Marvel Unlimited Edition: After Steve Gerber
The Marvel Unlimited app is a gigantic, messy cache of awesome and terrible old comic books: a library of 13,000 or so back issues of Marvel titles, available on demand for subscribers with tablets or mobile phones. Like any good back-room longbox, it’s disorganized and riddled with gaps, but it’s also full of forgotten and overlooked jewels, as well as a few stone classics. In Marvel Unlimited Edition, Eisner-winning critic Douglas Wolk dives into the Unlimited archive to find its best, oddest and most intriguing comics.
Steve Gerber died in 2008, but his work is still casting a shadow over contemporary comics -- it's a good bet that Guardians of the Galaxy and The Defenders wouldn't be what they are now without him, for instance, and the biting, off-kilter tone of his writing has found its way into the central stream of superhero comics. Here are a couple of ingenious variations on projects he co-created, as well as a posthumously published jewel.
Gerber, Mary Skrenes and Jim Mooney's bizarre 1976 series Omega the Unknown only lasted ten issues, but it made an impact on novelist Jonathan Lethem. Along with co-writer Karl Rusnak and artist Farel Dalrymple, Lethem reworked Omega as "a version of an unfinished dream": a peculiar, brilliant ten-issue miniseries that began with the original series' premise and then rocketed off in its own feverish direction. No other Marvel series has ever looked or read much like it, and a couple of other art-comics heroes also contributed to it. Paul Hornschemeier's flat, autumnal colors keep its mood fascinatingly uneasy, and Gary Panter draws a sequence in #7 in which an alien intelligence tries to make itself understood through comics.
Ty Templeton's one of the funniest writers in comics, when he gets the chance, and his 2007 take on Gerber's most famous creation (drawn by Juan Bobillo and Marcelo Sosa) was a clever update on the broad, loopy satirical voice of Gerber's original Howard run. Reprinted as Media Duckling a few years ago, it's a slightly ungainly piece of work --Howard barely even looks like himself--but it's worth a look for the appearance of telegenic villain M.O.D.O.T. (that's Mobile Organism Designed Only for Talking).
Why would Marvel Unlimited include only the first two issues of this three-issue miniseries? Who knows? Still, those two issues, between them, reprint the Gerber-written Man-Thing #12, from 1974, an unnerving character study called "Song-Cry of the Living Dead Man." The lead feature of Infernal Man-Thing is that story's sequel "Screenplay of the Living Dead Man"; Gerber wrote it in the '80s, and Kevin Nowlan started drawing it then, but didn't complete it until after Gerber's death. It's one of his darkest, bitterest comics -- Man-Thing's presence is only incidental to the story of a writer who's been destroying himself in the name of mass-cultural entertainment.