Reflections on living the life literary by the Urban Sundog
Does Anyone Here Remember Howard? … Poor Howard. Howard … the Duck?
“From the time of his hatching, he was … different. A potentially brilliant scholar who dreaded the structured environment of school, he educated himself in the streets, taking whatever work was available, formulating his philosophy of self from what he learned of the world about him. And then the Cosmic Axis shifted … and that world changed.”
— recurring Title Header
2014 is the Year of the Horse, but 1977 was the Year of a Duck named Howard.
From the beginning, with the character’s first appearance in 1973 in an issue of Marvel’s Fear comic book, Howard the Duck was a conflicted character. What was he? A clever, pre-Roger Rabbit (1988) integration of human with funny animal storyline, savagely satirizing social mores and the superhero genre he emerged from, or something … deeper?
He’s one of the first Marvel characters Hollywood made a full length movie out of! In 1986, long before Toby Maguire ever put on his first set of red and blue Spiderman tights. Of course they couldn’t even get Howard’s eyes right, and trust me, Howard’s eyes are vital to his visual representation, so if any Duck was ever a turkey …
By 1977, well into the run of Howard’s own comic title, the property’s conflict in its search for expression had reached epic proportions. Howard’s creator and writer, Steve Gerber, increasingly saw Howard’s role as something like this:
“By zeroing in on Howard’s mind, we run the risk of ‘boring’ some readers who prefer to see our wondrous waterfowl parodying super-heroes, wearing funny costumes, and performing feats of derring-do. And I sympathize with these readers — I like those stories, too.
As Michael Tierstein [fanletter writer] has observed, we’re walking a very delicate ‘tightrope’ of our own with HTD. Proceeding on the theory that life’s Serious Moments and Incredibly Dumb Moments are often distinguishable solely by one’s momentary point of view, we’ve flung the poor guy into one of the most realistic — and horrific — battles of his life, the struggle to tame his own mind.”
— letters page, Howard the Duck, Issue #12.
Meanwhile, the screenwriter for the Howard the Duck movie would later have this to say:
"It's a film about a duck from outer space... It's not supposed to be an existential experience” — Gloria Katz.
Some story background, before we proceed …
In 1973, Marvel’s muck monster hero Man Thing (not to be confused with DC’s Swamp Thing — Marvel claims Man Thing came first, but anyone really up on these Things knows the Heap was in there before either of them) lived in a swamp in the Florida everglades that was really a nexus between any number of dimensional realities. Naturally, one day something goes wrong and beings start falling into the swamp from all over the place. Including our man — sorry, fowl — Howard, who is sucked in from a universe entirely identical to Earth except for the fact everyone is a funny animal Disneyesque duck — without the speech impediment. One of the good guys, Howard is soon hopping across a dimensional bridge of cosmic stepping stones with the other heroes to set things right, but, being Howard, falls off half way across. He then falls through space continuously until 1975, when he lands in Cleveland.
This is where Howard the Duck the series per se begins. He has two solo adventures as back up features in 1975’s Giant Size Man Thing, then is given his own full title in 1976. In the first issue, he maneuvers past the obligatory Spiderman guest appearance to meet Bev Switzler, a remarkably bodacious entirely human red headed artist’s model, who will be his companion from here on out. (Nicknamed “Thunderthighs” by the boys in high school, according to her own admission.)
The series flops around for several issues, trying to find an identity but not really putting down roots until Howard decides to run for President. This is 1976, so he’s up against Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. As history will attest, a funny animal fit right in.
The Presidential run is actually only a shameless attempt by author Steve Gerber to generate merch income by flogging Howard campaign buttons on the Letters Page of the comic. Howard’s run for Prez comes to an ignominious end when J. Jonah Jameson’s Daily Bugle runs an obviously doctored photo of Howard and Bev enjoying the same bathtub. The scandal! Howard and Bev track down who’s sabotaged their campaign, and, ahem — this is where things get weird.
Howard’s enemy turns out to be the self-proclaimed “Canada’s Only Patriot”. And he’s French Canadian.
Up until this point there’s been a certain plausibility to the story, but Gerber loses me here.
Nevertheless, Howard reaches a turning point in his life, and comics as we know them reach a turning point in their very genre-expectation filled existence, as the mad French Canadian, now dressed in full deadly Beaver exo-skeleton, challenges Howard to a death-duel on a tight rope hanging over Niagara Falls.
