“Hands-Off” Characters

People who follow this column religiously (are misallocating their time, and also) may remember that I spent a good year and a half or so stalking Marvel’s Howard the Duck Omnibus like it was wild game. By the time I found it for a price I could pay without having to sell my plasma, it was already long out of print. (Is it just me, or does it seem lately as if Omnibeaux somehow go out of print before they’re released?) By the time I got it, the book had long ago stopped being something I was sort of interested in checking out and had become a symbolic totem for all frustration I had ever experienced. When it landed on my doorstep, I did a victory lap around the porch, bought a case of Red Bull, and cleared my calendar for the remainder of the week.

I was naïve.

As it turns out, the amount of time I spent stalking the book is going to be nothing compared to the amount of time it’s taking me to finish it. 790 pages of Howard the Duck is one thing in the abstract and something else entirely when it is in your house warping a couple of floorboards. It weighs more than the table it’s sitting on. After my sight goes, my son will drive over to the home every Sunday and read to me from this book.

This is not to say it’s a slog, by any means. There’s just something about the Omnibus format that makes you feel like you should be reading it on its own podium and taking notes. I feel like I have to study every page, and soon that is going to be a problem. I’m approaching the issues that Steve Gerber didn’t write.

As I’ve written before, Howard’s life behind the scenes has been as interesting as his series ever was. Steve Gerber created the character as a joke, but Howard would evolve into a kind of avatar for his author; he became the signature character Gerber was identified by. When Marvel fired him, Gerber sued to them for custody of Howard; in every way that mattered, the duck was his.

When the gavel came down, of course, Marvel Comics were the more-or-less proud owners of Howard the Duck. Steve Gerber created him, Steve Gerber wrote every story he was ever in… and then suddenly one day he was thinking someone else's thoughts. And as much as I feel compelled to study every page of the Omnibus, it almost seems like I shouldn’t read those issues. It feels weirdly wrong somehow. Every time I try it, as I did with the recent Back in Quack one-shot, I find myself taken out of the moment by self-conscious analysis: “This issue’s tone is pretty consistent with Gerber’s. He probably wouldn’t hate this. Right? Isn’t this the kind of thing he’d have been doing himself? Maybe?”

Mostly, I find myself thinking, “Hey: hands off the duck.”

As much as these comics may be corporate goods that have been passed from writer to writer for decades, there are characters that become certain writers’ “property,” especially if those characters were their creation in the first place. I can still remember opening Allan Heinberg’s Young Avengers #1, seeing Jessica Jones, and recoiling. “No. No no no no, you give her back to Bendis and say you’re sorry. Hands off.” It would be like if I started talking and Conor’s voice came out of my mouth. Even if I were saying all the right things, grumbling about nothing and wedging in Deadpool jokes where none are called for, it would be jarring.

When Batwoman #0 came out the other week, I left it on the stands until three dozen people sang its praises because a part of me thought, “Nope! That’s Greg Rucka’s.” I know it’s not rational. Hell, Rucka moved on of his own free will. It still takes a conscious effort to get past that impulse. My shields went up the same way when Neil Gaiman’s Death appeared in Paul Cornell’s Action Comics, and Gaiman all but appeared on a Vatican balcony to give that book his blessing. Joss Whedon himself took over Runaways, but I still read most of his run with my arms crossed: “Not Vaughany enough. Too deVaughaned.”

Joss Whedon, by the way, is about to get Gerbered by Warner Bros. They’re making a Buffy “reimagining” without him. There are people rolling their eyes at me right now about the Jessica Jones thing who heard that Buffy news and had three strokes at the same time. Everything’s relative.

It doesn’t have to be characters the writer created, either. Sometimes, an author makes an indelible mark on a series. Even though most of the cast has been kicking around the B-list for decades, if it were announced tomorrow that someone else would be taking over writing duties from Peter David on X-Factor I would politely tip my cap and show myself out. I don’t even think it would matter who the new writer was. After David left his run on The Incredible Hulk, I did not peer between the covers of that comic again for years and years.

Then again, consider the alternative. One day, Peter David will tire of X-Factor, and I admit it would be a shame if we never saw Madrox again after he quit. The world would be a poorer place if Stan Lee had said, “Hands off; Spider-Man is my baby” forty years ago. With this sort of thing in mind, Brian Bendis actually made it his mission a few years back to “rescue” other authors’ characters that everyone else was hesitant to touch. As a result, Brian K. Vaughan’s Hood and Paul Jenkins’ Sentry were saved from obscurity. And who would want to live in a world without the Sentry?


Jim Mroczkowski has read that apparently, all the way until 1987, there was an unwritten rule at Marvel that only Stan Lee could write Silver Surfer books. Jim Mroczkowski could not find an organic place to drop that tidbit in, so it got dumped into this part at the bottom that nobody reads. Sometimes Jim Mroczkowski just stuffs this part with gibberish to see if anyone notices. Cracklin’ emu niacin cablevision.


