Saturday, August 16, 2014

In defense of Howard the Duck

So the comicdork world is a-buzz with the cameo of Howard the Duck in the after-credits scene at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy. Could it be Disney-Marvel is planning to relaunch the great comix icon of the Seventies? The blood chills.

I loved Howard back when he was first a cult, then a bonafide, smash hit. Not only was he the first "superhero" who lived here in Cleveland, he was the creation of Steve Gerber, the funniest, weirdest, druggiest, most perceptive writer in mainstream comix.  Most in fandom hate the character. I guess they regard him as somehow besmirching "real" comic book characters. Many older fans are still pissed that Howard ruined comic book movies for a decade. Maybe he just doesn't fit the tiresome, uber-violent, dystopian  dreck that is popular now with what's left of mainstream comic book readership.

Howard the Duck was Marvel's first big cult hit. He debuted in 1973 in one of Gerber's bizarre storylines in the Man-Thing series, inexplicably walking out of the underbrush (above). Val Mayerick was the artist. Man-thing was a mindless swamp creature who couldn't talk or think or had any personality whatsoever. Mostly he just stood around in swamp water. Only Gerber could make such a book interesting.... and did! Howard quickly met an untimely end, plunging through a dimensional hole. But then comics fandom flooded Marvel with letters. We want more Howard!  

Fandom was still in its infancy then and comic book publishers not only didn't cowtow to it like they do now, they really didn't consider it at all when making decisions. Comic books were all about the 11-year-old audience then, those millions of sticky-fingered brats who grabbed a copy of Spider-man along with a handful of candy bars at the corner drugstore. For Howard to get his own title in this era, to placate adult fans, was unprecedented. He was re-introduced as a back-up feature in 1975, in the most hilariously titled book in the history of comics, Giant-size Man-Thing. One of Marvel's young stars, Frank Brunner,  took over the art assignment. That only increased fan fervor. Finally, in 1976, Howard was granted his own title.

Howard the Duck #1 was a smash hit. It was a glimpse of the future of the comic book business, in more ways than one. It was the first big speculative book in the collectors market. The distribution of #1 was spotty, and, of course, it wasn't printed in the numbers of, say, Spider-man, which sold 500,000 a month. My corner drug store in my hometown didn't have it, but I found my copies at one of my back-up suppliers, Gray Drug in the Summit Mall (where Dahmer's Command Performance later took place!). Dealers sniffed a profit and bought up boxes of #1, illegally, right off the loading dock at the local distributor warehouses. The price of #1 on the back-issue market immediately shot up to an unheard-of $20. For a regular 20-cent comic book that just came out? The two great forces that would alter comic book history– fandom and dealers– had emerged. 

Purely as a comic, that first issue is great, a true Bronze Age classic. The story is a societal satire mixed with a bizarre sorcery tale. It was a template for everything Gerber wrote after it. Marvel and DC weren't big on satire, and god forbid they would make anything more than the most mild political statement. When they tried to be "deep," it invariably came off as laughable soap opera. Howard the Duck owed more to underground comix, minus the sex and foul language. That may have made it even more subversive! Edgy satire passed off as a funny animal comic book. It really is great stuff.

The art is beautiful, too. Just look at the detail in that page! Unfortunately, that was it for Brunner. He did one more issue, then left the biz, never to return, outside of a cover or poster here and there. Marvel fished around for a suitable replacement artist, before settling on old hand Gene Colan. I loved Colan on Iron Man, Daredevil and Dracula, but this wasn't a choice I was pleased with. His loosey-goosey style lacked the impressive detail of Brunner. Colan drew Howard virtually to the end.

Over the next couple years, Howard was one of Marvel's biggest hits. He got the kind of media attention mere long-underwear comic books simply weren't getting then. Imagine! An intelligent satire aimed at adults! Gerber mounted a Howard for President campaign in the 1976 election that got quite a bit of press. The button (above) drawn by Bernie Wrightson was a frequent sight pinned to lapels of twentysomethings  

Howard was the first successful title aimed at an older audience. Previous efforts to tap a college-age audience, like Green Lantern/ Green Arrow or The Silver Surfer, had bombed. Howard the Duck, on the other hand, was, for a time, one of Marvel's top sellers. The tide had turned. Five years later with the debut of video games the 11-year-old readers would vanish en masse and all that was left were older readers, but that's another tale.

Marvel's head gasbag, Stan Lee, was, of course, caught completely by surprise by all of this. He had stopped writing, if you could call what he did, filling in word balloons, "writing" and was by then Marvel's president, mainly stumping for tv and film deals out in Hollywood and shamelessly stealing credit from Kirby and Ditko. Stan had never even heard of Howard the Duck until fans started babbling about it to him at the many comicons he attended. He, of course, quickly took credit for Howard, as he did for everything. Funky Flashman to the end! 

In 1977, Howard got his own newspaper strip, also by Gerber and with art by  Colan and then Val Mayerick, once again returning to his most famous creation. Howard was even more revolutionary on the staid newspaper comics page, then home to little but corpse strips like Blondie and lame joke-a-day dreck like Garfield. It only lasted a year, but it was great! The Cleveland Press picked it up. I begged my parents to subscribe to the paper, but was turned down. Pay for a paper just for one comic strip? Further proof to my old man that I was an alien from space! A neighbor was a subscriber and passed on the comic pages to me. I picked up her Press copies at the end of each week and added the clips to my collection.