But Howard says, Nahh. And walks away.
Thereby departing into the realm of truly unique and original story telling, the like of which we may never know again.
(But remember: "It's a film about a duck from outer space... It's not supposed to be an existential experience” — Gloria Katz.)
Howard rejects his role as ridiculous pseudo-superhero as Gerber abruptly rejects the premise of limiting Howard to such a role. Howard’s gotten too big in Gerber’s mind by this point to continue only as a parody. So the question is, if Howard literally decides, right on the page, not to be that particular Duck anymore, what is he going to be?
The pressure is too much for him. Howard (and Gerber to some extent obviously) literally cracks up, and we are delivered what I consider to be the most significant comic book cover of all time.
We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!
“Nuts, I never asked to be hatched — let alone my parents’ first-hatched, the luckless, inheritor of all their great expectations! They wanted me ta be a lawyer! My first aptitude test pegged me for a mortician — really! But I think even as a kid — I wanted to be a derelict. I liked the hours.
Couldn’t quite reconcile that with my middle-class upbringing, though — so, after a short, undistinguished academic career — I tried folk-singing. Didn’t pay as well as bein’ a bum — but it satisfied some or another artistic urge, temporarily.
After that I tried my hand at everything from poetry to construction — and discovered my only talent was job-hunting!
Then one day, the Cosmic Whatsis shifted — an’ suddenly I was wadin’ through a swamp instead o’ poundin’ the pavement! Yep, here I was on your world — and the term ‘misfit’ took on whole new vistas of meaning!
— Howard to Winda Wester, as they share a padded cell, in Issue #13.
Howard is arrested after a night time dark journey back to Cleveland by bus, and is locked up in an insane asylum, where he obligingly has a nervous breakdown. It takes him three issues to put things back together mentally in any way viable to continue. And he only manages that when he is accidentally possessed by the Devil, and then while being exorcised, is forced to meld his consciousness with that of greater Cleveland, giving him a deeper insight into human experience.
Gerber was never afraid to deal in apparent contradictions.
In most cases, such a denouement would restore a typical comic book hero to his moral imperative and higher sense of purpose. What’s Howard thinking at the beginning of the next issue?
“His bleary eyes survey the floor and find in its clutter an analogue to his state of mind. An obstacle course of empty tin cans, candy wrappers, assorted articles of dirty laundry. Refuse. Rubbish. Dross. Mental notation: must find a job. Must get the money together to buy a waste basket … and crawl in.”
— Annual #1
Taking Howard beyond the brink and not really hauling him back in was an absolutely revolutionary move by Gerber within the comics medium. Oddly enough by having Howard’s being shatter into disparate fragments (Howard, thinking, after his breakdown: “Miss. Cumbersome. Hit. Stalinist. Hokum. Hi-de-hi-de-ho. Newt.” Issue #12), Gerber assembled a new sort of character never explored before within the genre. A character who moves beyond despair not to fight for the greater good, reasserting that with great power comes great responsibility. But because, like it or not, here comes another friggin’ day. And it’s got to be dealt with somehow!
“I must be the very personification of the rage to live. Hit me, dunk me, insult me — I’ll still hang in there. I wonder why —?!”
— Howard, Issue #15.
(But never forget, "It's a film about a duck from outer space... It's not supposed to be an existential experience” — Gloria Katz.)
By the middle of 1977, Howard is a super stellar hit, with Gerber riding the whirlwind. Marvel’s behind the concept so much, the strip is repackaged to become a newspaper daily! Only the Spidermans, Supermans and Batmans of this world have ever been given that honour before! In the middle of this chaos, Gerber decides to move from New York to Las Vegas (which, given the nature of the impact he’s suddenly making, doesn’t seem that odd, really). But literally halfway there it all catches up with him.
He can’t make the story-deadline for Howard the Duck #16. And just as Howard and Bev have fallen into the hands of the villainous Dr. Bong at the end of #15, too.
Industry protocol in a situation like this says you run an apology on the splash page and a reprint of an earlier story for the issue. But since when did Howard the Duck adhere to anything resembling industry protocols during 1977?
So Gerber decides to present an essay instead. Nominally on the art of writing comic books, but on even casual analysis more accurately on “life’s Serious Moments and Incredibly Dumb Moments (being) often distinguishable solely by one’s momentary point of view.” And the point of view given in this comic book is not that of Howard the Duck the comic book phenomenon, but that of Stephen Gerber, human being struggling with his own issues (it’s amazing how the puns develop naturally in a piece like this) in the midst of that success. “Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing.”
