|Home Interviews Steve Gerber (conducted by Dwight Jon Zimmerman in Comics Interview #37 & #38 - 1986)
Part One (from David Anthony Kraft's Comics Interview #37)
Name: Steve Gerber
Born: September 20, 1947
Year Got Into Animation: 1978
Favorite Animated Feature: "I don't have a favorite animated feature."
Favorite Animated Show: "Honest to God, I really like G.I.Joe better than anything else."
What Would Most Like to Do to Marvel or DC: "It's too late for that."
Just when you thought animation was dead, something and someone came along to revive it. That something was G.I.Joe and that someone was Steve Gerber. Already famous for his comic book work - he was even featured in the “Fast Forward” section of PLAYBOY which spotlights up-and-coming talents; turn to character, the accompanying photo featured Steve going crazy behind a wire fence - Steve cut his animator's teeth and exhausted his mind as story editor for the DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS program (as you will read) before moving on to G.I.Joe and, once again, making history in a “kids” medium...
Dwight Jon Zimmerman: To start off with, when did you get involved with G.I.Joe?
Steve Gerber: That’s an interesting question. Right after I had done DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS for Marvel Productions, story-edited that show, I made a vow to myself that I was never going to work for the networks doing animation again. The experience with D&D had been so painful - just in dealing with CBS - that I decided, you know, that no amount of money was worth it. No matter what, I was not going to work in animation for the networks again. I thought that was the end of my animation career, because the networks were the only ones doing animation.
DJZ: Well, you had done, what, a depiction of that experience for Eclipse Magazine? (Laughter)
SG: Yes. The Betty Bibney Botkin story you're talking about - I wouldn't take it too literally, but yeah. That was a network censor. There were network executives that were the problem of this particular show, much more than the censors. I don't want to mention any names, but basically my life was a living hell for three or four months that I was working on that show. It exhausted me so creatively that I was never happy with the show. It was okay, sometimes. The animation was nice on it, sometimes. I just felt the show could have been a lot more than it was. I remember a discussion in one of the Marvel producer's offices over a speaker phone with the network people, and this fellow from the network saying things like, “Do we really have to have so much magic in this show?” And I was explaining to him, “See, it's sword and sorcery. The swords are the weapons that they use and the sorcery, that's the magic. You have to have magic for it to be a sword and sorcery.” I was involved in discussions like that with them all of the time, and they would literally pick on every single line - not just the dialogue - even the scene descriptions! “Is it too violent? Would Bobby really do that? Could we add some warmth to this scene where the orges are ripping apart the town?” (laughter)
DJZ: Put smiles are their faces.
SG: Yeah, right. Anything. Have them pet a dog while they're doing it. Who knows? It got to the point where it was completely absurd and I just did not want to work with them. So anyway, as I was saying, I figured that was the end of my career in animation. Well, a couple of months later what happens, I get two phone calls. One is from Lucasfilm. They were interested in having me work on the EWOKS AND DROIDS show and they hadn't decided at that point what they were going to do with that show, where it was going to be broadcast, whether it was going to be a network show or whether they were going to with some sort of syndication deal or whatever. And almost simultaneously I heard from Sunbow Productions about producing G.I.Joe. Apparently, someone out at Marvel had recommended me to them. And, ultimately, I turned down the Lucasfilm offer and took the offer to do G.I.Joe because there was no network, and I felt from talking to some people at Sunbow in New York that there was actually a chance that we could produce something good. That's how I got involved with it.
DJZ: You were story editor, correct?
SG: That’s correct.
DJZ: How much had been prepared for you, and also what sort of direction were you given?
Cover for G.I.Joe #26
SG: Well, quite a bit had been established already. There was already a five-part mini-series, that had been on the air the year before, that had established most of the major characters. Of course, there were also all of the comic books and all of the biographical material written for toys that, I think, Larry Hama had mostly done.
So all of this stuff existed. When people were signed to write an episode they were handed what we called a briefing book, essentially all of these characters and the vehicles - the airplanes and the tanks and the ships and so on. They were given a looseleaf notebook with all of this material - it looked like the Manhattan phonebook. It was enormous. I'm story-editing TRANSFORMERS now and we've got another one like that. So, there was a great deal of raw material to work with already.
The question was how do you take all of those individual characters and, of course, whole tapestry woven into the mini-series, make it work as a bunch of individual episodes. The requirements are very, very different. It took a little while to figure it all out. In the beginning, what everyone wanted to do, the natural thing...my own first script for G.I.Joe was a Cobra-tries-to-conquer-the-world-and-the-Joes-stop-them script. We real quickly got away from that kind of story. It was the natural inclination to do something like that, first of all because it's the kinds of shows the networks would do all of the time and basically what everybody's experience is or was out here, and secondly because that was the way the mini-series was structured and that was the model that people were working from; therefore, we craft everything to conform to that model. Everyone assumed that.
It was only about, I would say, like four or five or maybe even six scripts that into the series we began to realize how weird we could actually get with that show. (laughter) And then once it started it couldn't be stopped. It got stranger and stranger right up until the end. The last script that I did of G.I.Joe - I wrote three of them all together for the first season - the last story was a two-parter that bears virtually no resemblance in structure, in pacing, in tone, in everything, to the first script I did.
DJZ: It sounds like you were actually given a heck of a lot of freedom on how to determine things.
