If you’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy (and if you haven’t, beware, yonder be spoilers), you may have noticed a certain character of the aquatic bird persuasion. You may even have asked, as a young friend did, “why is Donald Duck in there?” Fear not, all your questions shall be answered.
First things first; that’s not Donald. It’s also not Scrooge McDuck, Daffy Duck, Duck Dodgers, or Darkwing Duck. It’s Howard.
The main reason Howard shows up, I believe, is because his creator is also the guy who dug up an old one-shot sci-fi comic from 1969 called Guardians of the Galaxy and turned it into an ongoing series.
Pretty much every pop culture, movie or geek-specific website has put up a post about Howard the Duck by now, but nearly all of them are focused primarily on the abysmal 1987 movie, with only a few even giving perfunctory mention to the classic comics by Steve Gerber. This is like writing about Elvis Presley and dedicating the entire essay to Don Johnson’s portrayal in Elvis and the Beauty Queen.
I actually know people who liked the Howard the Duck movie. One defends it because of childhood nostalgia, while another does so entirely based on his adolescent appreciation of Lea Thompson in her underwear. In any case, even if you find the movie funny, it’s not Howard. At least, it’s not the Howard that Steve Gerber created. (Fun fact: at the premiere, about ten minutes in, Gerber’s mother was heard to loudly exclaim “Steven! What have they DONE to your duck?!!”)
Howard is not just a duck, he’s an existential duck (Gerber claimed that Howard was largely influenced by Camus’ The Stranger), a battered idealist who has given up on hope of the universe ever making sense or having meaning, but simply can’t let go of the idea that people matter and that how you treat them is important. He’s got a lot in common with Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, the guy who just wants to avoid a fight, who declares that he “sticks his neck out for nobody,” but can’t help sacrificing his own happiness time and again because of his quixotic insistence on standing up against the bad guys.
His movie should have been a lot more sardonic, satirical and cynical. Even people who didn’t know the character from the comics could tell that there was something missing from the character in the movie; they could feel that his heart had been cut out. That’s why it flopped.
Howard the Duck was created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik in 1973 as a throwaway sight gag in Adventure Into Fear #19. The story starred a swamp monster known as the Man-Thing; supernatural forces were breaking down the barriers between dimensions, allowing people and creatures from other times, places and worlds to pass through the swamp that happened to be “the nexus of all realities,” and in among the Roman soldiers and t-rexes, a duck in a sports coat and hat wandered through. Howard didn’t stick around long that first time; in the very next issue, he missed a step on a cosmic pathway and fell into the abyss, seemingly lost forever.
But Howard proved to be popular in his first brief appearance. Gerber brought him back for a couple of backup stories in Giant-Size Man-Thing (go ahead and giggle), in which he faces Betsy the Hellcow (Dracula couldn’t find a victim, so he bit a cow, transforming it into a vampire cow) and Garko the Man-Frog (a creepy guy who sits in an upper window clutching a bottle and periodically declares that he’s going to conquer the world; finally he drinks his concoction and turns into a giant frog. Then it gets weird.) Finally, in 1976, Howard got his own comic book.
Gerber wrote it for 27 issues, in which he ditched the horror-parodies and turned Howard into an existential character “trapped in a world he never made,” featuring bizarre and often satirical villains; Howard runs for President as the candidate for the All-Night Party, is attacked by the Kidney Lady and the Space Turnip, and defeats the Sons of SOOFI (“Save Our Offspring From Indecency,” a group that resembles a militarized version of the American Family Association; SOOFI bombs those they consider “indecent”). Gerber did not consider Howard a humor comic; the only joke, he said, is “that life’s most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view.”
In Howard the Duck #16, Gerber found himself far behind on his deadline while trying to move across country; rather than reprinting a previous issue, or letting somebody else crank out an inferior fill-in issue, he opted to fill the 22 pages with a meandering stream-of-consciousness text essay punctuated with illustrations. One two-page spread features the “obligatory fight scene,” this one between an ostrich, a Vegas showgirl and a lampshade. Since we only have the one illustration, Gerber has to tell us how it ends: “The ostrich sticks its head in a manhole, shrugging off all that’s happened and returning to his secret identity as a roadblock. The chorus girl finds herself in the thrill of battle, becomes one with her headdress and is elevated to goddesshood. The lampshade dies. Basically, it’s like most every other comic mag.” (The showgirl later got her own comic, called Nevada.)
