'Howard the Duck' was regarded as something of a cult classic when it was published in 1972-78. Now that the complete run has been made available in Marvel's 'Essentials' re-print line, we can ask ourselves what was so special about it.
At first glance, the answer would appear to be 'not very much'. Howard, a dead ringer for Donald, comes from an alien dimension where everybody is a talking duck. Due to a plot device in a previous comic, he is transported to our world, where, he, er, has adventures. Writer Steve Gerber admits at one point that he makes the story up as it goes along, so there is very little structure in these 28 issues. Characters appear, get forgotten about, and re-appear a dozen issues later: Howard wanders from Cleveland to New York and back, bumping into minor Marvel characters and acquiring a non-descript supporting cast but never establishing much sense of direction.
The comic is touted as being deeply satirical, with Howard, the outsider providing a broad-brush stroke critique of directly-post Watergate American society. If this is what Gerber was setting out to do, then it doesn't work at all. The metaphor that Howard is an outsider—'funny-animal-in-a-world-of-humans' doesn't really work in a Marvel Comics setting, where practically everyone is a mutant, alien, or tights-wearing super dude. Howard's personality is never properly developed. Although he repeatedly compares the world of 'hairless apes' unfavourably with his home, the occasional flashbacks suggest that 'duck world' was exactly like our universe, only with ducks. In truth, we know nothing about what Howard was doing before the cosmic axis shifted. He is simply a misanthropic Gulliver, attacking the world of hairless apes and acting as a mouthpiece for Steve Gerber.
For example, on the 70s fad for Kung Fu movies:
'Chessh— like you hairless apes haven't screwed up your world enough. You misrepresent an ancient philosophy, package it as violent entertainment and sell it to your young to emulate '
And on the life story of a sympathetic villain.
'I don't blame him for noddin' out. If I had to play by this world's nutty rules where they penalize you for being clever and reward mediocrity, and them glamorise the outlaw because he makes it on his own terms, even if they are stupid and destructive.
These aren't jokes, merely rants. At one point. due to a 'hilarious' misunderstanding, he becomes a presidential candidate. Unlike the other candidates, he tells the truth because he knows that he cannot expect to win. This 'truth' involves staggering revelations like 'war is bad' 'advertising sometimes does not tell the truth' and 'the consumer society is not always in our interests'.
'How do you feel, sir, about violence in movies…'
'I'm all for it…as long as it's never presented as cathartic—as a release, a solution. A kid oughta know what he's gettin' himself into if he's contemplatin' stabbin' or shootin' someone. It's messy…'
The situation of a candidate fighting an election which he does not expect to win, and being manipulated by spin doctors who think that he can, could have resulted in a great deal of situation comedy. (When Dave Sim did a similar storyline, part of the joke was that Cerebus was unsophisticated and naïve and could, at times, be manipulated by Astoria and the rest. Howard, as the writers avatar, is pretty much omni-competent, seeing through every advertising quack and crank in a couple of panels.) Gerber seems to think that simply saying 'A duck stood for president' is funny and satirical.
Howard encounters a steady stream of absurdist versions of other Marvel characters. Not, at any level, parodies or caricatures. There is little attempt to explore what was going on in comics at the time. Gerber expects us to think that the mere existence of, say, a Vampire Cow, a telepathic turnip or a version of The Punisher called, get this, The Spanker, are inherently funny even though, once the character is introduced, the rest of the issue follows the standard, non-humorous pattern of a Marvel Comics fight scene. The best one can say is that Gerber feels that orchestrating a Marvel super hero battle using all the usual tropes and conventions, but having at the center a cartoon duck and, say, a giant beaver, will draw the our attention to the fact that superheroes are a pretty silly genre to start with. My guess is that the average reader in the 70s already knew this.
The oddness of the effect is heightened by the fact that most or many of the issues are drawn by major comics god Gene Colan, a classic horror comic artists with a broadly naturalistic style, who doesn't seem to get the joke.