SG: God, yes. I am prouder of that show than of anything else I've done in animation! We were given an immense amount of freedom. I was working with possibly the most intelligent producer I've ever dealt with. The guy's name is Jay Baccall. His actual title is creative director at Griffen-Baccall, which is the advertising agency of which Sunbow Productions is a subsidiary of a sister company or something. Jay is just incredibly sharp; a real good sense of drama, a real good sense of character, a wonderful sense of story, and a tremendous imagination - moreso, I think, than he realizes. Jay is perhaps the only producer I have ever heard actually say to a writer, “Gee, are you sure this is weird enough?” (laughter)
He felt exactly the same way about it that I did: I mean that we had to push people into new directions and into stretching their abilities in ways that they simply hadn't before. We developed, over a period of time as we were doing the show - we've been doing it on TRANSFORMERS this year, too - a way of sort of browbeating the writers. We would bring them in and use certain North Vietnamese techniques to steer them away from the network style of writing. (laughter) “No! you don't have to make everything audibly and visually redundant!” The example I'm using for TRANSFORMERS, you know, is if you have fifty Decepticons flying out of the sky all lasers blazing and attacking Autobot City, nobody has to point up into the sky and say, “Look! The Decepticons are attacking Autobot City!” (laughter) Which is again, the way that every single Saturday morning cartoon show is written.
DJZ:It sounds similar to a lot of Marvel and DC stories also.
SG: Oh, sure. Yes. But we wanted to really move away from that. We were getting animation that was good enough that we felt we could take another step and write these things like feature films instead of prime time television or Saturday mornings, and for the most part they are written that way. There were changes made in them by some of the producers at Marvel who were also, like, so thoroughly indoctrinated in the Saturday morning way of doing things that they didn't understand and so immediately just wanted to explain it in the most pedestrian way possible. There are moments like that in the show that I just absolutely cringe at. It couldn't be helped. I didn't have any control over that. But at the same time, the level of writing on that show is so far superior to almost anything being done in animation any place at the moment.
DJZ:Well, when I talked to Buzz Dixon, he really credited you with any success that G.I.Joe had in ‘86 for the work the you did in setting everything up in ‘85.
SG: Well, I would modify that somewhat to include Jay Bacal. Certainly, Jay and I were the driving forces behind the ‘85 series, and that did provide a model for Buzz to work from for ‘86. The fact that apparently Buzz carried on it very successfully in ‘86...I mean, I know how hard it was to do in ‘85.
From everything I've heard, Buzz’s stuff for ‘86 is just as good. I'm really pleased about that. I couldn't be happier.
DJZ: You brought in a number of comic book people on G.I.Joe. What was your reasoning behind that?
SG: Well, there are a number of reasons. First of all, the level of writing in the animation field in L.A. is not that good. I would say it is pathetic. I felt that we would gain a real advantage by using some people who were used to writing for print, used to actually seeing their own words on a printed page, and who had therefore developed a certain amount of care about the way they put those words together. I was making a concerted effort to raise the level of writing in the field, and so I went out and did get some of the better comic book people to contribute to the show. I wanted a group of people, also, who didn't bring to the show the prejudices of Saturday morning, the training of Saturday morning. I wanted an entirely different consciousness working on the show - people who understood that a sympathetic character could have a negative side, that a character could be more than one-dimensional, how to write a story that was motivated out of character as opposed to just a bunch of plot devices put together randomly and nonsensically, which is what you get on Saturday morning a lot. Most Saturday morning scripts are a collection of network executives’ own prejudices as to what make a good script, and they have virtually nothing to do with the way a series or the way a character should be written.
DJZ: Well, with G.I.Joe itself, one of the reasons for its success is the fact that the characters have been fairly well-defined.
SG: Yes, they have - even in the comic book. The comic book is a lot better written than people give it credit for. There is an assumption, you know, that because it's based on a toy and because it's written, I guess, with a slightly younger audience in mind, or an audience with a slightly different orientation, that it's dreck comics. That book is as good as anything else in the Marvel line, certainly, and probably better than a lot of them.
DJZ: I think it's also part of that elitist reaction where if it's popular it must be bad.
SG: That's part of it.
DJZ: What do you feel were the big successes that you were able to do in ‘85?
SG: You mean in the terms of stories and such?
SG: Well, the biggest success was an episode written by Stanley Ralph Ross which is an absolutely merciless satire on Saturday morning television. It's an episode called “The Wrong Stuff” in which Cobra manages to disable all of Earth's communication satellites and then puts up its own satellite up there and in effect takes over television, and you see Cobra's version of pro-social programming. This is by far the funniest and strangest episode of the season. Cobra Commander has redone old movies, for example. He's changed the ending of KING KONG so that the last airplane comes up and King Kong swats it down. All of the people flying the planes are dead and he's still up on top of the Empire State Building, pounding his chest and roaring, and Carl Denham and the cop or whoever are down at the foot of the Empire State Building, looking up, and the cop says to Denham, “Well, he got the airplanes.” - and Denham says, “Yes. You can never win if your enemy is stronger than you are.” (Laughter) Then, we did a segment of the show that was about 30 seconds of a Saturday morning show called THE LIKABLES. They're little green elves flanking a purple elf, walking down the street of this little elftown, right, and the little purple elf is saying to the little green elves, “Gee, Likables, how come nobody like me?” - and the Likables says, “Well, Purpie, it's because you are different.”
|Storyboards (#1 & 2 of 4) for G.I.Joe #5
comic book commercial
DJZ: Oh, noooo!
SG: Yes. And then both of the little green elves pull out fistfuls of little green fairy dust and start flinging it at the purple elf and saying,, “Only when everybody looks alike and acts alike and talks alike and thinks alike and never ever gets angry about anything will we achieve world peace.” (laughter) And at this point, the purple elf has turned completely green, and he says, “You're right, Likables! Now everyone will like me!” (laughter) And the announcer - I can't believe they allowed us to do this - then the announcer actually comes on and says, “Tune in next week for more pro-social fun with the Likables!” (laughter) The screen goes completely black...and you pull back and you see that the Joes have been watching this...and Duke has got the look on his face like an anvil has just been dropped on his head...and he just says, totally deadpan..."This has got to stop.” (laughter)
DJZ: That's a riot!
