With this week’s release of a new Howard the Duck comic, we thought it would be a good time to look back at the Howard that started it all! This review originally ran May 6, 2002.
Writer: Steve Gerber
Pencils: Val Mayerik, Frank Brunner, Gene Colan and others
Inks: Steve Leialoha, Klaus Janson, and others
Reprinting: Howard the Duck #1-27, Howard the Duck Annual #1, Marvel Treasury Edition #12, and portions of Adventure Into Fear #19 and Giant-Size Man-Thing #4 and #5
In the 1970s, the comic book industry underwent a complete transformation. Superhero comics began addressing real-world issues in an attempt to be more relevant to their audience. The rise of comic shops led to the creation of the direct market. And a new generation of artists published and distributed their own comics. The underground comics of the 1960s had inspired a new generation of artists and writers to create and publish comics on their own. This new crop of independent self-publishers produced personal and intelligent work targeted at adult readers.
All of these elements came together in Howard the Duck, the closest a mainstream comics publisher ever came to the spirit, freedom, and wit of the underground books.
The character of Howard was originally conceived as a throwaway visual gag in Adventures Into Fear #19. The wizard Dakimh pulls Howard from his native reality to join the fight against the Overmaster. They are joined by the mystic muck monster Man-Thing, the barbarian Korrek, and Jennifer Kale, Dakimh’s apprentice. But as the quintet journey between realities, Howard slips off the path and falls into the void.
That was supposed to be the end of Howard, but letters poured in from fans demanding the duck’s return. Apparently, his disdainful attitude towards everything he saw, especially the absurd, struck a chord with readers. And in a comic book universe where the ridiculous is taken seriously, Howard offered a much needed “reality check”.
Writer Steve Gerber brought Howard back in Giant-Size Man-Thing #4 and #5. Howard found himself back on the world of humans. Specifically, in Cleveland, Ohio. Here he fought Gorko the Man-Frog and a vampire cow. These stories established three key elements to the Howard series: parodies of other comic book characters, Howard’s concern for his own survival above all else, and the strangest villains since the Silver Age Daredevil comics!
But what really distinguishes Howard from all other characters is his philosophy. For starters, most comic book characters aren’t motivated by a personal philosophy. Usually it’s a sense of justice, responsibility, or revenge. The most enduring characters, like Superman and Spider-Man, embody a specific idea. But very few mainstream characters are complex enough to have a fully developed philosophy about life. Howard’s attitudes towards people and society were based on his own experiences. These attitudes determined his actions and the choices he made. In other words, Howard acted just like a real person!
And Howard’s attitude was almost always negative. He was a pessimist who felt the world was against him. And very often, it was. On his home world, Howard wouldn’t fit into society. He wasn’t willing to sacrifice any part of his independence and freedom to accommodate his fellow duck. In the world of humans, Howard couldn’t fit in so he didn’t even try. He will always be treated as a freak, an anomaly. Any attempt to “get along” with other people is, in his eyes, doomed to failure. Howard went from being an outcast by choice to an outcast by birth.
Survival is always his first priority, but even his attempts to survive are complicated by a strange mix of fate and bad luck. That’s why he tries to kill himself in issue #1. Howard decided that there wasn’t any place for him on this world. But even his suicide was interrupted by strangeness. He found Beverly Switzler, a captive of a crazed accountant-wizard called Pro-Rata. Howard fought and apparently killed Pro-Rata. Rather than try to kill himself again, he accepted Beverly’s invitation to stay with her. She would become Howard’s best friend on this world.
The series saw Howard face truly bizarre villains, almost all of who represented an idea or point of view. The Space Turnip deflated the whole idea of heroic fiction as escapist fantasy. The Kidney Lady was the overbearing mother figure that attacked anything that contradicted her narrow, and skewed, worldview. Members of the cult of SOOFI killed themselves to make the world a blander place. Almost every character in the series, from Paul Same to the rock band KISS, represented some unique idea or perspective.
But Howard’s greatest enemy was, and always will be, Dr. Bong. Dr. Bong was a yellow journalist who knew that the illusion of power could be more effective than actual power. He could reshape reality at will by striking his bell-shaped helmet, or turn animals into man-like creatures in his laboratory. (The creatures say he gave them “neez”, a pun that means “knees” and “needs”, two qualities that distinguish humans from animals). Dr. Bong has done more damage to Howard’s life than any other person. He forced Bev to marry him, transformed Howard into a human, and is responsible for Howard and Bev’s current troubles in the Marvel Max mini-series. Dr. Bong is Howard’s ideological nemesis. Howard accepts reality, painful as it is. Bong is constantly trying to alter reality to suit his desires, but cannot accept the things he cannot change. Few hero/villain relationships revolve around such philosophical conflicts. The ones that do (Superman/Luthor, Batman/Joker, etc.), drive the most exciting and timeless stories.
It’s easy to dismiss Howard the Duck as a funny animal book or a parody of other comics. But once you read the book, you begin to see deeper meaning to the characters and stories. The series has both subtle and overt social and political commentary. And while some of the references are dated, the stories hold up very well. The issues Howard discusses in his presidential campaign are still relevant today. And the series’ overall themes of the individual vs. society and the feelings one derives from life-changing events are timeless literary subjects.
While the series itself is excellent, this is also a review of the format. Fortunately for us, the art of Gene Colan translates beautifully into black and white. His detailed work can be seen clearly and cleanly in this book. And the inks of Klaus Janson add a depth and weight that often makes color redundant. The series seems to have been drawn for a monochrome publishing. Nevertheless, if you can get copies of the original series, you should do so. Not just it see the stories in color, but for the spirited and bizarre letters pages! (Most surprising is a letter from a Kurt Busiek in HTD #19.)
The book, however, does have its flaws. For starters, the book’s cover is taken from Howard the Duck #33, the last issue in the series. The cover was also re-colored; Howard’s trademark blue suit is shown here in red. While it is a fine piece of work by Brian Bolland, it is not the image I would choose to represent this collection. It also irks me that issue #33 is not in this collection. The last issue included is #27, but the story line is not resolved until #31. Issues 30-31 might have been excluded because they were not written by Steve Gerber, and issues 28 and 29 were stand-alone stories that didn’t relate to the ongoing story line. Finally, the book is numbered Volume 1. Now, I can tell you from personal experience that the remaining Howard stories written by Gerber number less than a dozen. And the b&w Howard the Duck magazine that followed the comic is as “essential” as Secret Wars II, so I doubt we’ll see a Volume 2 in this series.
Nevertheless, this is a fine, fine work. It’s a perfect example of how a comic book can be a meaningful, literary, relevant work of fiction. I’d put it in the same category as Eddie Campbell’s Alec books. Just like Alec MacGarry, Howard the Duck speaks for Steve Gerber. Howard is Gerber in many respects, making this more than a comic book. It is a collection of personal essays, written in the third person, on a variety of topics and ideas of interest to both the writer and the reader. The pictures are there to keep it interesting.
This is what I expect all comic books to be. Entertaining, meaningful, layered, and complex. And every word is true, (at least from the writer’s point of view.) Howard the Duck’ transcends traditional comic book constraints and touches that ethereal quality known as art.
Jesus, God, what have I been smoking? That’s got to be the most pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, arrogant piece of crap I ever wrote! Look, folks, the truth is ‘Howard the Duck’ is a great book. It’s a lot smarter than what you expect. Forget all of that highbrow stuff I wrote and just read the book. Because, frankly, the only way you’ll know if something is any good is to see it for yourself. And you should. You really, really should.