Welcome to the first edition of The Spinner Rack! This is where the Monsters come to talk about their favorite comics, whether it be a series or single issue. Hopefully we will be able to shed some light on some comics you didn’t know about, giving you some new stories to experience. Enjoy!
Marvel in the 1970s was, like the whole decade, was experimental in both the titles they published and in the stories they told.
This decade gave us the mystical acid trip that was volume two of Dr. Strange, Luc Cage (known as Power Man then) was tackling racism, and the X-Men continued to shed light on bigotry and prejudice. Not to mention the company built their cosmic universe during this decade with Star Lord, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, and Gamora all making their debuts, and later becoming the team we know as Guardians of the Galaxy. And that isn’t even including the creations of The Punisher, Ghost Rider, and Moon Knight. And also a little know Canadian character that really never amounted to much, but had a ton of potential, named Wolverine.
But the greatest creation during this time wasn’t a super hero. In fact he wasn’t even a human. He had feathers, webbed feet, and a bill. An orange bill to be exact. He wore a suit coat, a hat, and had an unhealthy addiction to cigars. Did I mention he doesn’t wear pants.
Howard the Duck is the quintessential 1970s Marvel creation. This wasn’t just a Donald the Duck rip-off, though Disney did threaten legal action against Marvel due to the similarities, as this pant-less duck was socially aware and ill-tempered. Much like some of the characters mentioned above, Howard pointed out what was wrong with society with commentary on current events in the 1970s. Except it was coming from a talking duck, which made it even more entertaining, and somewhat bizarre at times.
Howard was the perfect example of Marvel appealing to the younger crowd by providing an alternative that did more than just tell stories of super powered beings punching the snot out of each other. Marvel, as they are now, was a major comic book publisher thanks to being home to Spider-Man, The Avengers, and X-Men, battling with DC Comics for the top spot in the comics world. Marvel had already scooped DC when they published Harry Osbourne being a drug addict, ignoring the Comics Code to bring awareness to the drug epidemic of the time. This made Marvel more popular with college aged young adults for being more of a rebel and socially relevant alternative to DC’s books which featured more pure super hero stories.
Creator Steve Gerber did an outstanding job of writing stories that made the reader think about current world affairs. He can come off as a bit heavy handed, but more times than not he masked it with creative challenges and “villains” for Howard to come in conflict with. With each conflict bringing Howard to a realization about the world around him. Sometimes Howard would be harsh in response, while others would create a personal conflict within himself. Either way, the reader learned something of the world around them.
And let’s not forget about the incredible art of the series. Frank Brunner did an unbelievable job on the first two issues and it got even better from there as John Buscema took care of issue #3, and the great Gene Colon taking over on both issues #4 and #5. I can’t say much about the coloring, as I read the first 25 issues in the Marvel Essential reprints which is in black and white, but the inked artwork is incredible to look at. With artists of that caliber with such talented inkers as Klaus Janson and Sal Trapani, the art jumped off the page and added the right look to the book.
From the first issue of the series, we find Howard contemplating suicide after being jailed and then ignored after saving Cleveland twice from destruction, to deciding to hold off due to an unwillingness to end it all in a dirty and polluted river. In one panel, Gerber humanizes Howard faster than actual human heroes. He is a talking duck that saved the day, not a guy in tights shooting lasers out of his eyes. The story of prejudice during that time period takes hold right in the first issue and is a story beat that continues through the first five issues and beyond.
Howard takes on all sorts of subjects relating to his time period. In the first issue alone he faces a magic calculating mathematician name Pro-Rata, who wields the Cosmic Calculator that gives him the power to the universes’ numbers. In other words, it’s the IRS, but of the universe. Gerber continues the commentary by Pro-Rata, as the villain gives them a deadline of midnight to find the Cosmic Calculator’s jeweled key so he can do the “Astral Audit” and collect the “Cosmic Dividend.” In other words, I don’t think Gerber was a huge fan of the IRS and the power they tend to wield over the populace.
