Before Howard the Duck took the hairless ape world by storm, he was a twinkle in the eye of eccentric writer Steve Gerber, and it was comic artist Val Mayerik who gave the bird his wings.
While Mayerik is in Austin this weekend for Hero Con, he agreed to talk with Monomythic about his life-and-times in the comics industry, and in particular, about the duck he helped Gerber – who passed in 2008 – bring to feathered life.
How to Break Into Comics
“We went to Marvel, showed Marvel our stuff, and we were in.”
Well, there was more to it than that. Mayerik found the college art education offered in Youngstown, Ohio, lacking. “The instructors were a bunch of loser beatniks from the 50s who wanted to be the next Jackson Pollock, and of course they failed, so they would torment students,” Mayerik said. “Of course, they had nothing but contempt for comics.”
In the early 70s, comic books had something of a cult following in colleges – as Mayerik explained, no one thought they would be as big a part of pop culture as they are today.
“It never really occurred to me to pursue comics for a living, but I liked comics. I liked the underground comics that were in existence then, the comics that were published by Jim Warren: Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella. I liked the black and white work, and the nice detail and all the nice pen and ink work those guys were doing.”
Someone overheard Mayerik discussing his comic love, and introduced him to the late Dan Adkins, who in turn took Mayerik and a young P. Craig Russell under his wing, showing them the ropes before introducing them to Marvel. “Dan didn’t really tutor Craig and I too much in drawing or drawing technique, but [he did] in terms of how to lay out a page, when do you do close-ups, when do you do far away shots,” Mayerik explained. “He would also emphasize the fact that a lot of details would disappear, so you wanted to make the lines as crisp and as clear as possible.”
The pair moved to New York, joining other artists in Marvel’s Bullpen. Mayerik did most of his work by mail, but he did like being near the House of Ideas main office. “It was truly a really interesting bevy of activity. There was all this original art, there were guys there correcting copy, correcting some little inking mistakes, and lettering. It was great.”
Mayerik joined legendary artist Neal Adams’ nascent Continuity Associates (this was long before Adams’ now-defunct independent Continuity Comics line). “A lot of big name guys at the time were there,” Mayerik said. “Aside from Neal being there, who was a master draftsman, you could learn a lot from Neal, there were a lot of others. There was Russ Heath, who was doing Sgt. Rock at the time. Bernie Wrightson would stop in, Barry [Windsor] Smith … just everybody that was somebody at the time in the business was stopping in like once a week or once every couple of weeks.”
The Man-Thing Contest
Collaborating with and meeting fellow masters of the industry, Mayerik landed a regular gig with the now-iconic (and certainly iconoclastic) Steve Gerber working on Marvel’s Man-Thing. Both Mayerik and Gerber saw the Man-Thing assignment as something of a challenge for the Distinguished Competition’s Swamp Thing series (both muck monsters premiered in 1971, though all parties involve swear it was a coincidence).
For Mayerik, this meant competing with Swamp thing artist Bernie Wrightson, something that would’ve been a lot easier if the comic production process of the time, and the inkers assigned to the book, could bring out his detailed pencil work. “In my mind, I was competing with Bernie in terms of the art. These two swamp creatures. So I always wanted to do the best I possibly could.”
For Gerber, this rivalry meant making Man-Thing a very different kind of book.
“Steve was an interesting writer. There was always something a little more off key that you could look forward to,” Mayerik explained. “He wanted to bring in as many facets and features to that character to differentiate him from Swamp Thing. … Even though he was more of a brute in terms of intelligence, he had psychic powers. And he could be extra dimensional, he could open up dimensional portals.”
Hatching Howard the Duck
Although Man-Thing possessed only the most rudimentary intelligence, it protected the Nexus of All Realities, which meant anything and everything could walk through a portal deep in the Florida swamp.
“Through this dimension came Howard the Duck, but also there was a wizard guy, like a Gandolf kind of guy, there was a blond barbarian, there was a woman,” Mayerik recalled. “There were two or three other characters and the duck was purely just off the top, just toss this in. … We never went back and forth on what it should look like, he just wrote in the script, ‘make sure it doesn’t look too much like Donald Duck. … Give it some kind of dimensionality so this would be like seeing a real duck walking down the street, but talking.’”
Although he described Howard’s creation as fairly nonchalant, Mayerik said Gerber did everything very intentionally, every step of the way.