SG: Some very funny stuff in those shows. I am so proud of that series! There's another one we did called “The Games Master” that Clint Dilly [sic] wrote. It was essentially the big kids toys against the little kids toys. The Games Master is this guy who owns an island someplace off in the middle of the ocean somewhere, and he sort of looks like a cross between the Kingpin and Baby Huey, I guess. He's like a big, humonguous sumo wrestler with the mind of a child, right, except that he's also sort of like an idiot savant. He's created this whole technological empire for himself that looks like Candyland. He's got rockets for defense, but they're like those little water rockets that you pop and then they fly into the sky. He's got an airforce that looks like Fisher-Price toys (laughter)...kinda brightly painted and rounded edges, little bulbous planes flying through the sky with their little propellors. What we did was take all of the Joe planes and send them against all of these little kids toys. It was one of the funniest battles of the whole series. There are about half-a-dozen of ‘em like this.
There's a story that Cristy Marx [sic] did called “The Synthoid Conspiracy” in which the Joes are replaced by android duplicates of themselves, essentially, which is a real good story. There's one that Buzz Dixon did, a two-parter called “The Traitor” in which it appears, at least for a little while, that one of the Joes has sold out and gone over to Cobra because he needs money. His mother is desperately ill and Cobra offers him a certain amount of money to betray the Joes. And then there's this one story that unfortunately didn't turn out as anything special but that was one of the funniest ideas I have ever heard. In it's original form - had the script been done the way it was written - it would have been one of the classic episodes. This is a story called “Red Rocket's Glare.” It was written by Mary Skrenes, and the story involved a fast-food hamburger chain called Red Rocket Burgers. They were set up all across the country, and then were suddenly bought out by Extensive Enterprises, which was Xamot and Tomax’s Cobra front, and nobody really had any idea what was going on. Roadblock’s aunt and uncle bought into one of these franchises and decided they didn't want to sell out, and so all of a sudden they're being attacked by planes and jets and tanks and everything (laughter)...people who want this franchise for some reason, but they don't look like Cobras. They appear to be just some strange people who are trying to force them out of their hamburger stand. And ultimately it develops that the reason that all of these stands are being bought back is that they were constructed in a pattern all across the United States and each one has a little rocket symbol in front of it and the rockets are real!
DJZ: Oh, noooo!
SG: Cobra has managed to set up an entire line of - we don't call them this - but they are essentially nuclear weapons aimed at every major city in the world, all disguised as hamburger stands. (laughter) It was a really beautiful script and a really, really funny idea. It was just destroyed in the execution of it. I don't think the producers at Marvel got the joke.
DJZ: Well, one of the criticisms the networks level against animation is that, if being for kids, kids won't understand all of these things.
SG: I think that's a lot of hooey. I think the biggest problem - and this will be the end of my career in network animation saying this - the real problem here is that the network executives don't understand it and don't want to be embarrassed. They don't want to have to say to somebody, “Explain this to me. I don't get it.” - so what they say is that it's too sophisticated for kids, meaning “I don't have to ask an intelligent question about it.” That's a very common thing out here, not in animation and not just in television but in movies, too. The producers and the network executives and, God knows, the studio executives, just don't really grasp a lot of the subtler points of these things, and so they will say it's too sophisticated for the audience. That's absolute hooey. The audience will get it.
We've had no complaints from people saying that they don't understand the show. The fan letters on the show, some of which come from six-year-olds and some of which come from teenagers and even adults, they all love it, and they tend to love it on different levels, you know. These shows were really written the way the old Marvel comics used to be. They work on several different levels. The five-year-olds are seeing one thing and the adults are seeing something else entirely, or something else in addition. I don't expect a five-year-old to grasp, you know, the really fine points of some character bit that we do with Flint or Lady Jaye or something. I want him to understand sort of why Flint is doing the particular thing he is doing, or why Lady Jaye feels the particular way that she does, you know, in a general way; but it isn't important that they grasp all of the implications of that. They understand enough to be able to follow the story, you know, and the adults watching it will get something much greater from it. That's fine.
DJZ: G.I.Joe has really grown into this huge thing since you got involved with it. Now we're having this major feature to be released next season. How do you feel about the success...do you thinking it's really been a boon?
SG: Well, a boon to what things?
DJZ: Given animation for syndication a comparative footing with networks and helped improve animation overall?
SG: It certainly has that. The audience levels for G.I.Joe are the equal of anything on Saturday morning animation. There no question about hat. G.I.Joe, of course, became ultimately the top-rated of the syndicated animated series - which was really gratifying to us because it's not the most popular toy. It's up there, someplace in the top five, but not the most popular toy line.
Has it been a boon to the general field of animation? I certainly hasn't hurt. I hope the feature is good. I don't know a great deal about it. Buzz has told me some things about it - and I haven't heard anything that sounds bad. I hope the feature is good and I think, if it is, it may do something for animated adventure films that hasn't been done in a long time.
DJZ: Why did you leave as story editor on G.I.Joe?
SG: Just because I felt I had done too many of them. There were 50 shows done for the season that I worked on. I had something to do with all 50 of them, and story-edited, myself, 36 to 37 of them, I just wanted to leave before I got stale. That's all. I felt that I had really done everything with it that I was capable of doing, at that point, and just felt it would be better off in the hands of somebody who coming to it fresh.
Giant robot snake from the
upcoming G.I.Joe: The Movie
DJZ: In the vein of coming to it fresh, there was a rumor a while back that you and Frank Miller were going to be doing a revamp of Superman for DC, but instead DC went for the John Byrne version. Can you talk about that?
SG: Oh, yeah. I'll tell you, I am kind of loathe to talk about that because I don't see how anybody can read it as anything but sour grapes. I don't want to say a great deal about it. I don't know how to approach this. Maybe if you ask me more specific questions about it I could deal with it.
DJZ: Have you read John Byrne’s first issue?
DJZ: How does it compare to the sort of plan you and Frank Miller cooked up for Superman?
SG: Ours wasn't dull! (laughter) See, if I start to criticize MAN OF STEEL then I wind up in a situation I really don't want to be in.
