Tuesday, February 19, 2008

We Now Return To Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

And we're back.

A lot of times when people die in the industry I don't feel the need to say anything about it, not out of any desire to be callous but more out of a wary respect - if I don't have anything particularly perceptive or personal to say, or so my thinking goes, best not to say something fatuous and risk seeming insincere or, worse, opportunistic. But I didn't feel the need to be so chary with Steve Gerber: not merely was he a significantly important presence in the comics industry, but he actually wrote a great many comics I personally loved. We had known his health was fragile for a long time, but I guess it was hard to believe that he was really in jeopardy. He was enjoying something of a second wind in his comics work, so why not in life as well? Charles Schulz didn't die until he was damn well good and ready.

But alas, the hints of future greatness will have to remain just that - hints. Although we haven't seen enough to really judge, the first few issues of his Dr. Fate revamp really seemed to have a lot of potential. It was very much a "Gerber" book, in that you couldn't imagine it having been written by anyone else: all the conflicts in the book were somehow symbolic of the protagonists own psychological struggles; said psychological elements of the book were foregrounded (the protagonist was even a psychiatrist); and you even got the feeling that this was, again, more than merely a paycheck but in fact a deeply personal project for Gerber. His Dr. Fate was emerging out of a morass of bad decisions and worse luck, trying to rejoin the human race while also, almost incidentally, dealing with the burdens of mysterious mystical powers which had dropped in his lap - kind of like a veteran comic book writer working his way back into a medium-profile mainstream assignment after many years of relative inaction.

The supernatural elements were really only a catalyst for something that was setting up to be much more interesting, providing the character hadn't been hijacked by DC's Never-Ending Crossover (I guess we'll never know how that would have turned out). In terms of tone it owed a lot to J.M. DeMatteis' previous run on Dr. Fate, an eclectic take on the character that sprouted up in the same fecund period as Neil Gaiman's Sandman but - for me at least - never seemed to fully cohere despite its good intentions. It was interesting to see Gerber working in the post-Vertigo character-driven mode popularized by Alan Moore in the 80s, especially considering that it was Gerber's own 1970s work on Howard the Duck and Man Thing that directly paved the way for Moore's genre-defining work on Swamp Thing. But even though it was aware of its past, Gerber's Dr. Fate was still very much its own book, heading in its own very peculiar direction. Based just on the first handful of issues I read, I would call it a moderate success. From what I saw Gerber was still working on the series when he passed, so any ending we get will probably be truncated in some manner.

I'll talk more about the specific excerpts from Howard the Duck I posted last week, and why I picked them, hopefully tomorrow.

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