Howard the Duck: Neither Fish nor Fowl

A Review of the Last 28 years of Everyone's(?) Favorite Mallard First, a little history. Growing up in the Seventies and Eighties and reading the delightful, if not always thoughtful, Marvel Comics hacked out in said years, Howard the Duck was a name I ran across frequently. Whether it was in the Bullpen Bulletins ("excelsior, efffendi!") or on the cover of the latest Marvel Treasury Edition, the duck was everywhere, and clearly an integral part of the Marvel Universe. Not that I could tell you the difference; I was a spidey-man myself (kind of like an ass-man or a leg-man, but without as much social acceptance) and didn't have time for titles that didn't include the words "amazing," "spectacular" or "marvel tales" (not that I knew what a reprint was, mind you). And let's face it, in the days when I found superhero battles profound, a talking duck just didn't stir me to pump out my hard earned change (besides, I could get all the Daffy I wanted for free; and if Howard were anything like Donald, well, I could never stand that quack). And so the Seventies passed with nary a look at the bird.

But into the Eighties, Howard's presence was still felt, even if only in picking up all the other Marvel titles I had so foolishly forsaken. Why, there was Spider-Woman, The Eternals, Omega the Unknown, and any number of other foolishly misdirected titles that I needed to make my newfound appreciation of the Marvel dogma complete. Besides, Spider-Man sometimes guest-starred in these anchor weights in order to move them off the shelves. But Howard still didn't figure into the equation, although I came close to learning about him through a "must-have" Man-Thing issue (it was a Spidey-who-wasn't-really-Spidey, appearance). And then there was Marvel Team Up #96 (a Spidey mag) that featured Spidey and Howard---you guessed it---teaming up. And while twenty years have blurred my memory of that fateful mag, I do remember this: I didn't like it. Team Up at that time was pretty bad, and that issue was particularly awful. All I recall is a fight involving hoola hoops and frisbees, art I didn't care for, and a villain(?) named Status Quo (a phrase that was meaningless to me at the time). So, but for this brief blip, Howard remained off my radar.

Until 1986, when for some odd reason that Jedi masters still meditate upon, Lucasfilms (if it was called that then) decided to bring Howard to the big screen. And while I was gravely disappointed that this (this?) was the Marvel character that was finally becoming a Hollywood icon, I dutifully plunked down my $5, because, hey, that's what a good Marvelite does. Much like the Team Up issue, I don't remember the movie all that well, except that it was a major stinker. The only laugh I got was in response to a very lame 2001 joke, and even that was largely out of a different perceived sense of duty (Arthur C. Clarke being my main non-superhero hero). Actually, there was one other laugh: I went to the flick with one friend and found my other friend sitting 3 rows back (but I fail to remember which friend was which).

And so the Eighties were passing, and as I was becoming more politically aware, I began to look for cartoons with a political bent to them. And while most were tepid, Bush (the elder) and the Gulf War (the first) brought out some goodies from even the lamest of cartoonists. And so, by the early Nineties and with a firm commitment to being a liberal, I recalled that Howard was supposedly a political comic, and I figured maybe I should pick up some of the old issues. Naturally, I assumed, what with the button down suit and the tie, that Howard was a conservative and the humor appeal likewise. But I was openminded, and I figured I might as well pick up the back issues when I ran across them. Alas, my leftist tendencies meant I had little money and even less initiative, and so Howard remained an unknown through the end of the milennium.

Finally, by early 2002, Steve Gerber (Howard's creator, but not owner) and Marvel (the owner) had come to some Faustian agreement whereby Marvel would again rape Gerber (see below) and be able to claim they were now producing "thought-provoking comics for adults" a.k.a. the MAX line (apparently to compete with DC's Vertigo). And so a new Howard the Duck #1 waddled onto the rack at my local comic store. Here it was: my chance. I could pick up (or in my own comicbook parlance, "try out") a Howard the Duck comic with little to no effort (plus $3.98, hey, this IS a comic for adults). Issue one, however, had the unappealing cover of showing Howard...the Mouse?

Since this "review" has up til now been nothing but one long sidebar, let me go a step further and briefly comment on Comic Cover Contents in general. I don't have any hard and fast rules about CCC's. My criteria is typically that it be a good image that at least vaguely reflects the storyline. I've seen all extremes: covers that were nothing more than an ill-composed panel straight out of the story that should never have been used, to superstylized (read: overly arty-pretentious) covers that could fit on any issue in a deadline crunch. Given a choice between the two, the latter is preferred. In cases of special issues (number 1s, for example) the hero should at least be shown in a heroic stance. Marvel has often broken this simple guideline on my beloved Spider-Man comics.

So there it was. After nearly 20 years a new Howard the Duck comic, and the cover showed Howard as not-a-Duck. It seemed a terribly wrong move to me. But I picked it up, read it, and...yes, kids, I enjoyed it. It was clever without actually being thought-provoking. And while it would be a stretch to say it had political content, it did at least have the Election 2000 joke and a few panels of cheesecake. As far as social commentary, well, it DOES make fun of boy bands, but one could hardly call the comic's humor "cutting edge" or "daring" in any way--although it does use some dirty (read: "adult") words. Nevertheless, it was fun enough to pick up the next 4 issues of this (apparently) 6 issue mini series.

