Retro Review: The Context and Continuity of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck

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Preface: In the Spring of 2002, I was completing doctoral studies in composition at Florida State University. I had finished my coursework and all I had left to do was compose my dissertation. Naturally, I did what anyone would do: I put it off in favor of researching and writing an in-depth article on the comic book character Howard the Duck. In retrospect this was a fairly obvious procrastination strategy, but it was also a natural outgrowth of reading and research on comics that I had been pursuing as a hobby when taking a break from my studies. FSU’s library was well-stocked with books and magazine collections covering the history of comics and related subjects, and as I became more serious I found additional resources online and used eBay to track down copies of hard-to-find comics and magazines, drawing on interviews and histories in my own work.

At the time, I thought I might eventually have enough material for a book, not only on Howard but on the full range of duck characters–from Donald and Daffy to Duckman and Mallard Fillmore–in comics and cartoons, and perhaps answer the question, “Why are ducks so over-represented among funny animal characters?” Was there something about ducks that made them funnier (the archetypal “duck character,” of which Howard is a prime example, is a sputtering, irascible hothead), or was it a matter of artists building on each others’ work, creating a self-perpetuating tradition? I had been a fan of Howard the Duck since much earlier, when I was collecting comics as a kid, but I now applied the rigor of my ongoing graduate studies in examining him.

The book never materialized, but I did complete an essay about Howard before my enthusiasm ran out and I turned to other responsibilities. After pitching the article in a few places without any luck, I put the essay and a big box of research materials away and got on with my dissertation (the composition that eventually became Carnival of Souls). I have alluded to this project occasionally before, but I recently found the disc (marked 5/13/02) on which I had saved the file and have decided to share it. Reading my work now, it is an obvious precursor to articles I have written for this blog (and its length seems now like only a medium-length blog post), and if I had maintained a website back then I probably would have just shared it that way. I seem to recall a more academic, and possibly longer, version of this article that included footnotes, but as yet it hasn’t turned up, and possibly never will.

Being now sixteen years old, there is much here that is either out of date or irrelevant: Howard’s creator, Steve Gerber, died in 2008, critical of the comics industry and American society to the last; and Disney bought Marvel in 2009, making the corporate dispute detailed herein moot. The 2002 Marvel MAX series that was the timeliest element in the article is now a blip in Howard’s history; Howard himself has continued to appear in Marvel comics written by other writers, most notably Chip Zdarsky. Time and distance have softened the blow of the 1986 film fiasco, and the movie has a small but devoted cult of fans; Howard has even made cameo appearances in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, something that seemed utterly unlikely back in the early 2000s.

In presenting this essay, however, I am making no effort to update it beyond some minor editing of spelling and punctuation. It is a time capsule of one aspect of culture from 2002 and my thoughts on it, and clearly at least some of these subjects have been on my mind for a long time: regular readers of Medleyana will find arguments here that I have made in other forms in articles on Kamandi and Captain Carrot. Please enjoy this “blast from the past.”

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The Context and Continuity of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck

Creating a beloved fictional character is a double-edged sword: it is only a matter of time before readers and fellow writers want to get in on the act. “Genre” characters from mystery, fantasy and adventure stories are especially subject to embroidery: literary pastiches featuring such characters as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Zorro are common. Comic books and movies invite even more participation, in that both are collaborative arts with notoriously possessive fans. As a contemporary example, witness George Lucas’ love-hate relationship with Star Wars fans, alternately encouraging total identification with his created universe and legalistically quashing any unauthorized embroidering of it.

Until the last decade or so, mainstream comic book publishers (mainly Marvel and DC) kept sole ownership of their artists’ and writers’ creations as a matter of course. Since characters could stay around for (literally) decades and often “crossed over” between titles, company ownership was considered essential in maintaining continuity. A popular character was like a well-established brand, under the umbrella of the company itself, whose label also served as a brand. Even if a character were identified with a particular creator, there was an implicit understanding that heroes and villains lived or died at the company’s discretion, and artists and writers could be shuffled between titles by editorial fiat. The comic book artist or writer was an employee of the company. This has largely changed as big-name comic creators have gained enough clout to negotiate creative control, while others have developed publishing companies, such as Image, where characters automatically remain the property of the creators. An unlikely forerunner to this change in the industry was Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck (HTD).

Howard the Duck is mainly remembered (outside of comic readers) as the disastrous 1986 Hollywood movie, a film that was at first eagerly anticipated but whose name became synonymous with “bomb” in the 1980s. With Marvel publishing a new trade paperback, The Essential Howard the Duck, and a new Howard series with Gerber back in charge, it is worth examining why a movie version seemed like a good idea in the first place, and why the new series has been selling out since its first appearance in comic shops.

