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Good Read" Column for March 30, 1998


Created & Written By Steve Gerber
Pencils by Phil Winslade, Inks by Steve Leialoha
DC/Vertigo, $2.50, First of a Six-Part Series

(of a possible five)


I was almost afraid to read this book. See, I graduated from high school and started college in the mid-70s, when the first rush of what we now call alternatives, then called "underground" comics and dominated by sex and dope jokes, were beginning to die back and the independent comics we know today hadn't started up yet. In that small space of time a new generation of comics writers, working for the big mainstream companies (mainly Marvel but also DC), tried to shake things up from the inside. Just as Jerry Rubin went from Yippie to Yuppie without abandoning his ideals, creating a stock fund for investors who wanted to invest in only those companies that were politically correct, these guys were working within the system to turn it on its ear.

To realize how radical these guys were, you must understand that superheroes dominated the industry even more than they do now. Conan was Marvel's idea of a non-superhero comic, and it was only a few years old. In the back of this comic, Steve Gerber mentions Steve Englehart's Captain America and Don McGregor's Black Panther as being among these comics that "stormed the medium and its conventions," tryping to "prove that comics . . . could be an art form." That sounds ridiculous today, at least to those of us who look beyond superheroes. I like Astro City, but I don't consider it revolutionary. Even Watchmen isn't revolutionary, to my mind. But ten years before Watchmen and Dark Knight, injecting adult sensibility and intelligent dialogue into ANY comic - even the so-called "undergrounds" (which were largely more adolescent than truly adult) - was breaking new ground.

Gerber's own contribution to that revolution was Howard the Duck, one of only two comics magazines I own the entire run of in its original form.*

Steve Gerber was once like a god to me. His famous "Dreaded Deadline Doom" issue - which was done, it must be admitted, only because he had fallen behind on his work and faced moving from New York to Las Vegas with no chance to write the next issue in time - is one of my favorite comics ever printed. If it is a comic. There are those who say not. The whole thing is illustrated text - years before Dave Sim or Mark Oakley tried it. It's an essay on the nature of writing, the relationship between a writer and his characters and the paradox of an artist seeking to create art that is at the same time a "product" to be sold to the masses. It's absolutely brilliant.

One of the most hilarious things in the issue was an "Obligatory Fight Scene" between a Las Vegas chorus girl, and ostrich and a killer lampshade. While this is a different chorus girl and ostrich (wink, wink), and we've only gotten a brief glimpse of the "even stranger variation on the theme" Gerber says has replaced the lampshade, those are the main characters in this book: a Las Vegas chorus girl and her pet ostrich.

*original form. - If you're interested, the other is Kirby's original New Gods. I'm missing one issue each of Forever People and Mister Miracle, two issues of Master of Kung Fu and about a dozen early Cerebus - plus the ones that haven't been published yet, of course. The fact that there were only 25 issues of Howard has something to do with this, but I also got lucky and was able to buy a complete collection, most of which were in better shape than my own.

So why was I afraid to read it? I should have been haunting my local comic book shop for weeks, asking continually "Is it in yet?" and not even waiting until I got home but sitting in the car outside the shop that lucky day it finally came, unable to start up until I devoured it. Right?

Well, part of me felt that way, but look over the names Gerber mentions as among his mid-70s revolutionary fellows: Steve Englehart, Don McGregor, Doug Moench, Steve Skeates. I could add Marv Wolfman and Jim Starlin to the list.

One thing they all have in common is that, since those heady days, they have all done things to disappoint me. One of my saddest moments was when I happened to pick up a copy of C.O.P.S. - a short-lived comic based on a line of toys - and saw that it was written by Doug Moench, whose Master of Kung Fu I still regard as better written than the Claremont run on the X-Men.

True, this was a Vertigo title, which boded well. Still, there's a certain fear that a favorite writer or artist who's been away for a while might not "have it" anymore. So it was with an eagerness tinged with trepidation that I finally went to the comic book store on Saturday, three whole days after it came out, and bought Nevada

I needn't have worried. It's great.

I could stop there, but after that big introduction I know you're expecting me to say SOMETHING about the comic. Well, to begin with it opens with a page of illustrated text, and we have two or three more such pages (depending on if you count the dance sequence) in the issue. This is no longer a big deal, everybody and his brother does illustrated text pages occasionally, but for me it was a reminder of the origins of this story, and a very good place to start. But he quickly establishes this is not Marvel, not Howard, not anything like we've seen before. The text is an exchange between a prostitute and her john, and on what is essentially the next page (page two is just credits), we see said john's bottom half still standing in the room, sliced off cleanly at the waist.

I could quibble about the maid who finds the body being a stereotype - "Esperanza Consuelo Sanchez," she introduces herself, "An' I don' do nothin' wrong, meestor, I jus' come in to clean, an there he is standing . . . jus' like that!" But Gerber lives in Las Vegas, I don't. I'm sure there are lots of Latino housemaids in the casino hotels, and many of them may even actually say "meestor." She's only in two panels anyway, but coming on page three she did bring back those fears momentarily.

But it was only a small moment, and I soon forgot about it. The story swept me along, like a flooding river, and it wasn't until looking it over again after finishing it that I realized how economically Gerber managed to establish a fairly large cast of characters, set up several apparently interlocking plotlines, create an air of mystery about his heroine's past, show just a glimpse of a mysterious inhuman villain, and give us a couple of scenes of old fashioned action (my favorite being when Nevada, our heroine's name as well as our location, says to her ostrich "Bolero, Kill!" only to be surprised when he attacks ("I thought I was bluffing" she later says to the bird). That's a lot to pack in to 25 pages, and Gerber makes it look easy.

All in all, I needn't have worried. Gerber's as good as he ever was - heck, he's better than he ever was. Howard the Duck was great in its conception and its attempt to push the boundary of what people thought comics could be and do at the time, but as much as I like it and would argue its historic importance to the medium it wasn't nearly as well written as a lot of comics these days. That's because the revolution worked. With a few glaring exceptions, even most superhero comics are written better than they were in the 60s and early 70s. And Steve Gerber has matured as a writer and a human being, so I really should have expected Nevada to be better.

And it is. If it continues as well as it's begun, Nevada will be the best thing Steve Gerber's ever done. And that's saying something.

Since this is a comic, I should say something about the art. With the exception of Nathan Eyring coloring an African-American woman as a caucasian, the art was excellent. Phil Winslade's pencils have a lot to do with the story flowing as well as it does, as well as making Nevada pretty to look at. I've always though Steve Leialoha is an underappreciated artist, and he doesn't get near enough work. I'm glad to get a chance to see him. The pencil work I've seen him do is much different, a loose, cartoony style, but his inks usually grace more realistic pencils. I don't know if that's a choice or just what work he can get. Either way, he and Winslade make a good team for this book. Nevada is sexy, the backgrounds are varied (some exquisitely detailed, others merely suggested), and most importantly I had to realize I hadn't said anything about the art and go back and look closely at it before I noticed it at all.

The best comics art is not the big splashy stuff that brings high prices for the originals at conventions. The best comics art is unobtrusive, neither "Wow! That's good!" nor "Ugh! That's awful!" The best comics art is pleasing to the eye, but mainly it TELLS THE STORY as simply and directly as possible, without getting in the way. That's what Winslade and Leialoha do here.

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