: treat the headliner like a supporting character. In Fear, Gerber immediately developed a supporting cast (the apprentice sorceress Jennifer Kale and her family, Dakimh the Enchanter, the nefarious F. A. Schist), swapping them for a more grounded group when Man-Thing got his own series (primarily the sad sack Richard Rory, but also Ruth Hart, Sibyl Mills, and a variety of reasonably well-developed characters who stayed for only an issue or two). Yet none of this was at the expense of Man-Thing himself, who, far from being a walk-on in other people’s adventures, was usually the center of attention for several pages at a time. Often these pages focused on Man-Thing shambling through the swamp and killing the alligators that seemed to attack either him or random humans every other issue, but they confirmed Man-Thing’s status as the series’ anchor. Man-Thing set the mood.
Or perhaps it would be better to say that Man-Thing transmitted the mood. The pages that focused on him obliged the reader to slow down, but Man-Thing’s interactions with the other characters centered around his aforementioned “empathic nature.” Man-Thing acted on impulse, but that impulse was rarely his own. Instead, he functioned as a surrogate for the expressed and unexpressed feelings of the people around him, and when he inevitably became involved in violent conflict, his protection of the innocent and smiting of the guilty were a funhouse mirror of the superhero fantasy. It was not the readers who projected their fantasies and aspiration on the “hero,” but rather the ordinary people around him. He became, if not their alter ego, something along the lines of their wandering id.
Thus nearly all of Man-Thing’s motivations are not just external, but borrowed. Adventure into Fear 16 brings Man-Thing into the plot on the very first page because “there is [..] tension in the air this eve—a quiet frenzy which draws to it the macabre Man-Thing!” Man-Thing saves the survivors of a bus crash in Adventure into Fear 18 because “[t]hough he cannot fathom their words…he can feel their desperation.”
Over time, Gerber and his collaborators learned to use Man-Thing’s status as an emotional conduit for more than just moving the plot along. Man-Thing Issues 5 (“Night of the Laughing Dead”) and 6 (“And When I Died…”), drawn by Mike Ploog and inked by Frank Chairomonte, explicitly turn Man-Thing into the key element of an extended psychodrama. A clown named Darrel comes to the swamp to commit suicide, shooting himself in the head. Richard Rory and Ruth Hart become entangled in the interpersonal conflicts of Darrel’s carnival troop, whereupon they are all confronted by Darrel’s ghost. Darrel must perform the story of his life before three shadowy figures called “The Critics,” on whose “verdict rests the fate of [his] soul.” In Issue 6, the clown magically transforms Rory, Ruth, the acrobat Ayla, the carnival owner Garvey, and the strongman Tragg into the avatars of people who played key roles in his life (with Rory playing Darrel himself).
The story is not subtle, but it is emblematic of Gerber’s concerns and methods: external struggles exist almost entirely as an expression of internal conflict. Crucially, Man-Thing also has a role: he is young Darrel’s “Inner demon”, drawn always lurking right behind him, visible to the reader but invisible to the other players. In Act I of the clown’s life story, Darrel and his parents sit at the dinner table as Darrels’ father berates him:
“A quite rage wells in Darrel Daniel—and in some mysterious way…
“—that fury is communicated to the slime crawler—
—“who, acting as the personification of Darrel’s ‘inner demon,’ guides the child’s hand—
“—in an act of symbolic defiance.”
We see Man-Thing lifting up Darrel’s right arm to throw a plate at Darrel’s father. Later, when a bully punches Darrel, the “little tough guy... looks into Darrel’s eyes and sees the demon that lurks inside him,” and chooses to run away. Man-Thing, of course, has been there the whole time.
When the critics, unimpressed by this issue-long amateur theater performance, condemn Darrel’s soul to oblivion, Man-Thing (“still acting as Darrel’s inner demon”) fights on the clown’s behalf, beating them over the head and tossing them into the water: “Surely his judgement must be more valid than that of three ethereal bureaucrats! / And especially so, since he does not—cannot—even realize he is making a judgment! He acts purely on what he feels!/ And what he feels, though not in these terms, is that an injustice is about to be committed!”
Though by no means Gerber’s best (or even his best Man-Thing story), this two-parter makes clear that the Man-Thing (along with his vaguely supernatural swampy surroundings) is a vehicle for subjectivity even as he lacks the capacity for thought. Gerber’s heroes tend to be well-read autodidacts who are good with words (Bev to Howard: “Somehow I never pegged you as an intellectual, Ducky.” Howard to Bev: “Don’t call me names, toots” (Howard the Duck 3)). But the crux of his stories is almost always about feelings, the very things that words tend to express with only mixed success. And emotions are the only language Man-Thing understands.
Even as they are externalized, Darrel’s stories, like those of so many of Gerber’s other misunderstood artistic, sensitive males, are the product of an extremely self-absorbed consciousness.7 Darrel’s soul is spared and Ayla declares “I’m the reason he took his own life! / I never had the courage to defy Garvey—to tell Darrel…/ …I loved him.” She offers up her own soul instead, but the critics spare both her and Darrel. This is a classic male fantasy: the unloved boy will be missed when he’s gone, and the girl he wanted so desperately will regret her coldness and even offer to die. In the twenty-first century, with the Manosphere and the Incels, Darrel’s narcissism looks dangerously toxic, but this is one of Gerber’s blind spots. When everyone around you is acting out your internal traumas, it is difficult to understand them as people in their own right.8
Portrait of the Artist as a Teenage Swamp Monster
Gerber’s repeated use of the Man-Thing to externalize the suffering of a misunderstood, alienated male character suggests that, inadvertently, Gerber managed to literalize the title character’s name in a manner completely different from the obvious anatomical puns. This particular plot is gendered: it’s a man thing.9
Not always, of course (“Not all man-things”). After beginning 1975 with a truly awful and sexist two-parter about magical pirates and satyrs (Man-Thing 13 & 14), Gerber closed out his run on the title with an eight-issue stretch that was better than anything he had done on the book to date. Issue 15 was an atmospheric one-off that technically didn’t even have Man-Thing in it, and was entirely devoted to the development of St. Cloude, a female character seen neither before nor since. It would be followed by a vicious deconstruction of American masculinity (“Decay Meets the Mad Viking”), the first installment of a trilogy about conservative morality and small-town fascism that somehow avoided preachiness.
In the middle of this storyline (set awkwardly between Issues 16 and 17), Gerber came out with “The Kids’ Night Out,” a long, one-shot story featured in Giant-Size Man-Thing 4.10 Once again, we have a misunderstood dead man who uses the Man-Thing as a figure of identification and projection, although this time without any magic involved: Edmond Winshed is a 17-year-old high school student who, thanks to a weight problem, spent his entire short life feeling like an outcast. The book begins (after a brief, pointless scene of the Man-Thing rescuing a faun) with Edmond’s funeral; he died of a heart attack while being forced by a sadistic gym teacher to run laps. Unlike Darrel, Edmond will not come back to life, so numerous surrogates throughout the story express his thoughts and feelings for him. The funeral has a whiff of narcissistic wish-fulfillment. Edmond is not there to watch it, but his best friend, Alice, calls out the gathered “mourners’ for their hypocrisy with a righteous vehemence that Edmond himself never managed when he was alive.
Though Edmond is dead, his words live on after him: Alice is the custodian of a notebook entitled “The Book of Edmond,” which she has brings to a meeting of the high school literary magazine for possible publication. When she begins to read it aloud, the next five pages are one of Gerber’s most successful attempts at including text pages within a comic book.11 Like the story of Darrel the Clown, “The Book of Edmond” is built on multiple identifications and projections, but with much less hostility. It begins with the words “Maybe you’ve heard of Richard Rory, the disk jockey on WNRV.” Rory is invoked because he has spoken in public about the Man-Thing, whom Edmond sees as a metaphor for his own life. But Edmond (and Gerber) could have brought up the Man-Thing without him. Rory’s inclusion serves to intensify Edmond’s identification with the monster; Rory and the Man-Thing have a connection based entirely on emotion and shared alienation (both our outsiders), and now Edmond is following in Rory’s footsteps by asserting a kinship with the creature from the swamp.
The word “comics” never appears within “The Kids Night Out,” yet the story told in and around “The Book of Edmond” is a clever elaboration of the affective relationships fostered by reading postwar Marvel superhero comics. Where DC encouraged the (presumably young and male) reader to identify with aspirational figures such as Superman, Marvel offered its fans a model for living in the world as a despised outcast (the X-Men, the Hulk, even Spider-Man). And even though “The Book of Edmond” stands out from the rest of the book because of its text-based format, it sells the Edmond/Man-Thing metaphor through the comics medium’s primary superpower: the combination of words and pictures. After Edmond compares himself to the Man-Thing in his introduction, he never mentions the monster again. But he doesn’t need to. Each page is accompanied by an illustration featuring both Edmond and the Man-Thing, keeping their connection firmly in the reader’s mind even while Edmond no longer makes it explicit.
As he explains, the Man-Thing is despised because “[h]e’s made of slime, and I’m just fat./ He scares people. I just make them laugh.” Edmond hopes that his book will do what Marvel Comics’ ongoing tales of pariahs are supposed to: “I’m writing this because if people had been a little kinder, and more compassionate, I might not relate so well to Man-Thing.”
Though Giant-Size Man-Thing 4 is an awkward detour from the ongoing narrative of Man-Thing 16-18, Edmond’s journal demonstrates that “The Kids Night Out” shares a theme with the concurrent monthly storyline. Gerber’s stories are filled with outcasts, but Edmond is the only one whose dilemma is consistently framed in terms of masculinity. As a small child, he loves baking cooking, while his Uncle Sam (!) demands that he hold a hammer and learn to be a man.” In school he is, of course, terrible at sports. And in high school, when Alice gets him to understand that his uncle is afraid Edmond might be in a romantic relationship with his new young wife, Edmond discovers that he actually can be taken seriously as a heterosexual male, and kisses Alice. He realizes that “Sam figured I was finally able to hold that freaking hammer!” Not only is the sexual symbolism obvious, but the illustration connects Edmond’s newfound confidence in his own masculinity with the Man-Thing, who is shown helping him hold the hammer over his head. “The Book of Edmond” models a powerful reading strategy, encouraging us to accept the Man-Thing as, if not our own personal savior, than our guide to expressing our emotions.12
It is up to Alice to keep Edmond’s memory alive, protect the book from anyone who might want to destroy it (as evidence that Coach Milner was responsible for Edmond’s death), and even to complete the book itself. The epilogue, written by Alice, describes Edmond’s 30 minutes of afterschool laps in the Florida heat that would end in Edmond’s death. Alice brings the Book of Edmond back to its beginning, proposing a less hypocritical epitaph than the one she expected to see in the high school yearbook: “He was a fat boy, who saw himself more as a monster than a human being. We didn’t know this Man-Thing very well or like him very much. He was killed, and that’s the end of it.”
Alice has inserted herself into the Book of Edmond out of necessity (“He couldn’t write [the epilogue] because he was murdered”), and she had already been an important part of Edmond’s life. Now, however, whether through the mystical properties of the Citrusville swamp (which Gerber established early on as the “Nexus of All Realities”), the power of the written word, or the posthumous realization of Edmond’s identification with Man-Thing, Man-Thing at this point shares some sort of empathic bond with the late Edmond, but also with Alice. After Alice is kidnapped by the adults who want the Book of Edmond destroyed, she faints. On the first page of Chapter 3, the second panel repeats the colorless image of Alice’s unconscious face, this time in the night sky over the swamp. Man-Thing hears a voice, and looks down
…at his own reflection…or something which purports to be.
“The reflection speaks. Its lips move, but no sound issues forth.
“And yet, Man-Thing hears…and seems to understand…this silent plea from within and without him.”
His reflection in the water is actually that of Edmond, visually emphasizing this mysterious, now three-way link between them and Alice. This link now provides the logic that drives the remainder of the story. Man-Thing leaves the swamp and shambles into town, making his way to Citrusville High School, where he proceeds to rescue Alice and punish Edmond’s enemies. This is unprecedented in the Man-Thing run; while Gerber and other writers had stretched the “rules” governing Man-Thing’s motivations and conduct before, he had never displayed so much initiative before. The result is a grotesque bloodbath: Edmond's young aunt, who had never spoken up for him, has her mouth burnt shut; his uncle, who had responded to Edmond’s failures at baseball by suggesting that “maybe he needed a fatter bat,” is swung about by Man-Thing until his back is broken, while the sadistic gym teacher who caused Edmond’s heart to fail him has his hands fused together in prayer and a hole burnt all the way through his heart. This is, of course, a classic horror revenge story, but it also just a few notches more extreme than a standard superhero fantasy: an empowered version of the victim beats the bad guys and saves the girl.
But that is not all. While it is true that Alice is put in the familiar position of damsel in distress, it is only after she heroically takes up Edmond’s cause after her friend’s death. The final panel has Man-Thing back in the swamp, looking down at his reflection only to see Alice rather than Edmond. The driving force behind the Edmond-Man-Thing-Alice connection is empathy, which is essentially Man-Thing’s superpower. It is also in noticeably short supply among the families of Citrusville. Edmond’s enemies are, at times, caricatures; not one of them approaches the well-rounded characterization of Edmond himself. This could be a function of space constraints, or of lazy writing, but I suspect it is something more: Gerber grants the gift of subjectivity only to those characters who are capable of identifying with another. That is, despite the frequent self-involvement of so many Gerber heroes, in Man-Thing, at least, selfhood is only truly attained by people who can imagine their way out of their own heads. Man-Thing, who has no “head” in this sense, is the vehicle for expression both subjectivity and empathy.
Monsters on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
“The Kids Night Out” deployed Man-Thing’s empathic abilities more radically than ever before, transforming his usual, impulsive reactions to momentary emotions into a sustained cathexis with both Edmond and Alice. The intensity of these bonds may well explain why Gerber goes out of his way to shoehorn this story within the first few pages of Man-Thing 17. The splash page shows the Man-Thing mindlessly observing the aftermath of the carnage that ended the previous issue, followed by a second splash page summarizing “The Kids Night Out,” which we now learn took place the very next day (and resulted in Alice’s admission “for observation in the city’s already overcrowded mental health facility"). A few pages later, we discover that she is not the only emotional casualty of the day’s events. A three-panel pages is devoted to the depiction of a paralyzed Man-Thing:
“At swamp’s edge, Man-Thing stand trembling, his empathic nature battered insensate by the past days’ events.