DJZ: Okay, let me ask you another question - do you know why DC decided to go with John Byrne and not you and Frank?
SG: Oh, yes. We know exactly why. There were two things, actually. Back in the days when Frank and I submitted the proposal, DC still wanted to be “fair” about everything. They were going to hold what they called a giant Superman bake-off - so help me God, those were their words (laughter)...
SG: I'm not kidding. Exactly their words. They were going to solicit premises for a revamping of Superman from everybody! - just anybody who was interested. Frank and I had already presented them with...
DJZ: When was this, a year or so ago?
SG: Longer than that. Probably closer to two years now. But, we had presented them with pretty much a sort of outline for the first year or so’s worth of issues, you know. We planned what we would do with Luthor, We had created an entirely new Supergirl for the series who has not Superman’s cousin and who, in fact, was not even born on Krypton or a fragment thereof. We had completely reworked...ours was actually a much more radical revamping of the thing than what John Byrne did. I think it was a great deal more interesting, and I think it also retained a lot of the mythic qualities of the character that are completely missing from MAN OF STEEL.
Storyboard for G.I.Joe #5 comic
book commercial (#3 of 4)
DJZ: Well, what were the two things that DC told you specifically?
SG: Oh. Well, we pulled out the minute we heard about the bake-off idea. The other problem was that we wanted out 20% share of the Supergirl character and they wouldn't do it. Those were the two things, basically.
DJZ: When you and Frank were working on the thing, did you talk with Jerry Siegal at all?
SG: No, actually. I didn't. But Jerry and I had talked about Superman many, many times in the past, beginning at the time that the big appeal was made for him and for Joe Shuster when the Superman movie was announced, you know. Jerry and I know each other fairly well. It's been a couple of years since we've been able to sit down and have lunch - since the time we started working on “The Starling” and such together - but I consider Jerry a very good friend of mine. Back in the days when I was writing THE PHANTOM ZONE series for DC, I would think as I was writing it, you know, “How would Jerry Siegal handle this?” And most of the time I think I guessed right. Jerry told me he like that series quite a bit. I have a great deal of respect for the man and for his work and for, particularly, of course, what he did with that character and with the creation of that character. Strangely - since we're generations apart - there is enough kind of common vision there that I think I see the character very much in the way he did, particularly in the beginning. My love for that character...This is why I can't talk about MAN OF STEEL! (laughter) I get so emotional about that character that it become difficult for me to restrain myself when discussing what was done to it.
Storyboard for G.I.Joe #5 comic
book commercial (#4 of 4)
DJZ: Frank, I take it, would have been drawing it?
SG: The way we had it planned, we were going to do all three of their books. I was going to do a revamping of Batman - what eventually became DARK KNIGHT, although it was going to be a contemporary Batman rather than a Batman at the end of his career. And we were both gonna do SUPERMAN. The idea was that Frank and I would write it.
DJZ: Do you know why they chose John Byrne’s version?
SG: No. By this time I was long since out of it. The reason, obviously, is they wanted to get Byrne away from Marvel and they felt that he had a large enough following that no matter what he did with the book he was going to sell it. (laughter) Really. I think it's that simple.
DJZ: Let's talk about HOWARD THE DUCK.
Part Two (from David Anthony Kraft's Comics Interview #38)
My first memory of Steve Gerber date back to the early ‘70s on one of my trips to New York City before I broke into the comic book business. I was staying with David Kraft and he took me over to the office of Mad Genius Associates, a company he had formed with Jim Salicrup, where I met Steve.
The topic of conversation that evening was the “Howard for President” theme that was running in the comic book, of the Howard campaign button by Berni Wrightson (produced by M.G.A.) which had recently been issued. I remember telling him that a lot of fans were ordering multiple copies of the button. He expressed amazement over the fact that they would regard the button as a valuable collectors' item. Whether or not it is, I still have mine.
I broke into the business not too long after that, just as Steve was finding himself being pushed out. One of my most vivid memories of that period was a series of latenight calls from Steve (now in California) in which, because of crushing deadline pressure, he had to dictate to me the script for the HOWARD THE DUCK newspaper strip. In the age before computers with modems and such near-instant electronic information transfer (not really all that long ago), it was a long and laborious process that went far to enrich the coffers of New York Telephone.
Years have passed and now Steve is a well-established writer and editor of animated stories, the topic of the first part of this interview which ran in last month's COMICS INTERVIEW. Yet Steve maintains his contact with mainstream comics and continually tries to write for them, only to meet with spectacular disappointments. But then, if things had always gone right in Steve's life, we might never have had the duck...
DJZ: How did you hear of George Lucas' plans to do a HOWARD THE DUCK movie?
SG: Well, at the time that I first heard about the movie, George Lucas was not at that point yet involved with it. At about the same time as the settlement of the lawsuit occurred, I heard that Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz were trying to sell a picture based on the character and that Universal was interested. They were working with another producer at that time. They had written a script and were showing it around to the various studios. It was at that point that I actually first heard of it and became sort of involved with it. I had a meeting with them almost, it seems - my time sense is probably off here - but it seems like it was within weeks or even days, or months or something, right after the lawsuit had been settled. We talked about the character. We talked about their plans for the film. They were trying to feel me out, I think, on what it would be like to work with me. (laughter)
DJZ: Why? Had they talked to some Marvel people beforehand?
SG: Logical question, but no. I think it's because anytime they're going to adapt a property to the screen they know they're going to have to make certain changes in it and they are always wary of working with the creator of the property, be it a novel or a play or whatever, because they're afraid the slightest change they make, you know, will send the creator up in arms. I think they wanted to find out whether I understood what an adaptation was. Not only did I understand that, but going into it I was thrilled listening to them. They were sitting there quoting lines and titles and storylines from the comic books to me that I had long since forgotten, you know - stuff that I hadn't read in years. Of course, they were looking at the material on a daily basis, so it's not all that surprising. But I mean, the fact of the matter was they were very, very conversant with the comic books and with what I had done in them. They obviously had a real genuine affection for the material, as opposed to a lot of film people who approach any kind of outside property with a certain amount of contempt. There was absolutely none of that here.