Howard also became one of the first skirmishes in the creator-rights battle. Gerber's relationship with Marvel soured, especially when tyrannical editor Jim Shooter assumed control in 1978. Gerber was sacked, first from the strip, then the from the book he created. "Missed deadlines" was the officially reason, but Gerber demanding a greater cut of a lucrative character was the real one.  He then sued Marvel for the rights to Howard and eventually won a settlement in 1982, which was also unprecedented. In the meantime, he published some Howard spoofs in the emerging indy comix market. Destroyer Duck featured legend Jack Kirby, also then embroiled in a rights battle with Marvel (one that continues to this day). Frank Brunner also returned briefly to comics with Quack, featuring a unnamed Howard-like character. Marvel couldn't stop these efforts, mainly because Howard, of course, was a riff of Donald Duck! In fact, Disney had moved against Marvel for copyright violation, too! So Gerber's later efforts were just spoofs of a spoof. Presented quite an interesting copyright question. 

Stan Lee signed the termination letter (above) to Gerber, "effective immediately."

Above: Marvel's Howard redesign from 1977, to placate Disney. Draw the bill this way, don't make the eyes too large.... groan.

Howard the Duck was cancelled with #33, shortly after Gerber was fired. Marvel spun him off in a magazine aimed at an older audience, one of their strategies as the Eighties dawned, but that failed, too. Bill Mantlo, a fine writer and one of the creators of Guardians of the Galaxy, wrote those, but following Gerber was an impossible chore. Howard the Duck was a creature of the Seventies. His time was past.

The Howard phenomenon came to an ugly end with the release of one of the worst blockbuster films ever made, George Lucas' Howard the Duck in 1986. Lucas was a huge Howard fan and first pitched the film in 1976, right after American Grafitti. The studios turned him down, so he made Star Wars instead! Never in film history should a director have LESS of a complaint against studio decisions! Ten years later, when he used his fortune to start Lucasfilms, Howard the Duck was inexplicably his first project. What the hell was he thinking? It cost a then staggering $80M to make, mainly thanks to the disturbing mechanical duck costume (no CGI back then), and it bombed. It's on every critics' list as one of the worst films ever made. It was the dog that drove home that Lucas had lost it as a filmmaker. 

It was also the first major adaption of a Marvel character! The $1B hits of today can trace their lineage directly back to Lucas' stinker.

No one talks about Howard in Cleveland btw. Most locals at the time regarded it as just another shot from the New York intelligensia. There's some truth in that. Marvel was rumored to have approached Harvey Pekar to write a Howard re-launch. He turned them down. I was younger than Harvey by 25 years, but I never viewed Howard as a put-down, just as another failed Marvel title doomed by corporate meddling and politics. I certainly could have written Howard, not that I was ever on the Marvel radar. 

We in Cleveland don't view him as our own, because he wasn't, really. Most Clevelanders would be surprised to learn his story was set here. Howard's heyday was the Seventies, the low point in our fair city's history. Everyone was laughing about our burning river, our mayor's burning hair, the city's default, Mayor Dennis Kucinich and what a dump this sprawling Rustbelt town was. Every night Johnny Carson was cutting on Cleveland. Howard the Duck was just more piling on. It was also painfully obvious Gerber had never set foot in the city. It was Cleveland in name only. There were no local landmarks. The buildings didn't even look right. And Gene Colan was never much known for his attention to detail! Readers in Milwaukee or Portland couldn't tell the difference, but we could.

Today, with the intertube, it's easy to fill a story with visual references of a place you've never been. Joseph Remnant, artist of Harvey Pekar's Cleveland, for example, never visited Cleveland to research what he drew. He simply worked off photos, and did a great job capturing most of what he saw. I've done the same thing. But back in 1975, it was a very different thing, especially for low-paid comic book creators. Marvel certainly wasn't going to pay for a research excursion. I don't even remember Gerber attending a comic convention here!

Howard the Duck is today the most reviled Marvel character among fans. Mainly thanks to Lucas, and the "shame" he brought on comic book characters. Unfairly hated, in my view. I guess the animosity comes from the fans' belief that the Howard film ruined any chance of a superhero film ever being made. That's no longer the case. Seems that's all that's being made now! But the books themselves are still great. Dated, yes, and very much period pieces, as are, say, episodes of Saturday Night Live from 1976. But I'd like to see Gerber and Howard get their due. The books been out of print for years, although an omnibus will be at last released this Fall. I've no doubt Marvel would love to revive the character.... and I'm just as certain that without Gerber's genius, they'd muck him up completely. Let's remember Howard as he was. Historically, there aren't many modern characters as important as the duck. The first hit mainstream title targeted at adults, the first successful satire in mainstream comics,  the first book launched to placate fandom, the first Marvel character made into a major film and the first big skirmish in the ongoing creator-rights struggle. That's quite a resume.

Give the duck his due!