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Steve Gerber: Truth, Justice, and Corporate Conscience

January 25, 2013

Steve Gerber: Truth, Justice, and Corporate Conscience

When Steve Gerber was alive, he was flattered by my desire to adapt his work, but asked me not to do so, particularly with Omega the Unknown, which, unlike The Man-Thing, was his (along with Mary Skrenes’s) creation.  While I first got the idea for the Man-Thing opera, it was 2001, and Steve was very much alive.  He died on February 10, 2008.  I didn’t even generate a synopsis for the opera until December 2009, when I had a sudden inkling that I really needed to do it.

His reasoning was that adaptation essentially means that he did something wrong the first time.  who could blame him for that interpretation?  Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz still don’t understand how badly the screwed up Howard the Duck.  Although I haven’t heard it myself, Gloria Katz has been quoted as saying on the DVD audio commentary that she didn’t understand all the flak the film got, summing up her views as, “It’s a movie about a duck from outer space, not an existential experience!”  This statement is indicative that she never actually read Gerber’s material.  Indeed, someone posted on the Howard the Duck yahoo! fan group that he liked that the film used direct quotations from the original source.  When asked for specifics, he cited issue #6 of the Howard the Duck magazine, which was written by Bill Mantlo (who is alive but unable to care for himself after being struck down by a bus many years ago), who received no credit in the film. Steve Gerber hated this issue with a passion.  Marvel had fired him at this point, but they were trying to milk the character for further success.  The issue features Howard’s homeworld, which Gerber conceived as being inhabited by various anthropomorphic animals, as a world completely analogous to Earth other than being inhabited by anthropomorphic ducks, and not only that, Howard hails from New Stork, New Stork, and there are characters in the story with names such as Ducktor Strange and Truman Capoultry.  The idea of Howard’s world being “Duckworld,” and with celebrity equivalents is something Gerber called “unfunny” and “comicbooky in the worst sense of the term.”

The less said about Hans Rodionoff’s Man-Thing movie from 2004 and directed by Brett Leonard, the better.  Rodionoff reset the scene from the Florida Everglades to the Louisiana Bayou as if to appease audiences more familiar with Swamp Thing.  Rodionoff used the names of a few characters that were introduced and died in Fear #12 (the sixth Man-Thing story, and a very self-contained one, added supporting characters named after Gerber (a racist security guard) and artists Val Mayerik and Mike Ploog, and essentially made a pastiche of a 1970s revenge of nature film.  Man-Thing doesn’t appear until an hour and 20 minutes in (the film is only 90 minutes long, despite a longer running time listed on the package), after he has randomly slaughtered invaders to the swamp.  This is not Man-Thing, and the central characters (a formula romance between a cop and a schoolteacher) had no counterparts in the original material.  Franklin Armstrong Schist became Frederic Schist for no apparent reason, and it was decided to make Ted Sallis, the scientist who became Man-Thing, a Seminole medicine man, who is never seen, simply referenced in backstory.  This is hardly what people expect form a Marvel movie, and it won no success with either Marvel fans or those new to the character.  In the 1970s, they hid the monster because of lack of confidence in the special effects, which were often not very good, and allowed the audience’s imagination to handle much of the scares.  Even so, this isn’t what Man-Thing is about.  As a film based on a source that is known to a large part of the audience, they want to see Man-Thing as a central figure, and the creature looks more like the one in the comics when you see it in motion than it does on the package, but not particularly–he still has the three vines on his face, but they’re very hard to see unless they’re moving.  Man-Thing, while no longer (usually) a sentient creature, never killed unless he was threatened by the violent emotions that cause him physical pain as an empath.  Although fear gave him the greatest pain, his humanity broke through enough that he would usually attack the stimulus of the fear rather than the frightened person, unless the person were afraid of Man-Thing himself, which has happened to everyone from his lover, Ellen Brandt (major facial burn), to F.A. Schist (burned to nothing), to the X-Men’s Nightcrawler (minor burns on the arm).

When I told Steve that the plan for the Man-Thing opera was to cut his text down, but otherwise leave it intact, he said that that wasn’t so offensive.  the major concern was that Marvel wouldn’t provide him with a royalty.

Although I can’t say that the opera is purely Steve’s material, unlike Siegel and Shuster and the Superman movie discussed in the link above, I have given him top credit with the libretto, which is, for the most part not rewritten, his major objection, apart from the money (I would want Steve’s daughter, and the writers of the other material, to be paid as well as the credit that I give them as the libretto currently stands).  If I used entirely Steve’s material, the origin story would be completely omitted, and the opera would end with the defeat of Thog that currently appears at the end of the second of three acts.  I thought that the origin story, even if dealt with briefly (it originally took up only 8 pages) was essential to getting a feel for the character, a man with serious vices but also inherent virtues, and a lover who betrays him, who is redeemed over the course of the third act, based in large part on J.M. DeMatteis’s 1997 series, which was partially unpublished, and ended with a merging of Ted, his lover Ellen, the Biblical Adam (whom Steve had also written into a present-day circumstance in his Son of Satan run), and Man-Thing’s altered physical body into a sentient being that communicates through song, which seemed to me the perfect ending for the work.  This idea was dropped by John Byrne in the pages of Hulk before it was further developed, with no details on what happened to Ellen, while Adam departed, but is comparable to Jeff Parker’s “Vogornus Koth” in Thunderbolts/Dark Avengers, Man-Thing’s most recent appearances.

I never did know what Gerber thought of DeMatteis’s run, or if he ever read it.  Interestingly, Steve’s article makes a brief reference to Dr. Occult, a Siegel and Shuster character they did for DC who was revived by Neil Gaiman.  The character as Gaiman wrote him was clearly an homage to Gerber’s Starhawk in Guardians of the Galaxy, the major difference being that the details of the premise were changed from SF to magic.  Starhawk was the merging of Stakar and Aleta Ogord, spouses and adopted siblings who merged after half of each of their atoms were destroyed, such that only one can appear at a time.  Changed to magic, Gaiman had Dr. Occult merged with his partner, Rose Psychic, for similar circumstances and reasons.  As with K’Ad-mon or Vogornus Koth, it is difficult to imagine Siegel and Shuster would ever dream of such a drastic change to their character, and although Man-Thing was not Gerber’s, but a character he started writing very close to the beginning, one can see elements of things coming full circle.

I only hope that, if Marvel is willing to cooperate with me about the opera, that they can be as convinced to be as kind to Steve as DC wasn’t to Siegel and Shuster.  The Salkinds weren’t gunning for Siegel and Shuster to reap benefits, but I am gunning for the writers whose music I set (a little is mine, but not much) as much as myself, because I wouldn’t even want to do this project if I didn’t respect them.  I’ve learned much of what I needed to learn musically with the project so that writing music no longer seems like an insurmountable feat, and can return to the Elmhurst opera whenever I decide this one isn’t worth my time anymore.

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