Jeffery Jones, as the
pre-possessed Dr. Walter Jenning
DJZ: Do you think that your experience in doing animated scripts has helped you or prepared you in some way for the changes that would be necessary in the movie?
SG: Well, no, I don't think it really had anything to do with that. I mean, except maybe in one sense - I know that when you translate a property from the still pictures of a comic book to the moving pictures of a motion picture - uh, that's a little redundant (laughter) - certain changes are necessary.
Not everything can be played exactly the same way on the screen as it can on a static comic book page. Some things that look very interesting on a comic book page are boring as hell in a movie. And, actually, some things that play very well on a screen are very tedious in comic books. The two media have a great deal in common, but they have almost just as much separating them. They are related but they are far from identical. And so I think it was just a basic realization of that, yon know. I understood, you know, of course they are going to have to make some changes. It never bothered me.
DJZ: Did you act as any sort of active consultant, you know, as the movie progressed?
SG: Yes and no. In the early stages, before they actually went up to Marin County to shoot the picture, I did read over the script and we talked it over and met a number of times on that. I wrote up some comments on it, some of which I think were actually used, and we did actually work out one whole scene of the picture while sitting around their living room one afternoon. They were having problems with one of the horror sequences and my comic book expertise, I think, probably proved a little helpful. The basic problem that they were facing was how to make a monster scarier and smaller at the same time. I don't want to say more than that because it will give away, you know, elements of the picture, but it occurred to me immediately how to do it and we sat around and sort of batted that idea around and I think they probably used the scene as we discussed it. So, yeah, I did take an active part in it.
DJZ: To readers who are familiar with your version of Howard, what could you tell them to expect in the movie?
SG: Don't expect the comic book exactly. I think you can expect something that's faithful to the spirit of the comic book, and I think you can expect to see the same character, as far as Howard is concerned. They did capture Howard very, very well. The character of Howard will be immediately recognizable and identifiable to anybody who liked the comic books. The character of Beverly is a bit different, and yet similar. The setting is still Cleveland. The tone of the story is very much like some of the lighter things we did in the comic book.
Lea Thompson plays Howard's
punk paramour Beverly
It's not a total departure from the comic book by any means, nor is it exactly what people think of as, you know, the HOWARD THE DUCK comic book, particularly the early issues.
DJZ: One thing that surprised me, when I heard it, was that this was going to be a live-action feature, not animated. How did they pull that off?
SG: I think they pulled it off pretty well. (laughter) I can't go into the technological details, but it's done more or less in the way that E.T. or Yoda was done. There are robotics involved, and there are puppeteers involved, and that sort of thing. It is very strange. I met the duck face to face. It was incredibly bizarre to look at this thing. I mean, it looked like a creature to me. I couldn't tell you, you know, what it was. (laughter) Whether it was mechanical or human, it looked like it was organic. And it looked like something resembling a duck. It was very bizarre to meet it and shake hands with it and talk to it and watch its beak move and watch its eyes move and, you know, realize not just that I created it - that would have been bizarre enough...you know, it was sort of like meeting a child I didn't know I had (laughter) - but even beyond that, it was just the notion of meeting this creature that really did look like some kind of alien being.
DJZ: How many Howards did they make, do you know?
SG: There were several. I mean, even during the shooting there was one who did most of the first unit shooting and there was one who did most of the second unit shooting and then I think there may have been...In the early stages, actually, there was a puppet used; an actual puppet that was run with people's hands inside the duck hands and inside the duck head. The duck continued to advance technologically as time went on. (laughter) The puppet was eventually abandoned and everything that was shot using the puppet was completely reshot, when they actually managed to make the mobile duck as expressive as the puppet ever was.
DJZ: When you heard that George Lucas was going to do the film, what was your reaction?
SG: Do the words "myocardial infarction'' mean anything to you? (laughter) I was stunned, are you kidding! In fact, I'll tell you how I found out about this - this is maybe one of the more bizarre aspects of this story.
I knew, of course, that they were talking to Lucas about it. It had been very much up in the air, you know. Universal had to make some sort of co-production deal with Lucas and Lucas had to agree with something with Universal. Any time you get two, you know, giants like that dealing with each other, anything can go wrong at any stage of the thing. I didn't know what to expect. One morning I'm sitting here as usual, kind of bleary-eyed watching CNN, you know, after I'd just gotten up, and I get a slightly panicked phone call from, of all people, Jerry Siegel, who tells me... as if he were breaking bad news, let's put it this way, or as if something had happened that he felt I should know about, that Lucas and Universal had reached a deal and that it was on the front page of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER. I think he must have been stunned at my reaction because I'm sitting there going YIPPEE! (laughter) I was amazed. I don't think he realized that I knew all that was in progress. But, yes, it was from Jerry Siegel that I found out that the deal had actually been made. Jerry was thrilled to hear that not only was I happy about this, but that I had an inkling of it beforehand. (laughter)
DJZ: And were going to get some money from it?
SG: Well, yeah. I have an interest in the film.
DJZ: Were you up at Lacas' studio near San Francisco?
SG: They were not shooting actually in the studio. They were shooting in different parts of San Rafael and environs. They were also shooting out in some marshes around San Rafael and around Marin County. Yeah, I was up there for one day of the shooting. I had a standing invitation to go up there at any time and wish I could have seen more of it in the shooting stage. Mainly, my own schedule was keeping me, like, anchored in Los Angeles. I couldn't get out of here. Something happened every time I tried. It was either a family crisis or a deadline that had to be met or something. Every time I turned around and wanted to leave, you know, something would prevent it, until finally I spoke to Gloria Katz's assistant and - we were in the midst of another conversation - and she just happened to mention, "Oh, yes, we're finishing shooting" on whatever day it was. It was like two days away. It was now or never.
