Howard the Duck is so wildly different a comic book that its publication by a major producer must be viewed as one of the most astonishing publishing events of the 1970s. Writer Steve Gerber introduced his cigar-chomping duck (attired in coat and tie and hat and nothing else) in mid-1975 in a special issue of Marvel's Man-Thing, an otherwise serious science fiction title about a man-like creature born of compost in a swamp. (Yes, serious.) Due to a freak shift in the cosmic axis, an alien from another universe is transported to Earth, where he suddenly appears in the shape of a duck about three feet tall. And he talks. Like Disney's Donald—and just as irascible. Howard's unexpected visitation was intended as something of a joke, the tag end of a plot having nothing to do with ducks at all. But once the character wise-quacked one of his sardonic observations about life as we know it, he almost instantly won the affection of readers, readers mature enough to appreciate the satirical content of his quip.
A comics fan as a youth, the iconoclastic Gerber was brought into the profession by a friend and pen pal, Roy Thomas at Marvel, who, as Marvel’s editor-in-chief, made him a writer and assistant editor. Interviewed by Jon Cooke in the Comic Book Artist: Collection Volume 3, Gerber recalled the life-changing episode: “I had been working at an advertising agency in St. Louis as a copywriter. The advertising stuff was just making me crazy, just absolutely nuts. I wrote a letter to Roy Thomas, saying, ‘I don’t suppose—.’ As it turned out, my letter arrived just at the time that Marvel had been acquired by Cadence Industries, and had found a new distributor, and was about to expand its line significantly for the first time in decades, so there actually were some positions available. Roy sent me what was called a ‘writer’s test’—six pages of artwork with no dialogue ... a Gene Colan Daredevil story that had been scripted by Gerry Conway, and it was a very difficult sequence, actually. It was a car chase—something that’s not simple to do. It was a real test, because all you had was the artwork—the whole point was to see if you could make a story out of these pictures, without knowing what the original plot was. I sent the script back to Roy, and apparently, I did okay. They offered me a job as an associate editor and writer. ... I probably just sat down and wrote the script. I didn’t know it was difficult [laughs]. Ignorance can sometimes be a big advantage. I looked at it and, ‘Okay, it’s a car chase, here comes Daredevil, swinging over the street, blah blah blah,’ whatever it was , and I could sort of make sense of what was going on. I have no memory of what I wrote.”
As distinguished as his writing was in The Defenders, Man-Thing, Omega the Unknown, and Morbius the Living Vampire, Gerber will be remembered most for creating Howard. Gerber, however, can barely remember the moment of creation. Not surprising since the Duck was almost accidentally conceived.
Said Gerber: “I was doing the story about the collision of multiple realities, right?—the whole multiverse caving in on itself. I needed a visual to top that of a barbarian leaping out of a jar of peanut butter, you know? [Laughs] Okay, what do I do next? So help me, this is true—it sounds like one of those too-cleverly-concocted stories about how a character is created, but it is true—my home office faced out on a row of backyards in Brooklyn, up and down the street. Somebody in one of the brownstones along that row had apparently just gotten himself a new stereo, and it must have been the most expensive stereo in the world because he could only afford one record. [Laughs] A salsa record that he played over and over and over! [Laughs] I sat at my desk, going into some kind of trance, and the next thing I knew, I was typing something about a duck walking out from behind a shrub in the swamp! [Laughs] That’s all there was to the creation. There was no conscious process at all. It all happened in the back of my mind!”
Val Mayerik was the artist on Man-Thing in those days, and he lived in Ohio, so Gerber had almost no give-and-take face-to-face sessions with him. “I would send him very detailed plots for the stories. I believe he added [Howard’s] cigar, actually. I don’t recall, but I think he told me once that he did, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. [Laughs] And he also put spats on the feet, which we later removed. [Laughs] And the costuming, the hat, all that—I believe my instructions to him were: ‘Whatever you do, don’t put this thing in a sailor suit!’ That was the extent of my instructions as to what the duck should look like. Val put Howard in the rumpled coat, and the porkpie hat, and that became the look of the character.”
Later, when Disney, as usual, overprotective of its menagerie, got wind of Howard and squawked about his similarity to another well-known waterfowl, Howard, in an attack of modesty, put on trousers.
Intended as a mere waddle-on character, Howard disappeared almost as soon as he appeared. “Roy never actually said, ‘Kill the duck,’ but he made it absolutely clear to me that he didn’t want him around by the middle of the next issue,” Gerber recalled. “I complied, and we sent the duck spinning off into limbo. I never figured we’d bring him back. I would just be some interesting little comic book curiosity that people would remember fondly or vituperative, and that would be that. But then the mail started coming in—‘Murderers! You killed my dick!’ [Laughs] That kind of thing. We even got a package—I was out of town at the time, so I didn’t see it—but somebody sent us the carcass of a duck they had eaten for Christmas dinner. [Laughs] With a little note attached to it, saying, “murderers!’ and twelve explanation points. We figured maybe we had stumbled onto something.”