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As retold in the new collection, Howard came from a parallel universe, a world much like ours but inhabited by (depending on which version of the story you look at) either talking man-sized ducks or a mixture of different kinds of talking “funny” animals. Through a shift in the “Cosmic Axis” he was transported to the world of humans (“hairless apes”) and stuck there. As an unlikely visitor from another world, he played the classic “outsider” role, commenting on contemporary society’s flaws and absurdities from a perspective free of prejudices or preconceptions. During his run in the ‘70s, Howard crossed paths with cult leaders, sold-out politicians, pompous art critics, and similar pretenders, puncturing their pretensions with his common-sense observations and “don’t tread on me” attitude. In the post-Watergate, post-Woodstock years, when mistrust of the Establishment and doing your own thing weren’t just for hippies anymore, Howard captured a mood and spoke for it in a way that conventional superheroes just weren’t doing.

The “funny animal” tradition has deep roots in comics and animation. Talking animals that walk upright, wear clothes, and live in houses are so commonly linked to the stylized drawings of cartoons that they are hardly questioned as a narrative convention. The best known, of course, are the characters associated with Disney and Warner Bros., but in the early days of animation every studio featured some version of a funny animal character. For decades, animal characters were synonymous with children’s comics, even when executed with great artistry, as in the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics of Carl Barks.

During the “underground comix” boom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, however, a number of artists began to appropriate funny animal characters to tell very different, more adult and intense stories. Their “not-so-funny” animals (to use Richard Gehr’s phrase) had sexual relationships, used four-letter words, and sometimes took drugs or became violent. The most famous of these underground funny animals is probably Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat; an early, short version of Art Spiegelman’s cats vs. mice Holocaust comic Maus was also published during this boom.

The motivation for reinterpreting animal characters in this manner was probably as varied as the artists drawing them. Undoubtedly there was a great deal of snarky irony to be had in showing beloved icons brought low, illustrating that the squeaky-clean Mickey Mouse and his pals “really” had feet of clay. Maus similarly jolts us by presenting a horrifying historical narrative in a visual context usually far removed from the realities of war; the distancing device of presenting humans as animals actually brings the reader closer to the horror of the war by poetically linking the childhood associations of talking mice and cats with the lost innocence of the war generation (particularly in Spiegelman’s earlier story, which was drawn in a more “cartoony” style than the full-length version). On the other hand, many underground cartoonists appeared to have a deep knowledge of and love for the cartoons of their childhoods; notwithstanding their often charged subject matter, the comix of Crumb, Kim Deitch, and others helped introduce the classic cartoon style of the ’20s and ’30s to a younger generation, emphasizing the hallucinatory quality of the Fleischer (Ko-Ko the Clown, Betty Boop) and early Disney cartoons.

Given the resurgence of interest in classic funny animals and the popularity of their underground counterparts, it is not surprising that publishers in the 1970s would promote a mainstream funny animal aimed at an adult (or at least adolescent) audience. What is surprising is that Howard the Duck was created almost by accident and was nearly killed off after his first appearance; fan pressure encouraged his return and fueled his early success.

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Relaxation of the Comics Code (a voluntary set of content restrictions that guaranteed mass distribution, originally adopted in the 1950s to placate parents and would-be censors) in the early 1970s allowed mainstream publishers to sell not-too graphic horror-themed comics. One of Marvel’s titles, Fear (a.k.a. Adventure into Fear), featured a swamp-dwelling misfit named Man-Thing, the lesser-known counterpart to DC’s competing Swamp Thing. Fear’s writer, Steve Gerber, produced thoughtful stories on such issues as environmental destruction and cruelty among teenagers, but also gave free reign to a strong sense of whimsy and the absurd. Searching for a surprising, ridiculous image for a sword-and-sorcery tale in 1973, Gerber instructed artist Val Mayerik to come up with a talking duck to include alongside the standard muscular barbarian and robed wizard. The then-unnamed duck, with his first lines “Aw, clam up, bud! You don’t even know the meaning of the word [absurdity]!” suggested to Mayerik a cigar-smoking crank in a rumpled jacket and tie. This early version of the duck affected an Edward G. Robinson sneer (“Okay, creeps–here’s where you get yours, see?”).