“With Steve being gone, I could say any damn thing I wanted to, but the fact of the matter is that Howard is Steve’s. I provided the first visual image of Howard, and over the past couple of decades I’ve contributed to the character and I think I’ve contributed substantially to it, however, that character wouldn’t exist without Steve.”
Steve Gerber’s instructions were specific, and that included the character’s continual evolution.
“The way it’s drawn is what Steve described. Later on, especially when Frank Brunner drew the character, he became more like the Disney duck, which I really liked. I still draw that design when people request that. That’s the duck I draw.”
Originally, that meant a pantsless duck, but Howard was forced to cover-up by Disney long before the House of Mouse ever got directly involved with Marvel..
“Brunner and [Gene] Colan … they had to pants on him, I never had to put pants on him. … The more human you make him, like this new one, of course he’s going to need pants. He’s going to look like he’s walking around in his skivvies or something. But the way we drew him? I don’t think he needs pants.”
The Rise and Fall of Howard
“[Howard’s popularity] was just purely spontaneous and serendipitous and it just manifested itself as it did,” Mayerik said. “The fans loved it. The fans were pretty much the ones who demanded a book, for Howard to have his own title. It’s also a character that you don’t want to ever let go to waste.”
Of course, that success came at a price. As Howard the Duck gained more attention, editorial interference became greater, and the demand for more books – books published without Steve Gerber’s involvement – increased.
“It’s a character Steve wasn’t about to let go of,” Mayerik said. “At that particular time, Marvel owned everything. It wasn’t yours. Even if you invented it. … That was the status of Steve’s, in terms of any character he created.”
This led to Gerber’s lawsuit against Marvel, a case that changed the way publishing companies looked at creators and intellectual properties in general.
“When he did get into litigation with Marvel, he didn’t have to include me, but he did,” Mayerik explained. “He didn’t prevail in that suit, but certain precedents were laid down that are still applicable today. Prior to that there were no royalties. … Because Steve did that, that’s the protocol for Marvel. I have a whole set of characters that appeared in Man-Thing, and Howard, that Steve and I created, that even if they show up for one issue of some obscure book, I’ll get royalties for that. … This, in my informed opinion, is a result of Steve’s efforts back then.”
While Mayerik didn’t receive credit from the much-maligned Howard the Duck movie, thanks to Gerber, he did receive royalties.
Creator Owned Comics are the Best Comics
While Mayerik loved working for Marvel before, and after years of working in television and advertising, he’d love to work for Marvel and other companies again, some of Mayerik’s favorite comics were the ones he and the writers had total control over.
“At every convention, somebody comes up to me with Young Masters to sign,” he beamed. “The fans that know about it, are die-hard fans.”
The character, created by Mayerik and Larry Hama (who made G.I.Joe the success of the 80s and wrote Wolverine for many years), was a traditional samurai character with adventures told in very stylistic ways.
“I like the work that I did with it, I liked the writers I worked with on it, I liked the control that I had over it. It was all black and white, but I was able to experiment with inking … It’s always better and more satisfying when you’re able to complete the entire job yourself, from penciling to inking, and whenever possible, coloring.”
While he didn’t color pages of Young Master (later just “the Master”), Mayerik did pencil, ink, and color the creator-owned Void Indigo stories he did with Gerber, initially through Marvel’s creator-owned imprint, Epic Comics.
Howard in Steve Gerber’s Shadow
“I did do a Howard the Duck work with another writer,” Mayerik recalled. He was working on television shows in Cleveland in the mid-80s, when the Howard the Duck movie was about to come out, and Marvel editor Jim Salicrup called to offer Mayerik and television-writer Christopher Stager a gig. “The litigious noise had subsided … and he said, ‘How would you two guys like to do Howard the Duck? Because you live in Cleveland, Howard’s in Cleveland …”
The pair agreed, and they produced the rather odd (which is saying a lot for this character) Howard the Duck #33. In the story, Howard wins $10 million through Ed McMahon’s Publisher’s Clearing House. Howard and his new pal Ed spend the money willy-nilly, and eventually help fund a frankenduck creation: Alexis the (intended) Bride of Howard. Shenanigans ensue.
“We ended up doing this really bizarre story. Steve has this really sarcastic, cynical view of things, and I think we were true to that. We didn’t expand on it very well, but we were true to it. I wouldn’t say it was totally successful, but we had fun doing it.”
Mayerik feels Steve Gerber, Howard’s true father, could have and should have written more with the duck trapped in a world he never made.
“In my mind, it’s an unfinished character … I think that Gerber really, probably had another decade of work he could’ve gotten out of that character.”