Why a duck?
Howard the Duck is maybe the most unlikely superstar Marvel ever produced. His first appearance was in FEAR #19 (1973) in a story written by the late Steve Gerber and drawn by Val Mayerik and starring Man-Thing, a mindless swamp monster. Because Man-Thing couldn’t think, talk, and didn’t really have a face, he was constantly generating supporting characters. In one story, different realities were colliding with Man-Thing’s swamp. To indicate how far-reaching the collapse of these realities had become, in walked Howard, complaining of being trapped on a world of “hairless apes.”
Although an obvious play on Donald Duck, Howard was also given a healthy dose of Humphrey Bogart. Seemingly killed off in his first story, Howard proved too popular with readers and soon reappeared in his own personal hell: Cleveland, Ohio. He met a beautiful redhead named Beverly Switzler, and despite the difference in species, even with the restrictions of the 1970s comics code, it was very clear that they were a couple. In fact, it may have been because of the unlikelihood of their pairing that the code missed the obvious subtext.
Howard was angry about the misfortune of ending up in our world and wanted to return home. He was an unusually powerless, reactive character, who would only fight when his anger got the better of him, and usually regretted it. He and Bev lived a very realistic hand-to-mouth existence, where scraping up enough money for a candy bar and cigar for Howard felt like victory.
Howard lost more often than he won, and when he did win it was usually tinged with loss and irony: an entire issue is devoted the “What do you do, where do you go, the night after you save the universe?” Stories parodied numerous pop cultural and comic book phenomenon, but at the center was Howard and Beverly’s relationship. Howard was unlucky, and his victory was just to survive.
Gerber’s stories were idiosyncratic, his voice- the voice of Howard- was impossible to reproduce (other writers after him tried). Most of the series was drawn by the great Gene Colan, who gave everything but Howard a photorealistic veneer, and Howard a cartoonish bounce.
Howard, as the covers of his comics proclaimed, was “trapped in a world he never made!” He was alienated, a loner, angry, sometimes taken advantage of, but found a home in the arms of someone he loved. Although mostly remembered by the general public as a bad movie (the first Marvel movie!), Howard existed in a corner of the Marvel Universe that looked very much like ours at time, but could only exist in comic books.
And he is my favorite Marvel Comics Character.
Tomorrow the entire cast of characters gathers to take a bow. This has been MIGHTY MARVEL MAY.