“A creature not of intellect but of emotion—a being who feels what others feel—
“—but who cannot suppress or reason away these feelings as humans can—
“—he has finally reached a point of emotional saturation.”
A symbolic two-page spread renders his plight literal:
“All his energies are focused within. Across the barren waste that once was his mind marches a strange and frightening procession of expressionless images…a bizarre torchlight parade of the men, women, bases, and demons, the conglomerate of whose tortured emotions drove him to this cataleptic state.”
These include virtually the major and minor characters of Gerber’s run: Darrel the Clown, Richard Rory, and “countless others who brought pain and sorrow to their lives…and thus to his.”
Man-Thing is found by hunters who shoot him, take him for dead, and dump him in the Citrusville Sewage Treatment Plant. Obviously, he is not dead, but his temporary incapacity is a fascinating move. Why bother giving a mindless creature a nervous breakdown? Because empathy, however much the series lauds its virtues, takes its toll. Even though so many of Gerber’s characters are self-conscious (and even self-absorbed), they also tend to be highly attuned to the emotional and psychological states of those around them. Man-Thing shares this last trait, minus the self-consciousness. Gerber’s characters are in constant emotional and ontological conflict with their surroundings, and their occasional withdrawal only highlights the burden of maintaining one’s selfhood in a world that ranges from hostility to absurdity.
Even in “death,” Man-Thing serves as a reminder of the importance of emotional bonds. Richard Rory, now a DJ at a Citrusville radio station, gets the phone call that Man-Thing has been destroyed, and races to the bathroom for privacy:
“There, Richard Rory, to whom the monster was almost a friend, feels the energy drain from his limbs….feels his defenses crumble…and breaks down crying, and miles away, in the liquid blackness, Man-Thing, too, begins to break down…into his chemical components.”13
Rory and Man-Thing have always had a strong connection, but now their role seem to be reversed: it is Rory who is the vehicle for expressing emotion, while Man-Thing lies inert. The bottom of the page consists of 6 silent panels, alternating between increasingly tight shots of a weeping Rory and images of Man-Thing floating in the sewer (at an increasing distance), A few pages later, Rory is covering a town hall that is rapidly devolving into a book burning, spearheaded by Olivia Selby, a crusader again the “filth” she has discovered in her daughter’s high school textbooks. As she sets fire to a book entitled “Hygiene,” the panels move from the book, to Rory’s face, and then to a disintegrating Man-Thing. Rory runs onto the stage to save the book and implore the crowd to stop. He acts on impulse, knowing he will get fired, but he cannot simply watch.
In a similar moment in a Gerber-scripted Guardians of the Galaxy Story (Marvel Presents 4), new team member Nikki impulsively steers the Guardians ship headlong into cosmic monstrosity that has destroying a planet. Yondu, the Guardian with the strongest spiritual inclinations, calls this entity “Karanada—‘the emptiness that devours.’ It is total paralysis, not merely in the limbs—but the soul itself.” He justifies Nikki’s rash action: “She did as her spirit bade her […] No act of spirit can be wrong against Karanada.” Yondu’s words could apply to Rory, and, further, to all the most heroic moments in Gerber’s Man-Thing stories, Gerber’s characters tend to be intellectually savvy and, with the exceptions of the mindless and the mute, they have an excellent way with words. But they are at their best when they are moved by emotion. In other words, when they act like Man-Thing. Man-Thing is an externalization of their better natures.
Richard Rory was introduced in Man-Thing 2 as the proverbial sad sack: everything bad always happens to him. But as the series progresses, it gets harder to see Rory as a passive victim. Bad things do happen to him, certainly. Not only is he fired after he tries to halt the book burning, he is also knocked out by the Mad Viking. The reason these things happen, however, is that the only thing passive about Rory is that he is helpless in the face of an ethical conundrum: his moral compass and profound empathy give him no choice but to act. Even before the Mad Viking story is over, Rory finds himself agreeing to help someone against his better judgment. Carol Selby, Olivia’s teenage daughter, begs Rory to take her with him when he and a no-longer-dead Man-Thing leave town:
“Her desperation is genuine. Rory senses it. The empathic Man-Thing mirrors it. Rory has no choice.”
Man-Thing was Darrel the Clown’s suppressed rage, but for Rory, he is the embodiment of empathy. More often than not, Rory’s Man-Thing-like reflexive response to human suffering will do him more harm than good. Certainly that is true with the decision to bring Olivia along; she is underage, and when they cross state lines, he will be convicted of kidnapping. But he will also remain true to himself, and to the virtues embodied by Man-Thing.
The Comic as Nightmare Box
Gerber’s last four issues of Man-Thing were meant to be a new direction for the series; they were also intended to constitute a five-issue storyline (FOOM). The book’s cancellation meant that Gerber had to wrap up the story quickly in the final issue where he completely changed the format and made himself the book’s narrator (as well as one of its participants). While the result is on the messy side, it nevertheless allows Gerber to use the end of the Man-Thing book for one last (and novel) exploration of subjectivity, this time implicitly commenting on the role of art in general and comics in particular in the constitution of empathy and selfhood.
As a result of Man-Thing’s death and resurrection in the previous two issues, the monster no longer needs to stay in the swamp to survive. So he takes a road trip in Richard Rory’s van, a monochromatic Mystery Machine with Rory as Shaggy, Carol Selby as Velma, and Man-Thing as a moss-encrusted Scooby Doo. The change in location facilitates an even more significant alteration to the book’s storytelling, which now has much more room for variety and experimentation. The captions follows the consciousness of multiple characters in a single issue, at times resembling the mini-biographies Marv Wolfman provided for Dracula’s victims but with much greater variation in voice, style, and the representation of interiority. Narrators appear for single chapters, never to be heard from again. Even the plot is much more complex, along the lines of Gerber’s storytelling during his last year on The Defenders.
The key to these last four issues (which, unfortunately, do not have an overall title), is a McGuffin Gerber calls the “nightmare box.” “Nightmare Box” is also the title of Issue 20, which begins charting the peregrinations of one of these devices across state and dimensional lines. Rory’s van collides with a car driven by a demon courier desperate to get the box to its destination. The courier dies, Carol is injured, Rory is arrested for kidnaping, and Man-Thing is left holding the bag (or, in this case, box).
This nightmare box is one of many—in fact, it is the last one needed to secure mutliversal domination by Man-Thing’s perennial antagonist, Thog the Nether Spawn. If we have not spoken of Thog so far, it is because there is absolutely nothing interesting about him. He’s drawn to look like a classic red devil figure, and his motivations, personality, and dialogue have always been one-note. Interesting things can happen because of the Nether Spawn, or around him, such as the gradual collapsing of the multiverse in Fear 19 and Man-Thing 1 that, among other things, led to the arrival of Howard the Duck in our world. After this particular defeat, Thog realized not only that Man-Thing was the primary obstacle to his conquest of all reality, but that he would have to confront the monster on its own terms: “He would attack the monster at its most vulnerable spot—its empathic nature./ This time his weapons would not be sorcery—but emotion” (Man-Thing 22). The nightmare box would be a container for “emotional energy,” filled by “someone with essentially the same empathic powers as Man-Thing—/ —and more, someone to whom these powers were a vast liability.”
The exposition-heavy final issue of Man-Thing at last reveals what, exactly, the readers have been reading over these past few months: a tragedy taking advantage of a group of people whose profound emotional flaws are the key to the creation and functioning of the nightmare boxes. Thog is filling boxes all across the multiverse, but the one we have been following is the result of a triadic relationship among three characters whose connections are initially difficult to discern.
The first of them is Robert Nicolle, who calls himself the Scavenger. Robert was born with the inability to feel pain or pleasure, cutting him off from every basic human connection. Robert is both the apotheosis of Gerber’s alienated male character type while also its antithesis. Most such men and boys in Gerber’s work mirror back the experience of both Gerber himself and the implied (awkward, male) adolescent reader: if only people could get past their unassuming exteriors and see the sensitive genius buried inside! Unlike the classic superhero fantasy, Gerber’s men do not suddenly develop a physique to match their inner strength and beauty. If they are to “win,” it is because of their wit, intellect, and, of course, empathy. By contrast, when Robert takes off his mask, he turns out to be “not a troll. Not some gargoyle. Just… a very…pretty…man…./…who hates all of you for what you did to me” (Man-Thing 19). Unable to feel sensation in his own body, Robert also feels no empathy for those around him. Though his condition is the result of a random mutation, he blames the entire world for his suffering, and seeks out women whose life force he can drain in order to finally feel something. Robert’s striking good looks are appropriate, because he is the bizarro version of a Gerber hero, whose self-absorption and need for supportive women turns him into a vampiric precursor to the Incel.
Consider his victims: though one of them is a random, middle-aged woman, the other two are young wives daring to leave their homes and their profoundly disappointing husbands. Each of these women gets a moving vignette in close third-person limited narrative captions clearly intended to render them sympathetic. In issue 19, Colleen Sanders leaves behind her sleeping husband and two children, imagining how she would try and fail to justify her actions. Even in her own mind, Colleen can’t put her reasons into words, but we are left with the sense that her claustrophobic life is causing her profound existential despair. Her plight puts a Seventies feminist spin on the familiar alienation of Gerber’s male characters.
Colleen has absolutely no connection to the plot, and yet Gerber is at great pains to make the reader accept her interiority. He repeats this exercise two issues later, with another unhappy wife, but this one has an actual connection to the events of the story. Her name is Elsbeth Duhl, and we first see her standing at her apartment window, telling Roland, her accountant husband, that a helicopter has dropped a “gorilla” in the park (the “gorilla” is actually Man-Thing). Roland wants nothing more than to be left alone: “I have more important things to do than listen to your whining. / “I’m an accountant, not a psychiatrist.” Where Colleen’s husband was in some way merely insufficient, Roland is hostile and emotionally abusive.
The next two pages follow Elsbeth as she leaves her building and walks out onto the street. As action goes, this hardly counts. But it doesn’t matter, because the real action is going on in her head:
“She doesn’t wan’t to be “Mrs. Dull” anymore.
“She’s sick of having to explain that it’s spelled D-u-h-l. “
After twenty-five years of marriage, Roland has patience only for equations and number, not for words or emotions: “In time, accounting became his religion.” Though this sounds like a metaphor, it proves accurate, as Roland its working day and night on the mathematics that will allow Thog to use the nightmare boxes for his schemes of conquest. Miserable as she is, she has no idea that cosmos-altering events are unfolding around her. Instead, After she ponders the dangers that might await her outside the building: the “gorilla” could kill her: “And wouldn’t that upset Roland’s neat little world!/ Wouldn’t’ that take his mind off Thog!” The second page of her internal monologue is entirely focused on whether or not she dare step into the street. For a medium whose primary genre is defined by action, this exploration of Elsbeth’s dilemma is defiantly novelistic, if not…dull?:
“It is alive! It sees her! She should be afraid! She should turn and run back inside!
“Why does she feel giddy instead? Why does she long to race toward the beast—into its arms?
“And then it comes clear: it’s the unpredictability. The sense of adventure. The breaking of the rut. Whatever happens it cannot be…Duhl. She steps gingerly off the curb…
“…and immediately regrets her decision.”
In a genre that has long exploited the figure of the “girl victim,” Gerber’s last installment of this horror series does it best to render the victim more real and more complex than any of the victimizers. The problem for both Elsbeth and Colleen, though, is that horror is nonetheless the genre into which they have wandered. Elsbeth’s sudden impulse to race into Man-Thing’s arms suspends her somewhere between girl victim and damsel in distress, because Man-Thing is both monster and hero. He is also the antithesis of the device at the center of her husband’s obsession: the emotion-collecting nightmare box.
Unfortunately for Elsbeth, despite the time Gerber spends making her a real person, for the men in these stories she is nothing but a repository of emotional energy—emotional labor in its potential rather than kinetic form. The Scavenger grabs her as soon as she steps off the curb, announcing “Thog said I could have you! He said he’d reward me for devouring you!” Before he kills her, the Scavenger tells him her life story. Like so many other male characters in Gerber’s work, he turns a woman into his audience. But as he relates the highlights of his miserable existence, she remains silent. She does not emote, or empathize, or in any way try to make him feel better. Her lack of cooperation breaks the paradigm of male complaint and female sympathy, but only because it reduces that dynamic to its absurd essence: the Scavenger drains the life out of her, leaving behind a skeleton next to whom he can sleep the night away.
Elsbeth’s sad journey from personhood to raw material points to the magic behind the Nightmare Box. As Gerber (now the in-story narrator) explains in issue 22, the Box requires three different people fulfilling three different functions: the Scavenger, devoid of feeling, gathers energy from his terrified victims; the phlegmatic Roland Duhl serves as a neutral conduit, and the Scavenger’s sister Dani, whose emotions are so violent that they frequent manifest themselves in bouts of almost mindless violence. She uses the box to drain off her excess feeling, leaving her able to function in the everyday world. Dani doesn’t know that Thog has created a link between her and her brother, causing the emotions siphoned from his victims to flow into her: “So her seizures came more frequently, and she filled lots of nightmare boxes.”
To wrap up his story quickly, Gerber resorts to a familiar kind of metafiction that some readers might find trite: he inserts himself into the story as both character and narrator. All of Man-Thing’s adventures turn out to be “true,” dictated to him by Dakimh the Enchanter (a frequent figure in Gerber’s Man-Thing comics). Issue 22 (“Pop Goes the Cosmo!”) is his letter to Marvel editor Len Wein explaining why he has to leave the bool: “To put it bluntly, I’ve become too personally involved” In a sense, this has always been true, as Gerber’s Man-Thing stories wear their autobiographical emotional content on their sleeves. “Pop Goes the Cosmos!” makes this truth literal, and in doing so, affirms Gerber’s aesthetic strategy for the Man-Thing comics: like the Nightmare Box, they are a vehicle for both sparking and absorbing emotion in the people who hold them. It’s fitting that Thog employs an accountant to coordinate his master plan, because this last issue reminds us that Man-Thing comics are all about investment. Granted, it is emotional investment, precisely the kind that Roland Duhl is incapable of making, but the point still holds.
