MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #30: HOWARD THE DUCK

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.

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MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #26: PRINCE NAMOR, THE SUB-MARINER

They say we like people for their good qualities and love them for their flaws. There may be no Marvel character who better exemplifies this principle than Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Appearing in the very first Marvel comic, MARVEL COMICS #1, in a story written and drawn by a young Bill Everett. (Namor’s title, the Sub-Mariner, is pronounced mr-nr, as in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” as opposed to as in submarine.)

From the beginning, Namor was a contradictory, angry mess. The offspring  of a human sailor and an Atlantean mother, Namor was amphibious, with Caucasian skin tones (as opposed to his mother’s blue skin), pointed ears and elven eyebrows. He possessed superhuman strength and endurance, which made sense since he lived deep underwater and wore only tiny swim trunks, but he also had a feature unrelated to his human or Atlantean heritage: tiny wings on his ankles which allowed him to fly. It’s an entirely whimsical, Golden Age idea which makes no logical sense, even in a world where radioactive accidents grant more superpowers than they do cancer. But the strange detail made him master of land, sea, and air.

But there was no place Namor was truly at home. Although a prince by birthright, Atlantis considered him a half-breed, and the surface world wanted no part of him, either. So he was a belligerent brat, attacking Manhattan with tidal waves and monsters from the deep over perceived slights. When the US entered World War II in real life, Namor decided he hated the Axis most of all the airbreathers.

In the 1960s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revived the Sub-Mariner, initially as a villain, when the Human Torch found Namor living as an amnesiac vagrant in a flophouse. Although he hadn’t aged, years on dry land had erased his memory, but one good dip in the ocean set him back to his petulant, pompous self.

Constantly vacillating between mankind’s defender and its greatest foe, Namor is somehow nonetheless an engaging character.  Like a beloved drunk who gets violent when he’s had too much, Namor’s friends in the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the X-Men, all embrace him when he calms back down.

I depicted Namor with gills, which John Byrne introduced in his Namor series of the 1990s. He also eliminated the wings and suggested too long in either environment triggers Namor’s mood swings, which struck me as over-explanation. The Hulk is the repressed, raging id of  a bookworm scientist, unleashed with the force of an atomic bomb. Namor? He’s just moody.

I hope you’ll swing by for tomorrow’s installment of MIGHTY MARVEL MAY!

MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #25: WOLVERINE

The short, hirsute, surly Canadian Wolverine is one of Marvel’s best-loved characters (and, sadly, their most over-exposed). He first appeared in THE INCREDIBLE HULK #180 in a cameo and fully in #181 in 1974, supposedly the result of a bet that writer Len Wein couldn’t write a phonetic Canadian accent in a comic book. Luckily for everyone, he didn’t try. Artist Herb Trimpe drew the issue, but John Romita designed the character’s distinctive costume and signature claws; three, foot-long blades that protrude from the back of Wolverine’s hands.

A few years later, the character was dusted off and added to The X-Men’s roster where his job for several years was to launch himself head-first into battle and be knocked unconscious. It was during writer Chris Claremont’s tenure on the book that Wolverine changed and became a richer, more interesting character. He took years to add details here and there: Wolverine’s vague backstory as a soldier and woodsman; his history with the Weapon X program which gave him his metal-laced bones and claws; his love of Japan and its culture. He was intriguing because, unlike most superheroes, we didn’t know his origin. If Claremont did, he kept it to himself. We encountered Wolverine as his friends did: a dangerous fighter and loyal friend, but otherwise, we knew next to nothing.

Of course comics are too thuddingly obvious to leave anything about any character a mystery, so eventually all the unspoiled wilderness of Wolverine’s past was filled with garbage. He went from an interesting enigma to someone whose every moment of existence has been chronicled and cross-referenced. Until nothing of interest is left.

Here’s what you need to know about Wolverine: he comes from Canada. He is a mutant whose superhuman healing and heightened senses attracted unknown parties (the Weapon X Program) to experiment upon him, lined his bones with metal and gave him claws. He spent time in Japan, a place he feels very at home. He’s a member of the X-Men who frequently travels the world on his own adventures, usually out of a sense of obligation to others.

He’s the best there is at what he does, and what he does isn’t very nice.

I depicted Wolverine, in civilian clothes, looking tired. Because I think he would be, don’t you?

Don’t miss tomorrow’s installment of MIGHTY MARVEL MAY- it’s sure to make a big splash!

MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #24: THE HULK

Doc Bruce Banner,
Belted by gamma rays,
Turned into the Hulk…

Stan Lee has said that the Hulk, co-created with artist Jack Kirby, is based on Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, the good man who becomes a monster, and also on Boris Karloff’s version of Frankenstein’s monster, the misbegotten, persecuted creature. Those influences are fairly evident. What is absent from all but the original versions of the Hulk are his Cold War origins. Doctor Bruce Banner was a meek, bookish man who used his genius to build weapons of mass destruction and, caught in the blast of one of his bombs, became one himself.

The Hulk is Banner’s alter-ego. When angered, Banner becomes a seven-foot, thousand-pound, musclebound, lime-green, simple-minded version of himself (in most versions: he originally changed at nightfall, was gray-skinned, and merely terse, not simple). As he grows angrier, he gets stronger,often proclaiming “Hulk is strongest one there is!” After the anger has faded, he reverts back to a scrawny Bruce Banner by the side of the road somewhere, his clothes in tatters, barely able to remember what he’s done.

In the 1980s, writer/artist Barry Windsor-Smith proposed a story which would reveal that Bruce Banner had been physically abused as a child. The revelation would suggest that the Hulk was not merely Banner’s repressed anger, but a physical manifestation of the anger of an abused child, to some degree explicating the Hulk’s childlike demeanor. Marvel ran a version of  the story, but without Windsor-Smith (and interesting account of the behind-the-scenes story of how Marvel passed and then ended up using the story anyway can be found here).