In an interview in Marvel’s FOOM No. 15 conducted by David Anthony Kraft, Gerber remembered another incident that prompted Howard’s return: “At the San Diego Comics Convention ... someone asked Roy, who was speaking there, whether Howard would ever be coming back, and the entire auditorium stood up and applauded. And Stan Lee was being asked about it every place he went on the college circuit.” That was, finally, enough. “It was decided as a result of those incidents to give Howard another shot in the Giant-Size Man-Thing book, as a back-up feature, and the response to that led to his getting his own book.”
And Gerber was off and running. Howard was the perfect vehicle for social satire. At first, Gerber simply mocked the superhero world in which the alien duck found himself, but a profounder question hung over even the earliest jabs at the Marvel Universe: stranded on Earth, far away from his native world, Howard wonders what a "person" does to survive in a world where he doesn't belong. His question becomes the cover banner under which he appears in his own book: Howard the Duck is "trapped in a world he never made." And which of us is not? The similarity of our circumstances makes Howard a kindred soul, and the unexpressed question of the cover's banner ("How do we survive in a world we never made?") poses a philosophical problem worth pondering. And Gerber pondered it with a passion.
Howard is more than a sympathetic character with existential problems akin to our own. He is also an alien—and a duck. The former circumstance gives him clarity of vision: he can see through the conventions of our world and pinpoint the folly in them because native custom hasn't blinded him. Like Oliver Goldsmith's Chinaman (or like Robert Heinlein's Valentine Michael Smith), Howard is not acclimated to his new surroundings, and since he was not born and raised in our social traditions, they strike him as separate entities—sometimes meaningless, sometimes harmless, but to his alien vision, divorced entirely from the business of living until the reasons for them become apparent. The satiric advantage of this perspective is that the reasons for social behavior must be demonstrated as sound or else the behavior appears foolish.
All this makes for a deadly brew. But the medium is the antidote: Howard's being a duck is the saving grace in an otherwise potentially depressing philosophical treatise. It is here that Gerber's creation approaches high comics art. Only the art of the comics can give us the pictures as well as the words—pictures that temper the satirical diatribe. The pictures give the satire a sharper cutting edge, but they also give us Howard in all his duckishness. While his duckishness emphasizes his existential problem, it also makes his predicament comic. And if we can laugh at Howard, we can laugh at ourselves a little, too.
Gerber's method was to throw his web-footed alien into some aspect of American life and then see what happened. As Howard interacts with the humans around him, he makes pungent observations about the social mores and madnesses around him, sarcastic comments that strip pretensions away to reveal the often self-serving motives that lay beneath some custom of ordinary life. Because the America that Howard wanders through is also the Marvel Universe, the population bristles with demented scientists who have partaken of elixirs from their labs and turned into super-powered beings.
Very early in the series, the hapless duck is befriended by a young woman of suitable embonpoint, a would-be model and actress named Beverly Switzler, who calls Howard "ducky." Their companionable relationship turns into love, which, though unconsummated, creates an inter-species predicament that adds spice to the stories and underscores with its impossibility Howard's existential dilemma.
In the first issue of the initial 31-issue run of the Howard the Duck comic book (dated January 1976), Gerber establishes a pattern that he will follow in many of the subsequent stories. Howard, depressed by his frustrating situation, is in Cleveland, where, standing on the banks of the polluted Cuyahoga River, he contemplates suicide. Seeing a tower in the middle of the river, he decides to go out to it and fling himself from its pinnacle to his death. When he gets there, he finds the tower is made of plastic credit cards, and when he enters the building, he is taken captive by its inhabitant, a mad sorcerer named Pro-Rata, who harbors aspirations for conquest on a celestial scale.
"Gaze upon the office of Pro-Rata," the madman intones, "soon to be chief Accountant of the universe. And note especially my prize of prizes," he continues, as the camera shifts our attention to a curiously equipped antique calculator, "—the Cosmic Calculator." At midnight, he tells Howard, the Stellar Balance Sheet comes into alignment, the Astral Audit may be taken, and Pro-Rata will "collect the Cosmic Dividend."