Gerber’s appearance in “Pop Goes the Cosmos!” is only the beginning of his “involvement.” After several pages that both recaps previous events and explain to the reader what was actually going on, Gerber finds himself physically in the possession of the missing Nightmare Box. One page later, the Nightmare Box gains possession of Gerber himself. As soon as the box is dropped off by a mysterious stranger, Gerber is attacked by demons in Thog’s employ: “One of them uttered a spell of some sort…and I was sucked screaming into the Nightmare Box!”14 Whereupon Thog casts the same spell on the Man-Thing: “So there I was—face-to-face for the first time with the hunk of muck I thought I knew so well.”
Gerber has been dragged into his own story twice now --first by Dakimh, then by Thog. But his presence in the Nightmare Box (and also the story) is justified as an object lesson in the importance of emotional bonds and commitment tempered by rational distance. At the end of the previous issue, one of Thog’s henchmen drilled a hole in the Man-Thing’s forehead, which somehow awakened the consciousness of Ted Sallis, the man the monster used to be. While Gerber is making friends with Man-Thing (or Ted), Thog is carrying their Nightmare Box to the top of a pyramid composed of all the other Nightmare Boxes, at which point the plan is supposed to come to fruition. But, as Dakimh explains:
“You are the fatal flaw in his plan—both of you.
“'For you,' Dakimh continues, ’make this box unlike the others. You both are creatures of reason as well as emotion.
“And if you are able to hold your emotions in check—
“Thog will being for quite a surprise.”
The pyramid collapse, and all of reality with it. An enraged Thog confronts Man-Thing, and his excess emotion causes the monster to regress. Mindless once again, he senses Thog’s fear. And, as we know well by now, whatever knows fear, burns at the Man-Thing’s touch.
Thog’s entire plan defended on fighting a creature of pure emotion with even more emotion, but this scenario left no room for reason. Rushed as the final issue of Man-Thing may be, it is also an explicit statement of the series’ implicit mission statement: balancing emotion (the Man-Thing) and consciousness (the first-person or tight third-person limited narration) to produce a sense of subjectivity unrivaled by previous mainstream comics.
If Gerber was able to wring so much out of a comic about an unthinking swamp monster, what would his best superhero work look like? Superheroes, even of the Marvel variety, tended to solve problems with their fists, claws, or laser eye beams, rather than by using diplomacy or persuasion. The decade-old Marvel tradition of heroic introspection was certainly congenial to Gerber, but the types of conflicts in which superheroes engaged were almost as great a challenge as a protagonist with no sense of self. Gerber was able to make superheroes work, but only when they were disaffected d-listers who found romantic, melodramatic violence as absurd as Gerber did. Fortunately, in 1975 Gerber got the assignment to take over The Defenders.
First appearing in 1971, The Defenders were initially a triumvirate composed of Dr. Strange, the Incredible Hulk, and Namor the Sub-Mariner. None of them were team players (that was the point), but the stories were popular enough to land them their own title the following year. Their roster would expand and contract the next decade; by the time Gerber took over, Namor was gone, and the team’s core consisted of Strange, the Hulk, the Norse warrior woman known as the Valkyrie, and Nighthawk, a reformed villain and rich costumed adventurer with a jet-pack. Unlike the Avengers, the Defenders had no regular meetings or official leader (though Dr. Strange was de facto in charge), and billed itself as a “non-team.” During Gerber’s tenure, the Defenders would at times include Luke Cage, the Son of Satan, the Thing, the Red Guardian, Clea, Daredevil, and Yellowjacket, and would also team up with the original Guardians of the Galaxy. What they had in common (at least in the 1970s) was the standard heroic altruism combined with a tendency towards disaffection.
During his first year on the book, Gerber developed a firm grasp of the group’s dynamic, even if the stories did not always require this particular group of heroes to make it work. The five-part team-up with the Guardians of the Galaxy, though well-crafted, was the launching pad for the Guardians’ own series (also written by Gerber).15 The three-part struggle with the racist Sons of the Serpent also could have involved virtually any Marvel hero, although it ended on a note that was important for Kyle Richmond’s (Nighthawk’s) growth as a character (Kyle discovers that the Serpents were funded by his own company, at the behest Alfred Pennysworth, his African American second-in-command).
Since Kyle and Valkyrie were the only two characters over whom Gerber had exclusive control, they were the ones he could most successfully develop. Prior to discovering Pennysworth’s crimes, Kyle had already been thrown for a loop by the car bombing that maimed his girlfriend and led to her departure. Valkyrie was Gerber’s focus from the very beginning, thanks to the unique challenges the warrior woman faced. Her body was that of Barbara Denton Norris, a cultist driven mad by an extra dimensional god, but her mind was an artificial persona crated by an Asgardian sorceress. Her ongoing identity crisis is only exacerbated by her discovery that Barbara had a husband, Jack, and that Jack refused to believe she was no longer Barbara. Jack would be a regular supporting character and near constant irritant until Gerber’s penultimate Defenders story.
At their best, The Defenders was not just metaphorically cerebral; it came close to being literally cerebral as well. Issue 21 (“Enter…the Headmen!”) was both a self-contained, if puzzling, story and the lead-in to the nearly yearlong storyline that capped Gerber’s tenure on the book.16The three Headmen of the title are obscure villains who each appeared in the publisher's pre-Marvel age science fiction horror comics: Arthur Nagan, whose experiments with interspecies organ transplants culminated in an ape rebellion and the grafting of his head on a gorilla body; Jerry Morgan, whose research into shrinking technology resulted in the miniaturization of his skull, but not the soft tissues that contained it; and Chondu the Mystic, a forgettable, minor-league guru.17 Reviving these Z-listers was consistent with Gerber’s approach to superhero conflict; in Giant-Sized Defenders 3, he had the Hulk square off against a cute, tiny yellow antennaed telekinetic rather than a giant bruiser, and when the Defenders teamed up with Howard the Duck in “Five Villains in Search of a Plot” (Howard the Duck Treasury Edition) their antagonists were a ragtag team consisting of Dr. Angst (Master of Mundane Mysticism), Sitting Bullseye, Tillie the Hun, the Spanker, and Black Hole.
In their first appearance, the Headmen inject a chemical into the conveniently bald Chondu’s brain, which calls down a mystical “Black Rain” that drives all the sleeping residents of nighttime Manhattan into a furious, quasi-suicidal frenzy. Nighthawk is the only Defender who directly encounters a Headman; so surprised is he by Nagan’s grotesque appearance that the ape-man quickly trounces him. On the last page, the Defenders are left to wonder what, exactly, has just happened.
The Defenders (and their readers) would have to wait almost a year to find out. The eleven-issue storyline devoted in part to the Headmen would turn out to be one of Gerber’s most significant contributions to the budding self-awareness of the superhero genre, as well as his most complex exploration of subjectivity within the confines of stories about costumed heroes and villains. Taking both the name and the grotesque appearance of the Headmen as his cue, Gerber quite literally takes us inside his characters heads.
In the penultimate issue of the Headmen storyline, Jack Norris (the husband of the body the Valkyrie inhabits) tries to draw the Defenders’ attention to geopolitical and social ramifications of their enemies’ schemes, though the heroes’ blind spots and his own abrasiveness render his efforts futile: “[I]f you turkeys can’t punch a problem in the face—or life it out of the way—/—you’re just not interested, are you??” But Jack turns out to be right: the battle they face is one of ideas, one in which neither they nor their home genre are equipped to engage.
Jack is in the perfect position to realize this, and not only because he is a non-powered stand-in for the reader: thanks to the story's endless hijinks involving heads, minds, souls, and mind control, he is the only character who has actually witnessed the Headmen’s plans. For, just as the reader is implicitly invited to identify which the comics’ protagonists, Jack had his mind temporarily implanted into the body (but not the brain) of Kyle Richmond. In The Defenders, minds, brains, and selves all become dangerously fungible.
When the Headmen return in issue 31, Nagan drugs Nighthawk, brings him back to their base, and surgically removes his brain, replacing it with Chondu’s. For the next several months, Kyle is nothing more than a brain in a dish. Meanwhile, the Hulk has rescued a baby deer from hunters, after they shoot and killed his mother (“Men killed Bambi’s mother!”). When the Defenders discover that Nighthawk’s body no longer houses Kyle Richmond’s brain, Dr. Strange puts Jack’s mind in Kyle’s body, Chondu’s mind in “Bambi’s”, and “Bambi’s”…we never actually find out what happens to the consciousness of the baby faun. Strange’s gambit is appropriate, since swapping out Kyle’s brain was only the beginning of the Headmen’s head-themed plans. Their new member, Ruby, a woman who has replaced her own head with a malleable plastic red spherical supercomputer, knocks the Defenders unconscious, leaving them vulnerable to the Headmen’s machinations. But the Headmen do not torture them, or attempt to kill them; they don’t even engage in the sort of brainwashing or mind control that is fairly standard in superhero stories. Instead, Nagan uses “encephalo-transmogrifiers” to “perform a subtle alteration on our subject’s thought patterns./ When the process is completed, they’ll simply see things—more our way.” Jack/Nighthawk asks what they will do with him, and Nagan responds: “Then we let them go, of course—with you to accompany them!/ What possible use could they be to us otherwise?”
The alterations are so subtle that the Defenders attack the Headmen as soon as they awaken, leaving Jack and the readers to forget all about the procedure for the next several issues. Only much later does the Hulk find himself inexplicably breaking up a feminist anti-snuff film protest; Valkyrie, in a fit of temper, crushes a rock that had been thrown through Dr. Strange’s window by anti-communist fanatics, and Dr. Strange, annoyed by the pomposity of a politician on the campaign trail, casts a spell that causes the man’s pants to fall down while he is on stage. That appears to be the extent of the changes.18
As nefarious schemes go, this one is patently underwhelming. It makes for terrible superhero drama, which is precisely the point. Their ridiculous trappings aside, the Headmen have come together to reject the logic of the superhero genre. Unlike Dr. Angst and his team, they are not “five villains in search of a plot;” the are four villains in search of a way out of a stereotypical narrative framework. They are still villains—their solutions to the world’s problems are violent and coercive. In overpopulated Calcutta, they shrink the population by literally shrinking the population (to an adult height of about two inches).
Their interventions in the thought patterns of the Defenders are similarly odd. What could be gained by having Dr. Strange pants a politician? Only that he and his comrades have had their typical narrative patterns disrupted. They are not so much brainwashed as they are deturned—hijacked from their conventional contexts as if they were the targets of a Situationist prank.
As for Nighthawk, he did not have his thought patterns “subtly altered,” but his extended existence as a disembodied brain had a profound effect on him. Or rather, had the effect of forcing him to become profound. Before gaining his powers, Kyle Richmond had been an irresponsible rich boy (Nighthawk was designed as a parody of Batman), and Gerber used his years on the Defenders to force Kyle to grow up.
Gerber hit Kyle with tragedy after tragedy; first he discovers that his money is being used to support racist terrorists, then his girlfriend loses her arm in a car explosion and leaves him. Kyle loses his money (or at least, the pleasure from having it without guilt), his love, and now his body. A large part of issue 32 is devoted to Kyle’s reliving his old memories, showing the reader (and himself) all the ways in which he failed to be a functioning, responsible adult. When his brain is finally placed back in his body, he cannot simply ease back into his old routines. As he tells Dr. Strange in Issue 37, “Now I don’t now if this is real, or—help me!” His readjustment is further complicated by the nature of superhero adventuring. In the very next issue, now dressed as Nighthawk again, Kyle steps through a door and finds himself on another planet, watching as Dr. Strange and Luke Cage try to rescue their new comrade, the Red Guardian, from flesh-eating beetles: “Suddenly, his brain feels detached again.” At first, unable to get Strange’s attention, he appears to be on the verge of a breakdown “I need to know I’m okay—.”
Kyle’s words could apply to most of the characters in this Defenders storyline at some point or another. To make matters worse, the Headmen are not the only people trying to rearrange the furniture in people’s heads. Back when Jack Norris is still inhabiting Chondu’s brain in Nighthawk’s body, he flees the Headmen, carrying Kyle’s brain with him, only to be kidnapped by Nebulon, the Celestial Man. Nebulon, a would-be alien invader from the pre-Gerber Defenders, has attained enlightenment, which he now wishes to bring to humanity. Unfortunately, the only way he can do this is by kidnapping random humans, imprisoning them in a pseudo-Greek temple, and draining their mental energy until they die.
Where the Headmen are trying to change society, Nebulon, now disguising himself as a short, bald man in a suit, wants to raise people’s consciousness to a higher level. Despite their bizarre appearance, the Headmen are a familiar type: a shadowy cabal bent on world domination (albeit with a relatively light touch). Nebulon represents the phenomenon Gerber seemed to loathe above all: New Age California. Nebulon offers seminar in “Celestial Mind Control,”which seems to be a parody of both Scientology and EST/The Forum. As such, he is the perfect antagonist for Gerber’s model of the Defenders as encounter group. The Defenders have an effect on each other by virtue of their mutual emotional investment and the appreciation of each other’s individuality, while Nebulon’s philosophy is, quite literally, one size fits all. When the Hulk, Valkyrie, and Dr. Strange infiltrate his first seminar, they are treated to a little man haranguing his audience, berating them for “what a stinking mess you’ve made of everything so far.” The problem is that “you’re all Bozos!” Under each person’s seat is a bozo mask, which they all assent to put on. Celestial Mind Control’s first stage consists of confronting people with their true clownishness, assisted by women in cheerleader costumes chanting “B!O!Z!O! You’re a Bozo Bozo BOZO!” (Dr. Strange: “I […] find this a curious path to enlightenment.")
From its first appearance in issue 34 to the end of the story in Defenders Annual 1, Celestial Mind Control is mostly a background threat. Even Gerber must have found it difficult to make a comic out of superheroes beating up duped cultists dressed in clown masks. Frequent fights with Nebulon would defeat the point: when not in his human disguise, Nebulon is just another superpowered alien to put down. Nebulon is using Celestial Mind Control the same way the Headmen are advancing their own plans: by working behind the scenes and cultivation the powerful. In the story’s final installment, Dr. Strange intervenes in a meeting between Nebulon and President Gerald Ford, during which Strange and Nebulon shoot energy beams at each other while debating the merits of free will. Nebulon wins this round, and Ford is on the verge of making a public statement in support of Celestial Mind Control when Strange magically covers the president’s mouth with a metal muzzle: “Once more, Mr. President, my sincerest apologies. / But I think even my temper would be strained to the limits were you to deem us a nation of bozos.”
