Randy Jackson Re-Reads Steve Gerber's Howard the Duck

With everyone else dipping their toes into the water--and given that lately it seems I'm more snarky than appreciative of comics--I thought I'd dip my own toes into the water with a reading project. So I'll be covering Steve Gerber's Howard the Duck. The comics I'll be covering specifically are (Adventure Into) Fear #19, Man-Thing #1, Giant-Sized Man-Thing #4-5, Howard the Duck #1-27, Howard the Duck Annual #1, and Max Howard the Duck #1-6.

Because of the nature of the comic, I'm also going to attempt to give some background on what was happening in the world when Gerber wrote these stories. We'll see how that goes.

So, let's get started.

(Adventure Into) Fear #19 - "The Land Between Night and Day"
Cover Date: December 1973
Writer: Steve Gerber
Artist: Val Mayerik

As the story begins, the Man-Thing is on a plain where several forces are gathered--WWII era American soldiers, Ancient barbarians, Bi-Planes and Rocket Ships. There's also a castle hanging in the sky. As the forces fight, a bridge of light comes from the castle to the Man-Thing, and the sorceress Jennifer Kale. She leads the Man-Thing up to the castle, but they are pursued by the barbarian army led by one Korrek. The light bridge is dissolved, killing Korrek's companions.  He attempts to attack the Man-Thing, but walks right through him.  He keeps going to attack Jennifer...

And she wakes up from a dream screaming. Her brother and Grandfather come to see what's the matter, then attempt to coax Jennifer back to sleep. Her brother Andy and her Grandfather meet in the kitchen, and her Grandfather is worried that the severing of the psychic link between Jennifer and the Man-Thing might be causing her to have horrible nightmares--and that there might be an occult reason as well.

After they leave, Korrek materializes in the kitchen out of a jar of peanut butter and a butter knife.  He pursues Jennifer and attacks her in her bed.  When her brother and Grandfather turn up, Korrek jumps out the window in retreat. Suddenly Dakimh the Enchanter appears hovering in Jennifer's room.

Dakimh explains about the Nexus of all realities, and how the Nexus is eroding because of construction in the swamp upsetting the balance.  He's there to acquire Jennifer as his apprentice. The two of them disappear.

Meanwhile, Korrek is in the swamp, and he's confused and depressed by his current surroundings. The Man-Thing, drawn by Korrek's despair, approaches.  For some reason, Korrek is happy about this. He attacks the Man-Thing with zero effectiveness. His inabilty to do any harm to the Man-Thing depresses Korrek further. Believing the Man-Thing to be a demon sent to kill him, Korrek surrenders himself, and then...

A talking duck wearing a coat, a hat, spats and smoking a cigar steps out of the brush, lamenting how absurd it is to be stuck on a planet of talking hairless apes.

Back in Dakimh's castle, he and Jennifer are having a discussion when they are attacked by a combination of US soldiers and barbarians.  Dakimh disappears, and the army takes her away by balloon.

Having created an unsteady alliance, Howard and Korrek join together.  Hearing voices, they move towards them, only to find demons battling construction workers.  Apparently the demons have been sent to kill the Man-Thing.


This is actually a good start to something that would be an ultra-mega-end-of-the-world-24-issue-crossover were it written today, but here it's just the start to a fairly normal Marvel comic epic--albeit one with an anthropomorphic duck.  The dialogue is pretty simple to follow, but there's also the trademark Gerber absurdity as well. Hearing the GI's talking like Sgt. Rock and having F.A. Schist own the construction company just adds a little something extra to the story, and Korrek's transformation from a blob of peanut butter sweetens the deal.

We don't see much of Howard here, but he is definitely part of the story.  I think I'd forgotten about the spats.

Given the normal 3 month turnaround from story submission to publication, this was likely written somewhere around September of 1973.  Here's a few things that were happening courtesy of HistoryOrb.com:

1st - 74-year-old Hafnia Hotel burns, killing 35 (Copenhagen, Denmark)
1st - George Foreman KOs Jose "King" Roman in 1 for heavyweight boxing title
2nd - Billy Martin fired as manager of Tigers
2nd - Netherlands wins hockey world's championship
2nd - Sandra Haynie wins LPGA Charity Golf Classic
3rd - General Walters, ends term as acting director of CIA
3rd - Jerry Lewis' 8th Muscular Dystrophy telethon
4th - William E Colby, becomes 10th director of CIA
5th - "Desert Song" opens at Uris Theater NYC for 15 performances
5th - 1st one-day Cricket international for WI (v Eng) - lose by 1 wicket
6th - NY Times reports almost all Superfectas run at Yonkers, Roosevelt & Monticello from Jan-Mar of 1973 were fixed
7th - Jackie Stewart becomes Formula 1 world champion
7th - Mike Storen becomes American Basketball Association's 4th commissioner
8th - 87th US Womens Tennis: M S Court beats E Goolagong Cawley (76 57 62)
8th - Billy Martin named manager of Texas Rangers
8th - Hank Aaron sets record of most HRs in 1 league (709)
8th - Rebecca Ann King (Colo), 23, crowned 46th Miss America 1974
8th - "Star Trek - Animated Series" premieres on TV
9th - 93rd US Mens Tennis: John Newcombe beats Jan Kodes (64 16 46 62 62)
Baseball Player Hank AaronBaseball Player Hank Aaron 9th - Kathy Whitworth wins LPGA Dallas Civitan Golf Open
10th - Muhammad Ali defeats Ken Norton
10th - NY Jets trade pro footballs leading receiver Don Maynard to St Louis
11th - Chile's President Salvador Allende deposed in a military coup
12th - 2 bettors win largest US Daily Double ($19,909.60 in Detroit)
12th - USSR performs nuclear test at Novaya Zemlya USSR
13th - ABC announces it obtained TV rights for 1976 Olympics
13th - Congress passes & sends a bill to Nixon to lift football's blackout
13th - Syrian/Israeli dogfight over Mediterranean Sea
14th - Indianapolis is awarded a WHA franchise
14th - Israel shoots down 13 Syrian MIG-21s
14th - Pres Nixon signed into law a measure lifting pro football's blackout
15th - Dutch Guilder devalued 5%
15th - Ohio State's Archie Griffith begins record 31 cons 100 yd rushing
15th - Secretariat wins Marlboro Cup in world record 1:45 2/5 for 1¼ miles
Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad AliHeavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali 16th - "Desert Song" closes at Uris Theater NYC after 15 performances
16th - Buff Bill OJ Simpson rushes 250 yards (2 TDs), beating NE Pats 31-13
16th - Kathy Whitworth wins LPGA Southgate Ladies Golf Open
18th - German FR & German DR admitted to UN
19th - Carl XVI Gustaf, becomes King of Sweden
19th - Frank Robinson homers in record 32nd ML park (Arlington Tx)
19th - NL refuses to allow San Diego Padres move to Washington DC
19th - Pirate Radio Free America (off Cape May NJ) forms
19th - USSR performs underground nuclear test
20th - Billy Jean King beats Bobby Riggs in battle-of-sexes tennis match
20th - Willie Mays announces retirement at end of 1973 season
21st - Jackson Pollocks painting "Blue Poles" sold for $2,000,000
21st - NY Mets go into 1st place (at .500) after trailing 12½ games
21st - Nate Archibald signs 7 yr contract with NBA KC Kings for $450,000
22nd - "Little Night Music" opens at Majestic Theater on Broadway
NFL Running Back and Convicted Criminal OJ SimpsonNFL Running Back and Convicted Criminal OJ Simpson 22nd - 20th Ryder Cup: US, 19-13 at Muirfield, Scotland
22nd - Balt Oriole Al Bumbry hits 3 triples vs Milwaukee Brewers
22nd - Henry Kissinger, sworn in as America's 1st Jewish Secretary of State
23rd - Former Argentine President Juan Peron returns to power
23rd - Kathy Whitworth wins LPGA Portland Ladies Golf Open
23rd - Largest known prime, 2 ^ 132,049-1, is discovered
24th - Guinea-Bissau declares independence from Portugal
24th - St Louis Cards Jim Bakken sets NFL record kicking 7 field goals
25th - 3-man crew of Skylab 3 make safe splashdown in Pacific after 59 days
25th - Mets beat Expos 2-1 on Willie Mays Night at Shea Stadium
26th - Concorde flies from Washington DC to Paris in 3h33m
26th - Turkey's state of siege ends (after 2½ years)
26th - Wilt Chamberlain signs with ABA San Diego Conquistadors
26th - Concorde makes its first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic in record-breaking time.
27th - Nolan Ryan strikes out 16 in 11 innings, for record 383 of season
Politician, statesman Henry KissingerPolitician, statesman Henry Kissinger 27th - Soyuz 12 carries 2 cosmonauts into Earth orbit (2 days)
27th - USSR performs nuclear test at Novaya Zemlya USSR
28th - Palestinian Terrorists hijack Austrian train
28th - ITT Building in New York City bombed to protest ITT's involvement in the September 11 1973 coup d'état in Chile.
29th - "Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne" by Looking Glass peaks at #33
29th - "We're An American Band" by Grand Funk peaks at #1
29th - Balt Orioles pull their 5th triple play (5-4-3 vs Detroit)
29th - Insurance ind announces auto racers get into more highway accidents
29th - Soyuz 12 returns to Earth
30th - 3rd NYC Women's Marathon won by Nina Kuscsik in 2:57:07
30th - 4th NYC Marathon won by Tom Fleming in 2:21:54
30th - Mel Gray begins NFL streak of 121 consecutive game receptions
30th - Sandra Palmer wins LPGA Cameron Park Golf Open
30th - USSR performs underground nuclear test
30th - Yanks close 50th year at Yankee Stadium losing 8-5, Ralph Houk
30th - resigns as manager