The result is a meandering, self indulgent hodgepodge difficult to read even when you’re ready for it. Millions of readers waiting to find out what happened next with Dr. Bong certainly were not. On pages heavily laden with typewritten text, Steve muses seemingly endlessly on travelling and the transience of existence and the landscape, until Howard appears and angrily tells him to shut up and tell a story at least. Gerber does. A two-pager weird even by Howard standards, seemingly conveying the message that men and women will never be able to communicate, and both genders are doomed to listless failure.
Howard’s reaction? “Y’know what, Gerbs? Deep down, I’ve always suspected you don’t know as much as yer stories would infer. You’ve learned how ta manipulate words an’ pictures ta give a semblance of profundity, but it’s all superficial! Cosmetic surgery performed on creaky old ideas an’ thoughts! Whaddaya say ta that?!”
Gerber: “I say that, uhm, on occasion, I’ve harbored similar suppositions, Howard.”
— Issue #16.
These are not the words of a creator at ease with himself! And things end worse than they begin.
The End Page of Issue #16 features a drawing of Outraged Marvelites feeding Gerber, the rest of the creative team, and Howard himself into a grinder, through which they emerge onto an assembly line as tiny jars of “Gerber Strained Brains”. Gerber ends the essay with a fan letter concerning the issue to himself: “Just finished reading HTD#16, and I’m afraid my reaction to your noble experiment is somewhat ambivalent. I admire your daring, your dedication, and your determination to innovate. But frankly, I don’t care much for your writing.”
The fans agree. Comments on the letters page in #20’s “Wise Quacks” column on Gerber’s essay include “Trying to watch the hour hand on a clock move is more interesting”, “Steve — see a shrink”, and “the tedium is the message”.
Steve the Human has totally taken over from Howard the Duck! Not to any particular positive effect. He’s questioning the very act — writing — that gives him definition as the personality he has become! Lost in a strange world of notoriety he seems to have serious doubts about his legitimacy to occupy. Is there any distinction left to be made between the two personalities of creator and creation anymore? You have to wonder, because in Issue #18, Steve pushes this theme to its logical conclusion and Howard is shoved into Dr. Bong’s Evolvo-Chamber to suffer the ultimate indignity.
He is metamorphosed into … Howard the Human.
(But always recall, "It's a film about a duck from outer space... It's not supposed to be an existential experience” — Gloria Katz.)
Howard, in issue #18, sits bare-assed on a bed after the transformation lamenting his fate. (This sartorial indisposition is a necessary side effect of the universal anthropomorphic funny animal duck penchant for only wearing shirts and suit jackets but never pants. I always appreciated that attention to detail in the HTD strip. However, Disney, as would be expected, eventually sued Marvel over Howard’s very existence, and Marvel responded by putting pants on Howard. Which proves yet again there is no issue so petty that Disney won’t eventually sue somebody over it.)
“N-no — NO! Not this — not this!! I—I’ve joined the enemy!! I’ve become — a hairless ape!! Th-this is horrible — What’m I gonna —? I’ve never passed for normal anywhere before —”
Not long after, Howard the Human starts receiving ethereal visits from his subconscious inner Duck.
“Look, what are ya — a man or a duck??”
“Neither. No, both. I’m a muck.”
Shmuck, more likely. Howard the Human is stodgy, out of shape, and shabby, the least proactive manifestation of the character yet. Even when Howard the Duck was doped up in the insane asylum, he showed more — unavoidable pun — animation.
For the better part of issues #18 and #19, Howard the Human shambles about propelled by outside events, insistently arguing with and ignoring his feistier Duck side. The man seems to have no passion left for existence at all. Is it that big a jump to picture Steve Gerber newly arrived in Las Vegas wandering around in the same boat, constantly trying to stop a subconscious smart mouthed funny animal Duck presently adored by millions from taking over his life? The fact of the matter is the greatest creative leaps in this strip always came out of Gerber’s own self admitted insecurities.
“Beverly Switzler is Mary Skrenes [fellow writer]. And everybody else in the strip, including the villains is Steve.
Which is frankly why we pity whoever has to write this book should Steve ever depart. They’re faced with two choices: either they become Gerber in order to write the mag, which is a fate almost too horrible to contemplate, or they put as much of themselves on the line as he has.”