The story ends in a free-for all involving the Defenders, the Headmen, and Nebulon. The Defenders make quick work of the Headmen, in classic superhero style. As the narrator notes, “Sad, but true: all that’s left to say is a punch in the face.”19 Not so for Nebulon; Strange uses the Eye of Agamotto to enter his antagonists’ mind and, in a twist on one of Stan Lee’s favorite trope, show him “what it is to be human!” Nebulon is treated to a montage of humanity’s greatest hits (“the sad and raucous, noble and perverse, heroic and foolhardy pageant of all mankind’s history”). Strange launches into an impassioned speech about man as a “creature whose most despicable qualities often resulting his most towering achievements”:
“Rob us of the fool, the adventurer, the scoundrel—in short, the bozo—in each of our souls—and we are nothing.
“We attain our most glorious heights when we admit our ignorance…and forge onward to surround it.
“Perhaps this classes us as anomalies in the universe, but—“
Luckily for the reader, Nebulon cuts him off: “Enough, Strange! I concede! Your race is beyond redemption! And so I hereby aboard my efforts—to—/ Farewell, Strange!”
Nighthawk is nonplussed: “Th-that’s it? He surrendered because he figures we’re a hopeless case?”
As distastefully inane as Celestial Mind Control might have been, it was centered on the figure of the Bozo in order to overcome him, Or at least, that’s how it seems by the last two pages; before that, Gerber did not elaborate on CMC’s goals enough to lead to this conclusion. But in a book whose final point is about the necessity of imperfection, it seems a bit churlish to dwell on the the flaws. Instead, we should consider Gerber’s spin on 1960s Marvel humanism. The message is not that different from the conclusions drawn by the Silver Surfer. The real difference is in the metaphor used for humanity’s imperfections: the Bozo is inherently absurd, stepping outside of the typical Marvel humanist binary of the “noble” vs. the “base.” The Bozo is a different kind of antonym to the noble: he is an embarrassment.
He is also a comic book character. Note the synonyms for Bozo used by Dr. Strange: the fool, the adventurer, the scoundrel. These are the heroes and villains of adventure tales. The Valkyrie is an adventurer, while the Hulk (who spent two issues of The Defenders raving about Bambi) is a good fit for the fool. The scoundrel could be the villain, or he could also be the shameful past of a current hero (like Nighthawk). Indeed, this helps justifies the attention pain to Kyle’s pre-Nighthawk biography. Kyle Richmond (the Defender with whom Nebulon has the closest connection) is a living example of Strange’s thesis about “despicable qualities” that eventually lead to “towering achievements.” Gerber’s warmed-over humanism works better as a justification for his continued commitment to a genre whose absurdities he cannot ignore even as he retains a clear (and clear-eyed) affection for it. He has spent a year on The Defenders getting into his characters’ heads and doubling down on their imperfections and reveling in the ridiculousness of superhero plots. Jim Starlin had Adam Warlock rage against the “diamonds in the garbage,” but Gerber accepted both. Or, as Dr. Strange concludes on the last page, “Let us, if only for a moment, be Bozos one and all, eh?"
Self: Sufficient? Omega the Unknown’s Mind/Body Problem
The typical Gerber hero suffers from detachment—in the case of the Defenders' various heads and brains removed from bodies, literally so. Small wonder that Gerber created the Headmen, since most of his characters tend to live in their own heads. Again and again, the solution for the plight of the reticent intellectual is connection and empathy. In the figure of the Man-Thing, Gerber had a mindless creature based entirely on emotion, who played a decisive role at key moments in the story’s but otherwise functioned as the drama’s silent chorus. In Omega the Unknown, Gerber and his writing partner Mary Skrenes co-created the Man-Thing’s counterpoint: a thirteen-year-old boy whose superior intellect is complicated by a near-incapacity to connect with his own emotions or those of others.
Omega the Unknown ran for just 10 issues in 1976 and 1977 before its abrupt cancellation, its mysteries wrapped up two years later by Steve Grant in a Defenders storyline that even its writer found unsatisfying. In fact, despite the character’s obscurity, more comics featuring Omega were scripted by other writers than by Gerber and Skrenes. Issues 7 and 8 were credited to Scott Edelman and Roger Stern, respectively; their single-issue assignments were probably the result of Gerber’s notorious lateness. The character was subsequently revived and rebooted by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple in a ten-issue limited series in 2007, the result of Lethem’s childhood fascination with the original comic (Lethem even included references to Omega in his 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude).
Omega the Unknown was an unusual comic, even by the standards of Seventies Marvel in general and Gerber in particular. Superficially, it is the most prominent example of Gerber’s Superman fixation; after all, the title character wears a red-and-blue costume, a cape, and a headband that would not have been all that out of place in the trendiest spots on Krypton. A rocket carries him from his doomed planet to ours. Unlike Superman, he arrives as an adult, but he shares the comic with a child, James-Michael Starling, orphaned, like Superman, in the very first issue. The two characters also share a physical resemblance and a mysterious bond, suggesting a variation on not just Superman, but the original Captain Marvel (a young boy transformed into a superpower adult by saying the magic word “Shazam:”). Yet Omega and James-Michael invert the dual identity tropes of their predecessors. The biggest challenge to Superman’s maintenance of his secret identity was that he and Clark Kent could not be seen in the same place at the same time (the same was true for Captain Marvel, but it never became much of a plot point). James-Michael and Omega certainly do co-exist. The problem is that we can never quite be sure why.
The man eventually referred to as Omega is apparently the last survivor of a planet overrun by robots; he arrives on Earth (in New York, of course) in the very first issue, and is nearly killed by one of the robots who follow him, Omega, who does not speak a single word in the first three issues (and only one in the fourth), tries to blend in, but is repeatedly drawn into senseless battles: with the Hulk (issue 2), the villainous Electro (issue 3), and the local brujo known as “El Gato” (issues 4-5). Along the way he is accidentally shot, then subsequently befriended, by an old man (“Gramps”) whose nonstop chatter makes up for Omega’s studied silence. Omega has no clear motives beyond his own survival and the protection of young James-Michael.
James-Michael had spent his entire life homeschooled by his parents in a futuristic house in the mountains somewhere in Pennsylvania. When the series begins, his parents are driving him to New York, where he will attend school for the first time (his parents insist that it will be good for him; James-Michael says that other children “bore” him). A car accident kills his parents, but not before James-Michael has one last conversations with his mother, whose head was ripped from her body, revealing that she was a robot. His mother’s head warns James-Michael not to listen to “the voices,” and then melts away. James-Michael has a brief psychotic break, only to awaken in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen. When a robot breaks into the hospital to attack him, Omega is not far behind, and James-Michael surprises himself by knocking out the robot with energy blasts that leave omega-shaped stigmata on his palms (Omega himself displayed the same powers a few pages earlier).
James-Michael is taken in by Ruth Hart, a nurse at the hospital (and former Man-Thing supporting cast member), along with her roommate, Amber, to share their tiny Hell’s Kitchen apartment.20 The Hell’s Kitchen setting is integral to Omega, since nearly all of James-Michael’s troubles, as well as his education in ordinary humanity, are the result of his confrontation with non-stop human misery and cruelty. He makes two friends at school: a tomboy named Diane, whose sarcasm and brusk manner make her a pubescent analog to the streetwise Amber, who clearly intrigues the boy; and John Nedly, a fat outcast and would-be writer. Nedly is horrifically beaten by bullies, and issue 10 starts with his funeral.
If this doesn’t sound like much in the way of plot, then my summary is successful. In part because the series was so quickly cut short, in part because of fill-ins and deadline problems, and in part because of the Omega the Unknown’s awkward fit in a mainstream superhero universe, very little progress is made in solving the three enigmas announced in the introductory text on the splash page of every issue:
ENIGMA THE FIRST: the lone survivor of an alien world, a nameless man of somber, impassive visage, garbed utterly inappropriately in garish blue-and-red. ENIGMA THE SECOND: James-Michael Starling, age twelve raised in near-isolation by parents who (he discovered on the day they "died") were robots. ENIGMA THE THIRD: the link between the man and the boy, penetrating to the depths of the mind and body, causing each to question his very reality of self.
These introductory captions were standard at Marvel at the time, but Omega’s is appropriately unusual. It sets up the two main characters, raises the question of their character, and then gives absolutely no indication about the actual plot. Even in what should have been a boilerplate blurb, theme trumps plot, and that theme announces itself in italics in the very last word: self.
Omega the Unknown checks all the standard Gerber boxes: interrogating the genre (Omega doesn’t understand the fights he keeps getting in), social commentary (everything about Hell’s Kitchen), and existential critique. Though the social commentary is the most obvious, it is the existential critique that connects the book's disparate elements (first and foremost, Omega and James-Michael themselves). The alienation of Gerber’s archetypal protagonist, Howard the Duck, is a function of his idiosyncratic, uncompromising selfhood: he has a perspective on the world, and he will not yield. On the other end of the spectrum, Man-Thing is literally self-less, serving as a catalyst for the self-exploration of those around him. Omega and James-Michael occupy a strong middle ground: unlike Man-Thing, they can, and do think, but, unlike Howard, they start the book with a strangely rudimentary sense of self.
Omega, as we have seen, spends most of the comic in silence, but the sequences that focus on him are accompanied by a large number of narrative captions, mostly in the third-person limited. We’ve seen something like this technique before, when Marv Wolfman would dedicate a series of panels to conveying the consciousness of Dracula’s victims immediately before the vampire’s attack. Wolfman leaves the reader with a strong sense of who the victim was. The comparable captions in Omega the Unknown leave Omega still…unknown.
Lethem, and, following him, Jose Alaniz, refer to these sequences as “Omega monologues” or “soliloquies,” but they are actually neither. Using “Omega” as the modifier to these series of captions suggests that, whatever term we might use to describe them, their subject is Omega himself. On the surface, we could be reading free indirect discourse, but Alaniz correctly points out that in one of the last such “soliloquies” in Issue 10, the “off-kilter narration” seems to “blithely go off on its own,” particularly when the narrator exclaims ”You cad!” as Omega is thrown into a ravine. Alaniz connects it to the idea of “autistic presence,” and notes that Lethem observed that Gerber seemed to be writing his way “out of the human race.”
I am not entirely comfortable with the attempts to place Omega the Unknown within the category of autism, except perhaps along the lines of the “autistic poetics” described by Julia Miele Rodas. Alaniz’s connection of James-Michael to Bruno Bettlehiem’s “Joey, the Mechanical Boy” is useful less because of considerations of actual autism than due to Bettleheim’s thoroughgoing wrongness about autism. James-Michael and Omega arguably embody a neurodiverse subjectivity, but only to the extent that any non-normative consciousness fits this designation.
The “Omega monologues” are crucial because of the way in which they fail to be monologues. They point to a gray area between phenomenology and ontology, not entirely about the characters experience of consciousness as about the underdeveloped subjectivity that could be experiencing consciousness. It is fitting that James-Michael and Omega are linked and share an obvious resemblance, because each of them, on his own, fails to be an entire self. The James-Michael/Omega doubling emphasizes the incomplete, fragmentary nature of their selfhood.
At the same time, neither James-Michael nor Omega are static characters; their selves may be incomplete, but the story of Omega the Unknown is that of their coming-into-selfhood. This is not exactly a Bildunsgroman; it is something stranger.
Stranger, but not unprecedented. On occasion, novelists have created protagonists who need a great deal of time to mature into a full sense of their own subjectivity. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked Years novels, for instance, start with a protagonist (the Wicked Witch of the West), whose sense of self and perspective on the world around her is so strong that all the protagonists of the subsequent three novels not only pale in comparison, but take decades to develop a sense of agency and a point of view (Liir in the second book, the Lion in the third, and Rain in the fourth). They are all observers of their own lives rather than active participants. 21
James-Michael is reminiscent of Sasha Dvanov, the hero of Andrei Platonov’s 1929 novel Chevengur. Dvanov, too, lives his life at a distance. The narrator tells us that somewhere inside his head lives a watchmen: “He lived parallel to Dvanov, but wasn’t Dvanov.
“He existed somewhat like a man’s dead brother; everything human seemed to be at hand, but something tiny and vital was lacking. Man never remembers him, but always trusts him, just as when a tenant laves his house and his wife within, he is never jealous of her and the doorman.
"This is the eunuch of man’s soul.”
Valery Podoroga concludes that Chevengur is a story told by a “castrated consciousness.” If we connect this to Omega the Unknown, one might imagine the dual protagonists could be divided into “conscious, emotions, and human” on the one hand and the “trusted dead brother” on the other. But the story with Omega is even stranger than that. Both Omega and James-Michael start out as closer to the “watchmen” figure than to the “normal” consciousness. These are not two halves that make a whole: these are two halves that are slowing growing their missing pieces.
Consider the first “Omega monologue” from issue 1, which sets up a pattern that will recur throughout the series.
“The mind searches furiously for a key to it all: what is it? What went wrong? Why? How?
“The body, meanwhile…
“…does what it must…
Though Omega will be referred to as “he” for the rest of the series, the very second page of his first appearance establishes him as something other than a simple unitary self. His mind and body function separately, if at times in parallel. This could explain some of the strangeness of the monologues, in that they always seem to hover around Omega rather than represent his coherent point of view. Like the narrator of Howard the Duck 11 who takes over the running commentary when everyone is briefly unconscious, the “Omega monologues” narrate on behalf of a consciousness that does not quite exist.
The various parts that make up Omega proliferate on those first pages, for, in addition to mind and body, he is also the conduit for a mysterious power:
“For the chaos, the tumult raging all about this last of his superior breed…
“…could only bye the product…
“… of the pain..
“…and the passion…
“…and the fire…
“To which he alone remains heir.
“The energy—the creative force—could be disciplined only so strictly, held meeting in check only so long, before it burst forth…
“…ravaging, mindless, uncontrollable.”