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I’ve now read through issue #23 of HtD and page 32 of this discussion.

KISS: I somehow managed to get through the first 30-35 years of my life without becoming familiar with KISS. I was aware of the band (and the Marvel comics), certainly, but I couldn’t have identified any of their songs. When Image launched a new KISS comic in the late ‘90s, however, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I bought the comics and even some of their albums. (As it turns out, one KISS song was familiar to me, but I hadn’t realized it was theirs.) I bought Gerber’s KISS comics in the ‘90s, too. Those are the only ones worth reading (if you like that kind of thing).

THE ESSAY ISSUE: To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I “get” HtD, even today. I appreciate Steve Gerber as a unique voice in comics, but whatever point he’s trying to make in a given issue often eludes me. I get the essay issue, though. In many ways, it’s the only one that makes sense.

DR. BONG: I didn’t know his backstory was based on Bob Greene.

HOWARD THE HUMAN: It has been said of Spider-Man that his popularity (a portion of it, anyway) can be ascribed to his full facemask. The theory goes that, because his entire face is covered, it’s easy for the reader to imagine himself Spider-Man. I don’t know about that; Peter Parker is shown often enough to squelch that particular idea as far as I am concerned. But y’know, I can almost see it pertaining to Howard the Duck. I often imagine Howard as a human being. His adventures are so bizarre it doesn’t matter that he’s a duck, but I can see him as a sort of “everyman” figure.

SOOFI: I liked this one because I clearly recall the political antics of Anita Bryant at the time. As fictional comic book organizations of the ‘70s go, however, I’m still more of a “Committee to Regain America’s Principles” man myself.

STAR WARS: I liked the Star Wars issues as well, although the second more than the first. I know Gerber’s target was broader than simply Star Wars, but part one was too generic. If the intent was to do a parody, part two was closer to the mark. He’s where having an editor may have helped.

Jeff of Earth-J said:

I appreciate Steve Gerber as a unique voice in comics, but whatever point he’s trying to make in a given issue often eludes me.

I think the problem with reading Howard decades later is that the stories worked better when the current events were fresh in our minds.

By the time I started reading HTD, at age 13 in 1976, I'd come to appreciate Gerber's sense of the absurd and outrage at human cruelty and idiocy which permeated his stories to varying degrees.  Nearly 40 years later, I have a greater appreciation for that sense. Admittedly, since early adolescence I've felt like a geeky weirdo which may account for some of the things I like which other people can't comprehend.

I've heard Spider-Man's success was because he was a loser but he never gave up, and every once in awhile he won just enough to keep him (and us) from giving up hope on him. Marrying a beautiful model didn't fit that image, but then neither does owning his own business.

I saw but never bought the black and white magazine where four guys get these weird talismans that turn them into KISS. The talismans appeared in their TV movie, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, where they take almost half the film to show up. That movie is really all I know about them, and I only finally saw the ending last month on youtube. (For some reason I missed the last five minutes or so, but I no longer remember why.)

I think even back then you had to really be on top of things. I often had no idea what he was trying to say back then.

Jeff of Earth-J said:

It has been said of Spider-Man that his popularity (a portion of it, anyway) can be ascribed to his full facemask. The theory goes that, because his entire face is covered, it’s easy for the reader to imagine himself Spider-Man.