— editorial comment on the letters page, #19
Howard doesn’t stay Human for long. After having heavily implied off-panel sex with the astoundingly accommodating randomly encountered human female character Amy Pope — instigated by Amy, Howie the Human isn’t even going to take advantage of a situation like this if it requires active motivation on his part (although he does agree to shave first), Howard changes back to a Duck. Thankfully, after the affair is consummated. He discovers the transformation as he showers.
“All that excitement last night — musta got my adrenalin pumpin’ an reversed the effects o’ —” (is interrupted by Dr. Bong manifesting in the tub with him.) Issue #19.
Howard originally escaped from Dr. Bong’s castle in issue #18 when Fifi, the very human bodied French Maid with a Duck’s head Dr. Bong had evolved as a mate for the original Howard whisks him away in a Flying Bonger. However they are shot down by the U.S. Air Force over Central Park in New York, and unfortunately Fifi is killed in the crash. A fireman lifts her corpse from the wreckage and an onlooking cop wonders “Cheez — what planet ya figger that came from?”
Proving Gloria Katz isn’t the only one likely to jump to misguided conclusions. “It's a film about a duck from outer space... It's not supposed to be an existential experience”.
Still catching the nuances here?
Issue number 19, Howard the Human, is the December, 1977 edition of the comic, rounding out an astounding year. With this issue, it can certainly be argued that Steve Gerber has hit a fascinating creative high, being the right writer at the right time to push the right character to a more in-depth exploration of the very nature of existence, while maintaining the integrity of an ultimately satirical property. There’s a human story happening so passionately at the centre of Howard the Duck, during this run. An achievement that deserves to be acknowledged, and not forgotten, even almost forty years later, when the current crop of Hollywood spectaculars is pushing the superhero comic medium back in terms of story telling to well before the late seventies.
But it was a one-year wonder.
Before 1978 was very old, the Marvel Comics Group fired Steve Gerber. Marvel still owned all legal rights to the character of Howard the Duck. So they thereby severed creator from creation for the rest of Howard’s existence. Given the relationship that had obviously developed between the two by this point, this is a rather horrifying development to contemplate.
There’s probably a movie in all this. Gerber took Marvel to court, the battle dragging on into the Eighties. Jack Kirby himself did a one-shot Independent issue of Destroyer Duck to raise money for the court case, the storyline depicting Destroyer going to task for “the little guy”, a little Duck stripped of identity seen only from the back.
Gerber and Marvel eventually reached some kind of private settlement. One can only imagine. “Here, Steve. We’ll let you have this much of your consciousness back, if you promise never to annoy us with it again …”
But Howard the Duck was never the same.
Other writers tried to focus on copying Gerber’s sense of social satire, in later issues until the comic thankfully died, and then in a black and white magazine that was a disaster from the first of its nine issues, revealing more about Bev in the first issue than we really needed to know. The mystique was definitely gone. The writers who followed in his footsteps could sound like they were trying to imitate Steve Gerber, but they couldn’t write Steve Gerber. No one could ever match the symbiosis whereby Steve literally inhabited his creation. And his creation inhabited him. They turned angst into kitsch, in one swift failure to leap over a tall building.
In one of his more pertinent observations, Gerber wrote in his notorious Issue #16 essay: “Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not plot my stories months and months in advance … I change my mind like some people change underwear. Ideas go stale for me as quickly as … well, you get the gist. I’m easily bored.
Characters who cannot change as rapidly, as often, as mercurially as I do anesthetize me. Characters can become institutions devoted to making vegetables out of writers …
I can relate to Howard the Duck because he will never become an institution.”
He was wrong.
“It's a film about a duck from outer space... It's not supposed to be an existential experience” — Gloria Katz.
Sorry, Gloria. Yes it was.
“Stephen Ross ‘Steve’ Gerber (September 20, 1947 – February 10, 2008) was an American comic book writer best known as co-creator of the satiric Marvel Comics character Howard the Duck. Other notable works include Man-Thing, Omega the Unknown, Marvel Spotlight: ‘Son of Satan’, The Defenders, Marvel Presents: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, and Daredevil. Gerber was known for including lengthy text pages in the midst of comic book stories, such as in his graphic novel, Stewart the Rat. Gerber was posthumously inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2010.”