  1. I feel the same way about Howard. I got about 3 pages into that back in quack before i had to put it down. just felt weird.

    If the last few issues of Season 8 are any indication I feel like Joss Whedon has lost the right to write Buffy. Maybe we’ll be better off without him, maybe he said all he could and now he’s just stumbling forward, unaware that his creation has become a bit more of a burden than it should be.

  2. Robinson has pretty much the entirety of the Starman family locked down.

  3. Great article Jim. It makes me think of the Young Avengers, and how they’ve been almost completely left alone for Alan Heinberg.

  4. Damian and Morrison?
    Other people can and will write him well, but will they ever match Morrison’s first two B&R arcs? 

  5. Nice article Jimski. One of the first characters I think of in this vein is indeed Howard the Duck. Good on you. Other characters I have a hard time seeing others write include:

    Deadpool by anyone other than Joe Kelly
    Cerebus by anyone other than Dave Sim
    the SIP girls by anyone other than Terry Moore

  6. Excellent topic. I kind of feel this way about the Flash and Geoff Johns. On the one hand, he writes that series brilliantly, but on the other, I sort of want to see what others could accomplish with the character. C’est la vie.

  7. I hope no one else writes the Jimski articles except for you. They’re very entertaining and thought provoking, and even though someone else may get the Jimski vibe, it just wouldn’t be the same.

  8. Actually, Bendis should keep his hands off all of the popular Marvel characters he has touched. All he is doing is making me long for the days when other writers wrote them organically (eg; Stern & Busiek on Avengers) & said characters actually sounded and behaved like themselves. He should be relegated to Ultimate Spidey & Jessica Jones as far as mainstream Marvel goes. They are the only ones he handles lovingly because he created them. I would say only Luke Cage is the only one he revamped well. He has used his HACKsaw on pretty much everyone else & eviscerated them.

  9. Interesting.   For me, to be as wishy-washy as possible, it depends?  I could agree about the Jessica Jones thing, in principle, except that she’s been pretty well used the times I’ve seen her show up elsewhere (in Young Avengers and recently in Avengers Academy).  And maybe the way to look at it is that Jessica is important because of a role she fills within the universe.  She’s a character who was a hero, and then some bad shit went down and she quit, and is working back to being a hero again.  And if (as in the recent Academy story) you need a character who’s had a similar experience to fill a role in the story, that’s exactly what continuity is for.  Likewise, I think Greg Rucka deliberately wrote Batwoman in a way that she could be integrated into the Batman universe and fill a role that wasn’t being filled — not just by being female and gay (which was apparently the entire original concept before Rucka got his hands on her) but by having an origin that is in no way beholden to Bruce Wayne. 

    In comparison, it’s hard to see how the universe *needs* a wisecracking duck, except as an outlet for Gerber’s particular crazy genius.  Or why the Runaways have to exist except as this nifty idea Brian K Vaughan had once.  So that’s the distinction I see.  Runaways without Vaughan = don’t want.  Batwoman without Rucka = essential.  (Jessica without Bendis falls somewhere in the middle, but used sparingly and thoughtfully, it works for me.)

  10. I want to use the term “Gerbered” in conversation. “Oh man! You got Gerbered!”

  11. @har13quin  Solid Call!

  12. i think with team stories it is unfair to say that a certain writer shouldnt be writing certain characters, if they exist in the team, then you have to look at it as the team.  Now i will agree that within the team, some writers can make more out of a minor character (in the case of Jessica Jones), but as a team player I have been mostly happy with her characters writing. 

    …but that’s just me

  13. Howard without Gerber does indeed feel wrong somehow, but I’d hate to see people stop trying.  In fact, one of the things that drew me to She-Hulk’s post-Bryne She-Hulk was the promise of some Howard cameos.  Howard is a tricky character for me mostly because of legal issues.  Regardless of Right, Wrong, and The Law, I really wanted Gerber to own Howard, so it’s a double slap when someone else writes him.  But even so, he’s a great character, and if a great writer can bring him back to life, then they absolutely should.  But it’s tricky.  Gaiman created an entire universe within the DC universe, and he did it masterfully.  It would be so easy to try to bring those characters back with other writers and still so difficult to do successfully because “successfully” means “better than Gaiman” or at least “in a way that absolutely does not go against the way these characters were established in the Gospel of Gaiman.”  Meanwhile, some of my favourite Alan Moore work involves taking someone else’s characters and making them new and fresh and interesting again.  So it’s hard to say that some characters should be “hands off,” but it’s certainly a “handle with care” situation.  Certainly whenever a character becomes beloved because of the writer, you’re going to generate some backlash when a different writer takes it on, but if another writer feels a connection to the character and feels like they have story to tell, they should try because otherwise that Omnibus will represent all the Howard there is or will be while so many other characters who have seldom, if ever, been so well-written live on.