Gerber got the effect he was aiming for, but a talking duck didn’t set the right tone for a horror-fantasy comic, so Howard was removed. That was when the fans began demanding more of the Duck; one Canadian went so far as to mail a duck carcass to Marvel’s editorial office. “Murderers, how dare you kill off this duck?” the included note read. Responding to a grass-roots letter campaign, and following Gerber’s instinct that there was something to the character, Howard the Duck began appearing as a backup feature in Man-Thing’s title, and eventually assumed the leading role in his own book.

Howard found himself in Cleveland, a more mundane and down-to-earth setting than in Marvel’s usual stories, and quickly gathered a group of eccentric characters around him: primarily Beverly Switzler, the beautiful hairless ape who would become his companion and (later) lover; struggling artist Paul Same; and the gentle Winda Wester, whose distinguishing feature was her Elmer Fudd-like speech impediment. Together they encountered antagonists who were frequently odder than Howard himself, such as Dr. Bong, who parodied both Marvel’s own Dr. Doom and the rock critic Lester Bangs. Sometimes their adventures parodied conventional superheroics, or the tropes of gothic horror, space opera, or kung-fu movies; often the situations they found themselves in were just nutty, but the best stories were grounded in day-to-day reality. Unlike most mainstream comics, Howard and his friends were often unemployed, underemployed, or swept up in events beyond their control. One of Howard’s most memorable foes was the Kidney Lady, a deranged bus passenger who frequently accused Howard of being a member of the “international kidney-poisoning conspiracy.” Without super-powers, the Kidney Lady was as fearsome in her own way as any of the would-be world-conquerors populating other comics.

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Also unlike many comic books, the heroes of HTD were deeper and more interesting than villains they faced. Indeed, hero vs. villain fisticuffs were beside the point: Howard’s “real” opponent was the spreading corporate influence on American culture and consumer fetishism in its insidious forms. Villains were frequently consumer products or sales pitches brought to life: for example Sudd, “the scrubbing bubble that walks like a man.” There was also a “master of mundane magic” whose spells took the form of radial tires, tennis balls and other consumer items: at one point he trapped the heroes inside a giant cereal box, reversing the “prize inside” promise of marketers. In other stories the accusation is made directly against big-money interests, often as an aside in an ostensibly comic story. Howard even ran for president in 1976 on a platform of fighting corporate monopoly. Fitting with the skeptical tone of the times, HTD was suspicious of overt moralizing, but characters learn lessons nonetheless: you can’t fight city hall, no good deed goes unpunished, everybody has an angle. The three-issue story arc that closes The Essential HTD is particularly notable for its blunt lesson. An irresponsible heiress knowingly invites a “circus of crime” to one of her society gatherings so that she can play hero after they rob her guests. As the events spiral out of her control, one of Howard’s friends is struck by a car and another is shot. Howard’s usual reluctance to get involved makes his blunt delivery of the moral all the more striking: “Actions have consequences. You’ll get yours, Iris.”

Reading the entire Essential HTD in one sitting is an uneven experience (the volume collects the first twenty-seven issues of HTD, plus a handful of other “canonical” stories, including his first appearance). At its best HTD was a witty, refreshingly different commentary on popular and political culture and avoided easy answers to tough questions. The tone of the book varied widely, however, as it was influenced by the sudden notoriety of its creator and the pressure of deadlines. In one well-known story (reprinted in the Essential HTD), Gerber submitted a rambling self-analysis in text form, describing a cross-country move as a road trip with Howard. As life became harder for Gerber (and Howard), Howard’s character drifted from cynicism and disillusionment to depression and paranoia. He even spent some time in a mental institution. Some of these dark stories elaborated Howard’s character in interesting ways, but the low point of the volume is a trip to Canada featuring such cardboard clichés as a noble Mountie and a French-speaking villain called “Le Beaver.” What distresses about the story is not the stereotype, but the shallowness with which the setting is imagined; it is a far cry from the detailed and true-to-life storytelling that marks the Cleveland stories. If another exotic story, an Arabian Nights fantasy, is more successful it is thanks to a fast-moving plot and lighter tone throughout.

The tension in many of the stories is between character and plot: Howard is often passive-aggressive and thus reluctant to get involved in the kind of dramatic situations that make for active plots. The exciting stories subordinate Howard’s skeptical character, and the meditations on Howard’s alienation are quite static; the best stories are able to strike a balance. The troubled relationship between Howard and Beverly could make for a different kind of comic story, with the sort of novelistic depth that became more common in the 1980s, but the late HTD stories were too episodic and inconsistent to quite accomplish that. This tension between passive characters and active plots, along with the absurdity of the premise, is reminiscent of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books.