In Gerber's morality play, Pro-Rata represents man's capitalistic genius gone amuck, and his absurd vision of the world in accounting terms ridicules both man's world-controlling economic pretensions and the Marvel Universe's supervillains with the universe-conquering ambitions. Howard meets Bev in Pro-Rata's tower: the madman has dressed her in a costume suitable for the mythical world of sword and sorcery tales from which he has fashioned his vision of himself. Seeing that she is chained to the wall, Howard resolves to rescue her. Pro-Rata orders that Howard be garbed as a barbarian mercenary, thereby completing the casting call for Gerber's lampoon of the sword and sorcery world of Conan the Barbarian, one of Marvel's most popular heroes at the time. In the midst of a fight that pits Howard and Spider-Man (who has wandered into the book, mostly, I suspect, to lend his name to the cover’s come-on to prospective buyers) against Pro-Rata's incantations, Pro-Rata is killed, engulfed in the river that catches fire because it is so polluted.
In the satiric metaphors of the tale, the capitalistic genius of man is defeated by the environment that his genius has polluted. That all of this takes place under the rubric of "barbarianism" sharpens the sting of the satire. And the duck in barbarian garb adds derisive laughter to the story's ingredients.
In realizing his vision, Gerber got superlative assistance from the artists who brought Howard to life visually. Frank Brunner did the first couple issues, John Buscema then did one, and finally, Gene Colan took over the pencilling chores more-or-less permanently with the fourth issue. All were ably inked by Steve Leialoha, but Colan's sometimes wispy feathering technique seemed to bring out Leialoha's best effort. Colan was known for his skill in depicting facial expressions in whatever subtle variation was necessary. And he seemed to delight in shading Howard so delicately as to give a three-dimensional reality to the otherwise flat circular shapes of the duck's cartoony anatomy, thereby persuading us to accept the incongruity of a duck in a hat and jacket afoot among realistically rendered humans.
In successive issues of the comic book, Gerber continued to ridicule the Marvel Universe, and he also took satiric swipes at the romantic visions of superheroism, the pop street culture ideal of macho violence, the demeaning nature of most jobs, the conventions of gothic romance novels, our tendency to see evil in anything we don't understand, fanatic religious cults, the show business aura of politics, the inherent dishonesty in political life, the influence of special interests on politicians, and virtually any custom or facet of social convention that struck the writer as ludicrous. In the fourth issue of the series, however, Gerber begins to use his stories to explore issues that are intensely personal.
In "The Sleep of the Just" (Howard the Duck No. 4; July 1976), Gerber undertakes to show the deleterious effects on the individual of the ruling opinions of conformist society, the establishment. Howard meets Paul Same, an artist, whose nonconformist (that is, creative) attitudes are stifled by society's educational efforts. Paul retreats from the real world and its smothering threats by sleeping. Asleep, he lashes back at society—its hypocrisy and its conformity—as a Marvel-type supervillain named Winky-Man, a vengeful sleepwalker. With Winky-Man serving to release his hostility, Paul finds his creative juices flowing again: he paints during the day and finally gets a one-man show. Expression of hostility serves as a metaphor for ignoring the oppressive impulses of conformist society; when those are ignored, creativity can bloom. Paul emerges as a whole man and artist when he acknowledges that he is Winky-Man and can express his hostility in a waking state.
On the one hand, this is a parable of the creative artistic consciousness. And it is a quite personal parable: Paul Same looks unmistakably like Steve Gerber. But the tale has larger implications. In a flashback to Paul's youth, the educational system (through which we all progress) is seen as the villain: it is the schools which enforce conformist behavior, stifling any deviant (that is, creative) expression. Occasional satiric comments suggest that we are all sleepwalkers like Winky-Man—all forced to suppress our creativity (or sensitivity) in conforming to society's mores. Suppression makes us insensitive; it destroys our alertness. For a better world--and for personal lives that are whole—we must all do as Paul does: we must wake up, express both our hostilities and our sensibilities, and live. Otherwise, as the story's title suggests, justice sleeps. The effort is not without hazards. Howard points to the dangers in "waking up" (that is, in expressing our innate humanity, sensitivity, and alertness): "The crowd won't cheer if you yank off a bald lady's wig," he says. In subsequent outings, Gerber returns again and again to the issues he first raises here.
Turning to contemporary election year antics for material, Gerber runs Howard for President of the U.S. The duck attracts the attention of the All-Night Party by his frank expression of honest opinion: novelty, as anyone in show business knows, is good for the box office, so the Party naturally nominates Howard. As the candidate, however, he is repeatedly urged to restrain himself, to refrain from the very uncompromising expression of common sense ideas that first attracted the Party's attention. Howard rejects all attempts to package him and goes on speaking his mind with relentless candor. ("My god!" says an aide, "he's telling the truth! He'll be dead in a week!") At a press conference, Howard launches an anti-establishment attack against the emotional and intellectual sterility of a society that promotes nothing but the pursuit of possessions.
