That duck, ’nuff said
Where to start? It’s not too surprising that Marvel featured an in-fiction parody character, right? There have been quite a few of them, and in an era of constantly-launched and constantly-canceled comics titles, of complete editorial chaos, of plummeting sales in the obsolete newsstand venue, and badly-stumbling attempts to get superheroes into other media, Howard was a solid hit. Even if it didn’t last, it caught the eye of other media, which then and now, is the brass ring which, when grabbed, sends a jolt up the digestive tract of anyone in a suit, prompting them to say I did that and my leadership.
Wait, what? A hit? Didn’t it suck? Everyone knows it sucks! The movie blah blah blah. Yeah, so? The movie was released in 1986, an era which might as well have been a different cosmos. I don’t give a fuck about 1986 in this post. Back it up to reality, people, by which I mean the comics. Stay with me.
Let’s start with the obvious thing which I’ve never seen anyone say: it begins with Vaughn Bode, who is, if not the single most influential cartoonist of the 1970s, at least the rival of such people as G. B. Trudeau. Ah, Bode! The psych-prog-fantasy rock album who walked like a man, and he could draw. You like Wizards? Wendy Pini? Phil Foglio? Cerebus especially with Jaka? Bix the beatnik pigeon in Zippy the Pinhead? Roger Rabbit? Anything with weird little creature guys with hangups + languid gorgeous stackadamazing women, in every possible mashup of SF-fantasy-tripping? Heartbreaking revealing emotional musing + unbelievably sarcastic snark? Then you need to check out the genius combination of “lizards and broads” from this fellow whose name might as well be synonymous with the Edge …
Howard was probably the first Bode knockoff in full-length comics, with Cerebus being a bit of a second-order as an homage or at least soul-brother to Howard – they were both pretty strongly influenced by the Thomas-Smith Conan the Barbarian too. He showed up first in Man-Thing in 1973, was killed off, then the readership clamored (and Lee discovered and liked Howard), and he was revived for his own title in 1976. Apparently there was some scuffling from Disney about him, not surprisingly, and I’m surprised that Donald-based lawfare didn’t expunge Howard early on. It was a good harbinger, though! The saga of Howard and Gerber is well known as Exhibit B, after Kirby, in the Woe of the Exploited Creator, but even that’s embedded in a larger story of IP and hassles that just seemed to be what Gerber did, or in which he found himself at the center.
- Before the Duck, there was trouble with his Superman parody Wundarr in Man-Thing, which had prompted a cease-and-desist.
- A fallout with Frank Brunner led the latter to spoof Howard with his Duckateer, with its own threatened legal battle. (I can just imagine … “He stole my duck!” “What’s your duck like?” “He’s a white, animorphic, bad-tempered cartoon duck who stomps around and yells in frustration!” “Uhhh …. isn’t that ….?”)
- After Gerber was fired and the book and strip tanked, Gerber and Kirby collaborated on Destroyer Duck, which funded the former’s suit against Marvel, which was settled out of court in 1983.
- Then when Bob Harras started up with reviving Howard, probably due to the movie, there’s the weird Image-Marvel crossover which brings Howard, Destroyer Duck, and Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon together
- And then you get the MAX version of the character who’s a mouse – for someone who so helped define Marvel as the Evil Empire, Gerber was always drawin’ that duck for them again.
But that’s all available, discussed, and discussed again, and Howe does the real work in properly placing it in ownership and editorship of Marvel as a whole. Let’s kick it back to the experience of an 11-year-old kid. The really surprising thing is that Howard didn’t work for me. You’d think he would – I was completely embedded in the gaudy social idealism of Cosmic Zap, and also in the portentous violence and sensuality of sword-and-sorcery, seeing Wizards, memorizing Leiber stories, breathing in Ellison and Zelazny like prose vapor, and very likely the youngest aficionado of Bode himself. Yet I simply didn’t enjoy the book. I didn’t renew my FOOM subscription because the upcoming issue featured Howard.
Part of it was mixing Howard right in there with the superheroes, which offended my purist sensibilities, such that perhaps I would have appreciated him more as a stand-alone parody-commentary. But I think it lies more in what Gerber and his effective co-author Mary Skrenes did with the idea. Howard never did anything except get booted in the ass and complain about it, specifically anything and everything to do with Beverly no less. The whole series – in between rants and schticks – was Howard freaking out about how she did or didn’t feel about him.