I don't remember any in-story explanation of the full facemask. I theorize that at first it helped to conceal just how young he was. When he began fighting crime I think it continued because it made him more intimidating and/or less human to the bad guys.

Ditko's stated reason for giving Spider-Man a full face mask was that it seemed logical to him that Peter would indeed want a mask that would prevent anyone from being able to tell how young he was and better enable him to disguise his voice.  The costume Kirby designed was a half-mask, as in the style of Captain America, DD & Batman, but then in Kirby's version Peter transformed from a geeky kid into a full adult with a magic ring.  Glad all that was revised!  At any rate, thinking of the most popular or at least most well-known superheroes, we've got Superman, Wonder Woman and the Hulk with no masks; Batman and Captain America with half-masks; and Spidey & Iron Man with their heads entirely covered.  I'd guess the half mask is most common, although I'm not so sure I'd place a bet on there being more of them than heroes with no mask, at least within a top 50 list of the best known.  Superheroes with full masks (or helmets) are far fewer.

Or the domino mask.

I read two more issues last night. I liked #24 in particular. J.M. DeMatteis wrote a similar “winding down after saving the universe” issue after the Defenders defeated the Six-Fingered hand. It strikes me that Gerber and DeMatteis share certain similarities as writers. DeMatteis also wrote one of the most interesting runs of Man-Thing other than Gerber. I started looking at Man-Thing a couple of weeks ago but got side-tracked to Howard the Duck. I hope to get back to Man-Thing eventually.

I hope to finish the original series tonight and read the MAX series over the weekend.

It boggles the mind that anyone would think a domino mask, by itself, could really hide anyone's identity.  The only prominent superhero to wear, that I can think of right off, is Green Lantern, and that people could know both Hal and G.L. and not see right away that they are the same person is even more ridiculous than people not noticing that Clark Kent & Superman are identical.  Oh, wait, there was also the Spirit, but that was more a mix of humor and adventure and his alter ego was supposed to be dead.  And from what I've read, Eisner didn't want to give him a mask at all and so went with one that least hid his face as a sop to his syndicate bosses who wanted the Spirit to look at least somewhat like a superhero although he was more like a private detective with a domino mask and who didn't bother to try to strike terror in the hearts of criminals by dressing like a bat.

PowerBook Pete, the Mad Mod said:

Or the domino mask.

There was a story making fun of Robin thinking his mask fooled anyone.

In the old serial the Lone Ranger's mask covered his face.

I read the last two Gerber issues of HtD last night and I must say it was somewhat disappointing for me, knowing that Gerber would not be returning to tie up any of the plot threads he left dangling. Most disappointing for me is the Howard/Beverly/Dr. Bong triangle. It was shown that Beverly was coming to terms with her forced marriage and actually came to care for Lester. But Bong was planning revenge on Howard. Would the status have remained quo? Alas, we’ll never know.

I also read #28 last night, which wasn’t by Gerber/Colan and I’m not going to discuss here, but I do want to mention the one lengthy letter printed in “Wise Quacks.” It was a thoughtful analysis of the entire series, and the following two sentences sum up my thoughts about Gerber’s Howard: “Howard” wants to be absurdist in the worst possible way, and most often succeeds, but it is now and again content with being incoherent in place of dramatizing the breakdown of coherence and adopting incoherence as its subject. It is amusing even on that level, however.”

I will re-read the MAX series over the weekend and return here with my thoughts next week.

Yeah, Gerber's last issues of HTD vol. 1 seemed like he was phoning it in and were disconnected from anything that had happened previously, which was pretty rare in any of the series on which Gerber was a regular scribe.  It was left to Manto to tie up the bigger plot threads, and I think he did as good a job as could be expected.  Can't help but wish Gerber could have held on, at least long enough to bring things to a satisfying conclusion.  At least there was the MAX series, which managed to serve as Gerber's long-delayed closure on the series. 

Thinking of other prominent creators who left series they were most closely associated with, Ditko managed closure to his runs on Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, but Kirby quit in the middle of storylines in both the FF & Thor (but then it was clear that his heart was no longer into it years before he drew those last issues).  Moench got in one last great Fu Manchu epic with stellar art by Gene Day before leaving Master of Kung Fu, leaving someone else to write of Shang Chi's odd retirement from adventuring.  Wolfman & Colan did an excellent last issue of Tomb of Dracula, even if, to my understanding, they had to cram a lot in as they had planned on at least one more issue to tie things up in.

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