So, that's yet another little twist to the story - I blew the deadline on the first issue of THE SPECTRE for DC to go up there and see that last day of shooting. (laughter) I'll tell you how it happened, too - this is really strange. I had literally, like, twelve hours to make up my mind. What was I gonna do? Was I gonna stay down here and write the first issue of SPECTRE and get it in on time, or was I going to go shopping for some clothes to wear up to Lucasfilm because literally every stitch of clothing I had was in the cleaners? (laughter)
I would have had to have gone up there either naked or smelly, and I couldn't see doing either. So it came down to that. The evening had to be spent either one way or the other, and ultimately I chose to go with the duck and that was the end of THE SPECTRE. (laughter) They decided, "Okay, you missed this deadline. That's it. We're all finished with that."
DJZ: You mean SPECTRE's over?
SG: SPECTRE's over, yeah. As far as I'm concerned it is. You didn't know about this?
DJZ: No, I didn't know at all.
SG: If it weren't such a bad pun I would say "dead and gone."
DJZ: That's strange that DC would kill that.
SG: We were having certain disagreements over it, anyway, in terms of the artwork. I had some real problems with the artwork and was trying to get them to...
DJZ: Who was the artist?
SG: Gene Colan. And this is why it was a problem: the artwork they got was okay, I suppose - the book that Gene did - but Gene and I have worked together a lot and I know what he's really capable of doing and this wasn't it. I wanted major corrections and redrawing in the book. I mean, there is nobody in the comic book business, I don't think, with the possible exception of Mary Wolffman, who is a bigger Gene Colan fan than I am. It was not dissatisfaction with Gene, or anger at Gene, or anything. I was very upset that I had gotten what I considered a kind of mediocre Gene Colan job, and DC and I had some major fights over whether or not the book was gonna be redrawn. Initially they said, "Yes, we'll redraw the entire issue. We'll have Gene redraw it." Then they backpedaled from that and said, "Well, okay, we'll redraw maybe half of the first issue." And then it became a third of the first issue. Finally, it was like six pages and a couple of panels. My own feeling was that the book was just not special enough at that point that it would be worth doing.
DJZ: Do you feel that DC was, you know, more concentrating on their other projects and really didn't want to spend the time...?
SG: No, I don't think it had anything to do with that. I don't think it was because of any other particular project. I think it was just a general attitude that they decided to take. They wanted to get the project underway.
God knows, I did, too. There had been a lot of delays on it for various reasons up to that point, and we had finally gotten the first issue drawn and there it was and it just sort of sat there, as far as I was concerned. It was just not what it could have been.
My feeling at that point was that I wanted to do a book that would at the very least be noticed, you know, when it went out on the stands, and possibly more than that. I wanted at least a chance at a hit, and the way the business works these days - to paraphrase some movie phrase or another - if you don't have a first issue then you don't have a comic book. People judge entire series on the basis of a first issue and they won't look at it afterwards if the first issue doesn't impress them a great deal. And this simply didn't. It wasn't that kind of a job. It was not what Gene was capable of, at his best. It wasn't enough to interest people in that character.
DJZ: What are your feelings on HOWARD THE DUCK right now, just in general?
SG: Well, I mean, I still obviously have a great deal of affection for the character. I'm hoping that the movie will be good. I hope it'll be a good picture. I would like other people to feel that same affection for the character. I wish I could be writing the comic book. I can't simply because I can't get along with Marvel's editorial staff.
DJZ: Can you talk a little bit about what happened there, because it was announced that you would write HOWARD and then suddenly Steve Grant came in...
SG: Well, no, Steve Grant didn't "come in." That story that they published was actually a story that was four years old, and apparently they didn't even bother to update the jokes in it. Steve told me he had written it as topical humor at the time, and the story was four years old when they published it. So, I don't know. I haven't read it. I glanced at it. It was a real boring art job, a terrible cover. The people working on the film also commented to me that it looked like a really bad comic book. My problem with them was very simple. I wanted to pick up HOWARD as I had left it. Now, I realized I couldn't do that without making some kind of accommodation to the continuity that had been established in the meantime, so I tried to do that. I had written a story which sort of reconciled the continuity from the black and white books with the end of the continuity from the color books that I had done, and that kept some of what I felt were the better aspects of Bill Mantlo's version of the duck, and some of the more interesting villains and things that he came up with, and kind of cleared out, you know, the stuff that I didn't feel I could write effectively. Marvel decided - and by Marvel, I mean Shooter - that what this constituted was, in effect, a slap in the face to the other writers who had worked on the strip in the meantime, while I was away from it, and they didn't want to insult them and so they would not publish the story as it was written.
DJZ: Well, didn't you feel somewhat insulted by what had happened to the book after you had left?
SG: I did, but I had gotten over that a long time ago. It actually reached a point where, after awhile, I actually felt sorry for Bill Manrio.
DJZ: Why so?
SG: Well, I mean, during the course of the lawsuit I had to look at some of those black-and-white books and read some of the letter columns. I think he was constantly put in the position of apologizing for not being me, you know, and I wouldn't wish that on anybody. I mean, a character that individual can't really be handled by someone who didn't really understand it. I mean, Bill basically had two choices: he could either completely remake the character in his own image, and try and do something with it that way, or he could try to imitate me. Only one of those had any prayer of being successful and obviously they didn't think that they could allow him m remake the character.
DJZ: Well, of the comic-book writers existing now, who do you feel could actually pick up the mantle of Steve Gerber and write HOWARD?
SG: Alan Moore. I feel perfectly safe in making that recommendation, since I know Alan will never work for Marvel. (laughter) I think there are any number of people who could actually do it, and they're not the people that the comic-book companies would think of immediately.
