Brand Echh: Destroyer Duck #1

DESTROYER DUCK #1 was a stopping point in a much larger saga, one that I’ll recount the broad strokes of momentarily. It was also a benefit book published by Eclipse, work on which was provided free by all of the contributors in support of the underlying cause of the book in the first place. It also represented, at least in print, the singular intersection of the satiric talents of both Steve Gerber and Jack Kirby, who forged their anger into a weapon and let fly at their oppressors real and imagined. Apart from all of that, it’s a fun, if odd, comic book story–the kind of thing that could only come into existence in the anything-goes wild west early days of the Direct Sales marketplace made up of comic book specialty stores.

To talk about DESTROYER DUCK, one must first talk about the manslaying mallard’s creator Steve Gerber. Gerber was one of the second generation of creators at Marvel, brought into the field by Roy Thomas, whom he’d know somewhat in their midwestern fan days. Gerber was an iconoclast and a maverick, who both possessed a strong affinity for the comic book medium while simultaneously realizing and embracing how absurd and nonsensical much of the material that filled it was. His was a singular talent, unduplicable, and as he began to make inroads at Marvel as a writer, he gravitated whether intentionally or simply by circumstances away from the core icons that everybody wanted to write and instead towards books on the fringe of the line. That was where he would have the most freedom, the fewest eyes looking over his shoulder, the broadest opportunity to try strange stuff. At a time when everybody in the office was attempting to make their work read like Stan Lee’s (or, more precisely, like Roy Thomas’s adaptation of Lee’s approach), Gerber was working towards giving his work a surface sheen that resembled that style so that nobody would look at things too closely and realize the sorts of screwy tales he was actually telling.

One of Gerber’s first successes was in the pages of the Man-Thing series featured in ADVENTURE INTO FEAR. The Man-Thing, it must be said, was a flawed conception for a leading character right from the jump. As opposed to the other muck monsters who were then crowding the racks–there must have been something in the water given the number and diversity of this theme in the early 1970s–the Man-Thing had no personality. He was a mindless, speechless lump, the mortal remains of scientist Ted Sallis, who had been trying to re-create the Super-Soldier Serum that had created Captain America thirty years previous. What the Man-Thing did possess was an empathetic sense that allowed him to detect and be drawn to the emotions of those around him. Most classically, this manifested itself in the oft-quoted tag line, “Whoever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch.” Not exactly a hero that readers could truly connect with. Given the assignment of crafting Man-Thing’s adventures, Gerber did the only thing he could–he let things get weird.

Gerber shifted the storyline from typical urban encounters towards something more cosmic. It was the early 1970s and he was being influenced by the counter-culture (and potentially any of a number of substances then often in use by creators.) and the underground comix movement. he began an extended sequence in which Man-Thing became one of a number of characters attempting to safeguard the Nexus of All Realities, a sort of a wormhole through time and space situated in the Florida Everglades. Man-Thing’s allies in this ersatz Fellowship of the Nexus included the burnout wizard Dakimh the Sorcerer, Jennifer Kale, who had flitted around in the strip as just a random girl before being tutored by Dakimh in the mystic arts, and Korrek the Barbarian, who memorably climbed out of a jar of peanut butter in order to join the struggle. With each installment, Gerber was trying to push the envelope further and further–and in ADVENTURE INTO FEAR #19, he finally found the outer boundary.

At a critical juncture in the storyline, Man-Thing and his allies are joined by what would become Gerber’s signature creation; Howard the Duck. Regardless of what he’d say (and sometimes testify to) years later, Howard was pretty clearly an outgrowth of the Disney Duck stories Gerber had read in his youth. Especially in his earliest appearances, he was depicted as though he was simply some random figure from the background is an obscure Carl Barks story, thrust by a shift in the Cosmic Axis into the Marvel Universe. And his appearance caused a bit of a stir. Some readers loved Howard and the ultimate absurdist expression, others felt that his introduction damaged the fictional reality of the Marvel Universe, making a mockery of the very serious concerns that went down within its confines. One of those who didn’t like it was then-Editor Roy Thomas, who ordered Gerber to get rid of the Duck at the first opportunity. Gerber complied, having Howard lose his footing and slip off of a bridge across the cosmic firmament and being lost plummeting through infinity. And that was the end of Howard’s story.

Except that it wasn’t. Among older, college age readers, Howard became a cause celeb. “Bring Back The Duck” write-in campaigns were launched, and Marvel representatives were accosted by fans at conventions wanting to know when he Duck would be making a comeback. So eventually, editorial relented and allowed Gerber to resurrect his web-footed creation in the back pages of the ill-named GIANT-SIZE MAN-THING series. Now, if Man-Thing was a tough protagonist to write about, Howard by contrast was a lot easier, and Gerber injected a lot of his own anger and outrage into the character. As Howard wasn’t a super hero or even a monster, Gerber needed to find some mechanism to get him into stories. What he settled upon, ultimately, was satire. Howard’s strip contained all of the surface hallmarks of a typical Marvel series, with recurring villains and soap opera antics-but all of it was wonderfully bent. In the earliest issues, casting about for something to do, Gerber began with a series of pointed parodies of the writing styles and affectations of many of his co-workers at Marvel. I don’t know historically how each of them took it, but readers who could decipher the hidden meaning in the books were amazed at Gerber’s audacity.

A bit of chicanery also helped to propel Howard’s rise to success. As they had done with the revival of SHAZAM and a number of other key releases during the early 1970s–the period where newsstands no longer had to prove they had destroyed unsold copies, they merely had to say that they did–a number of comic book retailers and insiders worked with their local distributors to corner the market on all copies of HOWARD THE DUCK #1. In many areas, few or even no copies made their way to the racks, causing demand (and back issue prices) to skyrocket. This was all the product of marketplace manipulation, but as far as anybody could tell, the Duck was hot. This set off a bit of a mini-frenzy for additional funny animal/duck strips in a similar style to Howard–though nothing quite immediately had the same impact, Dave Sim’s CEREBUS would have lasting consequence and itself grow beyond its earliest roots into something more novel over time.