Imagine this sort of thing over and over, as their normal, baseline interaction. As the nominal plot wandered about in elections and stuff, the relationship material turned out to be the only throughline – and where it went was nothing if not clear, to the point of squick. It’s evident that she loves him thoroughly and without reservation, and it’s not like the meta didn’t let you know what the author thinks of that:
It’s hard to avoid talking about author intention when he all but puts himself in the pages to groan at you about his own leading character. But I won’t! We just don’t know. Also, Skrenes is as instrumental to Howard as Gerber, so this is not about Gerber’s psychology. I’m sticking with what the story does and says with Beverly: basically she’s a reverse Mary Sue: no matter how decent she is, the more everyone – people, things, events – hates her. See, I’m taking the opposite POV than what I’ve seen around the internet. Over and over, “gee good thing they didn’t have sex because that would be gross.” Really? Instead of two beings consensually gettin’ with one another and enjoying themselves, you’d rather see this? [Howard is technically possessed by the Son of Satan in this sequence but the point is that the depicted events lie right on the same vector of his actions and outlook from the first moment – so we’re getting a look at what he’d do if he weren’t such a self-stifling git.]
People, I went through the entire Dave Sim is a horrible misogynist meltdown month by month for a whole decade, and there is nothing in Cerebus the Aardvark to compare with this. There’s a visually horrifying dream/author-dialogue sequence in which Cerebus learns that if Jaka were a doormat who agreed with whatever he said, he would become a nearly-murderous abuser, and Cerebus is shamed for his frustrations with her insistence on being a person. That’s story-stuff, difficult material. Whereas this is … it’s frankly gross.
I had my own early-teen blend of sex & angst going on, which kicked in the week Skylab fell if you must know, and the Howard writing stood a couple of frequencies aside from it. Aside from Man-Thing which strikes me now as his most earnest work, and aside from his undeniable skill with dialogue and characterization, the full-on content, the stories, didn’t speak to me. That’s why I brought up Bode in a bit more detail than simply “influenced Gerber” warrants, because the contrast in this one particular thing could not be more marked: Gerber’s material never embraced the flesh, not as a part and parcel of the self.
I say “Gerber” here because I’m thinking about more than one title. I mean … among all the excellent dialogue, thoughtful material, and tons of other things that stood way above most other comics writers, it featured so much crossed wires and denial: Nighthawk was never gonna get with frigid-amnesiac Valkyrie, and Howard was never gonna get with Beverly, and I don’t mean merely squelchy-contact, I mean the emotional connection at least possibly associated with said contact. The content seems always to do with a man completely at odds with his own genitals and with the world around him in which they are somehow involved with each other against his will or even comprehension. The rage against Beverly which infuses every panel isn’t about her withholding anything; instead, it’s exacerbated by her friendly sexuality and easiness about herself. (Again, and I know people have trouble with this, I know nothing about Gerber’s and Skrenes’ actual relationship, I don’t wanna know, and I don’t imagine I’m saying anything about it.)
By contrast, Bode’s work is full of characters’ sexual mistakes and hassles too, but even at his rudest there’s a deep sadness and wry, tolerant humor underlying it all, a recognition of humanity. The bodacious Bode broads, practically the epitome of objectification at first glance, have their own internal lives. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that Gerber was the one trippy writer at Marvel who wouldn’t trip. He might have benefited from a little mind-blowing here and there, drawing a little bit harder on the Bode hookah.
The book has all that angry humor of the 1950s semi-absurdist shadow-side of pop media, like the film Harvey and lots more, where extreme cringe and extreme hilarity find one another. Howard also reaches back to older animated excessive imagery, very much a 50s rebellion rooted in frustration. You know who it really reminds me of is Robert Crumb, who also never clicked with the hippies who adored his books, and for someone who drew a zillion tits and twats and cocks and whatnots, rarely drew people enjoying sex, specifically with each other. Just as with most of Crumb’s work, I could see Gerber’s, I could appreciate it, but the core of disconnection from one’s body, the constant shying away from total experience, as with so many alienated artists and writers, never hit for me. From the start, I was a sensualist and a scientist, both on full-bore, my itch nicely scratched by Englehart’s Beast and by Thomas’ weird blend of intellect and kill-ready intensity in his Conan. I like all the I’m-in-my-body stuff that apparently drove Gerber straight up the wall.
