When I wrote about the passing of Steve Gerber, prolific comics writer and creator of Howard of Duck, I did so recalling the way the themes of God and fate reverberated through his work. What I didn't know: that he named the character after a high school friend who later became a rabbi.
Howard the Duck was reading the newspaper at a coffee shop in Dayton, Ohio, when he saw a wire service item that Steve had died. "I was shocked," Howard told me in a phone interview on Monday.
Howard — Howard Tockman, another U. City classmate — probably was Steve's closest friend through high school and college. "I used to do a Donald Duck voice," he recalled, "so when Steve came up with the character, kind of a combination of Donald Duck and Groucho Marx, he named him Howard the Duck."
In high school, "we were all kind of carefree and joked around," said Tock, as he was known. We put out a comedy magazine called 'Nerve' from Steve's basement. Some of what was in 'Nerve' was political and social, and some of it was just silly. Steve had a very sharp wit. He could reflect humorously about something in a very dark way."
Tock, now the rabbi at Congregation Sh'ma Yisrael in Dayton, knew Steve had had some health problems, but he, too, had lost touch with his old friend. "I know that at one time, he had hopes of writing more than comics," Tock told me. "I got the sense that he would have liked to write something of greater significance. He had a lot of talent, and he was sort of pigeonholed in the comic book field."
As Steve's friend, Tock said it saddened him to learn that Steve had been so unhappy. As Rabbi Tockman, he said he understood how it can feel "when you are by yourself a lot and creating fictional characters and you don't have a grounding in relationships and no real permanent base for yourself. When we were young, I didn't have a sense that he would have a lonely life, and I'm sorry to hear that."