Alan really is one. Oddly enough, I think Michael Fleisher might be. I can think of maybe one or two others, and I don't really see it as picking up my mantle. These are people who would bring enough of themselves to it that they could reshape the character and make it work in some other way. The way to make that character work for someone else is not to try to do what I did with it - and I think I'll stop giving them editorial suggestions right here.
DJZ: You referred to the lawsuit. And way back when, you created DESTROYER DUCK as an appeal to the fans to help you finance your lawsuit against Marvel, and as a result the fans poured out their money to help you. As lawsuits are wont to do, the thing dragged on for what seemed like an incredibly long period of time, and suddenly there's, like, this little announcement that says the lawsuit's settled and we can't talk about it anymore. Well, it struck me as strange, Steve, because you kind of got on a moral high horse and, you know, asked for the fans' help, and then when the fans did help, you said, "Well, sorry, I can't talk about it."
SG: Well, first of all, Dwight, I haven't gotten that complaint from any of the fans so far. Okay? Secondly, there was a moral issue at stake, but there was also... (sigh)...how to try to explain this? When I asked the fans to support me in that particular lawsuit, all they could really do in order to do that was buy copies of a comic book which wasn't going to cost them a great deal more than any other comic book they were getting - and they still got a comic book for it. Let's not forget that. Really, yes, I asked them to buy this because it would help me support the lawsuit. But the people who were really supporting the lawsuit in that particular instance were not really the fans. The people who donated their time and effort and who contributed to the comic book - Jack Kirby, Alfredo Alcala, Shary Flenniken, Gordon Kent, Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Marty Pasko, Joe Staton, Steve Leialoha, Tom Orzechowski, I can't even name all of them - the people who did all of the work on that comic book for free, those were the people who - if anyone - had a right to complain about the secrecy of the agreement.
The fact of the matter is that Marvel requested that the settlement be confidential. I am perfectly willing to talk about it any time Marvel says it doesn't have to be confidential anymore. Let them drop me a note as soon as they're willing to say that and I'll go on national television if you want and gladly say exactly what it is. But at their request it was a condition of being able to settle the suit. I had to agree to that.
Now, I will tell you this - because this is a question the fans have asked me; they wonder whether I sold out or not, you know - and that's a very reasonable question. When there was a settlement about to be reached, I went to the people most concerned with the DESTROYER DUCK book and with certain other fund-raising projects, like the F.O.O.G. project, Deni Loubert's portfolio for the thing., which actually was something Deni and the artists undertook entirely by themselves. She called me up and said, "By the way, we're going to raise all of this money for you." (laughter) We had only met, I think, once before that. But, before I did make the settlement, I spoke to certain people - Kirby in particular, Jerry Siegel, Dean Mullaney, various others - who couldn't be told the conditions of the settlement afterwards. I wanted to know how they felt about it. Did they think we had to fight this all the way or did they think I should settle if I was getting an equitable settlement? Every single one of those people advised me, "If it's really fair, then make the settlement. That's what you were trying to get." You don't file lawsuits to win moral victories most of the time. You file them to win legal victories. And as far as I'm concerned, we did.
DJZ: Do you think that your protracted battle with Marvel helped establish in their minds, possibly, the fact that they do have to pay more attention to creators' rights?
SG: Oh, I think it definitely did. Yeah. There were people...let me see how to answer this. A whole new group of people was coming into comics just at the time that that lawsuit was filed, and I don't think it's any coincidence that most of those people - the new writers and artists at that time - now take a certain amount of ownership rights, copyright ownership, shares in the merchandising of their characters and so on - I don't think that it's any accident that those people take that almost for granted.
DJZ: It's almost as it should be but...
SG: Oh, absolutely as it should be!
DJZ: But it's still kind of a radical thought, a radical notion, to those of us who were there before.
SG: Oh, sure. My experience has been, interestingly - talking to different generations of professionals - that the younger people now seem to have a real understanding of what it is they are actually creating, in terms of properties that sometimes can last for more than 50 years and generate income all of that time and can be valuable to them. They understand sort of what a copyright is and what the value of sharing in that copyright might be, or even a simple contractual agreement that allows some kind of share in the profits of the character whether your name is on the copyright or not. The older professionals still don't quite grasp that. It's very interesting to me. I mean, what does an author really have? All he really owns are his copyrights, you know. And the older people in the business, even people my own age, look at me and sort of stare like...
DJZ: "Are you from Mars?"
SG: Yeah. Right. It's like, "No-no! It's the page rate!" (laughter)
DJZ: Take the money and run.
SG: They still don't entirely grasp it.
DJZ: Well, in light of all you you said today, is Steve Gerber going to come back to comics at all?
SG: Yeah, I hope so. As a publisher, possibly.
DJZ: As a publisher?
DJZ: You fool!
SG: No, I don't think so.
DJZ: Oh? Why? What makes you think that? I'm curious, because Steve Gerber has made such a reputation as a writer - what is the attraction of being a publisher?
SG: Well, for one thing, I would like to publish some of the stuff that I write. Part of the attraction of publishing, obviously, is having some kind of real control over it; not just over the copyrights and over the ownership of the material - which can be, you know, had elsewhere - but also over the quality of it.
DJZ: Yeah, but considering the nature of a lot of the independents, surely you could almost write your own contract in that.
SG: That's not quite true.
SG: No, not quite. For example, if I were to go to work, let's say, for First Comics right now - I don't like the reproduction process they use on their books. They're not going to change their entire process for one writer, no matter who he is, and I don't frankly think that I could make that kind of demand of them, that I'm in any kind of position to in the comics industry at the moment. I mean, I was never really thrilled with the printing on the Baxter books at Eclipse, either. Certainly, it was good printing - I just don't like the Baxter format very much. The same is true pretty much across the board. Renegade does its particular kind of comic which, again, it's a format I'm not particularly crazy about. I would like to he able to control those aspects of it, as well.
DJZ: Well, what is the format that attracts you?
SG: Boy, I really like what Frank and Lynn came up with on that DARK KNIGHT book. Boy, do I like that format! It is almost ideal.