Howard's candidacy is eventually destroyed by a sex scandal (the rival party doctors a photograph to show the duck naked in the bathtub with Bev, similarly unfrocked), but Gerber continues to pursue the questions raised by his hero's political career. In a story that mocks the Marvel superhero traditions, Howard refuses to do battle with the supervillain, thereby rejecting stereotyping and asserting in its place the uniqueness of his own personality.
In the ensuing five-issue series, Gerber takes the duck to the brink of sanity, and his adventures take on the distinctly allegorical cast of a morality play. He shows Howard searching for meaning in his life, for his "true self" and for the way of allowing expression of it. But it is difficult to discover one's true self: in reviewing his own life, Howard sees the socialization process as "indoctrination" in society's mores and customs—without regard for individual desires. Howard says he didn't "take to it," but the result of his resistance is disillusionment and the cynicism of the fallen idealist. The world is a chopping block where life is cut off. The promise of life with Bev is as hollow a joke as anything else. Facts are only relative, assumptions based upon past observations. Given the relativity of facts and the effects of the indoctrination process to which we are subjected, what can be identified as the "true self"? Only this much is certain: conforming is self-destructive. But the alternative, Gerber shows, is no more attractive: "If I skip out," Howard says, "I flip out." Resisting the impulses of cultural conditioning is disorienting; it is, after all, a rejection of part of one's self, the part created by the conditioning.
The resolution of this conflict occurs, appropriately, in a mental hospital to which the nonconformist Howard is sent. The hospital quickly emerges as Gerber's metaphor for society itself, its doctors and nurses imposing conformist behavior upon the inmates. Howard at first refuses medication, but he soon capitulates—in short, he conforms—because he can't stand being alone.
By this time, Howard seems to sense the futility in his quest for a way to assert his individuality in a world that demands conformity. "Life's too far in the future to think about," he says; "right now, I could use a good cigar." Perhaps he has profited from the "sequin of questionable wisdom" (lovely phrase, that) imparted to him by the rock group Kiss: "When you meet reality head on," he is advised, "kiss it, smack it in the face. That's the word. Pass it on. Kiss it, you're the target but you don't have to be a sitting duck." The implication is that metaphysical questions about the nature of individual existence in the social world are relatively unimportant. What's more, they only breed hang-ups. More important for personal well being is engagement—meeting the world and living in it. Shortly after this moment in Howard's mental growth, he lashes back at his nurse in a reversal of his behavior when he docilely accepted medication. Howard has begun his comeback.
Gerber constructed a series of episodes in the duck's life that show him wrestling with questions that are as old as the human condition. We are social animals and live in community with other people. To function smoothly, society requires adherence to certain forms and customs. By their nature, some of those customs restrict our individual behavior. But we still have individual desires, the achievement of which sometimes urges us to break with the customs of our societies—or to change those customs. The situation, the human condition, fosters this fundamental conflict, the conflict between individual desires and social expectations. It is inescapable; it is the nature of humankind.
Howard strives through several issues of his comic book to reconcile this dilemma and ends by reconciling himself to it. He begins by rejecting society in order to "be himself." In the end, however, he abandons the search for self because it is ultimately life-denying and therefore pointless. Instead, he embraces life with all its contradictions. Rather than resolve the struggle, he resolves to continue it—to continue to assert his individuality in the face of pressure to conform, to continue with no real hope of ever finishing the struggle. Howard's decision is clearly existential. Like Albert Camus, he chooses to perpetuate the absurdity as an act of affirming life; like Camus, he chooses to remain faithful to the world rather than to question it.
All this is pretty weighty material for a mainstream comic book. It is a measure of Marvel's publishing courage at the time that it permitted Gerber to explore in these unaccustomed regions, that it dared to permit him to approach philosophy protected by only a thin veil of satire. Howard the Duck clearly aimed at an older audience than the newsstand comic books of even a half-dozen years before. Unhappily, Howard was destined to be a flash in the pan rather than the harbinger of the future in mainline comics.
The creative flywheel of Howard the Duck was also the title's hubris: emerging as the extraordinary personal philosophical odyssey by its creator, the creation was so idiosyncratic that its success was entirely dependent upon Gerber's continuing involvement with the project. But Gerber's identification with his creation may have lead to his departure from the book—and from Marvel.
