By Eli LaChance
Disney recently announced their intentions to adapt Steve Gerber’s classic Marvel character Howard the Duck into a comedy series for Hulu. The good guys don’t always win. For guys like Howard the Duck, they’re born to lose. Long ago, in a time before internet click-bait and listicles, the name Steve Gerber was exalted in the hallowed halls of comic book stores everywhere as the patron saint of misfits, losers, and freaks. If there’s one thing I miss about comic book culture before it was absorbed by the mainstream it’s in the way the cult-like fandom followed creators over characters.
We comic book fans hold the silver-age tomes of Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-man as sacred texts. The high priests of Diko, Kirby, and Lee paved the way for an entirely new kind of comic book where the hero was also relatably human and flawed. A decade into this bizarro experiment in a shared universe pioneered by Stan Lee saw an entire generation of kids raised on Marvel Comics in the 1970s. For the first time, adults were reading these books on college campuses.
There was a lot going on in the medium in those tumultuous times. Kirby made a break from Marvel. Stiff competition was on the rise from non-CCA(Comics Code Authority) regulated horror-mags like Creepy, and it was getting increasingly difficult to avoid social issues, even in a medium marketed to children. The Amazing Spider-man 96 is legendary for being published without approval from the draconian CCA. Stan Lee wrote an anti-drug parable at the President’s behest and the code rejected it on the grounds that drug use was forbidden. They printed it without the stamp of approval and the issue was a hit. A revised more-lax code was soon after provided.
Enter Roy “The Boy” Thomas. With a reputation for writing great stories and creating fantastic characters as Marvel’s new kid on the block, Roy became the first presiding editor in chief as Stan Lee moved on to publisher in 1972. Talk to any writers/artists who worked in the Bronze Age and they’ll scoff at the idea of referring to the period as anything other than the 70s & 80s. For Marvel, Roy brought a generation of defining talent to Marvel Comics; including a young writer by the name of Steve Gerber.
Gerber was working for an ad agency in St. Louis at the time writing copy. To maintain his sanity he dabbled in fiction while he wasn’t hidden away napping. Gerber knew Roy Thomas from Missouri comic book fan circles. As a 12 year old boy, Steve was sending Roy self-published comic books he’d written and drawn himself (Roy read them and sent feedback, the guy is that cool). Gerber sent an impassioned plea to his old friend; in Roy’s words, the letter read “Help me I’m going crazy.” Thomas, being an all-around amazing guy, gave this kid a shot at copy-editing comics but when Steve couldn’t stay awake at his desk, Roy needed to find something else for him to do. Unbelievably, Roy decided the next best thing for a narcoleptic co-editor was free-lance writing.
I’m a Steve Gerber die-hard fan. I love his writing so much I’ve invested a few years trying to throw a documentary about a guy who just wouldn’t go with the flow. I’ve talked to numerous comic book legends about their experience with the man. If you had to summarize Gerber’s style in a few words it’s deeply philosophical, completely absurd, and absolutely tragic. Gerber liked to push the envelope, he was one of a group of creators who thought it was time that the comic-book medium grew up. His trademark existential and absurdist style is evident almost from the beginning with Fear featuring Man-Thing. Before Gerber, Man-Thing was a failing title and the character was basically a mute version of Swamp Thing (that’s a whole other blog post). Gerber exploited the Man-Thing’s empathetic nature to hold up as a sort of existential mirror in front of society. Many of the early stories served as political allegories, interspersed between the on-going witchcraft, and Gerber’s trademark absurdism. Whether the muck-heap was dealing with demons, racist cops, an infant in a Superman body, Foolkillers, clown ghosts, and people who’re philosophically against life; you always got something unexpected.
As sales turned upward for the muck-heap, he was given his own Man-Thing title. In the issue preceding the title-jump, we were introduced to a character that was originally intended as a gag. Having a barbarian dimension-hop through a jar of peanut butter was pretty wacky for a comic in 1973, and Gerber needed something to top that. Enter the cigar-chomping Howard the Duck, a sentient talking waterfowl pulled through the nexus of realities from duck-world into our universe. Co-creator Val Mayerik says Gerber explicitly asked that the Howard look nothing like Disney’s more famous duck and “for God’s sakes don’t put him in a sailor suit.” Val added the cigar. The duck’s value wasn’t immediately seen, Roy Thomas himself takes the blame for the duck’s ill-timed fate, deciding the duck was too goofy for a horror book, he asked Steve to kill him off. Having only appeared in a few issues, the untimely death of Howard sparked outrage. Legend has it Marvel received stacks of hate-mail, including a duck carcass though nobody I’ve spoken with can verify this account.