The Hulk’s adventures both permit us to worry for Dr. Banner, the victim of violence who perpetuates violence without meaning to, and vicariously enjoy the demolition when he transforms and bellows “HULK SMASH!”

I hope you’ll return for tomorrow’s installment of MIGHTY MARVEL MAY even if tomorrow’s installment isn’t very nice.

MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #17: ROGUE

When Rogue first appeared in AVENGERS ANNUAL #10 in1981, long before that internet, artists were often at the mercy of their local libraries and bookstores for reference. If a story called for them to draw the Taj Mahal or a Gemini spacecraft, they couldn’t use Google image search, so they had to do research on their own time at their own expense. Writer Chris Claremont’s script described a new villain called Rogue as looking like Grace Jones, artist Michael Golden didn’t know who Jones was. So he made Rogue up out of his imagination.

Seemingly a remorseless villain, Rogue’s mutant power to absorb other superhuman powers (as well as short-term memories) from other superhumans meant she was almost a match for the Avengers. A heroine named Ms. Marvel fell victim to Rogue’s ability and, for the first and only time, the transfer of powers and memories was permanent. Since that time, Rogue has had the basic set of superpowers in addition to her own: flight, invulnerability and super-strength… And the memories of Ms. Marvel clamoring in her head.

Rogue fought the X-Men next, but soon Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers)’s memories were impossible to drown out, and Rogue turned to her enemies at the Xavier’s School for help.

She was not greeted warmly. (Art by Walt Simonson)

Having fought her before, the X-Men were not happy to have her on the team. But gradually she became one of the longest-lasting, best loved members of the team.

With her superhuman strength, invulnerability and Mississippi sass, Rogue appears  confident and brash. But to me, her inability to come into physical contact with anyone makes her a tragic heroine, and highly vulnerable. Her capricious, criminal youth means her career as a hero is a redemptive one. She can never give back what she’s taken, but she never stops fighting to correct the mistakes of her past.

Don’t be filled with dread- MIGHTY MARVEL MAY continues tomorrow!

MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #13: BEAST

Hank McCoy ought to be the poster child for mutants. As created by stalwarts Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in  X-MEN #1 in 1963, Beast was a hirsute, agile man, with oversize hands and feet, but recognizably human. His brutish exterior  was at odds with his eloquent, erudite manner and genius intellect. Seeking the genetic cause of human mutation, Beast transformed himself into a blue-furred, apelike creature (courtesy of writer Gerry Conway and artist Tom Sutton. He also got a great Gil Kane cover out of it!). He could no longer hide his mutation from the world.

More gray than blue on this great Gil Kane cover. And more people need to work “lo” into sentences.

Far from withdrawing from society, Hank became a celebrated member of the  Avengers and continued his work as a scientist. He was a quirky, verbose, well-adjusted guy. Years passed and Hank mutated once again. This time the mutagen was writer Grant Morrison’s mind.

Morrison and artist Frank Quitely redesigned the X-Men for the 21st Century beginning with NEW X-MEN #114. “Increased sunspot activity” was blamed for secondary mutations around the world, and Beast was now a blue-furred, catlike humanoid who felt “like a Hindu sex god.”  While rebuffing an ex-girlfriend, he also alluded to being gay, a revelation which was hastily retracted by Hank himself a few issues later (I’ve always suspected the change was mandated by Marvel’s management, who realized Beast action figures were sold at Walmarts around the country and feared a conservative backlash). Hank’s shifting orientation was not as controversial as his shifting appearance. Although many embraced his leonine look, which he has to this day, others wished for a return to his earlier, more apelike appearance.

I like both looks. My guess is that Quitely was inspired by Jean Cocteau’s Beast in La Belle et la Bête. I went with this version because I haven’t seen it represented in 3D as often.

With luck, you’ll be back for another edition of MIGHTY MARVEL MAY tomorrow!

MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #12: EMMA FROST/ THE WHITE QUEEN

Jean Grey: What makes you such a bitch, Emma?

Emma Frost: Breeding, darling. Top class breeding.


Introduced my Chris Claremont and John Byrne in X-MEN #129 during the Dark Phoenix Saga, Emma Frost was not only a headmistress of a school rivaling Xavier’s School for (Mutant) Gifted Youngster, but as the telepathic White Queen of the Hellfire Club as well.  The Hellfire Club and its members were largely inspired by the “Touch of Brimstone” episode of THE AVENGERS (the British, Steed-and-Emma-Peel AVENGERS this time), and is herself  partially drawn from Diana Rigg’s portrayal of Mrs. Emma Peel.

Although originally part of a mutant cabal determined to rule the world, Emma has always been a wild card; a villain motivated by love for other mutants, and later a superhero motivated by self-interest.  Her allegiances shifted, but she has never been easily labeled hero or villain. Unlike Rogue, who began as a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants before reforming, Emma’s road to heroism is nowhere near as  smooth, nor would it be surprising if she changed again. Currently she is involved with the straight-laced Cyclops, leader of the X-Men, a weakness that seems to appall her as much as it does many fans.

Writer Grant Morrison did some of my favorite work with Emma (although he gave her a secondary mutation, the ability to transform into a humanoid diamond, which I think dilutes her some). From her Wikipedia entry:

…in 2001 Frost appeared in New X-Men as a teacher for the mutant population …Using Frost as a character was suggested to writer Grant Morrison on his website by a fan.

That fan was my friend Ken Kneisel, to whom this sculpture is dedicated.

Certain as the sun, there will be a new MIGHTY MARVEL MAY installment tomorrow, so please come back.