To summarize the storyline, Howard and his girl friend (and they apparently are just friends) Beverly have finally found a way out of their meager existence through a lucrative job offer. The offer, unfortunately, turns out to be a diabolical plot by Howard's diabolical foe, the diabolical Doctor Bong (he's a big bell, by the way, not a pothead). In the fracas, Howard gets turned into a Mouse and the two are sent on a long winded journey to reclaim their destroyed lives. Over the course of their travels, they manage to poke fun at Oprah Winfrey and the entire Vertigo line of comics (see MAX, earlier paragraph). Again, with tough targets like these, it's hardly a difficult (or even terribly useful) comment on modern society. But what the hey? To his credit, Gerber even makes fun of one of his own Vertigo titles.

I do question the decision to leave Howard as a Mouse throughout the majority of the storyline. If he's not a Duck, then what is it that separates him from any other character?...which brings me to the next part of my review.

In addition to rediscovering Howard, Marvel has rediscovered something else that made them terribly lucrative throughout the 70's. You guessed it: reprints. Why print new comics when you can resell the old ones at twice the price and 1/10th the cost? Now called The Essential Fill-in-the-blank, Marvel is greedily republishing all of it's titles in black and white trade paperbacks of 20-or-so issue collections. Talk about raking it in.

But it's not all bad for the fan. Why pay hundreds of dollars for original material that's been slowly rotting for the last quarter century (or more) when you can buy non-yellowed (but just as color faded) black and white reprints at less than current cover prices?

So as it turns out my procrastination paid off, and I walked out of the comic store with an almost-complete-run of (Essential) Howard the Duck comics--all under one cover.

But before my extended review, a bit more history. This part will be severely abbreviated (mainly because I only know the broad strokes). Howard the Duck began as a throwaway character in a Man-Thing comic. At the nexus of all realities, Man-Thing's world (the "normal" Marvel earth) and Howard's world (apparently an all-duck-but- otherwise-indistinguishable-from-our-world earth) meet with some other worlds and several of these guys go off to save all the worlds. Confused yet? Howard is crotchedy and doesn't really want to help save the worlds, which is fine, because he falls off into outer space after a couple of panels anyway.

Somehow, this resonated with Man-Thing's fans (both of them), and they demanded to see more of Howard. So he showed up in another couple of panels a few months later. These panels had no real new info, but seeped further into the minds of whosoever-knows-fear-burns-at-the-touch-of-Man-Thing's fans, and the calls for more Howard intensified to the point where he got a 4-page back-up feature (quite a feat, since comics of the 70's only totalled about 16 or 17 pages of story). A few of these stories were enough to convince Marvel to give Howard his own mag.

Howard's comic was apparently so popular that not only did it merit 20+ issues, a "Giant Size," and several "Treasuries", but after the first year or so Howard was popular enough to rate his own daily newspaper strip and there were rumblings of a motion picture. It got so big that Disney herself was concerned about copyright issues and so in order to avoid "confusion" with Donald, Howard had to start wearing pants. (I'm thinking that the mouse angle in the current storyline is to cause confusion with Mickey?) It was at this point that Marvel quite literally killed the goose (duck) that was laying the golden eggs. Rather than continue to ride the gravy train, Marvel claimed ownership on Gerber's character and "work-for-hire" became an industry standard (thus helping to launch the Kirby suit, Scott McCloud's "Creator's Bill of Rights," and eventually, god help us, Image Comics). Gerber walked, Howard became a short lived "adult mag" a la Epic Magazine, and the whole bizarre phenomenon went away for twenty years except for a brief cinema disaster of which more than enough has been said.

And so what of those 20+ stories? Did they really rock the world? Well, it's no longer the Seventies and so many things have changed, but after reading the (almost) complete "essential" run, I have to say..."eh..."

That's right. There just isn't that much worth talking about. Howard may very well have been the most intelligent Marvel comic produced in the 70's, but let's face it, gang, that's not much of a contest. Like the soft punches of the current series, the original run poked fun at topical names and "modern" ideas, but it hardly said anything relevant. Despite my early concern that Howard might be a Right winger, Howard is neither Right nor Left. He is in fact, a wingless, flightless bird. His soapbox begins and ends with: "you're all crazy; just leave me alone." Hardly the kind of thing one gets worked up over. Don't get me wrong, there are some fun moments in these 20+ issues, like Howard running for president in '76. But even here, his critique of America was pretty watered down. And that's the basic problem with the series: the meat is pretty thin in this Duck soup. I think I could have distilled the whole set down to 2 or 3 good comics without losing much.

I don't want to end without a quick nod to the artists. Gene Colan, of whom I've never been much of a fan, really did the lion's share of the work in this mag. His page composition is balanced and moves the reader along, and I'm especially pleased to see it in black and white--coloring up until the 90's sucked in Marvel mags. Kudos also to inkers Steve Leialoha and Klaus Janson. Steve's a fabulous inker and while I used to find his delicate touch a tad effeminate, I now think that it's really a measure of his control. And Klaus clearly cut his teeth on this comic; his blocky style is still a bit rough for me, but it served him well as he hopped over to ink Miller's Daredevil.

In the end, I will say that it's clear that Gerber was trying for something different with Howard the Duck. Indeed, I think he was finding his voice through this character. Unfortunately, I'm just not quite convinced that he was able to pull it off. I don't know, maybe his editor simply wouldn't let him go too far. Marvel wouldn't want to rock the boat too much; they might lose customers. But you'd think that wouldn't be the case in the new "adult" series. Or perhaps it's true, "the more things change..."