Stewart the Rat is a depressing book to think about. Writer Steve Gerber had just been fired by Marvel from his masterpiece Howard the Duck, and his career was in a time of transition. Fans of the duck could look to this book as a supplemental substitution, though they would have had to know about it specifically to place a special order with their direct market comics shop – neither this nor anything else by independent publisher Eclipse Enterprises would be showing up on the newsstand next to the latest Rom the Space Knight or Master of Kung Fu. Non-fans of the duck were still forewarned by the front cover, in horror film red-on-black Courier font, that this was “By the creator of HOWARD THE DUCK.” Even if you’d never heard of Howard, you’d know this book was something off-brand. Something that should not be. An aberration from a proven success, born either out of necessity or sheer desperation.
Eclipse Enterprises was, at least according to Wikipedia, the first publisher of graphic novels although that term hadn’t yet been coined. Stewart the Rat is only 44 pages but with its magazine-sized European “comic album” dimensions and stiffer, heavier paper stock it feels a little more important, but still takes no longer to read than an issue-and-a-half of classic Howard. The higher quality paper is actually a nuisance. The pages don’t turn as easily as a normal comic and feel as though they could be bent irreparably if you held them too carelessly. The spine cracks like gingerbread every time you open it. The prestige format makes you feel burdened if all you want is some more Howard the Duck adventures by your pals Steve Gerber and Gene Colan.
Gene Colan’s art, with assistance by Tom Palmer, is typically masterful but suffers from being in black and white compared to the lush coloring his work was receiving at Marvel, except for the de-evolution of Howard into a black and white magazine after Gerber’s firing – but that magazine’s art had better rendering as well as more pages per issue than Stewart.
The most exciting experimentation Gerber uses with the larger, more ostentatious format is getting textual as well as meta-textual, by opening with a lengthy prologue explaining Stewart’s origin story from the perspective of Stewart himself. This part is so well written it actually overshadows the rest of the experience, leaving you wondering what a full length novel by could have been. Echoing the mutation of Gerber’s funny animal id from duck to rat, Stewart begins his existence as Stewart Dropp, a human being (and dead ringer for the author) who unexpectedly dies a grim death (the text is his murder-suicide note) and leaves behind a giant rat who can walk and talk thanks to an infusion of the human Stewart’s own genetic material. In a strange way this prefigures Alan Moore’s reinvention of Swamp Thing as a pure swamp-creature born of human influence, rather than of human origin. Disappointingly, the details of Stewart the Rat’s creation never come back to play any role in the overall story, its just Gerber flexing other creative muscles to set the narrative in motion. Stewart may as well have stayed Of Unknown Origin.
The titular rat’s adventure is, unsurprisingly, a Howard the Duck type of adventure. He winds up in Los Angeles, rather than Howard’s usual Marvel Comics haunt of New York, where he meets a Beverly Switzler surrogate, Sonja Lake, being menaced by a Doctor Bong surrogate named Wayne Fossick. Gerber himself had gone Hollywood irl, working on Thundarr the Barbarian for television, and makes many informed jibes at Los Angeleno culture. The villain Fossick is the best part of the book, possibly the best villain Gerber ever wrote – the ultimate purveyor of New Age claptrap, L. Ron Hubbard by way of Charles Manson. His made up self-help jargon and speeches are both hilarious in their parodies of Werner Erhard platitudes, and dizzying in their hip, banal nihilism. It could have been a great arc for a couple issues of the duck; Beverly goes to LA and Howard has to save her from this megalomaniac. Instead we have these surrogates who barely have enough pages to be characterized before the action starts. In emulating but not distinguishing this creation from his similar, previous comic hero, Stewart can’t help but constantly remind the reader of Howard, especially with the Colan art. There are swears, and tiddies, but Howard the Duck never needed either to be great and Stewart doesn’t gain anything from them either.
Gerber would embrace the absence of Howard and comment on it directly a couple years after Stewart with Destroyer Duck, before sneaking Howard into his run on Sensational She-Hulk some years later and eventually getting to make the denouement on his creation with a Howard the Duck MAX mini-series in 2002 – where he was, incidentally, transformed into a mouse as a commentary on Disney’s lawsuit against Marvel claiming that Howard’s design copied Donald. Ironically, this scandal preceded Stewart. It’s not polite to speak for the dead but I’d like to think if Gerber ever saw what Chip Zdarsky has done with the character recently, he’d kick his smug hipster teeth in.
Stewart the Rat is easily recommendable to any dedicated Steve Gerber fan, but Howard fans may find the experience slightly melancholy. The world conjured up for this relatively slim volume is a hollow one, existing only under because of the author’s frustration over not being able to tell the story using his preferred cast of characters. Stewart was ignominiously born, briefly lived, and quickly abandoned by his creator, who always preferred the company of waterfowl to rodents.
Stewart the Rat; writer, Steve Gerber; artists, Gene Colan and Tom Palmer; letterer, Tom Orzechowski; publisher, Eclipse Enterprises.