First we should not that tumult is raging “all about’ him, rather than something he is directly experiencing, and yet it expresses itself in an outpouring of energy issued directly from his palms. This “creative force” is the third element of Omega’s not-quite-self, the only one that is directly connected to emotion. Not just emotion, but passion: the build-up, the “bursting forth,” have an element of the orgasmic about them, Small wonder that the narrator’s conclusion at this point is that “An organism ceases to live when it ceases to grow.” Not only is Omega on a path that will lead him to growth, but this scene immediately cuts to the pubescent James-Michael as he wakes up screaming from a nightmare. This “creative force” is the libidinal element otherwise absent from the castrated consciousness. When James-Michael wakes up from this nightmare, it is of course, nothing like sexual release, but his repetition of Omega’s fiery ejaculation on the issue’s last page suggest that something libidinal is finally awakening in him as well.
Given his age (and the default presumption of heterosexuality), the proximal cause of his awakening is unsurprising: his first meeting with Ruth’s free-spirited, halter-topped, and ceaselessly witty roommate, Amber, who will explicitly become James-Michael’s guide to the dangers and attractions of Hell’s Kitchen, and implicitly the inspiration for the development of his sexual feelings. Issue 1 has a lot of heavy lifting to do, but it still finds time to highlight James-Michael’s interactions with the three important adult women in his life. First, his mother, who encourages him to see the next stage of his life as “exciting”: “…the people you’ll encounter….And human beings aren’t as dull as you seem to believe, James-Michael.” Of course, it turns out that she is speaking from the perspective of an external observer, since the car accident that kills her reveals that she is a robot.
James-Michael’s literal awakening from his coma introduces him to Ruth, who never manages to forget a real connection with him. As she tells Dr. Barrow, “…you know this trouble I’ve had lately…relating.” She cannot be natural with the boy: “I tried too hard, it’s true. I must’ve come off like Miss Lois on Romper Room./ So sweet, so cutesy-poo. But why? That’s not me!” Where her maternal approach fails, Amber’s natural ability to, as Ruth herself puts it, “relate,’ breaks down some of James-Michael’s barriers. She meets him without realizing that he’s the future roommate Ruth mentioned, and cracks wise about James-Michael’s chess match against himself. James-Michael’s response is more open than anything he has said to date: “It’s easier…when you feel like two people all the time, anyway.”
That night, right before the robot crashes into his hospital room, James-Michael can’t sleep. The description of his insomnia starts out with the same mind/body dichotomy highlighted in the first Omega monologue, but quickly settles on James-Michael as a self:
“The mind tingles…first rapport…”Imagination is fueled by experience.” [a quote from his father] ….who is she? Why does her feel…every so slightly…aglow?”
Whereupon his is attacked, and uses the strange energy from his hands to protect himself and Omega. Again, he experiences his own bodily sensations with detachment: “This rawness of nerves… is new to me…I’m not accustomed to pain. It interests me…” Given the sexual preoccupations that prevented him from sleeping, the comparison to masturbation practically writes itself. Instead of hairy palms, he gets omega-shaped stigmata.
Hulk Smash Existential Dilemma
The second issue of Omega the Unknown (“Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen!”) did what all Marvel comics of that era had to do: it featured a more famous guest star in order to attract readers. At the time, Spider-Man would have been a good bet; in later years, Wolverine. But Omega the Unknown got the Hulk.
Fortunately, the Hulk was a known quality for Gerber, and he and Skrenes turned an obligatory guest star into a vehicle for advancing the series’ themes. Though the character might be an odd fit for the comic’s cerebral tone, the Hulk, as we have seen, is one of Marvel’s best embodiments of duality. As Bruce Banner, he is intelligent (like James-Michael and Omega) and articulate (like James-Michael), while the Hulk’s communications skills are limited.
James-Michael’s encounter with the Hulk takes place after a promise of self-discovery. Dr. Barrow encourages him to take the study of “the mind” seriously, to which James-Michael assents (“My interests gravitate more toward the hard sciences, Dr. Barrow. But I enjoy learning about anything…!”). Barrow takes it a step further: “I want to introduce you to some fascinating new subjects matter—yourself.”
If this issue is the beginning of James-Michael’s self-study, it is thoroughly free of any kind of navel-gazing. In fact, the lessons Amber gives him in the “jungle philosophy” of life in Hell’s Kitchen follow upon his parents’ earlier explanation for why he needs to get out in the world. When James-Michael first glimpses Bruce Banner, he and Amber mistake the man sleeping on the street for a drunken derelict. They immediately pass by James-Michael’s own version of an alter ego, Omega, who is now dressed in construction garb (Amber finds him attractive).
James-Michael is unaware of his kinship with either man: Omega, because he doesn’t recognize him without his costume, and Banner, because he has yet to wake up and speak in the same over-educated manner James-Michael himself favors. When Banner, who is the superhero comic equivalent of Chekhov’s gun, inevitably transforms into the Hulk, the result is a two-pronged assault on both Omega and James-Michael that highlights not only the duality of their mysterious connection, but also the duality within themselves. James-Michaels’ reaction is not to the physical transformation occurring before his very eyes; rather, the process of metamorphosis awakens James-Michael to “the voices” his mother warned him about:
“Amber…I’m becoming dizzy…in my mind…I can hear…”
“The voices..! Amber…!”
“They’re still fighting…the voices inside the green man…Amber…!”
There are plenty of reasons to be disturbed by the appearance of a giant green monster just a few feet away, but James-Michael experiences the Hulk as the sum total of his interior conflicts, the “fighting” between the monster and Banner. Omega, meanwhile, has been existing almost entirely as a body: “Physical labor: the job demands only minimal mental activity, allowing the mind to roam elsewhere.” Upon seeing the Hulk, Omega, unlike James-Michael, responds as a body rather than mind:
“Every nerve seems to fire at once…body launched into motion by chemical lightning…
"Even his face…!
“Unaccustomed to so violent a physiological response to danger stimulus—what is this world doing to him?—Even his face…
“Momentarily, it betrayed him, betrayed his inner self.”
Though an “inner self” is affirmed, Omega still experiences events as a body and mind occasionally working at cross-purposes, rather than a self-sufficient being. Meanwhile, the conflict between actions and introspection plays out in the responses of James-Michael’s two guardians, the women whose personalities are such sharp opposites. Amber leaps into action, taking photographs as part of her job for The Daily Bugle. Ruth, upon seeing the Hulk, is immediately taken back to her time with Richard Rory and the Man-Thing: “It’s just…well, she’s lived through certain experiences which she speaks about only rarely. […] And the violence of this scene—and of the man-monster in particular—evokes memories.”
“Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen” is a story of exploration and self-discovery, but provides no answers. The Spider-Man villain Electro knocks Omega out, causing James-Michael to go into shock. Dr. Barrow’s invitation to study “the mind” in the first few pages is counterbalanced by an ending that leaves both its leads unconscious.
This turns out to be the perfect launching point for issue 3 (“Burn While You Learn,”) whose overall theme is awakening. Characters emerge from slumber, unconsciousness, and dormancy; one young boy gains a new sense of his own agency, while another learns how not to be overwhelmed by sensory inputs. All against the backdrop of a new school, a beating by a bully, and yet another fight with a supervillain.
“Burn While You Learn” initially looks like a step-backward for James-Michael—he’s back in the hospital bed he occupied for so much of the first issue, and when he is ready to leave, he is treated to another homily by Dr. Barrow about the complexities of the mind. HIs parting words about the benefits of the school Ruth has arranged for the boy are casually perceptive:
“Frankly, she’s not sure you can cope with it just yet. But I think it’s just what you need—
“—to lift that gauze curtain from your eyes.”
The metaphor is surprisingly apt: James-Michael is strangely removed from his own life, as if by an almost invisible barrier. Like Ruth, he has trouble “relating,” which is also probably why she has been unable to connect with him (they have yet another misunderstanding on the comic’s second page).
The “gauze curtain” is made literal in the panel just beneath Barrow’s words, with Omega slowly returning consciousness illustrated by a vaguely pointillist paterns and a series of white blobs overlaying his face. He is held captive by Electro, whose electric superpowers also have a metaphorical side: he sparks such rage in Omega that our silent man of mystery is obliged to take action, while his literal powers recharge and revive the robot that has been stalking both of the comic’s leads:
“Something about this man infuriates him. Not the swaggering boastfulness. Not the sneer on the thin, pale lips…
“No, the anger derives from the fact of the anger itself…from Electro’s uncanny ability to jab verbally at all the right spots to arouse his ire…
“…to shatter his once inviolable composure and thus prompt him to act without analysis."
James-Michael, too, will be shocked out of his calm demeanor at school, first accidentally slapped in the face first by a teacher and then intentionally punched in the jaw by Nick the bully. One page has Omega straining against his bonds followed by a montage of James-Michael’s schooldays, and the accompanying monologue could refer to either of them, or to both:
“The mind bends under the squall of implications. Passive acceptance has proved itself inadequate to deal with this new world.”
“Wry vexation, bemused detachment, the stance of the unfeeling, unobtrusive observer…may no longer suffice if existence is to consist of more than sleepwalking."
Like Howard the Duck, both Omega and James-Michael are "trapped in a world they never made,” but in their case, the nature of the trap is complicated by their unwillingness to engage. Howard, too, will withdraw at significant moments, but to do so, he has to fight his impulse to get involved. Omega is not a superhero, but, to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, he is “just drawn that way,” and therefore has already been drawn into numerous conflicts in three short issues. Each time, however, he spend as much time resisting involvement as he does in the actual fight. But as an alien refugee from a dead planet and as a man running around in what everyone takes as a superhero costume, he has natural predators who make fighting a matter of survival:
“For virtually every species in the chain of life there exists a nature predator…
“… an agent whose aims run directly contrary to those of the first organism…
“Whose nature is to hunt it down, disrupt its doings, prey upon its inherent weaknesses.”
This particular Omega monologue puts our hero in the predator’s position for once, since it is he who recognizes the robot’s weak spots, but for most of the comic, it has been Electro who knows exactly what buttons to push in order to drive Omega into a frenzy that he so clearly wishes to avoid. James-Michael is not drawn like a superhero, and is not naturally assimilated to that particular genre; he is, however, drawn like the studious, nerdy boy who is the natural prey to bullies. He not only refuses to engage; he refuses to believe that he will be called on to defend himself. After Nick punches him in the jaw, James-Michael asks Amber for advice, and her response stuns him: “I dunno. Have you considered…hitting back?”
Both Amber and James-Michael are operating according to their customary scripts. James-Michael resolves to “analyze the problem in depth,” while Amber tells him to “give it a breather” and distract himself with the telethon on TV. But Electro is at the telethon, and therefore on the screen, and the television does a much more extreme version of the function that Amber ascribes to it: it shuts the viewer down. James-Michael stares in shock:
“The phenomenon might best be described as “white thought”—everything blending into flat, featureless nothing.
“Realities in collision—the plane of nightmares, piercing, rather than meeting tangentially the sphere of physical existence.”
Just two pages after the monologue that seemed attached to both James-Michael and Omega simultaneously, these captions appear to have centered the “Omega monologue” firmly on James-Michael. After all, it is only his connection to Omega that could explain the effect the broadcast has on him.
Television renders the already passive James-Michael an even more passive viewer, while the telethon in broadcasts offers up another boy to (literally) stand in for James-Michael during his near catatonia: Freddie, the telethon’s poster boy, who stays upright with the help of crutches. He is Electro’s hostage, which means he is the one Omega is trying to save. As a poster boy, Freddie is talked about rather than with, framed more as object than subject. Which is why Gerber and Skrenes spend an entire page following his consciousness. As Electro and Omega are deadlocked (shooting their energy bolts at each other), Freddie realizes that the moment is his:
“Somewhere, parsecs distant from either antagonist’s thoughts, stands little Freddie, looking on from a universe of his own.
“For a year now, he’s served as a professional object-of-pity […]
“Now, he decides, he’s had enough. Exploit, pit, and objectify him, will they? Oh, yeah???”
Freddie hits Electro with one of his crutches, breaking his concentration and allowing Omega to defeat him.
“No telling how many universes that single blow to the shin has affected. Electro’s, of course, is shattered. The mystery man’s, refortified, Freddie’s expand beyond measure.
“And there are others…within the studio and without.
“His proud mother’s…the TV announcer’s…of every man’s mind is a universe an d a few million are watching this extravaganza on their home screens…!
“He likes that notion.”
Freddie is a minor character never seen before and never heard from again, but that is the point. Gerber and Skrenes are demonstrating the power of both individual initiative (Freddie’s) and the simple act of being the audience. The viewers (and, by extension, the readers) are more than observer: they are witnesses, and they are changed by what they see, or at least they can be. This scene demonstrates a number of important features about Omega the Unknown. First, passivity can be overcome, and sometimes the way out of passivity is through it. Second, all action is important only to the extent that it effects consciousness (that is, an entire universe). And, finally, careful readers come to realize that all the real action in Omega takes place in the captions.
The disabled Freddie is a cliché, of course, but one with special resonance for the superhero genre. We have already noted the resemblance between the Omega/James-MIchael dyad and the Captain Marvel/Billy Batson. Captain Marvel quickly gained superpowered companions referred to as the “Marvel Family,” and the first of them was Captain Marvel, Jr. Just as Billy became Captain Marvel by saying a magic word, Captain Marvel Jr. was the result of a magic word shouted by.,…a boy named Freddy Freeman, who walked with crutches. In Omega, Freddie becomes a hero without actually gaining powers (or, for that matter, saying a single word). But his name, his status, and his assertion of his own agency all point back to “Enigma the third: the link between the man and the boy.”
In the last panel of “Burn While You Learn,” we find out that Freddie’s lesson has not been lost on James-Michael:
“The boy does not respond. He cannot select which from among the thousand voices in his head to allow to speak.
“But something is different now. He hears them with a new clarity. They’ve being to speak to him, not rail at him. Something is different now…in his universe.”
James-Michael has spent the first three issues repeatedly waking from slumber, fainting, or coma. This time, he wasn’t technically asleep, which means that this boy who is constantly observing the world around him as just noticed his own awakening.
Too Young to Die
It is fitting that Issue 10, the last one in the series, starts with John Nedley’s funeral. John, we recall, was a smart, fat boy with dreams of becoming a writer. Complications from his injuries at the hands of the school bullies led to his demise. He was pure potential, all of it now squandered.