The duck couldn’t stay gone for long. Rumors of a Howard story drawn by Neal Adams circulated around conventions and Howard finally made two appearances facing off against Garko the Man-Frog and Bessie the Hellcow in the backup stories of Giant-Size Man-Thing (he had to know, right?). Instead of Neal, the legendary Frank Brunner (the definitive Dr. Strange artist) took penciling duties. Apparently, ole Neal just left it sitting on his desk.
When Howard the Duck #1 was finally released in January of 1976, the book sold out so fast that conspiracy theories as to why nobody ever saw a copy abounded. Howard the Duck #1 was once the most sought-after comic book in the entire world. People couldn’t get enough of the water-foul. Brunner left the title over creative differences and Gene Colan took over. Stan Lee himself lauded the writing, particularly in issue #3 when Howard learns “Quak-Fu”.
Howard the Duck is the ultimate deconstruction of the Marvel superhero; the Amazing Spider-man is a relatable normal guy under the mask, in this world full of underdog superheroes Howard is such a nobody that he isn’t a hero at all; he isn’t even human! Unlike the other capped crusaders dwelling in the big apple, Howard was stuck in Cleveland. The Cleveland of the original Howard the Duck is populated with lunatics inspired by real-world people like the conspiracy-obsessed Kidney-lady Howard encounters on the bus. Grounding Howard was his roommate and alluded to love-interest Beverly Switzler; she served as the optimistic and calm yin- to Howard’s volatile -yang. If parsing out exactly what makes these old issues so darkly funny seems difficult, that’s because Gerber himself stated that the joke is that there is no joke. The duck served as Marvel’s Sisyphus; Wile E. Coyote for the counterculture; a four-color Job.
The series began with an attempt at suicide by our titular duck who gets distracted by having to save future love interest and roommate Beverly Switzler from Pro-Rata, the financial wizard who seeks to balance the Cosmic Ledger! Highlights of the series include an unsuccessful Presidential bid that is as relevant as ever in 2019, the first appearance of Kiss in a comic book, and my favorite issue of all time, Howard the Duck #16: Zen and the Art of Comic-book Writing, an illustrated 24-page surreal existential essay about Gerber’s anxiety and inability to meet deadlines. He claims he submitted this because he couldn’t meet his deadline but the essay is so long and well written, that I suspect it was another joke.
Still, by all accounts, Gerber could never make a deadline. This got him in hot water when he was falling so far behind on the Howard the Duck newspaper strip that it frequently went unprinted. Gene Colan had quit drawing the stip and Howard co-creator was filling in. Artists were complaining about getting scripts in piece-mail. Geniuses are difficult, Gerber was impossible. There are varying accounts as to why Gerber was fired from the newspaper strip and comic book, some say Marvel wasn’t paying the artists their fair share but most accounts mention Gerber was always late.
Towards the end of the original Howard series, Disney had taken notice of his rising popularity and his similarity with another infamous talking duck. As Roy Thomas puts it “Steve had a knack for trying things that would always get us sued.” The settlement of the case was a drastic redesign of the character, most notably he was required to wear pants. Gerber rejected the redesign and several issues were published after-the-fact with a pants-less duck.
When Marvel began attempting to license the character to appear in films, Gerber wasn’t consulted, nor did Marvel have any plan to compensate him. He took them to court for ownership in what is one of the most note-worthy legal battles for comic creator’s rights of all time.
In Gerber’s time, if you wanted to work in comics you had to sign a work-for-hire agreement. The medium was just coming of age and was full of ripe young talent dying to work in the industry. It was also incredibly lucrative. The work for hire agreement meant that as a creative, any work you did for the company was owned by the company and they held the rights exclusively. If you created a hit character, it belonged to the publisher and if you didn’t like it, good luck finding work elsewhere. Your work was trapped forever in a universe of someone else’s making. The competition was so stiff and cut-throat that friends were hard to make. Howard the Duck‘s subtitle Trapped in a World He Never Made is almost autobiographical in this light. If this environment sounds exploitative to you, it’s because it was. Gerber took the system on in court, and drummed up quite a bit of support in the industry, he even got Marvel legend Jack Kirby to draw his Destroyer Duck. The comic’s cover boasted “special lawsuit edition.” That book was published on then-fledgling imprint Eclipse, which was an early experiment in creator-owned comics. Steve Gerber settled his lawsuit out of court, as would other creators who followed suit: Gary Friederich and Marv Wolfman all took the publishing giant to task for profiting from their work without proper compensation. Gerber’s lawsuit was the first of many and Destroyer Duck was one of the first true hits for creator-owned imprints. In this way, Gerber paved the way for a whole movement of creator-owned comics that gave us many of the imprints still running today.