Finally, Gerber seems convinced, like the ITV Digital monkey, that inserting the word 'Duck' into the title of any Marvel comic is intrinsically amusing. Hence, we have 'master of quack-fu' (whose name means 'the rising and advancing of a duck'); 'A duck no more'; 'This Man, this Duck'; 'Kil-mallard, warrior of Mars'; 'A duck possessed' and so on.
So far, so unremarkable. But somewhere along the line Gerber seems to realize what the problem is. Howard the Duck is a comic about comics, and, more bizarrely, a comic about the process of writing a comic about comics. And from this existential feedback loop, something actually quite interesting comes inadvertently into being.
One obvious result of the comic's self-referentiality is that many of the supporting cast turn out to be frustrated writers and artists. Several of the villains narrate, in good Marvel Comics fashion, their life story. This always seems to involve unpopularity at school, and a failure to achieve a creative occupation. Hence, Paul Same, who subsequently becomes a continuing supporting character, was not appreciated as an artistic prodigy as a child, and therefore works out his anger by turning into a villain each night. A 'hilarious' parody of Doctor Doom called 'Doctor Bong' was bullied at school, but realized that he could invent better insults than his tormentors, was kicked out of journalism school, realized that 'the syntax is mightier than the pen'…you get the idea.. I suppose this is partly a parody of Stan Lee's 'sympathetic' villain shtick. But you get a much stronger impression that all the villains are self-characterizations of the author.
The comic gradually cuts all links with reality, even Marvel Comics reality, and lurches into a sort of weird abstraction, a closed referential system with no exterior. Howard's universe becomes such that superheroes are taken for granted and the whole feels rather like a collection of emblematic sideshow floats. In one issue (#6 'Secret House of the Forbidden Cookies') we have a Moonie-cult-leader ('Joon Moon Yuc') trying to buy an old building from an estate agent. The estate agent dresses like a highwayman, and is called 'Heathcliff Rochester'. The old building (where Howard's girlfriend Bev has become governess) contains a mad-scientist who is creating a monster in the basement. This monster looks like a giant gingerbread man. It isn't remotely funny, but it's very strange.
Howard himself makes a conscious effort to get away from the role of 'superhero', which fairly clearly represents Gerber's boredom with the genre. In issue #9 Howard walks out of a fight with a Canadian super villain in beaver shaped power armour. The following issue shifts into a dream sequence, with Howard being chased by a gigantic monkey armed with a rubber stamp marked 'cancellation'. The following issue has him committed to a mental institution. At this point the comic itself seems to go mad and we have several issues in which the 'joke' consists of a voice in Howard's head saying 'piano'. For no reason whatsoever a group of 'demons' emerge from the mind of a supposedly possessed girl (funny shtick: she talks with a lithp), said demons looking like Kiss who I understand to have been a pop group at the time.
These dream sequences and interior monologues become very much a trademark of the comic, and are some of the most interesting issues. Considering how surreal the comic has become, setting the whole thing in a mad-ducks head is a relatively small jump. Defeating a giant radioactive soap-sud by spraying vinegar on it ('real world') is not notably less surreal than bumping into all your old enemies in a coffee shop ('dream sequence'). Left to himself, one feels that Gerber would have filled the comic with nothing but surreal interior riffs. Graphically speaking, we've gone from 'She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah' to 'Strawberry Fields' in about ten issues.
The most extreme example of this self-referential madness comes in issue #16, one of a few comics about which you can honestly say that nothing like it has been done before or since. It was relatively common in the 70s for writers or artists to miss deadlines, and for the comic to be filled with an unscheduled re-print, sometimes dressed up as a flashback. Gerber, faced (allegedly) with this deadline doom, chooses to fill Howard #16 with an essay, illustrated by a series of double page spreads by various (un-credited) artists. Thus, the key issue of this comic about comics turns out to be the one that is not actually a comic at all!