Omega the Unknown had seven issues after the fight with Electro, though only five were written by the book’s creators. The story was never really resolved, so it is difficult to say where it was going, though we knew where its protagonists were headed: the mountains of Pennsylvania for James-i and Dian, who had just discovered another set of robot parents in the Starling master bedroom’s closet; and Las Vegas for Omega and Gramps, where the mystery man is shot dead by police. Though the last page announced the story would be concluded in an upcoming issue of The Defenders, Gerber and Skrenes left Marvel, and the eventual story written by Steven Grant cannot be considered the implementation of the co-authors’ plans. Gerber died in 2008, and Skrenes is sticking to their pledge never to reveal what was supposed to happen in the end. Enigmas the First through Third remain enigmas.
While the resolution of the book’s plot remains unknown and unknowable, reading issues 4-10 (skipping seven and eight) reveals the general direction in which the main characters were heading as individual subjects as they navigate a hostile environment. Both James-Michael and Omega were making only partly successful attempts at being a self among selves. James-Michael is miserable in school, but he does make friends there, and continues his strong connection with Amber. When John is attacked in issue 10, the narrator tells us that James-Michael feels “some non-physical, unidentifiable pain. / He’d begun to like John Nedley.” When Richard Rory judges a violent new character harshly, James-Michael speaks with the wisdom of the local, in a role usually reserved for Amber: “I think you may be judging your friend too harshly, Mr. Rory….an’ too hastily./ You’re...new to Hell’s Kitchen.”
Omega’s transformation is more dramatic. Issue 4 starts with him contemplating the 59th Street Bridge as a woman hurled herself off it, marveling that “something” keeps “compelling him to get involved!” He is also obliged to admit that, on Earth, he is never bored, and that the locals “emotionality” is “a source of fascination.” Moreover, “he has noticed in himself the inchoate stirring of unfamiliar feelings which, he presumes, must approximate emotion.” Upon rescuing the woman, he even says his first word: “Why?”
From this point on, Omega will continue to speak occasionally; by issue 10, when he and Gramps have embarked on their “errand of mercy” (to win enough gambling money to take James-Michael out of Hell’s Kitchen), he is, for him, almost chatty:
“He’s spoken more words this day than in all the days since his arrival on earth.
And he’s found it…debilitating. “
He retreats to the desert, but cannot stop thinking about the problem of communication: “How, he wonders, can these earthmen bear to spend so much time in the company of their fellows? It’s as if they equate solitude with loneliness? The sudden attack by a monster is the pretext for the most bizarre Omega monologue of all, the one that floats so freely from Omega’s point of view as to include the approbation, “You cad!” His solitude has been spoiled, and he returns to Vegas. The fact that he is once again attacked, and even apparently shot dead by the police on the very last page, shows the desert scene to be, if not prophetic, then at least emblematic of both his and James-Michael’s plight. How can they balance a growing impulse towards connection and their fundamental need for isolation? Is there a way to exist and grow in a world of irrational, aggravating, but occasionally intriguing people while still maintaining the integrity of one’s conscious self? Not for nothing does James-Michael’s apparent psychic ability manifest itself in the onslaught of external “voices.” Living among others is, in Omega the Unknown, an invitation to assault. Certainly, it has its rewards, but the book never got the chance to let its heroes reap the benefits. Cancellation was not just inevitable; it was thematically consistent with the plight of the comic’s own heroes.
The Duck Who Scolded Me
Of all the Marvel characters Gerber wrote, it is Howard the Duck who is most often mentioned in connection with his name. This makes sense. Unlike Man-Thing or most of the Defenders, Howard was his co-creation (with artist Val Mayerik). Unlike Omega, he had the chance to be developed in ongoing storylines that were most resolved by Gerber’s departure. Unlike all of them, he was briefly a mass-culture phenomenon, thanks to the gimmick of having Howard run for president in 1976.
Most important: unlike Man-Thing and Omega, Howard the Duck was an inveterate talker. Gerber’s other comics were replete with clever chatterboxes (Richard Rory in Man-Thing; Nighthawk and Jack Norris in The Defenders; Amber and Dian in Omega; Vance Astro in Guardians of the Galaxy), but the Howard the Duck comic was the only one that put this sort of character front and center. It’s not that the attitude of Howard the Duck was absent from Gerber’s other work, but rather that it was either distributed and parceled out (on the team books), delivered by proxy (on Man-Thing), or floating somewhat freely from the enigmatic leads (Omega). A certain point of view was always central to most of Gerber’s Marvel comics; in Howard the Duck, that point of view, that voice, and that consciousness were all united in the figure of the protagonist. As such, Howard the Duck functioned as a testing ground for Gerberian subjectivity, with every obstacle serving as an assault on this authorial sensibility. Rick Hudson hit the nail on the head when he classified Howard the Duck as Menippean satire.
Howard’s sarcasm, anger, pessimism, and (literal) misanthropy do not sound like they would make a winning formula, yet the comic had a serious cult following. His grumpy alienation made him the heir of the moribund underground comics movement, whose antisocial protagonists rarely tried to win friends and influence people. Howard also had a bit in common with fellow Cleveland curmudgeon Harvey Pekar, whose American Splendor would finally gain broader attention years after Gerber’s comic folded. As for his heirs, the protagonists of the alternative comics of the 1990s, from Daniel Clowes' Enid in Ghost World and the eponymous star of David Boring, to the perpetually furious Buddy Bradley of Peter Bagge’s Neat Stuff, all share Howard’s jaded hostility to varying degrees.
Where Howard differs (particularly from Buddy Bradley) is in the delicate combination of his acerbic wit and his inherent kindness. In the very last issue of his original run on Howard the Duck (27), Gerber has Howard declare, “I’m not negative—I’m angry!” But really, he is both. More to the point, Howard’s constant carping and sniping are connected to the characteristic that makes him the embodiment of the true satiric impulse: Howard is disappointed. He lives in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction with a world not just that he never made, but that continually fails to meet his basic standards of logic and decency.
Even his self-destructive impulses are thwarted by the world’s unwillingness to satisfy minimal expectations. Howard is unique among Marvel characters in starting the first page of his book’s very first issue in a self-destructive spiral:
“Behold: a depressed duck
Twice he had saved the city of Cleveland [..]
And what thanks does he get? Jail the first time, benign neglect, the second.
Now homeless, penniless, he stands on the bank fo the Cuyahoga River, contemplating—“
Howard: “—suicide? Yeah. Well. Maybe."
Vacillating between ending it all and simply taking “a little dip,” Howard finds little help from the Cuyahoga River (famous for having actually caught fire): the water is too disgusting for either. When he sees a tower made of credit cards, he decides to climb it in order to jump off, but this just leads to a series of adventures that include meeting his companion Beverly Switzler, and ultimately leaping from the tower in order to save someone else’s life rather than end his own (he survives, of course).
The next few issues have their share of action, but where Howard truly excels is critique; of the melodramatic literary aspirations of one of Beverly’s friends (issue 2), of the pretensions of the art world (issue 4), and, most strikingly, of a popular culture that turns violence into entertainment. Issue 3 (“Four Feathers of Death”) is a bare-bones Shang-Chi parody that takes on the conventions of the then-current martial arts fad, but also, by extension, the brutal logic of the superhero comics in which Howard finds himself. Kung Fu movies “misrepresent an ancient philosophy, package it as a violent entertainment—you sell it to your young to emulate!” When a melee breaks out in a diner after the movie, only he and Beverly have the sense to try to deescalate the conflict, and, failing that, save the teenage boy stabbed during the fighting. Later in the comic, Howard learns “Quack Fu,” but his real weapon is the one he will wield throughout the series: fearlessly haranguing people for their bad behavior. When the crowd around the dying boy won’t disperse to give him air, Howard shouts, “I’m only gonna say this once: Back off! You are all behaving abominably!…/C’mon—be good sheep. Ba-a-ack! Ba-a-a-ck!”
Howard is an unrelenting scold, but without being a humorless killjoy. It all works because of his wit, and because the Howard the Duck comics are populated with characters deserving of his scorn. Nor should we ignore the waterfowl in the room: it works because he is a duck. And not just a duck: a cartoony figure in a basically realistic world. The fact that the words issue from the beak of a “funny animal” softens the blow, and yet the visual contrast between Howard and the humans around him belies the comic’s moral hierarchy of ducks and humans. It is the people he encounters who are caricatures, and whose beliefs and actions invite ridicule, while Howard is more complex and more fully realized.
Obligatory Comic Book Fight Scene
Roughly halfway through “Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing,” the experiment with comics-as-person-essay Gerber wrote when he missed the deadline for Howard the Duck 16, Gerber and artist Tom Palmer include a two-page spread entitled “Obligatory Comic Book Fight Scene”:
There is one rule of comic book writing which simply cannot be violated, even by a writer in search of something as impalpable as his soul or Las Vegas.
Being a visual medium comics theoretically requires at least a modicum of action to engage and sustain reader interest.
Thus, in the interest of sustain your interest, we reluctantly present this BRAIN-BLASTING BATTLE SCENE, pitting an ostrich and a Las Vega chorus girls against the MIND-NUMBING MEANCE of a KILLER lampshade in a DUEL TO THE DEATH!!
Since we only get one picture for this CLASH OF TITANS, though, we’ll have to tell you the outcome. The ostrich sticks its head in a manhole, shrugging off all that’s happened and returning to his secret identity as a roadblock. The chorus girl finds herself in the thrill of battle, becomes one with her headers, and is elevated to goddess hood. The lampshade dies. Basically, it’s like every other comic mag.
Well, almost. The villain’s death is certainly a common trope. The chorus girl’s fate sounds like something out of Englehart (Mantis ascending, the Ancient One becoming “one with the universe). And the ostrich? Pure Gerber. Or, more to the point, pure Howard.22 Howard desperately wants to be that ostrich.
This is not to say that, in addition to being trapped in a world he never made, Howard is stuck in the body of the wrong type of bird. Though no doubt a happy coincidence, the name for Howard’s species is also a command: duck!. Howard’s moral impulse is often to get involved, but his rational self usually reminds him that interference is futile. In Omega the Unknown, Gerber and Skrenes take advantage of the title character’s complete ignorance of Earth mores to show him repeatedly confused and hesitant about the conflicts in which he finds himself, but that hesitation disappears halfway through the ten-issue series once Omega begins to find a purpose. Howard's series lasted much longer, but his wavering never wavered.
As early as Issue 2, Howards contemplates leaving Beverly to her fate rather than go after the Space Turnip. In issue 4, he tries in vain not to concern himself with Paul Same’s bizarre, violent sleep disorder. He allows himself to be drafted as the All Night Party’s presidential candidate in Issue 7 because “I guess I got nothin’ planned between now and November.” And in Issue 9, he has no desire to figure out who tanked his campaign weeks before the election.
The manufactured scandal that doomed Howard’s candidacy (the publication of a faked photograph of him and Beverly taking a bath together) culminates in a story that makes his internal struggle with action and inaction the key to the next several months of stories, not to mention highlighting this conflict as one of his defining traits. A presidential election is the political equivalent of a super heroic “obligatory comic book fight scene,” except that Howard has no interest in the stakes:
“Aaah—what difference does it make? I mean, it’s not like I thirsted after the presidency!
I just wanted a project to occupy my time ’til November!”
The party’s leader gives him and Beverly airline tickets to Canada (the foreign power behind his downfall), telling Howard that he could come back “the conquering’ hero.” Howard will have none of it: “Over my dead body. / I’ve bled enough for this cause.” But Beverly is adamant, and Howard reluctantly assents.
The plot against Howard was real, but the motivations underlying it are impossible to take seriously. An old man in a wheelchair sitting on a porch under a huge sign identifying him as “Pierre Dentfris, Canada’s Only Super Patriot” was paralyzed when the US dropped a bomb on him during his attempt to dam the Niagara Falls with the help of one million beavers. He is aided by young American who blames ducks for his brother’s death in Vietnam. It’s a story of geopolitics, but played entirely as farce. And none of it means anything to Howard.
But Pierre, now wearing a beaver-shaped exoskeleton and calling himself “Le Beaver,” makes it personal when he kidnaps Beverly, traps her in a tree on the edge of the Niagara Falls, with a team of beavers slowing gnawing away at the trunk. Everything is set up for a fight to the death between Howard and Pierre, one that Canada’s only super patriot insists on seeing as allegorical (“Vous thought I was a helpless cripple—ze way all you Americans think of Canada itself!”), part of his master plan to have Canada annex the United States. It is also a parody of a classic superhero standoff—two animal-themed protagonists about to use their fists to determine the course of history. And, most important, it visually represents the narrative bind in which Howard has been trapped for the entire issue. “Here I go a’followin’ again—no doubt directly into the ear, nose, or throat of death./ My head is startin’ to ache.” Le Beaver is standing in the middle of a tightrope stretched from the Canadian side of the Falls to the American side, demanding that Howard join him in battle on the rope:
Howard: “Keep your hairshirt on, pal! I’m com—
Howard (thinking): “The hell I am!”
Howard head back to the safety of cliff.
Le Beaver: “Coward!!! How dare vous turn back?!”
Howard: “Aah—Chew it, Pierre!
“I just figgered out what this headache was tryin’ to tell me!
“An’ as far as I’m concerned—you an yer politics—
“—can go jump!”
Le Beaver falls, Beverly congratulates him (“You were brilliant!”), but Howard merely exclaims “Feh!” and waddles away.
Howard’s rejection of Le Beaver’s challenge is consistent with his own worldview and jaded stand on politics: nationalism is pointless, as is solving conflicts with violence. But at the same time, he has violated one of the fundamental rules of the superhero genre by refusing to engage in the obligatory fight scene. Howard puts it best in the next issue: "There's really nothin' glamorous about gettin' killed to perpetuate their masculine stereotype." He has rejected the norms of masculine heroism (to the extent that he saves Beverly at all, it is by accident), and has proven himself an inadequate protagonist in his own superhero-adjacent book.
As Howard himself proclaims in issue 25, actions have consequences. So, too, does inaction. Howard’s shame over his non-performance at Niagara Falls causes a nervous breakdown that starts with an issue-long nightmare/fantasy sequence in issue 10, has him hearing voices in issue 11, and consigns him to a mental hospital from issues 12-14. Like the Man-Thing after his encounter with the tormentors of young Edmond, Howard has reached the limits of his emotional capacities.