DJZ: Well, there's a sense of permanency to it -
SG: And no sense of pretentiousness, which is remarkable. It doesn't look overblown, and yet the paper quality, the kind of color reproduction they're getting on it, the kind of coloring that Lynn is doing on it - I have never seen a book look that good, and I'm including any of the graphic novels or RONIN or anything else. I mean, basically, DARK KNIGHT is all of the experimentation they were doing in RONIN - this is the result of the experiments. They really did find out what worked and what didn't and were able to bring a lot of that knowledge to the DARK KNIGHT books. And they're learning even more as they're doing this.
DJZ: Since you have established yourself a pretty successful career outside of comics, even while maintaining some fairly close contacts, what is your observation of the industry now?
SG: (Long pause.) That is such a broad question. It's a very strange situation right now. It's so rife with paradoxes that it's difficult to know where to begin to tear it apart.
You have a situation where - for the first time, I think, in years - the comic book market is actually expanding. There's interest, you know, in carrying these items in bookstores as well as the comic book specialty stores and everything else. There's a real chance, I think, to break out of the market that has been confined to the specialty stores for all of this time - essentially consisting of mutant fans, you know. At the same time, the industry has made a point of weeding out virtually anybody who could appeal to those people.
Probably the single worst aspect of the industry at the moment is that, I think, it really has no capacity, maybe even no competence, for the most part, to train new people. They don't know how to use talent. They have absolutely no idea how to handle human beings. They have no idea how to make use of talented people. All they know is how to do variations on what they have done before, and not really very extreme variations. Somebody put it really interestingly about John Byrne's MAN OF STEEL - another writer I had lunch with a few weeks ago, and we were laughing about this. He said that, you know, the sales on MAN OF STEEL #1 were phenomenal, like a million copies or something - frrst million-seller, probably, for any comic book company in what must be close to 20 years - and he was saying that, of course, now everybody at DC in the editorial department is running around trying to convince themselves that they had something to do with it. (laughter)
DJZ: Success has many parents.
SG: Oh, sure. Yeah. And in fact they had nothing to do with it, any more than they had to do with the success of DARK KNIGHT. In fact, left to their own devices the editorial departments of DC and Marvel couldn't come up with that big a success, either one of them. They needed somebody with the following of a John Byrne. They needed somebody who was going to be as creatively inventive, and as demanding in terms of the technical aspects of the book, as Frank Miller was. Those companies are incapable of doing it themselves. They will try to take credit for it. They have tried to take credit for it. And, incredibly, they've even tried to blame Frank, for example, for the lateness of DARK KNIGHT. That isn't even true!
DJZ: What happened there, do you know?
SG: I can't speak for Frank, but the story I've heard is that the reason that all of the subsequent books were late is that the first book sat eight weeks on some editor's desk at DC Comics waiting to be sent out for blue-lines, and so all of Lynn's work, all of the color work, was pushed back and back and back further and further, you know, to the point where they could never have made the original schedule that they set out to make.
But I mean, even beyond that, I think DC is trying to take a certain amount of credit for the sort of publicity that the book garnered. Absolutely untrue. Word leaked out about it someplace. There was no publicity release on it or anything else. All of the reporters, all of the news media, came to Frank. They didn't go to DC. And Frank didn't go to them! That was the other interesting thing.
DJZ: Well, I've heard strange things about DC's publicity department, like both Frank Miller and John Byrne have actually had to fight the publicity department to get samples of the art out to various publications.
SG: I've heard that. I don't have any factual information on that.
DJZ: Well, it just struck me as odd, you know. I mean, they're supposed to be a promotion department...
SG: Well, promotion at both of these companies is something else that's very interesting. Essentially, the people at DC's publicity department promote the books that they decide they like, and they have actually tried in the past to prevent certain books from being successes by deliberately not promoting them. In some cases, it worked. In most cases, interestingly, they had absolutely no control over it, which doesn't surprise me. The public made its choice based on the books.
I don't think it's any accident that CRISIS, for example, got virtually no promotion. I mean, it's hard to think about that now, because of the reaction to the book and the amount of coverage it's gotten in the fanzines - but if you try to think back, how many handouts did you see? How many posters did you see in people's windows? How much information was really distributed to the press and how much was gotten just by individual reporters going to Marv Wolfman and George Perez? The fact of the matter is that DC did almost no promotion on that book.
DJZ: That is amazing. I think we've pretty well covered everything, unless there's something that you can think of.
SG: Let me add one more thing about HOWARD THE DUCK. You asked me if I'd done anything on the movie in terms of consulting and that sort of thing -- just today and yesterday I've been helping them write the TV and radio commercials for the thing.
DJZ: Oh, yeah?
SG: I was over at Universal just today, over at one of the sound recording studios, to help with the voice-overs and things. It may turn out that one of the major slogans for the picture will actually be mine! (laughter)
DJZ: Oh, wow!
SG: If they use it, I am proud to be able to claim that the slogan A NEW SPECIES OF HERO! is mine. (laughter) I have no idea whether they will use it or not. We did get TRAPPED IN A WORLD HE HEVER MADE! in there someplace. That's actually one of Lucas' favorites, from what I understand. And their own slogan, which is incredibly funny, is MORE ADVENTURE THAN HUMANLY POSSIBLEY (laughter)
DJZ: That does seem to capture, in a sense, that best essence of Howard.
SG: Yeah. Yeah. The spots, the stuff we recorded today is very, very funny stuff, and the trailers that I've seen for it...and actually almost everybody in the free world apparently saw them before I did. I saw them for the first time yesterday on a bank of monitors over at Universal, and they're wonderful. The trailers are just terrific. If the movie is as good as the trailers we'll be in business. (laughter) I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
Interview published in David Anthony Kraft's COMICS INTERVIEW magazine. Copyright (c) 1986 Fictioneer Books, Ltd. Used by permission under non-commercial license.