In this essay, it is made quite clear that Howard is the sane side of Gerber's mind, nagging him and encouraging him. Gerber talks about being a writer, and has doubts about whether his work is worthwhile:
'Plants are like people. Writers are like plants. Therefore, and this may come as a surprise, writers are like people. Given them light, water, nourishment, a comfortable pot and an encouraging world and they'll grow….'
Howard cuts through this:
'You've learned how ta manipulate words an' pictures ta give a semblance of profundity, but it's all superficial'
and gives writers-school advice
'Save theorizn' for the speech communication majors o' the world….The way ta communicate is just…do it. Free associate. See what ya come up with. Tell the folks at home a story.'
Significantly, Gerber seems to recognize the banality of Howard's 'insights. '
Be myself you mean. That's terrific advice Howard. Wowee. Why didn't I think of that.'
Once the comic has deconstructed itself to this extent, there is not very much left to do, and we feel a sense of desperation creeping in. After hearing Gerber tell us that he is in a rut, isn't sure that what he is doing is profound, and that he makes it all up as he goes along, it is quite hard to go back to caring about whether Bev is forced to marry Doctor Bong.
A couple off issues later, Howard gets temporarily turned into a human, and we have human-Howard walking around New York being depressed, with duck-Howard in his mind telling him to snap out of it; pretty much the Gerber / Howard split of the all-text issue.
The final issue in the compilation has Howard deciding that 'he isn't negative, he's angry,' and that instead of railing against the world of hairless apes, he is going to do something about it. This seems to be setting things up to allow Howard to turn back into a 'conventional' superhero who fights villains rather than tries to avoid them. (Much the same thing happened in the final issue of Stan Lee's original Silver Surfer, with the formerly pacifist character declaring war on the whole human race.)
While I can still read one of the reprint volumes of Thor or Spiderman in the spirit in which they were intended, Howard the Duck rather stands as a period piece, a monolithic slab to where comic books were in the 70s. It is far more rooted in the 70s than Spiderman is in the 60s: Watergate, Kiss, Star Wars, Kung Fu, Moonies, colour TVs as a luxury item… It would be interesting to know what Gerber could have produced without the Roy Thomas - Jim Shooter shackles of the 'Marvel Universe' to contend with. It's possible that he might have produced something more like a 'graphic novel'; it's equally possible that he couldn't have written anything at all without the silliness of editorially imposed rules to kick against. But the comic is definitely worth reading as a rambling, up-itself and occasionally funny experimental treatise: there really isn't anything else like it. It's also nice to be reminded of a time when this level experimentation was permissible in funny books. If nothing else, it is a slap in the face for everyone who thinks that comics before the advent of the Holy Moore consisted of nothing but 'splat' and 'kapow'.
The influence of Howard the Duck on Cerebus the Aardvark is quite staggering.
I knew, of course, that the title of Cerebus was partly a joke at the expense of 'silly animal' comics, and that 'Cerebus the Aardvark' as a title was almost an attempt to trump Howard the Duck and Gerber's subsequent Stewart the Rat. (Trumped a few years later with a Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, or course.) I believe that when Gerber lost control of Howard, Dave Sim was considered as a possible replacement on the book.
But almost everything about Cerebus seems to have its origin in Howard the Duck: the cynical, world-weary persona, of course, and the central gag about funny animals in a world of humans. Howard runs for president; Cerebus spends 25 issues running for prime minister. The Howard-goes-mad issues and the dream sequences become the 'mind games' motif which gradually became the dominant trope in Cerebus. (Right down to the disembodied speech bubbles.) Gerber uses blocks of 'screenplay' to reproduce Howard's election press conferences, just as Sim does for Cerebus. Howard and Cerebus both end up in dialogues with their creators. Both do the unthinkable and have issues which consist of nothing but blocks of text. And Howard is always respectful and tolerant towards his female supporting cast.
Well, okay, the exception proves the rule.