Important Final Notes:
Howard’s success ultimately was Steve Gerber’s success, the demise of the character’s originality everyone else who managed and wrote the strip’s fault. But such a claim cannot be made without acknowledging the overwhelming contributions made by Artists Val Mayerik and Gene Colan, and Inkers Steve Leialoha and Klaus Janson. Mayerik originated Howard’s look, while Colan took Howard through his most important story arcs, up until Gerber was fired. Gene Colan’s hyper realistic, movie scene dramatic artwork, combined with Howard’s estranged funny animal appearance, graphically represented Gerber’s claim of Howard being “a strange fowl in an even stranger world”. This was emphasized even more by Klaus Janson’s inks, all creating a dark, shadowy world much more suited to the Dark Knight than Duck Light. Leialoha did the inks for most of the first two years on the strip, greatly enhancing the artists’ achievements with his own personal flair.
Artwork by Gene Colan
Gerber did two of his best story arcs in the strip before they fired him in 1978: one of the first Star Wars parodies — the first movie had only premiered the year before; and a multi-part finale featuring one of Marvel’s third rate villains raised to an equally pleasing existential height as his fowl antagonist, the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime.
And if nothing else, Howard was a trailblazer. Without Gerber, without Howard the Duck, without the shift in thinking about what a comic book can be, we may never have had Canada’s own Dave Sim and Cerebus the Aardvark. Cerebus thundered into view January 1978, riding his horse onto a Robert E. Howard-esque landscape. Again there was the social satire and genre caricatures integrated into the comic stories themselves. Again the character’s serious nature swiftly outgrew the funny-animal-with-humans premise to make the title grow into something a lot more than your average comic book. While Gerber took us into the depths of Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Sim’s Cerebus eventually took on Tolstoy-like proportions, starting with the massive multi-issue storyline High Society. And all in black and white too.
So never forget Howard the Duck. Not for what he is, not for what he was, but for his eternal questioning of what he should be.
REALITY FICTION UPDATE!
And what is Reality Fiction, you may well ask?
Simple. The concept of the Reality Television Series translated to the printed page. 40 characters from my backlog of generally unpublished material are gathered together to compete in a different theme each Episode, with one or two characters being eliminated each sequence until there are only two left to fight it out in the final. The winner gets a short novel of their own as the grand prize.
But somehow, things always seem to go horribly wrong ...
What’s happening now?
We’re down to eleven Contestants plunging into the Stream of Consciousness! Not to be confused with the River of Forgetting or the Lake of Non Compos Mentis. Grab a paddle and jump in the boat for Episode Twenty-Three.
Continuing Friday at: realficone.blogspot.ca
REALITY FICTION TOO! EPISODES TO DATE
EPISODE TWENTY-TWO: FAIRY TALE
EPISODE TWENTY-ONE: THE WEDDING
EPISODE TWENTY: EXISTENTIALISM
Face the Hangman
EPISODE NINETEEN: ABDUCTION
EPISODE EIGHTEEN: MELODRAMA
“Terror in Tarnation! A Thrilling Narrative in Three Acts”
EPISODE SEVENTEEN: POETRY
EPISODE SIXTEEN: SILLY EUROPEAN SPY SPOOF (DUBBED)
“Diet Ray of the Stars!”
EPISODE FIFTEEN: EROTIC SUPERNATURAL ROMANCE
“The Shadow of Her Passion”
EPISODE FOURTEEN: FLYING:
EPISODE THIRTEEN: SLAPSTICK:
“The Phantom of the Werewolf”
EPISODE TWELVE: DAIRY FARMING:
“Early One Morning”
EPISODE ELEVEN: BURROUGHS:
EPISODE TEN: WEREWOLVES:
“The Silver Solution”
EPISODE NINE: WRESTLING:
EPISODE EIGHT: JANE AUSTEN ROMANCE:
“The Proud and the Senseless”
EPISODE SEVEN: THE JAZZ AGE:
“The Bucky-Dusky-Ruby Red Hop!”
EPISODE SIX: SUBMISSION:
EPISODE FIVE: MASQUERADE:
“The Eyes Behind the Mask”
EPISODE FOUR: SELF HELP:
“Sausage Stew for the Slightly Overweight Presents:
Some Several Suggestions Guaranteeing Success for the Mildly Neurotic”
EPISODE THREE: NUDIST:
“If You Have To Ask ...”
EPISODE TWO: FRENCH BEDROOM FARCE:
“Un Nuit a Fifi’s!”
EPISODE ONE: STEAMPUNK:
“The Chase of the Purple Squid!”
A J.H.B. Original!