By 1977, Howard was starring in a syndicated newspaper comic strip as well as the comic book, both produced by Gerber and Colan. Then Gerber began to think about ownership of his creation. It started with Gerber’s trying to get money for Colan, Gerber told Cooke: “Gene and I were supposed to get a percentage of the syndicate’s take for the strip. The problem was, the money came in 90 days, 120 days, six months—I don’t remember how long exactly—after the strips were published. So, essentially, the artist was working for nothing up until that time, and no artist can afford to do that.” Particularly an artist in Colan’s situation: he had to give up doing at least one of his comic book assignments in order to have time to do the strip.
Gerber asked Marvel to advance Colan some money until the syndicate money started to come in. Alas, Marvel wouldn’t hear of it. “Once the arguments started,” Gerber remembered, “they escalated very quickly.” It was almost immediately apparent that Gerber had no rights with regard to Howard even though he had created the character.
The issue of creator's rights was much in the air then: Siegel and Shuster had just secured pensions from DC in recognition of their creation of Superman (and the character's appearances henceforth carried the notice "Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster"), and the policies of the underground press were starting to impinge upon the mainstream. In 1974, Stan Lee, eager to get in on the burgeoning underground comix fad, had launched the Comix Book, an avant garde Marvel title with an underground aura that Denis Kitchen had agreed to edit for him—on the condition that the cartoonists retained ownership of their characters. But Marvel wasn't ready for Gerber's claim to ownership: after all, he had created Howard on company time.
When Gerber's lawyers notified Marvel in the spring of 1978 that he intended to take legal action to secure ownership of his creation, Marvel fired the writer from both the comic book and the syndicated strip, and the Howard stories for the last six issues of his comic book were, comparatively speaking, toothless. On the question of ownership, both parties come to a settlement out of court a few years later. The terms of the settlement were sealed, but Gerber seemed content, telling Art Cover (as quoted by Tom Spurgeon at comicsreporter.com): “It’s no secret how mad I was during and before the lawsuit. The terms of the settlement are such that I am no longer angry.” During this period (and perhaps partly in consequence of the Gerber assault on the ramparts of corporate ownership), both Marvel and DC adopted more liberal policies with their artists and writers: they began paying royalties based upon circulation, and a couple of new lines of titles were started in which creators retained ownership of their creations. Gerber worked mostly in animation thereafter, but he returned to Marvel briefly to do a six-issue series of Howard the Duck (cover dated March to August 2002).
In the interim, Gerber took Howard to Hollywood, and he, or someone, interested George Lucas in a live-action film interpretation of the character. "Howard the Duck" made it to the silver screen in 1986, but the film was a gigantic disaster. (So much so that Lucas subsequently disowned it.) Historically, comic strip creations have seldom made the transition into motion pictures successfully, a circumstance that loudly proclaims the fundamental differences that distinguish the two media. And in the case of Howard the Duck, the difficulty was compounded by the protagonist's being a duck. Movie producers had successfully combined animated cartoon characters with live actors before (and within a year or so of the release of "Howard," Touchstone Films launched "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," a film that revolutionized the way such combinations should be treated), but it was a profound mistake to arrange for a human being to enact the character of a comic book "talking animal" by donning a duck costume. If nothing else, the flop movie demonstrated convincingly that the "life" created in the comics medium is peculiar to it and to it alone. Howard the Duck animated the comic book and the comic strip precisely because he was a duck "trapped in a world he never made" and because the peculiar nature of the comics medium is such that we can be persuaded that a "duck" can talk and live among humans as a fellow being. But we cannot be persuaded, apparently, that a human being dressed in a duck suit is a duck—even if we see it on the screen before our very eyes.
Forays into personal cartooning in mainstream comic books have always been rare. So when something like Howard came along, it occasioned rejoicing. Every once in even those benighted whiles, a unique coinage is minted from the cartoonist's art, a fabrication so inflamed with its creator's imagination, so enraptured by his participation in the fiction of its life, that it emerges on the shoddy pulpy pages of the medium to dance with a vitality that is wholly its own. To give life to four-color fictions is the name of the game in comics, but in mainline publishing, as I've said before, it seldom happens that committees of writers, plotters, pencillers, inkers, scripters, and editors produce lively and memorable characters. As these groups grope towards their collective conception, they must satisfy the egos and visions of their several parts. The result is often all thumbs—the proverbial camel designed by a committee charged to make a horse. It may hold water, but it is awkward and cantankerous and smells bad. Howard, though, was a distinguished exception to the rule. Gerber’s first stint on Howard persuaded me that comic books could be taken seriously as literature for adult minds.
Parts of the foregoing extravagance can be found in a book of mine, The Art of the Comic Book, which is still available from its source, me; to read more about what’s in the book—namely, a whole raft of tales like the foregoing, mostly having to do with the history of the medium—click here.