3 out of 5
Howard the Duck was not the first Steve Gerber title I read – I think that was Nevada – but it was the first I went out of my way to collect. Fairly early on in my comics career, I was truly only aware of it as a movie, and I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that this writer I was getting in to had created the character. I hadn’t read his Man-Thing appearances yet, or even any of Gerb’s 70s era stuff, but I found a comic shop that had a whole box of Howards set aside, all priced fairly, and I went to town. And that first readthrough of the books was definitely transformative. I was blown away that writing this weird – while still lush and grounded – existed during its era, and from Marvel.
Returning to it, those positives absolutely remain. But I return to it having now read almost all of Steve’s work, as well as a heckuva lot of other comics, and I see something else, as well: that I don’t know if Steve knew what he wanted to do with it initially.
Some of his books are guided by being limited series, and thus limited in scope. Some are guided by the world in which they take place, or the characters he was writing. But Howard was almost a blank check. This is a completely ridiculous character set in the Marvel U, and the tendency for having a funny animal in a suit would be to write a funny animal book and thus turn HtD into an Ambush Bug type parody comic, but Steve, before then, then, and later on, never took the ‘tendency’ writing path. And so Howard would be a voicepiece for… Well, what, exactly?
And so our first five issues of Howard, when the duck lands in Cleveland and gets to know Beverly, bounce around trying to figure out just that question. And ironically, the way that initially boiled down to very random, one-shot hijinks may have made the book closer to funny animal-fare than preferred: Howard essentially has a catchphrase – Waaauugh – and can be relied on to grouse about any ol’ thing, puffing on a cigar and pacing while Bev tries, unsuccessfully, to soothe him. Issue #1 is a very bumbling attempt at trying to make this craziness suddenly very serious, as Howard contemplates suicide, and then takes a hard right into the nonsequitor of a wizard accountant, who’s imprisoned Bev in a tower made of credit cards, and the forced “proof” of this being the house of Marvel thanks to a Spider-Man appearance. Clunky, yes, but this is a lovely mess, given a weighty look by Frank Brunner and inker Steve Leialoha. Issue #2 jumps on to the oddities, full speed, with a turnip from outer space, and a woman perpetually worried about thieves of her kidneys. These are glorious reads, but it’s hard to say what they were intended to be about, except for silliness. So then we make it about something. Buscema takes over for Brunner on issue 3’s violence takedown, ‘Master of Quack Fu,’ which goes on at length about the mixed messages media sends us by glorifying violence, and then to-be regular penciller Gerry Conway comes in for issue #4s meditation on art, and its inherent values…
Now both of these extremes would continue to be a part of Howard’s DNA: the randomness, and the commentary, but later on, Howard, and Bev, and others would actually start to feel like characters and not just proxies. The first steps towards that are taken in issue #5, when Steve starts to filter some degrees of reality back in as our duo are concerned about paying the bills. The wrestling persona Howard ends up donning not only connects with the Quack Fu issue – continuity – but also feels like a light callback to Spider-Man’s origin; it’s a very “comic booky” issue, while also starting to firmly read like a Howard the Duck issue, whatever that would come to mean.
All of these books are a fun read, and fun to reread. But they only contain flashes of the revolution that Howard’s first appearances sort of promised. As Steve would find the voice for these characters – and Howard’s take on the world – during these issues, the series would (to my recollection, but maybe my rereading will end up conflicting with this!) start to quite deftly evolve hereafter.