Howard the Duck has been tried sans-Gerber many times over the years. The 80s film tanked, as did the value of the comic books with it. The less said about the code-exempt magazine the better. Howard has only ever found his voice with Gerber pulling the strings, like a fantastic Marvel Max revival from the late 2000s where Howard takes on Opera, becomes a mouse(sue that Disney), and meets God at a bar in heaven. Howard only works with Gerber because Steve was speaking through him; Man and duck were one and the same. Without one the other cannot exist.
Gerber died back in 2008. For all intents and purposes, the duck died with him. Like many of his contemporaries, the writer’s impact can’t be understated. He was a salient voice in the medium whose struggle for creator’s rights paved the way for generations to come.
Echoes of Steve’s absurd outcasts can still be found in the pages of classic and modern comic characters. Tom King’s take on Kite-man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dan Slott’s GLA(the team that made Squirrel Girl count) are all characters that Steve had nothing to do with; yet they feel decidedly Gerberian(can we make Gerberian a word?). Nick Spencer’s current take on Spider-man villains is about as Gerberesque as it gets. Even films feel Gerber’s presence. The man was writing the cartoons the Transformers films are based on. The Hulk we see in Thor: Ragnarok feels like he stepped out of the pages of Gerber’s Defenders. The new blockbuster horror film Brightburn(produced by fellow St. Louisan who used Howard in the end credits of Guardians of the Galaxy and brought Gerber’s Starhawk to the big screen, James Gunn) looks like a familiar Superman deconstruction reminiscent of an idea(Wundarr, a character who nearly got Marvel sued)from the pages of Man-Thing. Comics have been here for ages, much of that started with this man. Gerber was one of the first writers who dared to challenge the status quo in mainstream comics and helped shape the future of the medium. He did so at great cost to himself and his influence continues to this day.
I picked up the first several issues of Chip Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck back in 2015. It was funny, with the obligatory Disney-Marvel parallels for the Marvel Cinematic Universe crowd, it even had one the funniest stabs at Spider-man I’ve ever read, but something felt off. The new Howard is no longer down on his luck, but a private investigator who can’t seem to win; further weakening the deconstruction of Howard, he no longer is forced to take up residence in a god-less place like Cleveland. Like every other Marvel hero, the duck operates out of New York City. The tone is all wrong, most of the gags work as they’re due to Zdarsky’s trademark razor-witted dialogue, but the plot doesn’t really carry it and it frequently feels more awkward than funny. One of the most glaring departures from previous versions of Howard the Duck is the omission of Beverley Switzler, Howard’s only friend, confidant, and lover. She finally makes an appearance in issue #8; it’s the series’ highlight. Zdarsky and Quionnes make you feel the years between these two characters, the story is a knife twist of a trip down memory lane for long-time Howard the duck fans. Flashbacks are colored in a style calling back to the old four-color pulp printing. Everything about this slow measured issue comes through in the little details; facial expressions, body language, all indicate that these characters are miles away and you see it. In typical Howard fashion, things go sideways, but Zdarsky never drops the story at hand in the action. The entire thing is a love letter of the kind of simultaneously compelling, darkly funny, and ridiculous story Gerber was able to pull off with regularity.
I love Chip Zdarsky, but this whole issue comes crumbling to the ground in its conclusion when the film’s Beverly Switzler, Lea Thomson, shows up in the final issue; the entire thing is wasted on a joke that relishes in the 1984 then flop, Howard the Duck. Suddenly, the zaniness of Zdarsky’s run makes sense; there is a generation of Howard fans that are simply nostalgic for the non-Gerber version of the character. I get it, but that isn’t Howard. It’s a crass curiosity that showed duck-boobs on cable TV to 80s adolescents. The duck appears in the comic book like the duck of Lucas’ film; adding further distancing him from the original, the duck’s appearance is compliant with the redesign set by the lawsuit of the 70s. If Gerber’s duck was Kafkaesque, George Lucas’ duck of the 80s and Zdarsky’s clone are children of Gallagher.
While the new Howard the Duck series on Hulu is being helmed by some fantastic talent who I’m certain will have the utmost reverence for the source material, like Zdarsky (I can’t say I believe Lucas cared); it comes with a tragic sort of irony to see Marvel, now owned by Disney, continue to profit from the works of a dead man they tried to silence and exploit. Good or bad, the character can’t be Howard without Steve.
The thin of it is, Gerber didn’t want his work immortalized this way, he had this to say about Marvel’s reboot of his classic Omega the Unknown:
“I still believe that writers and artists who claim to respect the work of creators past should demonstrate that respect by leaving the work alone” -Steve Gerber
Still, with all of the above said, I can’t think of anything that sounds more Gerberian for the duck than being trapped in a world he never made, eternally, without his creator to guide him. Rest in peace, you are missed.