This was another comic book that I got rather than bought–another “extra” in one of those plastic-wrapped bundled of coverless comic books that my local drug store had begun to sell. I bought the bundle in question for other books, but this one came along with them, and thus it was mine. And to be honest, I really didn’t know what to make of it. Eventually, a few years later, HOWARD THE DUCK would become one of my very favorite series of the era, a true trailblazer of the period. But at 11 years old, it still mystified me. I couldn’t quite work out whether it was supposed to be funny or serious and I couldn’t make a whole lot of sense out of its contents. It seemed like a comic book, but it didn’t read like any comic book I had ever perused before.
As we’ve covered elsewhere, HOWARD THE DUCK was the accidental brainchild of Steve Gerber, one of the best and most individualistic writers of the era. While everybody else in the Marvel stable was, to one degree or another attempting to find their own version of Roy Thomas’s version of Stan Lee’s voice, Gerber was instead driven to explore the outer fringes of the sorts of stories that could be presented in comic books. Howard was created as a throw-away character in a Man-Thing story, and editor Roy Thomas thought the Duck was so stupid, broke the plausibility of the fictional reality of the Marvel Universe so badly, that he ordered Gerber to kill him off immediately. This Gerber did–but it turned out the fans, particularly the older ones, were wild about the Duck, and they bombarded Marvel with mail asking for Howard’s return, and badgered Stan Lee on his college lecture tour as well. So eventually, Howard received his own title, if only to shut those people up–and there, a bit if jigery-pokery on the part of the distributor kept copies of the first issue from making it to the stands, turning HOWARD THE DUCK #1 into an instant collectible worth a few bucks. And that helped to keep sales on the earliest issues of the book high.
What HOWARD THE DUCK ultimately was is the intersection of the mainstream with the sensibilities of the underground comix movement, and in that light, it makes a bit more cultural sense. If anyth8ing, the series often plays like one of Gilbert Shelton’s stories, a weird hybrid cross between Wonder Wart-Hog and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, only without the more overt drug references. Gerber was also pretty clearly influenced by the Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge Disney Ducks stories, though he’d later testify that this wasn’t the case. But in any event, HOWARD shared a lot of the ethos of the undergrounds: a total lack of concern with typical comic book stakes and a burning desire to comment on the human condition from a counter-culture perspective. Frankly, it’s truly astonishing that some of these HOWARD stories were published at all by a mainstream outfit such as Marvel. But the House of Ideas’ need to seem like it was on the vanguard of popular culture sometimes trumped simple common sense.
When the series first launched the art on HOWARD was provided by Frank Brunner, a popular artist with a popular style. But he left the strip after a few installments and Gerber settled into a long and comfortable working relationship with Gene Colan. Colan was one of the backbone artists of the Marvel era–he’d been working in comics since the latter days of the Golden Age, and his shadow-heavy style had often been referred to as “painting with a pencil.” Colan was also a bit idiosyncratic–reportedly, when working Marvel style of plot-art-dialogue he often wouldn’t read ahead in the story before he drew–leading to a number of instances where he found himself having to try to cram half an issue’s worth of story into just two or three pages and at least one case where an angry Stan Lee pretty much called him out on it in the copy for an issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA. For all that, Colan was a craftsman with a beautiful style and a sensitive soul, and reportedly he loved working on HOWARD and with Gerber.
Colan’s style of artwork, so associated with series such as DAREDEVIL and TOMB OF DRACULA, only served to make HOWARD look on the surface like any other Marvel comic, and thus helped to disguise just how subversive it often was. This particular story was among the more straightforward entries in the series–and it’s mad as hell. The issue opens with Howard and his paramour Beverly Switzler the prisoners of the eccentric Doctor Bong. Bong was a broad parody of Doctor Doom with a bell-theme, and he’d been a journalism student in college who’d never been given the time of day by Switzler. Having discovered the power of “Fake News” decades before our former POTUS, Bong had ascended to a figure of grim menace thanks to planted news stories concerning his victories. He also had a medieval Doom-style castle where he carried out Dr. Moreau-style genetic experiments on livestock, evolving them. But he’s still obsessed with Beverly, and she agrees to marry Bong in exchange for Howard’s life. In typical Doom fashion, Bong keeps his word–and rather than kill Howard, he puts his rival into his Evolvo-chamber, intending to transform him like his other home-grown creatures.
While Bong whisks Beverly away to a nearby ship, reasoning that a maritime Captain can perform legally-binding weddings, Howard recovers from his ordeal within the Evolvo-Chamber–only to discover that he has become that which he most hates: a hairless ape, a human being. This sets the no-longer-duck off on an emotional spiral of self-loathing and recrimination. With the aide of Doctor Bong’s right hand woman Fifi (a duck evolved into a French maid who had designs on Howard’s bod when he too was a waterfowl) Howard steals Bong’s flying bell-craft and flies back to Manhattan–where, appearing to be an Unidentified Flying Object, the ship is swiftly shot down by the air force. Fifi apparently dies in the crash, but Howard survives, crawling from the wreckage, now just one more lost soul in a whole city of them.
And that’s pretty much where the issue ends–with Howard, alone and homeless, trapped in human form and wandering the midnight streets of New York. To Be Continued! As I said at the start, as a reader I didn’t understand what I was meant to take from all of this. It wasn’t quite parody in the style that I had experienced it before (in MAD Magazine and the like) and it didn’t entirely follow the rules of engagement of super hero stories, although it hewed closely enough to make it seem like it should. The whole thing baffled me–mainly because I didn’t yet have the life experience to connect emotionally with Howard and his sense of alienation and other-ness. That would come in time. And as I mentioned earlier, I think HOWARD THE DUCK is one of the most singular series Marvel ever did, and a perfect time capsule of the mid-1970s in which it was made. Not all of it ages well, and in a number of regards its been surpassed by later works that built on the foundation that it laid down. But it was the first, the forerunner, the one that first broke the molt and set up the beachhead. And it’s a series I have great admiration for–even if it mostly soared over my head in 1978.