For a hot moment in the mid-1970s, it seemed as though funny animal comics were poised to make a comeback. A lot of this interest stemmed from the huge demand for HOWARD THE DUCK #1, which drove up the back issue prices of that issue. Nobody yet entirely realized how manipulation at the distributor level had prevented a significant number of copies of HOWARD #1`from reaching newsstands, hence its scarcity. But beyond that, funny animals had been a resilient genre in comics books pretty much since the form began. The Walt Disney characters alone were responsible for enormous sales from the 1940s-1960s. So the idea that this type of character might be making a comeback wasn’t entirely unheard of. And so, prompted by this sudden flash of heat, publishers came out with their own newfangled funny animal books. One of the best of these was QUACK, published by Mike Friedrich’s STAR REACH company.
Friedrich had worked in mainstream comics for a number of years as a writer before deciding to publish his own comics in the style of the undergrounds of the period. Except Friedrich’s books, while they were more permissive than what was allowed by the Comics Code that controlled mainstream newsstand distribution, were largely devoid of the drug use, hardcore sex and extreme language of many of the undergrounds. The term “Ground Level Comics” was coined to describe what he was producing–books that weren’t quite underground, but which shared a certain ethos with the undergrounds (in particular, the rights of the creators to own their work.) After launching the anthology STAR REACH, Friedrich branched out a bit, adding other titles as the opportunity arose. One of these, as mentioned earlier, was QUACK, which was an anthology series devoted to funny animal stories.
The primary reason for launching QUACK was Frank Brunner. Brunner had been the artist on the first few Howard the Duck strips at Marvel, but had parted ways with writer Steve Gerber when he wasn’t permitted a stronger hand in the plotting of the series–he had specific ideas about where to go, and he felt, rightly or wrongly, that his artwork was one of the driving forces in the demand for HOWARD #1. So he came up with his own duck character, the pirate strip THE DUCKANEER, and Friedrich agreed to publish it. It was easily the best-looking strip in QUACK #1, but it was also a bit thin conceptually, possessing none of Gerber’s razor-sharp social satire and existential angst. But it certainly seemed commercial sitting on the stands–the Duckaneer looking so much like Howard that the casual buyer could be forgiven from thinking this was him.
The rest of QUACK #1 was filled with assorted stories featuring a bevy of creators, including Scott Shaw, Howard Chaykin, Alan Kupperberg, Mark Evanier and others. But the strip that would find its footing and become the best-remembered thing published in QUACK was Michael T. Gilbert’s THE WRAITH. Gilbert would later originate Mr. Monster, but at this point, he was a young cartoonist just getting his start. The Wraith was essentially his tribute to creator Will Eisner’s seminal character The Spirit. While the Wraith wasn’t simply the Spirit in a dog mask, the comparison was still sharp. Especially as Gilbert’s command of the language of comics grew issue by issue and he began to experiment with his timing and pacing in the manner of Eisner.
QUACk lasted for 6 issues, and a Wraith story was featured in every one of them. In addition, one final Wraith adventure was published in STRANGE BREW in 1983, a one-shot out of Dave Sim’s AARDVARk-VANAHEIM that collected assorted short pieces that Gilbert had done over the years. All of the Wraith stories were eventually collected in a trade paperback in 1998, which I believe is still available.
Brunner had his problems with mainstream publishers in general–so much so that his editorial explaining the derivation of the QUACK project had to be rebutted by publisher Mike Friedrich right in this first issue.