Perhaps the increasing pessimism of HTD was a sign of things to come: in the late ‘70s, as Howard’s popularity continued to grow, he inevitably came to the attention of the Disney company, who felt that Howard was too reminiscent of Donald Duck and threatened suit. Rather than argue that Howard was a parody (protected by the First Amendment) or an independent creation who sprang from the same pre-Disney cartoon roots as Donald, Marvel capitulated and agreed to change Howard’s appearance. Incredibly, the new design was created by Disney, not Marvel, and the wording of the agreement locked in this awkward new look indefinitely: Marvel couldn’t even come up with another design that didn’t look like Donald. As part of this agreement, Howard had to wear pants in all his future appearances. (It is partly because of this agreement that Gerber had Howard temporarily transformed into a seedy-looking mouse in the new series.)

Faced with this level of editorial apathy and interference, Gerber broke with Marvel and filed suit to wrest ownership of his character from the company. He was one of the first comics creators to do so, and his case, following on the heels of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s campaign to receive credit from DC for their creation of Superman, split ranks within the comics community and brought renewed attention to the issue of ownership. Gerber eventually settled out of court and worked for Marvel again for brief spells in the 1980s, but he says he remains wary of Marvel’s corporate culture, even as he has relished the opportunity to write again for the character with which he is most closely identified.

Gerber was not the first to use funny animals as a vehicle for social commentary or put non-juvenile language in their mouths. Rather his contribution was to rationalize the funny animal in pseudoscientific terms: Howard wasn’t simply a cartoon, he was a visitor from a parallel universe where ducks, instead of apes, had evolved to become the dominant lifeform. It is clear from some of Gerber’s statements in the ‘70s that he had worked out his premise with a science-fictional rigor: for example, there must be lower animals on Howard’s world, since he isn’t a vegetarian (although a running gag in the series emphasized Howard’s disgusted reaction when confronted with a meal of poultry or eggs).

The parallel-world premise could have easily lent itself to Swiftian allegory or heavy-handed moralizing, and there is more than a whiff of Planet of the Apes to it: as the cover blurb had it, Howard was “trapped in a world he never made!” Wisely, Gerber and his collaborators (Mayerik, as well as artists Frank Brunner and Gene Colan) avoided easy comparisons and always implied that Howard’s home was no more perfect than ours. After Gerber’s break with Marvel in 1980 over issues of creative control, Marvel continued to publish HTD stories by other writers, most of whom showed less restraint.

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As a rule, if a fictional setting becomes popular, anything that is referred to by the original creator, however obliquely, will eventually be fleshed out in sometimes overwhelming detail by those who follow. In Gerber’s original concept, Howard’s home was alluded to but never shown, presumably because readers would already be familiar with funny animal settings like the one in Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics. It was writer Bill Mantlo who, after Gerber’s departure, filled stories with references to Flintstones-style parody-counterparts like “Truman Capoultry,” “Richard Millnest Duxon,” and even “Duckschwitz.” At least Mantlo attempted to keep Howard’s edge, although his stories frequently crossed the line from absurd to ridiculous. After the original comic book and Mantlo’s black-and-white magazine were canceled, other Marvel writers treated Howard as a walk-on character, trying to make him “funny” in a way that he rarely was in Gerber’s hands. Unfortunately, the later interpretation seems to have influenced the ill-fated film version.

In his Comics as History, Joseph Witek draws a useful distinction between “beast fables,” such as the tales of Aesop, and “funny animal” stories such as the ones described here. In the beast fable, animals speak, but their character is largely defined by the imagined qualities of their type: foxes are always sly, dogs are loyal, mules are stubborn. The funny animal, however, is an individual. The trappings of clothing, house, and social structures signal to the reader that the character is more man than animal. They may even keep non-speaking pets of their own: in Disney cartoons, Goofy is effectively a man, but Pluto is still a dog.

If in general the funny animal is not conscious of himself as an animal at all, then we may assume that this was how Howard felt about himself before being trapped in the world of “hairless apes.” It is only among humans, where he is the only one of his kind, that he can never escape being reminded that he is a duck. Of course being a duck is a literal marker of Howard’s “outsiderness,” but the Howard stories frequently play with its implications. One can identify “good people” in HTD because they either don’t recognize or don’t care that Howard is different. He and Beverly have a relationship like any other couple, even sleeping in the same bed (although again it was Mantlo in the non-Code-approved magazine who made their status as lovers explicit).

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There was even a short-lived daily comic strip in 1977.