Gerber’s commentary continues throughout the first five issues. In issue #2, Beverley Switzler, the woman Howard saved from Pro-Rata and only friend Howard has, befriends an artist that is working as a security guard. Howard rants about him being a starving artist and comments “Oh…unpublished, huh? One o’ those?” Howard is very critical of Arthur’s work and leads Beverly to tell him he cares only for himself. In which Howard then rants about him being the minority on this world and everything being stacked against him. This is Gerber again playing with social happenings in just a short bit of dialogue, and showing Howard to be a bit of a hypocrite as he puts his plight, as he too is poor and struggling just like Arthur, ahead of Arthur’s as more important. Never realizing they are virtually in the same boat. Howard’s hypocrisy is a running theme through out the series.
On a side note, Arthur also is taken over by a space turnip, becoming Turnip-Man, and Howard has to stop Arthur’s turnip driven rampage. And, yes, this is just another reason this is one of my favorite comics of all-time. A super smart space turnip taking control of a man’s brain. That sentence by itself should make you want to read this series.
Starting with issue #3, you start to see Howard’s hero side a bit more as a young man is attacked and beaten severely. Beverly tries to help the boy, but he eventually passes away. To make things worse, the gang that killed the boy, and bested Howard after he intervened, kidnaps Beverly. This motivates Howard to learn Kung-Fu, as the leader of the gang is a master of the art, from an ad in a back of, you guessed it, a comic book. He finds a stereotypical Kung-Fu movie-looking sensei who teaches him to master the art, as Howard re-dubs it Quack-Fu. This is another example of Gerber taking a serious situation and injecting some humor in it. It seems like he wants to want to remind the reader that they are indeed reading a comic book. A socially aware one, but one that can still have a duck learn Kung-Fu from an ad. Gerber’s timing with those moments were spot on along with the his ability to return us back to the social message he was relaying to us in the first place. Making Gerber a one of a kind talent.
The issue ends with Howard saving Beverly and defeating the gang leader with his new found Quack-Fu. Even stopping a thrown knife between the palm of his hands. But the issue ends with a solemn reminder that death is anything but fair, as Beverly says she feels no better that the gang leader died and wished he got worse for killing the boy earlier in the issue. Howard said that the gang leader “died as a caterpillar,” but the boy died “a butterfly.” The statement may be a bit on the corny side, but Gerber again, through all the silliness, lets Howard remind us that even though death isn’t fair, it can still have a positive meaning and impact on a person’s, or in this case, a duck’s life.
Issues #4 and #5 continue to play off of everyone telling Howard he is a duck, a running narrative throughout the series starting with Beverly when Howard saves her from Pro-Rata. Issue #5 is the more socially aware of the two issues, as Howard tries to get a job and is either type casted (he is hired for a kids show because, well, he is a talking duck) or finally gets paid only to see it taken away because he is a duck (he defeats a wrestler for $10,000, but isn’t paid because the ad said “any MAN to defeat”). Both events, again, leaves Howard dejected and angry over the prejudice he continues to encounter. Both stories continue build Howard’s cynical attitude and his “look out for me” mentality that Beverly calls him on in issue #2.
The first volume of Howard the Duck is one of the best kept secrets in all of comics. It’s rarely gets mentioned with the great stories that define Marvel, but it deserves more recognition than it receives. With the character showing up after the credits in Guardians of the Galaxy, I hope Howard starts to gets more attention. And, more importantly, that Steve Gerber, who passed away in 2008, gets the recognition that he deserves for making comics a venue to bring social, economical, and political issues into the light. Gerber was a trailblazer in the comics industry, and he just now started receiving some of the attention he deserves when he was honored with his induction into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2010 and given the Bill Finger Excellence Award in 2013.
You can pick up the Essential Howard the Duck: Volume One pretty much anywhere comics are sold. So go find your local comic shop and pick up a copy, and if they don’t have one in stock ask them to order it for you.
And if they refuse to order it for you? Just break out some Quack-Fu. Howard would be proud.