Finally, Gerber began clashing with Marvel’s management over ownership issues. He filed a lawsuit, which was eventually resolved via a confidential settlement. Other writers tried to continue Howard, first in his comic, which lasted another four issues, then in a black-and-white magazine that managed to run for nine issues. Neither were successful, and Howard quickly became, as Gerber put it, “too weird to live, too rare to die.” He popped up here and there over the years, mostly as a sight-gag or as part of an oddball story, usually breaking the fourth wall, and only rarely coming close to the character Gerber created. When Marvel tried to revive Howard’s comic in 1986 to tie in with the movie, Gerber was offered the opportunity to write it; he submitted a script in which it was revealed that an “alien Cyndi Lauper” had invented the events of Howard the Duck #28-31 and the magazine; editor Jim Shooter thought this was insulting toward the other writers and killed the story. Gerber was particularly annoyed by stories showing Howard’s home dimension; he wanted Howard to be from a world much like the famous Carl Barks Donald Duck comics, populated by anthropomorphic dogs, cats, pigs, moose, aardvarks, and so on. Writer Bill Mantlo, the creator of Rocket Raccoon, decided that he was from “Duckworld,” a parallel Earth where ducks evolved to be the dominant species rather than humans. Gerber considered this “Comicbooky, in the worst way.”
Around the same time, the Disney lawyers were gearing up for action, feeling that Howard constituted trademark and copyright infringement. Marvel, not wanting a fight, immediately gave in to Disney’s demands, and Howard got a makeover; his formerly white feathers took on a yellow tint, his feet got fat and grew distinct toes, his bill became thicker and more rounded, and he had to wear pants. In the comics, this was explained as capitulation to a pressure group that had declared him indecent. In comics, as in the real world, Howard donned pants in order to save his life.
In order to pay his legal bills, Gerber created a parody character called Destroyer Duck, illustrated by Jack Kirby, published by Eclipse. The first issue included the first-ever appearance of Sergio Aragones’ Groo the Wanderer. Around the same time,he also created another anthropomorphic animal, Stewart the Rat, who starred in a series for Eclipse Comics.
After the terrible movie (of which we shall not speak again) came and went, Howard was absent from the comics for a while. When Gerber returned to Marvel in the early ’90s, he revived Howard in the pages of Sensational She-Hulk; in 1997 he was working simultaneously on Marvel’s Spider-Man Team-Up comic and a story for Image Comics’ Savage Dragon in which the title character meets Destroyer Duck. At the time, Gerber discovered that Howard was set to appear in an issue of Ghost Rider and a few issues of Generation X; Gerber’s settlement with Marvel included a consulting role for him with regard to the character, and he was annoyed at not having been notified. He decided to rectify the situation.
In Spider-Man Team-Up #5, Spider-Man and Howard meet two shadowy figures (presumed to be Savage Dragon and Destroyer Duck) in a darkened warehouse, then leave shortly afterwards. But in the Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck comic, a villain creates hundreds of clones of Howard during a fierce battle. As Savage Dragon and Destroyer Duck escape the warehouse with a character hidden in a bag, they reveal that they rescued the “real” Howard, while Spider-Man left with one of the clones. Howard has his feathers dyed green, and is renamed “Leonard the Duck,” which is now a character owned by Gerber, who went on to appear in Image and Vertigo Comics. Gerber considered this the real Howard, and Marvel’s Howard “only an empty trademark, a clone whose soul departed him at the corner of Floss and Regret”.
In 2002, Steve Gerber created a new Howard series for Marvel’s adult-oriented MAX line.
In 2008, Gerber passed away due to complications from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
Since then, Howard has appeared a bit more often, including a kid-friendly limited series in 2007, written by Ty Templeton and drawn by Juan Bobillo.
Which brings us to the recent cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy, voiced by Seth Green (I would have gone with Louis CK, because the two are so alike). Some have speculated that this scene may indicate that a new Howard movie is in the works, while director James Gunn says he was just having a goof. It really doesn’t matter, because even if they never do a good Howard movie, at least Marvel has shown that they aren’t embarrassed by their wacky characters, aren’t afraid to lighten up, and actually respect their audience enough to believe they will get it.
Maybe there will be a Howard the Duck movie someday. Maybe there won’t. But the amazing thing is that Marvel has created a company where the prospect is possible, and a level of consistent quality that leads people to believe that not only is it possible, but if it happens, it will be good.
And that’s awesome.