  14. I have that Gerber feeling about those Young Avengers that you mentioned, along with the Runaways. Hmm… I guess it would be weird if anyone else wrote Fone Bone and his crew, but what’re the odds of that?

  15. Grendel and Matt Wagner, there were some good stories in the Black white and Red series, but for the most part, just Wagner.

    Though I haven’t read the Greg Rucka Novel, maybe I should.

  16. Power Girl. Without Conner, Gray, and Palmiotti I am not interested. I tried the follow up team, but only grudgingly and when it wasn’t immediately exquisite I was done. Action comics once Cornell is gone will be treated the same. I am sure there are others. What I find baffling is that I am wholly aware of this in myself and yet subject to it every time. Perhaps it is creator loyalty, a native sense of elitism, or maybe… maybe I have just been told the story I wanted to hear.

  17. I agree with the feelings but at the same time as far as “Universe Characters” go I hate to see them disappear or fall into obscurity. Marvel and DC may have creators that “own” a character for awhile but the torch needs to be passed on, even for Starman and the likes of Morpheus. Interpretation is one of the greatest assets comics has.

  18. I used to feel this way about The Punisher and Garth Ennis but Fraction and Remender turned me around on that

  19. @jig – Take everything you said and make it the opposite, and I agree with you.  EXCEPT for the parts about Ultimate Spidey and Jessica Jones.  Bendis should still write those, as well.  And Luke Cage.  So we agree on those three.

    Also, Peter David can do (very little) wrong, but I just finished reading his novel “Tigerheart”, so I’m a little biased.  Sheer brilliance. 

  20. Morrison and Animal Man

  21. I think elektra is the easiest to call on this. Anyone besides frank attempting a major plot with her in it is insane. 

  22. I feel this way about Batman.  No one but Bob Kane should ever write him.  “If Kane kan’t, no one kan,” I always say.  Seriously, I think that all comics should work like this, to an extent.  Go come up with somethin’ new, ya mooks, and stop trading on the creative talents of dead men.

  23. Gerber owns two characters for me, Howard and Dr. Fate. I was crushed when he died in the middle of his Dr. Fate mini. He had a great handle on how magic should work, and a dark sense of humor with the way he wove in symbolism from psychologists like Jung and Freud. Other writers on Dr. Fate feel flat compared to Gerber’s characterization.

  24. I will be taking over the Jimski articles when he quits. Get ready for “Jimski-Armour” “Blue Electric SuperJimski-man” and “Jimski-Spider Baby”

  25. Peter David writing Madrox is a major thing, but he didn’t create him like Geber did for Howard.  Personally I wish David would bring Havok back to X-factor.  I really liked how Havok was protrayed during David’s 1st run on X-Factor. 

    For me I want Robinson do more STARMAN tales. 

    Also Abnet and Lanning should only do Rocket Racoon stories.

  26. Im seeing more and more evidence Morrison should be the only one to write Damian

  27. @incredibledave  I’m not, I’ve enjoyed Damian unde several pens; it helps that Morrison didn’t write him for years and years, but he did sketch him in well-enough for the basics to be clear.

    I’m in the ‘no one should be off limits camp’. I do agree that no one seems to have gotten Howard post-Gerber, but by all means, let writers try. If they get it ‘wrong’, the old work is still out there, to give the next guy a hint.

    Incidentally, no one should draw Captain Britain but Alan Davis, Gene Colan’s Daredevil could never be bettered ..

    Lovely piece, Jimski!

  28. Great article as usual. I do love me some Hoard the Duck, and while Gerber is obviously the definitive writer of the character, I did enjoy the Back in Quack! one shot.

    Peter David has the ability to take characters nobody has ever put much thought into and turn them into fascinating characters. If somebody told me in the early 90s that Jaime Madrox would become one of my favorite characters ever, I would have laughed in their faces. Really? The guy who has no power other than to make other normal guys? He’s really interesting??? Turns out, he’s an amazing character. David did the same thing with Quicksilver. He was always a character that was just “What if the Flash wasn’t nearly as powerful, and was also a prick?” PAD turned him into one of Marvel’s best characters. 

    That being said, I only ever want to read a Death story written by Neil Gaiman. I make an exception for Jill Thompson if it’s Li’l Death 🙂 

  29. Although I understand people not wanting other writers to touch certain characters, I can’t say that it’s a feeling that I’ve ever really encountered. I think it’s mostly because 9 times out of 10 what drew me to reading about certain characters is the writer, not the character him/herself. I enjoyed Sandman because of Neil Gaiman’s writing, not because of something inherently compelling about the character. And while I haven’t read any of the Dreaming spinoffs by other creators, I have read a few arcs of Lucifer because I enjoy Mike Carey as a writer. When it comes right down to it, I just want to read good stories.