Beginning in HTD #3, the blurb on the first page tells the reader that Howard was always conscious of being different, an outsider, even in his early life. Intriguingly, before Howard’s character became completely settled, he made a few attempts to blend in and make a normal life for himself among the humans. This early version of Howard had a Walter Mitty-like quality as he attempted to imagine himself into the role of good citizen, helping the police rid Cleveland of such menaces as Garko the Man-Frog and a vampire cow. Of course, when Howard was unable to prove that he had saved the city and was further rebuffed by the police with the reminder that he is, after all, a duck, he naturally reacted with the disillusionment and cynicism that became the hallmark of his character.

In this sense Howard’s experience is the dark side of any immigrant’s journey to America. In his homeland he was an individual, and as one of many of his kind, he could take his personhood for granted: the group kinship to which everyone belonged was effectively invisible. In hairless ape America, however, it is his status as a representative of his type that singles him out, and his individuality is reduced to a single image: duck. In fact, although people regularly sputter, “Y–you’re a duck!” upon meeting him, no one in these stories mistakes Howard for a real duck: they assume he is a midget in a duck suit, marking him as either a madman or a publicity-seeker. Oddly, while the updated backstory makes Howard’s prospects grimmer–if he has always been an outsider wherever he lived, what kind of acceptance can there be to hope for?–it seems to offer hope for the immigrant or minority member: maybe the individual personality does make the difference, and Howard’s experience need not be a universal commentary on America.

If Howard fit perfectly the mood of the 1970s, can he still be relevant today? Steve Gerber thinks so. In a July 2001 interview, Gerber summarized the state of the nation: “The situation in the U. S. now–a dork in the White House, the country split down the middle politically, every form of popular culture from music to movies at a creative nadir, and so on–almost exactly parallels the state of things in 1975. In that sense, the time has never been more appropriate for Howard’s return.”

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Of course, those words were spoken before September 11, and one may wonder whether post-attack readers would be in the mood for Howard’s pointed critiques of America’s political and cultural environment. Fortunately, Gerber’s up-to-the-last-minute scripting habits have prevented a jarring lead time between the new book’s writing and publication. So far (as of this writing, four issues of a planned six-issue series have been published), Gerber hasn’t softened Howard’s edge (indeed, the “mature readers” label allows him a far greater freedom of theme and content than he had in the ‘70s), but he lands his hardest punches on America’s self-absorbed, pop-therapeutic culture and religious zealotry rather than specific political viewpoints. In this sense, the new Howard isn’t too different from the old: Gerber (and by extension Howard) has always expressed skepticism for one-size-fits-all solutions, political or otherwise. Although at one time Howard was labeled “The Nemesis of Middle America” by Marvel editors, it was really conformity rather than conservatism that Howard attacked, and Gerber’s new series doesn’t play favorites.

References to September 11 have been kept in the background, but the events have hardly been ignored. In issue #2, a tip to the police reports that “Osama el-Braka” (“Braka” meaning “duck”) has been spotted in Howard’s locale, leading to a two-page splash of SWAT teams, National Guard, and even Girl Scouts bursting into Beverly’s apartment for the kill. In the fourth issue, a committee of heavenly beings called the “Religion as Replacement for Thought Coalition” conspire to live up to their title. One member announces, “we’ve rooted out the moderate Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu elements that have tried to infiltrate and corrupt this coalition.” Another, speaking of the Islamic Madrassas, states, “their success at purging their pupils of any faculty for critical thought borders on the miraculous. We now have a small army of morons willing to fly airplanes into tall buildings, on the promise of seventy-two virgins in the afterlife.”

Much of the satire, however, remains focused closer to home. The third issue was a rather puerile parody of the TV show and comic book Witchblade (“Doucheblade”), which, while admittedly tasteless, rightly pointed out the degree to which large-breasted women with weapons have come to dominate comic book covers since the lifting of the Code and the proliferation of independent comics-specialty shops have allowed publishers to drop the pretense that comics were wholesome reading for kids. On the other hand, the fourth issue takes aim at the self-help guru “Iprah,” who has “convinced half of America she’s the voice of God–when, in fact, she’s nothing more than a franchise.” In one priceless panel, Iprah is shown on the cover of her magazine (“I”), finger-wagging and lecturing God under the headline “Iprah explains it all.”

Howard the Duck’s character seems to have changed little in the nearly thirty years since his creation. Opinionated, vulgar, and refreshingly uncharismatic, his adventures remain a sometimes frustrating but always surprising trip. Although Gerber doesn’t always hit his targets dead on, he fires so many shots that many are bound to connect, and there is plenty in our contemporary culture to take aim at. Perhaps Howard isn’t really so different from the masked heroes with whom he shares shelf-space: he emerges from obscurity to provoke laughter, anger, and thought at the times when he is most needed.

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