A quick word of appreciation for Steve Gerber’s ‘Howard the Duck’

Created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik, Howard the Duck is probably best known these days for that horrible film in the 80’s and cameos in the Guardians of the Galaxy films. What Howard was, and what he allowed Gerber to do has somewhat been lost over the years but over Christmas I picked up a load of issues and I’d forgotten just how angry and subversive the comic is.

Howard started out as a supporting character during Gerber’s Man-Thing run in Adventures into Fear, but proving himself popular in his own right he ended up in his own book in 1976 which was an important year in the US, as it was not only their bicentennial year, but the year where they elected Jimmy Carter as president as they tried to move away from Richard Nixon’s disastrous time as president.

Howard’s solo comic was initially drawn by Frank Brunner, and although I like Brunner, he didn’t really work with Gerber’s increasingly bizarre, edgy, satirical scripts, so when veteran Gene Colan arrived something clicked and the comic leapt up to heights unexpected and when Gerber had Howard run for president in the 76 campaign it was a comment on the political landscape of America at the time, while being something that still rings relevant for today’s politics.

In issue 16 Gerber broke the mould of Marvel Comics and having failed to hit a deadline, instead of reprinting an older story as was the practise at the time, Gerber went meta submitting a series of text pieces (illustrated by Colan) which read more like Gerber trying to unload his issues with Howard, writing and dealing with Marvel.

Gerber had started fighting with Marvel who were cashing in on a popular character in all the ways they can, but without asking Gerber’s permission as creator of the character. This resulted in Marvel sacking Gerber, and the writing chores of Howard passed to a number of writers before settling on Bill Mantlo, who with the greatest respect, wasn’t anywhere near as good a writer as Gerber.

So Gerber launched a campaign to get Howard back, which this page from the Comics Reader outlines.

What Gerber was hinting at ended up being Destroyer Duck, a benefit comic to raise money for Gerber so he could fight Marvel, and drawn by Jack Kirby who had his own long term issues with Marvel.

Throw into all this Disney launching their own lawsuit in regards Howard, and the result was the character barely appeared in comics (I’ll draw a veil over the appalling film) til the 21st century when Gerber returned to Howard for a six-issue series from Marvel’s ‘adult’ line, Max Comics.

Howard is still around in a series which has turned Howard from a tool to satirically attack the industry, politics and culture to just a smartarse character that does silly things. A couple of appearances in the Guardians of the Galaxy films added to this but all you need if to read Gerber’s stories and read one of Marvel’s best run of stories in the 70’s along with Jim Starlin’s Warlock/Thanos stories, and Don McGregor’s Black Panther stories.

You might miss some of the contemporary references but that aside, these are some of the best mainstream comics produced drawn with amazing skill by Gene Colan who produced some of the best work of his long career. Forget the nonsense being published today, you need to read these original stories and although back issues can be expensive, reprints are quite reasonable. Go get yourself some Howard, you won’t regret it.

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