Issue 10 (“Swan-Song of the Living Dead Duck!) is most a portentious exploration of Howard’s psyche, until he last few pages, when he encounters a dream version of Dr. Strange calling himself “Dr. Piano.” Prompted to discuss his problem, Howard puts it plainly:
“Since I came to this idiot world, I’ve been behaving completely contrary to my true nature."
“I keep gettin’ stuck in the hero’s role, for one thing."
“I’ve obeyed the ‘dictates’ of my cultural conditioning, that’s what! […] I’ve fallen victim to my programming!”
“I mean—it’s heresy in these parts not ta wanna be yer brother’s keeper. But it’s my only ambition to be an only child!!!”
“…I’m by nature a pragmatist! I take the route that works!
“But I’m susceptible to pressure—especially if it plays on my Achilles web—compassion for the underdog!"
Inevitably, the dream leads him back to his confrontation with Le Beaver ("the only fight I'd ever walked out on--'cause it was just too ludicrous!") , Given the chance for a do-over, Howard, fights and, of course, loses: "I was brave. I was heroic. I acted in the best macho tradition of unthinking pugnacity an' I died...for honor." He had hoped that going against his own better judgement would at least heal his emotional trauma, but instead he imagines himself damned to hell for all eternity.
Howard can conceive of no scenario where he wins, because the logic of a Marvel comic will not provide him any. Howard's problem is, of course, Gerber's: perhaps he could have come up with a brilliant, but likely ridiculous, way in which a miniscule duck could beat a man in a giant, super-strong exoskeleton while balancing on a tightrope, but that was not what he needed the story to do.
Instead, Gerber uses Howard's (and occasionally, Beverly's) jaundiced view of the increasingly odd obstacle they encounter to keep the comic balanced between the genre's need for adventure and novelty and the book's apparent goal of sustaining an unrelenting sense of either not belonging or refusing to belong. Subsequent writers who have used Howard tend to make a fundamental mistake here, confusing Gerber's expression of a philosophical standpoint with mere genre parody. The point is not simply that mainstream comic book tropes are absurd, but rather that everything is.
Thus even after Howard has recovered from his months of mental illness, his fundamental attitude does not change. Issue 15's "The Island of Dr. Bong" sees Howard, Beverly, Paul, and Winda taking a cruise on the "S.S. Damned," their attempts at relaxation foiled by the fact they are in a comic book that requires action and conflict. When Howard falls overboard and nearly drowns, he thinks, "I must be the very personification of the rage to live. / Hit me. Dunk me. Insult me--I'll still hang in there. / I wonder why--?" His near death when a chunk of granite drops form the sky onto the deck merely gives him another opportunity for sarcasm. The passengers and crew arrive just as he has crawled from the wreckage on top of the rock: "Maybe it's an egg. Maybe I laid it. / La-de-da/ My incubatory position atop it is awfully incriminating. / But no...it's so big!/ An' I'm a male!"
Howard the Duck functions best when it gives the title character ample opportunity to do what he does best: riff on the action as it unfolding. It is as though the wise-cracking robots of Mystery Science Theater 3000 were providing their commentary while actually stuck within the films that they are watching. The plots of a typical Howard comic are a tenuously connected series of events, united primarily by how the duck responds to them. In the case of "The Island of Dr. Bong," Howard is on the cruise ship precisely to avoid these sort of situations that send him on a sardonic spiral of commentary. On the very second page, her remarks that "in the event of nuclear disaster the entire free entrerprise system--/--could be preserved about this ship for future generations," before remembering that "I promised myself: no heavy thoughts this trip." It's a resolution that is impossible to keep, and not only because he is in a comic book. The cruise ship is just another version of the situation he's found himself in since his arrival in the Marvel Universe, if not before: from "trapped in a world he never made" to "trapped on a ship he cannot steer."
Yet events continue to conspire to get him off this very boat, from the shuffleboard puck that knocks him overboard to the stone swan that hatches out of the boulder that nearly crushed him (it turns out it was, indeed, an egg). Right before this final exit from the SS Damned, the four main characters (Paul, Bev, Howard and Winda) collectively riff on their latest plight (a rain of boulders that has all but destroyed the ship:
Paul: "All I can think about is Bob Dylan: 'Everybody must get stoned.'
"Somehow, I always figured the meant it this way."
Bev: "That's funny--so did I."
Winda: "Who's Bob Dywan?"
Howard: "I dunno....I just hope we're quoting survivors, not martyrs."
Winda: "How twue! Fwame of mind is so impor--"
Before she is cut off, Winda is making a salient point. For once, Howard, however, sarcastically, makes a quip that is a vague gesture towards optimism. Of course, any hopes are dashed when the boulder "hatches" a granite swan that spirits Bev and Howard away to a mysterious island, dumping them in a pool of quicksand. At this point, Howard the Duck starts to look like Pilgrim's Progress: the allegory is all too clear. Twice now Howard has been knocked overboard from the ship to which he has tentatively surrendered his control, first in the shuffleboard incident, and now with the swan. Moreover, try as Howard may to improve his outlook and make his peace with his surroundings, the ship has hardly been congenial; the only reason he was on the deck when the boulder dropped was that he had raced from the dining hall after being served duck l'orange ("casual cannibalism,” as he called it). Howard and Bev were trying to take a break from their nonsensical adventures, but if there's one thing the Howard the Duck comic is not, it is escapist. The granite swan drops them in a bog. Now the pair are literally mired in quicksand, mere moments away from death by suffocation. All in all, an apt metaphor for Howard's usual plight.
This being an ongoing comic, they are, of course, rescued, but the form of their deliverance (monstrous, gargoyle-like creatures) is so appalling that Howard rejects the offer of help: "Uhm...no thanks. I'll pass./ [...] / Honest--no offense! It's just...if you guys are any indication of what's comin'--/ --I'd prefer to bow out now." Recovered from his nervous breakdown, he is back in the same situation in which his series began: contemplating a voluntary death by drowning. All he sees in his future is more of what he has encountered in the past, and he wants no part of it.
Fitting, then, that what changes his mind is a grotesque version of himself: a giant, humanoid duck extending a flipper: "Don't be foolish, brother. Take my hand." Finally, it is Howard's turn to exclaim, "Y-you're a duck!" The explanation will involve mad science, but the point is still taken: the only one who can save Howard is himself.
It is at this point, the last page of "The Island of Dr. Bong," that Beverly becomes the voice of disappointed exhaustion rather than Howard. Beverly is a difficult character to pin down. She's often drawn for sex appeal (though not nearly as much as she would be after Gerber's departure and the comic's replacement with a magazine for "mature readers"); her most obvious narrative function is to give Howard someone to talk to (although the nervous breakdown sequence shows that Howard can function as his own interlocutor should the need arise); she is not infrequently put in the role of "damsel in distress"; and, finally, her generally cheery and supportive outlook make it is easy to dismiss her as simply playing the "nice girl" in contrast to the curmudgeonly Howard.23 But Beverly is not a bimbo. She can hold her own with (or against) Howard on the level that really matters for the duck (and, presumably, his creator): the level of language. She does not simply agree with everything he says, or, even worse, fail to understand him. Though less caustic, she is as verbally quick as Howard.
So it is completely consistent for Beverly to say, after being rescued from quicksand by strange animal/human hybrids, "I know I should be reacting more--what? Visibly to this madness but--"
Howard: "Don't apologize, toots--I've been there.
"After a while, it's all ya can do to fake the expected gasps and moans of--"
Dr. Bong: "Surprise!"
Beverly: "Oh jeez, now wha--?
"OH MY GOSH!!"
Dr. Bong: "Why--how charmingly inarticulate! Thank you, Ms. Switzler.
"And may I welcome you to the island of --
Beverly: "Uh...what if I said, 'No, you many not?"
Dr. Bong calls Beverly "inarticulate," which would not normally be accurate, and also fits in with his need to see Beverly as an object rather than someone with a mind of her own. But at the moment, he is also correct: the absurdity of seeing a caped-clad man with a golden bell-shaped helmet and a matching orb instead of his left hand has temporarily rendered both Beverly and Howard speechless. After everything that the two have been through, including their increasing detachment from the perilous events that befall them, wordless shock is not just appropriate; it is, in its way, a step forward. Howard the Duck has replaced the obligatory fight scene with the mandatory absurd tableau.
The Drake's Progress, or Howard and the Everyday Picaresque
Howard's repeated rejection of the fight scene has a positive corollary: the issues of Howard the Duck that best realize the books's sensibility are the ones with almost no plot at all. Gerber may have been reluctant to put the duck in typical superhero battles, but this does not mean that the book avoided conflict. On the contrary, Howard either invites or falls into conflict with virtually everyone he meets. The trick was getting Howard to meet them, and that is what the plot was primarily for.
While even the more action-oriented issues (such as the "Quack Fu" story in Issue 3) rely on chance encounters and coincidence, the stories that are virtually action-free function according to a metonymic logic: Howard runs into X, whose proximity to Y involves the duck in yet another absurd situation, leading onward to Z. Though not exactly a picaro--Howard's moral standards are too high to make him a rogue, and he undergoes actual character development--Howard the Duck in general, and the action-free stories in particular, approximate the structure of the picaresque novel . The hero is witty but generally down on his luck, the satire is pervasive, and the plot tends to be a set of episodes whose connection to each other is only tenuous. In an already serialized format, Howard's stories feel serialized even within a particular issue. The plots may get from point a to point B, but point B never felt much like a particular goal. A and B just happen to be neighbors on in the alphabet.
Gerber wrote four meandering issues of Howard the Duck that were driven entirely by associative logic: Issues 5 "("I Want Mo-o-oney!"), 11 ("Quack-up!"), 19 ("Howard the Human"), and 24 ("Where Do You Go--What Do You Do--The Night After You Saved the Universe?"). We already discussed "Quack-up" in the very beginning of the chapter, but the others bear some examination.
Even the title of Issue 5 looks like a matter of happenstance or free association; the title, "I Want Mo-o-oney!", is just part of the lyrics of a Beatles song playing on Beverly's radio. But it also describes Bev's and Howard's plight--Beverly is thrilled that she found a "whole quarter" after ransacking half the apartment, when even the comic she appears in cost thirty cents at the time. Their poverty provides the initial motivation, propelling Howard out of the apartment to store so that they can "feast by candlelight on two Snickers!"24 As Howard moves from place to place, however, the story's real concerns take shape: the place of imagination, entertainment, and the media in our multiply impoverished lives.
Bev sets the tone when she grabs Howard before he can head to the drugstore:
"Howard--wait! Let's get rich!"
Howard: "Come again?"
Beverly: "Let's make a million dollars and go off where nobody can find us and rule the world!"
Howard: "On the $2.10 an hour you earn as a model?
Beverly: "Jeez, Howard. You're always so realistic! Haven't you ever had a fantasy?"
Howard: "Uh-huh. I get 'em a lot--
"'Specially when I'm hungry!"
That exchange exemplifies the irony of so many HTD stories: a realistically drawn human woman accuses a walking cartoon duck of being too realistic. Howard immediately regrets snapping at Bev, but it is as though their brief conversation had cursed his wanderings. From the moment he leaves Bev's apartment, he is confronted with one unsatisfactory kind of entertainment after another. And while no one can claim to be a critic from a completely impartial stance, Howard ends up personally implicated in each of these incidents, primarily because he is a duck.
At the drug store, Howard flips through an issue of a comic called "Quackie Duck" (a Daffy Duck pastiche to contrast with Howard's Donald), and is outraged at the simplistic plot that shows a clever cartoon duck luring a dumb cartoon bear to its death.25 In a fit of fury at this "unfair representation of ducks," Howard throws the comic to the floor, and is then obliged to spend more than half his money on it. In one of the most metafictional moments in the story, he hands the tattered comic to Bev, whose reaction is: "A comic book? I don't get it." In other words, the reaction of the many readers who were left confused and unmoved by the Howard the Duck comic itself. Howard's response is equally apt: "Don't just look at the pictures! Read!"
At the same time, Howard hears on Bev's radio that station WDUM's listener call-in line is now open, and decides to use the opportunity to rail against Quackie Duck (a stations staffmember refers to Howard as "some nut who says comic books are quote 'promulgating racist myths and perpetuating prejudice’"). But when Howard explains on the air that he himself is a talking duck, he is cut off. Howard asks Beverly: "Ya figger I came off too shrill, or what?" to which Bev replies 'Nah./ But maybe you should try a more visual medium."
Once again, Beverly's dialogue points us to the story's structural device: Howard will spend this issue moving from one medium to another (which, as any viewer of the disastrous 1996 Howard the Duck movie knows, never goes well for him). Beverly is right, of course: radio is hardly the place to leverage Howard's unusual appearance, just as she is also not wrong in her inadvertent demonstration of how not to read a comic--misplaced expectations of what a duck comic should be never were helpful to the book. But when Howard arrives at the local television studio, his is nonplussed at being misunderstood yet again. The receptionist, rather than evince the usual surprise, says "Oh. The New Duck," prompting Howard to think "Some visual medium! They don't even look atcha when they talk to ya!" Howard finds himself cast as "Dopey Duck" on the "Gonzo the Clown: show, and promptly starts a melée. The children in the audience love it, which is no surprise to Howard: "If that's the standard intellectual caliber of the entertainment you feed 'em." Trapped in a kiddie genre, Howard, for once, acts like an action hero, punching the clown who threw a pie in his face.
For Howard, the fight is allegorical ("So I escaped with my dignity and did my part in the crusade to improve children's TV"). It also leads to opportunity. Back on the street, he pauses before to watch the Gonzo the Clown fight continue live on a television in the display window of "E-Z Credit Appliance." The boss, who hates Gonzo, recognizes Howard and immediately gives him a job calling customers who are behind on their payments. Howard has switched media once again, this time working on the telephone, but the distraught reaction of the first customer he contacts leads him to make a home visit. The customer is a mother of four children (who are sitting in front of the TV, still watching Gonzo), and the television is the one good thing in the kids' lives. Howard tears up her contract and quits his job.
