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Trapped in a World I Never Made

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It came down to two issues to complete my collection. I pulled the premiere issue of Howard the Duck out of a dealer’s box and this guy standing nearby – a total stranger – gets this glint in his eye. He was approaching middle-age, so he would have been about 14 when the book was first released. “You’re in for something special,” he said, not realizing that I had read all of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck series before in the Essential Edition.

Then the dealer chimes in, remembering that at the time, around 1974, he and his buddies bought cases of that first issue and sold each copy for forty bucks. If you weren’t around to buy comics in 1974, you might want to note that the cover price for Howard the Duck #1 is a quarter; two bits; twenty-five cents, industry standard for the time. I plopped down a ten-spot and went to look for the last key issue, the much sought after KISS issue, number 13.

Y-You’re a Duck!

My own affinity for the misanthropic mallard had begun in the early 1980s, when I was first learning about comics. I had purchased the final issue of the original series, #31 from the corner store. The concept seemed so absurd – a talking duck, sucked out of his home-world to walk among us, the “Hairless Apes” whom he resented, criticized and blamed for his woes. Later, Howard inspired a terribly received, totally misguided film adaptation that became known as one of the biggest flops ever made. Before that, there was something resonant about Howard the Duck. There was something that connected to me on a primal level.

Howard the Duck deserves credit for helping to stem my earliest suicidal thoughts; thoughts which had begun in the fourth grade. Specifically it was the Howard the Duck Treasury Edition, which reprinted that same first issue and some of his earliest appearances that hit me. The first time I made the claim that Howard had kept me from killing myself I was a junior in High School. The girl I’d told laughed at me – “I heard that movie sucks!” I don’t know if she thought I was joking, but I wasn’t. Steve Gerber, Howard’s creator should be recognized for what he has done. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Howard remains to this day a powerful metaphor for the human condition. As for how he helped me curb my self-destructive urges, more about that later.

The duck first appeared in a the issues of a book called Giant Size Man-Thing, a seeming rip-off of the man-turned monster stories like The Heap and Swamp Thing. Sucked to earth through a mysterious cosmic vortex, Howard saved the planet twice, drawing scorn and ridicule in the process. At the beginning of his own series, he stands along the murky waters near Cleveland. No greater hell could he have imagined.

On the first page of #1, the caption reads “Now homeless, penniless he stands on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, contemplating…” The Cigar smoking fowl gazes into his reflection in the polluted abyss. He finishes the thought started in the caption, Howard at the beginning of his own series is contemplating – “Suicide? Yeah. Well maybe.” Has there ever been a moment as ridiculously poignant as this? I wonder today. For some reason, I’m reminded of Gregor Samsa’s alienation in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, only Steve Gerber’s book appears to have a much lighter heart, and maybe a sharper sense of cruelty.

Judging the waters of the Cuyahoga to be too disgusting for his final rest, Howard wanders for a bit until he finds an unearthly tower, strangely enough constructed from credit cards. Seeking perhaps a more graceful end, he climbs the tower in order to hurl himself to his doom.

Am I the only one who thought he would take a swan-dive?

During this quest for self-destruction that Howard finds a young lady – perhaps his first glimmer of hope. Beverly Switzler, garbed in metallic ringlets like a slave girl from the stories of R.E. Howard, is being held captive by the evil wizard Pro Rata, whose power is ludicrously augmented by his devotion to Accounting. It’s in a fateful battle with the sorcerer that Howard’s suicidal urge gets turned. At the end of the first issue Howard finds himself still homeless, still penniless, but now with the will to live.

It’s only lately, after re-reading that first story for the umpteenth time that I realize what a fantastically relatable character Howard must have been for me in my pre-teen years. How alone must he have felt - A lone bird with only one friend in a world dominated by the petty and ruthless, in other words: the bulk of human-kind. Howard persists and finds himself pitted against enemies both strange and pathetic. He takes on the Space Turnip; is harassed by the seemingly insane Kidney Lady; runs for President of the United States; takes on the moralizing Soofi cult; becomes possessed by the Son of Satan. Gerber, along with superstar artist Gene Colan, took Howard through a wide range of genres before leaving the book over a creative dispute with Marvel.

The comic limped on for a few more issues until #31 and then Marvel changed the book in format to a magazine sized black and white series. Reading those later issues in retrospect, I can see how Gerber might have felt. Howard wears a superhero outfit, and for a single issue is dubbed Iron Duck.

Waaugh!

In fact, the conflict between Gerber and Marvel got litigious. Gerber along with comics legend Jack “King” Kirby teamed to create Destroyer Duck a more mercenary fowl named Duke, who takes on the GodCorp to avenge an unnamed little buddy. In a way this was Gerber and Kirby’s f*ck you to Marvel for the legal battles that both had against the company. The legal battle was eventually settled out of court. There was also Stewart the Rat, a “graphic novel” for Eclipse.

Years later, Gerber (on friendlier terms with Marvel), penned the Spider-man/Howard the Duck team-up that was secretly a crossover with a Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck team-up. It’s a subversive little tale of a spider, a dragon and two ducks; where if you look carefully at the shadows features an inter-company cross-over and the potential of taking Gerber’s original creation and liberating him of his corporate masters forever. In the Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck issue, a new identity is found for a Duke’s new friend, discovered during a topsy-turvy fight scene that takes place during both books. At some time in the future, if Gerber ever wants to take his duck on creator-owned adventures, he can always use the duck, now named Leonard.

Shortly afterwards, at the suggestion of Neil Gaiman and after repeated requests from fans over the decades Gerber took some throwaway characters from the infamous Dreaded Deadline Doom sixteenth issue of Howard the Duck and expanded them into their own Vertigo series. The book was called Nevada, named after the exotic dancer who was the star of the book.

Howard’s saga might end with the recent Howard the Duck six issue mini series, released in 2002 through Marvel’s mature readers Max line. The series was written by Gerber and with art by Nevada penciller Phil Winslade. In it, we see Howard and Beverly still living on the edge, at first taking residence in a garbage dump and moving through the modern world (did you want to know how boy bands are really made?) to find Howard taking on the entirety of existence. In fact, while the original Howard scripts still stand the test of time, the new series shows Gerber at least twenty years older and two decades more sophisticated.

It wasn’t until I read the first issue of the original Howard the Duck series that I realized what a dynamic and moving hero Howard really was.  Where other heroes have their masks and fancy costumes, Howard remains pants-less – practically naked. Where other heroes have powers that set them apart from normal humanity, the thing that makes Howard unique is that there’s no one on earth that’s anything like him, a depressed duck. Even still, Howard perseveres.

Maybe that old stranger was right: I was in for something special.

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