Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Stewart the Rat

In 1980, after being unceremoniuosly bounced from Marvel Comics and his greatest creation, Howard the Duck, and in the midst of a battle with the so-called "House of Ideas" for ownership of said creation, writer Steve Gerber once again teamed with HTD artist Gene Colan, joined by inker Tom Palmer, to create the graphic novel Stewart the Rat, published by Eclipse Comics.  A few years ago, the book was reprinted by About Comics, and that edition, the cover of which appears below, is probably easier to find if you're interested in reading STR. As one of the earliest graphic novels, its probably worth checking out for that reason alone.
 Beyond reuniting the creative team, Stewart had other similarities to Howard.  Both featured an talking animal struggling to get by in and understand the world of humans, as well as a strong vein of social satire informed by Gerber's somewhat skewed world view.

 Although, whereas Howard was a displaced refugee from a world of talking ducks, Stewart came to be as a result of the manipulation of human and rodent DNA by a brilliant but socially inept geneticist, who commits suicide after Stewart's creation.  Stewart is taken in by a sympathetic human woman who feeds him, clothes him and puts him to work on her ranch until an attempt on her daughter's life by a disco dancing zombie, under the control of an ex-boyfriend turned self-help guru, leads to Stewart becoming the daughter's bodyguard.  It is truly as bizarre as it sounds.  Unfettered by editorial restrictions or the Comics Code(Stewart's first words are "What the fuck?"), Gerber let his imagination run wild, creating a range of bizarre would be assassins, all satirizing a then current trend, and Gerber's powers of observation and biting wit are as sharp as ever as he dissects the zeitgeist of the dawning decade of the 1980's.

It pretty much goes without saying that the art in this book is beautiful, as you can see from the example to your left. Colan's art is always gorgeous and Tom Palmer is one of the best inkers in the history of comics.  He could probably even make Rob Liefeld's pencils look good. Together, both here and on their other collaborations such as Tomb of Dracula, Colan and Palmer produce an absolutely stunning product.  One of Colan's forte's is drawing beautiful woman, and Gerber, both here and previously on HTD, wisely takes advantage of that by hooking his protagonist up with attractive female companions.
The book's fatal flaw is that it's too short.  Forty-eight pages was alot back then, to be sure, before graphic novels were common and when regular monthly comics contained a paltry seventeen story pages, but this story really could have benefited from maybe fifteen or twenty more.  The real problem is the pacing.  Gerber spends most of the book introducing the characters and setting up the situation, leaving only the last ten pages for a somewhat rushed conclusion. Perhaps if he'd had a few extra pages, or if this had been the first issue of an ongoing or even a limited series, Stewart the Rat might have developed into one of Gerber's finest works, as there are a lot of good concepts and characters here just begging to be fleshed out. As it is, however, STR is merely a failed attempt to make lightning strike twice and a minor footnote in the history of comics and the careers of its creators.


  1. Tom Palmer is one of the best inkers in the history of comics.

    hear, hear.

    that _avengers_ stuff
    (over buscema pencils...
    john of course...) was
    maybe the first time
    i vividly saw how much
    inkers matter. palmer
    made *any* penciler
    look good.

  2. How many times am I going to run into comics with mice as primary characters? Is the universe trying to tell me something? I just can't take this comics seriously, no matter how hard I try, they all remind me of Stuart Little, and more recently Desperaux. Am sorry but I just can't deal with it.

  3. Viagra, shut up. No one wants to hear what you have to say. Seriously.

  4. I loved Stewart the Rat. Howard was friendlier-looking, but they both had essentially the same outlook. And it was a fun story. Stewart should have gotten a follow-up or two.