Gerber was also able to secure permission from Marvel to merchandise the Duck in a limited fashion–he created a promotional button for Howard’s Presidential run of 1976, a storyline that played out within the book, and which was covered in updates that showed up in letters pages throughout the line. There was also a bit of mainstream press about the surprising energy surrounding this wild creation, and it even led to Howard being one of only four Marvel properties of the era to graduate to being offered as a daily syndicated newspaper strip. (The others were the Amazing Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and Conan the Barbarian.) But there was trouble in paradise.

The editorial structure of Marvel during this period was a bit broken: the line had grown exponentially, but there was still only a single editor for the entire thing, as there had been in Stan Lee’s day. What this meant on a practical level is that many of the main writers at Marvel were functioning as their own editors. There wasn’t a whole lot of oversight–and Gerber’s tendency to push the envelope caused a few problems for Marvel along the way. The biggest one was with Disney, who claimed that Howard’s design and look were derivative of their own Donald Duck family of characters, such that it was causing confusion in the marketplace in non-English speaking countries. Given that Howard often tackled controversial subjects in his Howard stories, Disney wanted to be sure that nobody would conflate the two–and they mandated a redesign for the duck in several respects. One of which was that Howard was required to wear pants. Rather than complying, Gerber produced a Howard story making fun of the mandate and the request.

Gerber had also come to realize just how much revenue Marvel was deriving from the Duck that he had created, and how little of that money was making its way into his pocket. This was at a time before royalties, so creators were only being paid a flat page rate for their work, and could be replaced at any time. There had begun to be discussions about a possible HOWARD movie, and that meant a bigger payout than anything that had come before. Things became contentious between Gerber and Marvel, in particular new Editor in Chief Jim Shooter, and so Gerber decided to sue Marvel for ownership of the character he’d created. Upon filing suit, Gerber was released from his Marvel contract–nobody at Marvel was keen to underwrite a lawsuit against their own firm. So Gerber was left to fend for himself. He had already moved into writing for television and animation, but a lawsuit was an expensive proposition for a single individual.

To help with the situation, Gerber’s circle of friends in the creative community came to his aid. A benefit portfolio was released, all revenues from the sale of which were dedicated to financing Gerber’s lawsuit. It was called F.O.O.G (Friends of Ol’ Gerber) a take-off on Marvels promotional arm, FOOM. But in addition, a benefit comic book was proposed by Eclipse, who had published Gerber’s earlier post-Howard serious funny animal graphic novel, Stewart the Rat. Gerber was itching to strike back at those he felt had wronged him, and his weapon of choice was always the printed word. But he needed a partner, somebody who could bring his material to life and ideally someone who would also help to sell copies–the more copies that could be sold, the greater the amount of cash that would be raised for the battle. At the suggestion of Mark Evanier, Gerber approached Jack Kirby–with whom he’d had some contact in the animation world–about drawing his benefit book. Kirby, armed with his own grievances against Marvel, readily agreed.

In addition to being a financial tool, DESTROYER DUCK was also a narrative cudgel against Marvel. It told the story of Duke “Destroyer” Duck, a tough blue-collar copy whose friend, only referred to as “The Little Guy”, had suddenly disappeared one day. Years later, fatally injured from the exploitation done to him by the voracious Godcorp on the world in which he found himself, the Little Guy returned, and begged Duke on his deathbed to get revenge for him. Duke’s specific target was Ned Packer, a clear Jim Shooter analogy who had risen to be President of Godcorp. The parody here wasn’t subtle, but it was pointed.

It’s also a pretty fun, pretty wacky comic book if you’re in the right mindspace for it. it lives at the strange intersection between Gerber’s more outre HOWARD and MAN-THING work and Kirby’s occasional funny animal strips such as Lockjaw the Alligator as well as FIGHTING AMERICAN. The whole thing is bizarre and bananas, and features a bunch of thinly-disguised caricatures of real life figures, including Gerber’s own lawyer. And it did its job, raising a considerable amount of money for Gerber’s lawsuit.

In fact, it was so successful that publisher Eclipse wanted to keep it going, and so Gerber and Kirby continued to produce additional issues (though Kirby was paid for those, as were the other contributors such as inker Alfredo Alcala and letterer Tom Orzechowski.) through #5. At that point, the book continued on beyond them for another two releases in the hands of animation writer Buzz Dixon and artist Gary Kato. Years later, Gerber returned to DESTROYER DUCK in stories published by Image, notably the SAVAGE DRAGON/DESTROYER DUCK one-shot.

The first issue of DESTROYER DUCK also included a number of short back-up features, each one contributed gratis by its creators in support of Gerber’s efforts. Most noteworthy among them was the first appearance of Sergio Aragones’ long-running GROO THE WANDERER. Mark Evanier and Marty Pasko wrote a pair of shot strips that fictionalized some real-life stories involving comic book creators of the past.

As for the lawsuit over Howard the Duck, it was ultimately settled. R. S. Martin wrote a thorough analysis of the situation, including links to a number of the actual court documents that can be found here, for those who may be interested: https://rsmwriter.blogspot.com/2016/04/all-quacked-up-steve-gerber-marvel.html

2 thoughts on “Brand Echh: Destroyer Duck #1

  1. Tom, I figured the Howard/Leonard switcheroo Mr. Gerber pulled in the Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck crossover might have soured you on him, but it’s good to see there are no hard feelings. Steve Gerber was a unique talent and I’m always happy when I see his work profiled.

    Like

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