This particular episodes switches the focus from television-the-medium to television-the-object, confronting Howard with the exploitative economics behind this aspect of the entertainment business. It's worth noting that while Howard was wrestling his conscience, Beverly made dinner money modeling for artists. She works in the service of a simpler, face-to-face medium (visual art on paper) where any exploitation is readily apparent. And it is Beverly who draws his attention a newspaper ad (yet another medium!) offering $10,000 to "any man" who can last three rounds in wrestling ring with the current champion (an in-person encounter). The wrestling match provides the "obligatory comic book fight scene," as well as just enough cash to get Howard and Beverly out of Cleveland (Howard is cheated out of the promised reward because he is not, technically, a "man").
Howard the Duck 5 ends with a geographical escape, but does nothing to resolve Howard's attempts to grapple with other media. Though his odyssey beings with his mutilation of a subpar children's comic, it ends with his ejection from very other medium with which he engages. Marvel Comics of the 1970s may be dominated by annoying tropes and frustrating limitations, but for Howard, there is no way out. He is trapped in a medium he never made.
Planet of the Hairless Apes
In the early Howard the Duck comics, Beverly is not just Howard's companion and sounding board. By serving as his most important human relationship, she makes it possible for him to keep his distance from (other) humans, while occasionally drawing him in when it is important to her.. Howard deals with Arthur Winslow (the Space Turnip) in the second issue because of Arthur's connection to Beverly, and it is Bev who spurs him into action to help Paul Same just two issues later. Bev even mediates between Howard and his nemesis, the Kidney Lady, on a city bus just before Howard's wrestling match in Issue 5.
Issues 19 and 24 (the last two "meandering" HTD stories) are both post-Beverly, and Howard's brief, frustrating entanglements with a parade of new "hairless apes" are facilitated by his solitude (and even loneliness). They cover similar ground, so we will only be looking at the first of the two. When Beverly interferes with Dr. Bong's attempt to turn Howard into one of his bizarre creatures, the result is more horrifying: Howard becomes a human. With only an imaginary, spectral version of his duck self to keep him country, he spends Issue 19 wandering New York, penniless and aimless. First he falls in with a smelly, belching homeless man called Mad Dog who claims to be a starving artist ("I am creating a masterpiece of degeneracy >phuugh> which I have titled--/ "Body of Mad Dog") When Man Dog predictably goes wild at a diner that refuses him service, the newly human Howard is about to try to stop him, until his duck companion reminds him, "What do you care? He's a flake an' the food in this dump ain't worth defendin." " Howard agrees: "Say no more, chum. I dunno what possessed me!"
What possessed him may have been the beginning of a newfound identification with his fellow hairless apes, or merely an extension of the occasional altruistic impulse that got him into trouble when he as still a duck. But it turns out that, even though he is no longer such an obvious odd duck, he still stands out like sore thumb. Among the diners are Amy and Elton, a couple whose relationship is on the rocks.26 Elton is an earnest, sensitive New Age man who worships Amy so intensely that he is completely oblivious to her as a real person. Howard's decision to leave the diner mid-melée gets Amy's attention: "Please--you're everything Elton's not--totally misanthropic!"
As it happens, that's the only accurate conclusion Amy ever draws about Howard. Though painfully aware of the narcissistic Elton's failure to see her for who she really is, she falls into her own version of the same pattern with the man whose complete disinterest in her fires her imagination. She literally tackles Howard in one of those classic Marvel panels where the sheer volume of verbiage can't possibly match the momentary action it describes (two long, periodic sentences about how desperate she is when stuck with a man who expects her to do all the reasoning for him).
But what does she ask of him? "Say happy things--strong things--positive things--! /Or you'll bite the curb again, so help me!" Happy? Positive? She clearly has no idea who she is dealing with. With Amy literally twisting his arm behind his back, Howard brings up the weather, the Mets, the stock market, and Star Wars. Amy is elated: "It's the most banal babble I've heard in weeks! Don't stop! / You can't imagine how I've yearned to talk to a man who--/ --who can walk away from me!" Everything about this statement is wrong, from the fact that Howard literally can't walk away from her (she "refuses to yield a single pound-per square inch" of pressure on Howard's arm) to praising one of Gerber's most cleverly loquacious characters for his "banal babble."
But her pressure on Howard is as emotional as it is physical. Right before she approaches him, he marvels at the "casual effrontry with which these --we?--hairless apes invade each other's" space. Yet after just a few minutes of listening to Amy talk about her relationship with Elton, he starts to volunteer "Maybe I should talk to him, or--" before his imaginary duck self objects: "Butt out, buffoon! My gawd, yer goin native!" Imaginary Howard is absolutely right. Howard the human is pondering humanity in a way he never had before, and learning a lesson:
Howard: "I was wonderin'--are all hairl- uh, human relationships this--convoluted?"
Amy: "You mean as mine and Elton's? Are you serious?
By some criteria, ours would be considered straightforward!"
A discreet scene change and the passage of time sugget that Amy's relationship with Howard also becomes straightforward. When he wakes up the next morning, Howard is a duck again, and the narrator surmises in the next issue that the "ministrations of TLC activated his adrenal glands, among others.../and triggered a biochemical reversal of" Bong's experiment.” An old homophobic fantasy has it that a gay man or lesbian can be "turned" by a fulfilling sexual encounter with someone of the opposite sex; in Howard's case, sex with a woman while in human form is enough to turn him back into a duck. His brief experience of humanity ends in the total affirmation of the one thing Amy accurately saw in him: his misanthropy.
At the same time, misanthropy alone does not define Howard the Duck. Were that his only salient personality trait, he would not keep finding himself in these situations. In Gerber's last Guardians of the Galaxy stories, Vance Astro tells his teammate Starhawk, "I never dreamed that beneath your pompous exterior lurked a fellow fallen idealist!" (Marvel Presents 9). The angry, sharp-tongued Astro is applying this term to himself as much as to Starhawk, and it would be equally applicable to many of Gerber's viewpoint characters--particularly Howard the Duck. Howard's real problem is that, despite the senselessness of the world in which he finds himself, he cares too much. Nearly all the plots of Howard's comic are an excuse for exploring the conflict that really motivates his stories: his clear-headed intellectual rejection of the demands placed on him versus his emotional and ethical drive to get involved. Howard's problem is also Steve Gerber's: Gerber worked in a cruel industry, a medium he loved, and a genre that would attract and frustrate him at the same time. Though he could not change the rules of Marvel Comics, he could at least give a consistent and reliable voice to a fallen idealist's love/hate relationship with this tantalizing four-color world.
It was probably true of McGregor as well, but, since editorial never let him near the Avengers, Fantastic Four, or Spider-Man, we will never know. ↩
Gerber is not alone, Rorschach from Watchmen is the clearest proponent of a French Existentialist worldview in modern comics, but within the framework of a grim sociopathy that went beyond even Gerber’s various iterations of his Foolkiller character.↩
Their primary significance was as part of the Atlantean cosmology he wove into both his Son of Satan and Man-Thing stories, centering around the sorceress Zhered-Na↩
From Daredevil 111: Daredevil remarks that that Mandrill “figures that hatred of anyone who’s different is part of the way of life in America… and that the only way to change that is by seizing control… running things his way.”
Shanna the She-Devil responds: "You don’t sound sure that he’s wrong!”, to which Daredevil only says, "Don’t make me get philosophical, Shanna.” After the Mandrill’s defeat, Daredevil is unsettled and a bit depressed. Note that all of this is unfolding at the same time as Englehart’s “Secret Empire” storyline in Captain America. ↩
"The Defenders were an encounter group--a bunch of quirky, contentious individualists with almost nothing in common, thrown together by circumstances (and editorial fiat, of course) and forced to confront not only a common enemy but also each other. Of all the books I did at Marvel, DEFENDERS was probably the most fun to write. Each of the characters was so different from all the others that stories could come from at least five different directions--or just out of the blue.” Interview with John Dalton. http://www.b-independent.com/interviews/stevegerber.htm↩
This is one of the many reasons that the post-Gerber introduction of Howard’s home planet (“Duckworld”) was such a mistake. It suggested that somewhere out there is a land where Howard can be content. ↩
Issue 12’s Song Cry of Living Dead-Man, in which a frustrated poet locks himself in a cabin in the swamp and faces his demons with the help of both Man-Thing and Sibyl Miller, is a particularly unpleasant example of the type. ↩
The two-part pirate storyline in Issues 13 and 14 is even worse in this regard, when an independent, “abrasive” female scientist agrees to live out her life with a satyr in order to restore his youth (“I’m going to stay with him…I’m not sure why, but..I feel I must.”↩
] in his issue-by-issue discussion of Howard the Duck, Osvaldo Oyola points out the frequency with which Gerber presents male, misunderstood “geniuses” whose bad behavior is justified by the ill treatment he suffered at the hands of others. (“WAUGH and On and On #1: Neither Fish Nor Fowl”)↩
Issues 16-18 comprise one of Gerber’s best Man-Thing storylines, but I have chosen to focus on Giant-Size Man-Thing 4 because of its stronger connections to the issues discussed in this chapter.↩
In addition to the aforementioned Howard the Duck 16, there are text pages in Defenders 23, Giant-Size Defenders 4, Marvel Comics Presents 3 (featuring the Guardians of the Galaxy), Man-Thing 12 (the “Song_Cry of the Living Dead Man”), Man-Thing 22 (told in the form of a letter from Gerber himself), Howard the Duck 8 and 14, Marvel Spotlight 20 (featuring the Son of Satan), and Rampaging Hulk 7 (a Man-Thing story). He would also use them in some of his later work for other publishers, such as the black-and-white graphic novel Stewart the Rat (1980).↩
In this regard, Man-Thing functions much like the “Magic Negro” character who is so prevalent in white pop culture: the cool/natural/spiritual Black person who helps white people get in touch with their feelings, find love, and learn to dance. In Man-Thing’s case, the best that can be hoped for is two out of three.↩
The phrasing here is a hallmark of Gerber’s writing. Gerber had a marked fondness for semantic syllepsis (or zeugma), with the different meanings of “breaks down.” ↩
The man who knocks on Gerber’s door and gives him the Nightmare Box introduces himself as a friend of Dakimh. Gerber asks if they’ve meant, to which the man responds “In the shadows of the city.” He wears a red cap, a sweatshirt, and a cape made out of an old towel. Even by comics standards, he is an obscure reference, although his only previous appearance took place just the year before. In the first issue of Haunt of Horror, a black-and-white, non comics code Marvel magazine that would only have been available at specialty shops, Gerber published a seven-page story called “In the Shadows of the City,” with art by Vincente Alcazar. Narrated by the strange man who would eventually give Gerber the Nightmare Box, the story virtually attacks the reader. It begins “In the shadows of the city, there lurks someone who wants to kill you!! Me….I want to kill you!” Most of the story shows other characters reacting the horror of his mere presence: they can see that he is a murderer at heart. The story is something of a stunt, but it does overlap with “Pop Goes the Cosmos!” in at least three significant ways. First, the two comics share a narrative form: first person addressed to “you,” the reader (or Len Wein). Second, the murderer is yet another variation on Gerber’s alienated male protagonist taken to a deliberately unpleasant extreme. Finally, there is the question of empathy. The murderer does not simply lack it; he enjoys terror of others. Man-Thing’s touch burns anyone who fears him but the monster is mindless; he does not choose to scare or hurt people. Far from mindless, the murderer is all subjectivity, and he derives pleasure from the fear and pain of others. ↩
It wasn’t even the first such vehicle; Gerber re-introduced the Guardians in a two-part Marvel-Two-in-One story (issues 4 and 5) that set the stage for Giant-Size Defenders 5 and Defenders 26-29. ↩
The story ran from Issues 31-40 and concludes in Defenders Annual 1. Gerber only wrote more one Defenders issue after that (41).↩
These three men appeared in three different comics: Mystery Tales 21 (September 1954), World of Mystery 11 (April 1958), and Tales of Suspense 9 (May 1960). Their stories were reprinted together in Weird Wonder Tales 7 (1974), which is probably where Gerber got the idea to use them (he even challenged his readers in Defenders 21’s letter column to figure out what comic all three of them had appeared in before).↩
Curiously, there is never a moment when these changes are undone. Technically, the alterations to the Defenders’ minds are then permanent, even though they are never brought up again. Most likely, this is a plot thread Gerber simply neglected to address. ↩
Omega the Unknown was the first Marvel comic to establish Hell’s Kitchen as the epicenter of Manhattan urban blight. Hell’s Kitchen was then ignored until Frank Miller made it the home of Daredevil in the 1980s. When Gerber and Skrenes were writing for Marvel, Hell’s Kitchen was a run-down, sketchy area; now it’s basically the theater district, but Marvel properties (in comics and on television) have kept Hell’s Kitchen suspended in 1970s amber as a kind of theme park of poverty and crime.↩
The split also vaguely resembles Julian Jaynes theory of the bicameral mind.↩
Many years later, Gerber would adapt the premise of these two pages for a 6-issue Vertigo miniseries called Nevada. ↩
Given the development of the series from Issue 15 onward, it looks as though Gerber felt he was running out of things to do with her. She and Howard would separate when Beverly agrees to marry Dr. Bong to spare Howard's life in issue 18, reunited only after Bill Mantlo took over the book (Issue 31). Howard feels her absence keenly, but Gerber supplies a series of new foils for Howard over the next year. In his last issues, Gerber gives Beverly's story an unsavory turn. After supplying Dr. Bong with a backstory that functions as an incisive critique of masculine entitlement (Dr. Bong is basically in an Incel before his time), Gerber shows Beverly increasingly frustrated that Lester (Dr. Bong) is not paying attention to her; she demands that he "play house" (Issue 25). Osvaldo Oyola's critique of this misogynist turn is particularly apt (https://themiddlespaces.com/2020/05/12/waugh-and-on-and-on-5/)↩
The quarter is not the only change that Bev has found; Howard leaves the house with fifty cents, which would have been enough for two Snickers and ten cents in change.↩
The bear's demise resembles that of Le Beaver four issues later. No doubt this is mere coincidence, but it highlights Howard's own moral code not only through Howard's outrage, but because the Le Beaver's death is an accident.↩
Amy and Elton are based on a couple in "The Play It Again Sam Casablanca Blues," one of the short stories that make up Don McGregor's prose collection, Dragonflame and Other Bedtime Nightmares (1978). This is the second time Gerber has parodied McGregor (after his "Space Turnip" parody of Killraven in Howard the Duck 2).↩