Waugh Hero: The Satirical Eccentricities of Howard The Duck!
Howard The Duck is one of the great idiosyncratic characters in comics; an ill-tempered alien waterfowl with no special powers or abilities, who has nonetheless ended up as a fixture of the Marvel Universe.
Since he first appeared on 11 September 1973 in second-tier horror title Adventures Into Fear #19, waddling out of the bushes to interrupt a hallucinogenic story by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik, he's constantly beaten the odds, becoming a beloved character to generations.
He's been a presidential candidate and a pop-culture punchline. He's been played for simple comic relief and served as a conduit for sophisticated social commentary. He's gone from bit player to megastar, persevering through shifting market conditions, creative struggles, numerous legal issues, and all manner of changes in popular tastes.
No matter how you look at it, the 1970s were a weird time in the world of Marvel Comics. It was an era of sudden changes and rapid expansion, cultural shifts and creative turnover, lofty ambitions and wildly inconsistent execution.
The decade kicked off for Marvel with the departure of the legendary Jack Kirby, whose long-simmering frustrations over credits, compensation, and creative control led him to decamp to arch-rival DC Comics after a nine-year stretch where he had effectively established the Marvel look, and co-created most of the company's best-loved stories and characters.
Concurrently, editor/writer/company figurehead Stan Lee was pulling back from the day-to-day grind, taking on more administrative and promotional duties, and handing over the majority of his creative responsibilities to other writers. A new generation of creators was poised to make their mark, business was booming, and a new distribution deal was put in place that allowed a greater number of titles to be released each month.
By the third year of the decade, Marvel was in the midst of a whole new revolution. The surprise success of the Conan The Barbarian title had widened the company's scope beyond simple superheroics, and once the Comics Code instituted a number of revisions that loosened the previously draconian restrictions on subject matter, diversification was the order of the day. Zombies, werewolves, martial artists, space-spanning freedom fighters, lovelorn medical professionals, cosmic messiahs, vampires, leather-clad motorcycle-riding agents of satan; it was all fair game in the new-look Marvel Universe.
Even so, when issue #19 of Adventure Into Fear landed on newsstands, and the story within found a well-dressed, cigar-smoking duck inserting himself in the midst of a battle between a swampy muck monster and a peanut-butter-powered barbarian — well, let's just say it caught readers' attention.
The thing is, this feathered fellow was, like so many great ideas, not intended as a great idea. He was a one-off joke that took on a life of its own, who managed to transcend his own novelty status and become not only a continuing character, but an icon.
Creator Steve Gerber was, throughout his lifetime, one of the most inspirational, frustrating, and unpredictable creators working in comics. He possessed a wild imagination, an incisive sense of humor, a wide range of influences and passions, and a comprehensive disregard for anything commonplace or customary. His stories darted to and fro, pushing aside conventional notions of logic and replacing them with a freewheeling flair for the odd and offbeat, mixing action, social issues, metaphysical concerns, interpersonal melodrama, and absurdist humor in a way that was both disorienting and electrifying.
A moment of biting political commentary could be followed by the appearance of a villainous beaver creature; heroes might stop in the midst of pitched battle to ponder the great questions of existence; and plot threads might embroider themselves into a giant heart-rending tapestry on the human condition, or simply unravel and pile up on the floor while something else entirely caught the writer's attention.
Howard's debut, a throwaway moment in a Man-Thing story, could have been another idea that got used and tossed onto the scrap heap, but this time it created something enduring. Perhaps Gerber recognized that he'd created something special. Or perhaps it was just that this duck was too ornery and ill-tempered to go quietly into the night.
Howard soon became the star of his own back-up feature in the ongoing Man-Thing title. And in 1976, he was given his own ongoing series, which immediately became one of Marvel's best-selling books.
Howard's solo title took the eponymous character and placed him square in the heart of the "real" world, giving him a human girlfriend and a home base in Cleveland. Howard palled around with superheroes, battled villains, questioned the meaning of his existence, road-tripped across America, encountered cult leaders, and got ensnared in political campaigning.
A few artists were key to Howard's visual development in this era: original designer and co-creator Val Mayerik, and the quartet of Bernie Wrightson, Gene Colan, Steve Leaialoha, and Frank Brunner, who refined the character's look and depicted many of his most iconic moments.
Sales were through the roof. Howard The Duck was the new big thing, and Marvel and Gerber were quick to capitalize, cranking out merchandise, launching a companion newspaper strip, and driving Howard's star ever higher. But it wasn't all fun and games, and the ensuing years would bring a number of highs and lows.
Gerber and Marvel had long had a relationship that was, to put it gently, fraught with strife, and once Jim Shooter took over as the company's new editor-in-chief, the situation deteriorated quickly. In 1978, Gerber was fired from his creation, and the character continued on under the guidance of writers Marv Wolfman (on the syndicated strip), and Bill Mantlo (on the regular monthly comic and spin-off B&W magazine series).
In the meantime, the web-footed star became a magnet for litigious activity. First, Marvel avoided a legal threat from the Walt Disney Company, agreeing to a redesign of Howard (to ensure nobody confused his cynical cigar-smoking self with Disney's equally ill-tempered web-footed protagonist). In 1980, Gerber sued Marvel and its parent company over ownership of Howard, and the suit dragged on for two years before the two parties reached an agreement that left Marvel with all rights to the character, yet left the door open for Gerber's eventual return to his creation.
And though Howard's star dimmed in the mid-'80s following the George Lucas-produced big-screen adaptation that became one of the most legendary flops in movie history (and an accordingly ill-fated revival of his own ongoing Marvel title), he continued to make his presence felt in the world of comics, with sporadic guest appearances throughout the Marvel universe.
He also received top billing in occasional new projects. In 1996, Howard featured in a Gerber-penned issue of Spider-Man Team-Up, and in 2002, Marvel's mature-readers MAX imprint published a six issue series that, in typically bizarre Gerberian fashion, featured the title character taking on the form of a number of other (non-duck-like) animals. Sadly this would prove to be the final go-round for creator and creation, as Gerber passed away in early 2008.
Howard once again stepped into the spotlight in the 2010s, appearing in the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon, making a post-credit cameo in Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy, and headlining a new series from writer Chip Zdarsky and and artist Joe Quinones.
It's been a long, bizarre trip for Howard. From his home world to Cleveland to the silver screen, he's persevered, proving irrepressible, irascible, and perhaps not unflappable, but certainly perpetually flightless. Through good times and bad, through multiple media and changing creative teams, he's soldiered on, fighting the good fight — trapped in a world he never made, but making the best of it.