Nuances and personalities aside, though, Howard is a powerhouse of comics and pop culture event, no question, a direct splat of comix somehow delivered into one’s newsstand funny books. For me, the touchstone for his presence lies in an immediate nab into the role-playing hobby. When I got into the role-playing game RuneQuest and its setting Glorantha in 1980, I didn’t even blink at the obvious homage in the Gloranthan ducks, which made perfect sense to me in that I practically personally embodied the complete connections among dope-scented counterculture, role-playing, fantasy worlds, politics, and comics. When I finally met Greg Stafford we greeted each like long-lost brothers and stayed on the phone for about a solid year. I was baffled by the strange push in the later fandom to make them less cartoony, and to this day, a gamer who complains about the “silly ducks” is dead to me.
Sooo … and I hate this phrase, because it’s a cop-out, but: “it’s complicated.” Maybe Marvel needed a Howard at that moment, as it floundered badly through administrative and creative meltdowns (with moments of startling wonder). Or maybe the whole creators’ rights issue makes sense to highlight a character who is comics and comix at the same time. Maybe the extreme turn-off in the material for me brings forward the fact that creators’ rights isn’t just about work one happens to agree with. Maybe too the mid-80s eclipse of anything worth discussing about the comic, just because someone made a dumb movie, is a symbolic moment. Gahh, I hate “complicated.”
Links: 5 reasons Howard the Duck doesn’t suck
Posted on August 4, 2015, in The 70s me and tagged Bob Harras, Cerebus, Dave Sim, Destroyer Duck, Duckateer, Frank Brunner, Glorantha, Greg Stafford, Howard the Duck, Howard the Duck 1986 film, Jack Kirby, lawfare, Mary Skrenes, RuneQuest RPG, Steve Gerber, Vaughn Bode. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
Howard the Duck is probably the nucleus of everything I don’t understand about 70’s Marvel. For a long time I just assumed, “Well, I guess you had to be there,” but it sounds like for people who were there, that’s not exactly true.
Bias confession: I want to like Howard, and I want to like Gerber. I can get behind the idea of tossing a viciously sarcastic, totally inappropriate Talking Animal into the Marvel world–I guess sort of like the stuffed animal in the movie Ted, except with the personality of an impotent, intellectual, misanthropic wise-ass rather than a boorish 2010’s dudebro.
But somehow the actually-existing Howard just doesn’t do it for me. Part of it is that it’s not especially funny to a 38 year old man living in 2015; part of it is that the impotent, intellectual, misanthropic wise-ass kind of went out of fashion with Woody Allen.
But I think part of it is that the concept itself is tricky. So for all the underground comix that exist as social critique, there must have been a few that were trying to be psychedelic, head-trippy, sometimes-absurdist action stories. That seems to be the spawning ground for some of Starlin’s work on Warlock, for example. And it seems to be a chunk of Gerber’s work on Man-Thing and maybe portions of his Defenders run. Essentially: let’s take the comix sensibility, but run it through the Marvel apparatus to super-hero-ize it a little.
Yet with Howard the Duck it seems like Gerber is doing a comix-influenced parody of the super-hero-ization of the comix reaction to spandex comics. It’s one of those things that might have been delightful if you were immersed in it, but coming at it cold from a very different social context and it looks like homework with an uncertain pay-off.
That’s a thing right there. There wasn’t a Marvel world before the ‘Verse. Really. Every story was simply written into the real world as the creators knew it, in that moment. It wasn’t a fictional setting.
I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to communicate that to anyone who first encountered pop culture after about 1983.
This isn’t to refute any of your specific points. As you can tell from the article, I am not a Howard fan and I do lay claim to having been there and “getting it.” I don’t think this is a case of “well, if you were there, you’d get it, and if you got it, then you’d like it.” I was, I did, and I didn’t.
OK about the whole series and the Beverly-Howard arc (that went nowhere), but… Ron, I can’t believe you didn’t like The Hellcow, The Space Turnip and The master of Quack-Fu!
But it’s true that there was a sense of humor in these first issues that did start dropping rather early, turning Howard in a really depressed/ing character…
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