If, in the 1970s, you had asked me, "who is the best writer in comics?" I would have answered, "Steve Gerber". No one else could combine such weirdness with such humor with such horror with such social commentary. In the waning days of the 60s counterculture, Gerber produced issue after issue of bizarre and "mind-blowing" tales, guaranteed to send an acid freak into seizures. In Daredevil, he gave us Angar the Screamer and the Mandrill. In The Defenders, he gave us the Headmen and the Elf with a gun. In Omega the Unknown, he gave us a skewed look at a strange new super-hero in a series of odd adventures that, unfortunately, was cancelled before Steve could fit all the pieces together. But the centerpiece of Gerber's 70s Marvel work was Adventure into Fear leading into The Man-Thing and its offshoot Howard the Duck. In Man-Thing, Gerber gave us a string of powerful stories in turn frightening, moody, thought-provoking, amusing, overwrought, overwritten, eye-opening, and just plain weird. In Dakimh the Enchanter, Jennifer Kale, Korrek the Barbarian (who emerged into our world from a jar of peanut butter), the Nexus of the Universe, the dogs who are gods, Richard Rory, the Night of the Laughing Dead, Zeke and Dawg, the Song-Cry of the Living Dead Man, Captain Fate, a Candle for Sainte-Cloud, and the Mad Viking, Steve gave us compelling characters and situations without misstep that, I feel, rival the best runs in comics history. If you've read them, you likely know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, then you should start looking for back-issues right away. In the midst of all this, Howard the Duck is almost an afterthought; a throwaway character who "died" halfway through his storyline and was only brought back because of popular demand. In a pair of "test-the-water" backup stories in Giant-Size Man-Thing, Howard meets the Hell-Cow (a vampire cow) and Garko the Man-Frog, proving that Gerber can write good stories with a duck as his lead just as well as he can with a muck-monster.
By the time Howard gains his own series, the times are moving away from the counterculture and moving into... a whole lot of different things at once. Howard's book mirrors this transition very nicely. From the moneyed adventure of Pro-Rata the Mad Financial Wizard and the Cosmic Calculator Key to the obsessive health ravings of the Kidney Lady to the cheap Science Fictional doings of the Deadly Space Turnip, to the Kung Fu-crazed adventure of the Master of Quak-Fu, to Howard's attempt to enter the mainstream by running for President to his subsequent nervous breakdown to his metamorphosis into a human to his encounter with Anita Bryant, to the Star Wars take-off, to the self-indulgent wanderings of "Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing", to the satire of, God help us, Dr. Bong (So much for the counter-culture, though I recall reading an interview with Gerber where he professed to not know what "bonging" was when he created the character.), Howard struggled to find a four fingered handhold in this uncertain new world. Then, after a couple of years, it was over as Gerber left Marvel and went to court over ownership of his character. No one has been able to write a good Howard the Duck story (or Man-Thing story for that matter) ever since.
Even Gerber himself seemed to lose the magic after Howard. He wrote a new Man-Thing story for Marvel Comics Presents that didn't measure up to his previous standard. His work on Stewart the Rat, Destroyer Duck, Sludge, Nevada, and A. Bizarro was entertaining but not what it used to be. It seemed that Steve Gerber was past his prime.
Or maybe he just needed to work on the duck again. The first issue of the new Howard the Duck mini-series is out and it feels like old times. Here we have Gerber expertly skewering microwave ovens, "dot coms", interchangeable 80s girls' names (Heather, Tiffany, Jennifer, Britney, Kimberly), marketing research, Jerry Falwell, and boy bands, bringing back Dr. Bong, and putting the knock on Disney. Howard is in full curmudgeon character, Beverly (Howard's human companion) is as beautiful and smart as ever, and Phil Winslade's art is the equal of the Val Mayerik, Frank Brunner, and Gene Colan work that once defined the character. It's funny, it's clever, it's incisive, and it's just plain good.
So, if, today, you asked me "who is the best writer in comics?" I just might say "Steve Gerber" again. Or at the very least, this: On the great Glenn Fabry cover, Howard is transformed into a rat. He looks out at the reader and says, "Don't ask." I say (quoting a 70s Jack Kirby cover), "Don't ask. Just buy it!"