Friday, 5 July 2013

Essential Howard the Duck volume 1

Essential Howard the Duck volume 1 contains issues #1-27 & Annual #1 from the character's original series, plus the character's first appearance in Adventure into Fear #19 as reprinted with a short introduction in Man-Thing #1, solo strips from Giant-Size Man-Thing #4-5 (yes they really did publish a comic with that name, so stop sniggering) and Marvel Treasury Edition #12, a rare issue with original material.

Everything in this volume is written by Steve Gerber. The duck's first appearance in Adventure into Fear is drawn by Val Mayerik, who returns for the annual and issues #22-23. Frank Brunner draws both the Giant-Size Man-Thing stories and then the first two issues of the regular series. Gene Colan draws most of the series with individual issues by John Buscema (#3), Carmine Infantino (#21) and "A Cast of Thousands" on issue #16. The Marvel Treasury Edition is drawn by Sal Buscema.

The cover to the volume reuses the Brian Bolland cover (though with new colours) from issue #33 which isn't included here and was published many years later. It may seem an odd choice to use a later image but it's possibly a consequence of a design change forced upon Howard as a result of legal noises from Disney after the stories in this volume were originally published and a legally binding agreement signed at the time. Most obviously Howard was now wearing trousers.

This volume was first published eleven years ago and to date there's been no sign of a second volume, thus making Howard the Duck technically the series with the longest gap between Essential volumes (bar Conan, but Marvel lost the rights after the first and only volume appeared). But what could go in a second volume? Back in the 1970s Howard's original series continued for another four issues with various other writers. Then it was replaced by a black & white magazine that lasted nine issues, with other stories in the magazine Crazy #63-77 and one further story in the magazine Bizarre Adventures #34. Around the same time Howard appeared in Marvel Team-Up #96 (reprinted in Essential Marvel Team-Up #4). And then there was a newspaper strip. The onset of the movie in 1985 saw a brief revival of the original title and numbering, with a further issue #32 put out, followed by issue #33 nine months later. (There was also a three issue adaptation of the movie but such adaptations are usually out of continuity and ignored by everything else.) Beyond that Howard appeared in a four part story in Sensational She Hulk, written by Steve Gerber, then in 1996/7 there were several appearances when Howard returned, including a story by Gerber in Spider-Man Team-Up, a one-shot Christmas special and other appearances in Ghost Rider, Generation X and the Daydreamers limited series. The Marvel Omnibus edition from 2008 does include issues #28-33 and Marvel Team-Up #96 as well.

In an interview in 2001 about a forthcoming new Howard the Duck limited series (which this volume was published to tie in with), Gerber stated "...I don't even intend to acknowledge any of the Howard stories published after the first 27 issues of the original comic book. As far as I'm concerned, they're not part of the Howard "canon." They're apocrypha." It's rare to find a character so strongly associated with a single creator or for subsequent creators' work on the character to be so heavily ignored by fans, and doubtless this is why there hasn't been sufficient demand for the further adventures of Howard to appear in the Essentials though it would be nice for newer generations to have the chance to see them for themselves without having to obtain the pricey Omnibus (which is now out of print and commanding very high prices on the back copy market).

Gerber's Howard the Duck has acquired a legendary status amongst those who read it at the time. But sometimes such legendary fiction can prove to be a disappointment when read by later generations. Often the ideas pioneered have been so heavily copied and refined that an original groundbreaking piece can seem flat by comparison. And satire is invariably of its own time and often requires not just knowledge of the world it draws upon but also actual experience. Without such experience the satire can date faster than just about anything else. I find some of the contemporary Saturday Night Lives a bit tough going because they're drawing upon a very different world and because these were the early days when they were still finding their feet. How did the duck fare in similar circumstances?

To be perfectly frank, not very well. I've found this volume takes much longer and harder to get through than just about any other Essential I've so far reviewed. I suspect the main problem is rooted in my lack of a cultural context for much of the satire. It's easy to spot targets such as Reverend Joon Moon Yuc and his cult as an unsubtle parody of Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church, or the election campaign as a commentary on how US politics was conducted at the time. But with other subjects it's harder to recognise the target and so all that's left is the surface level comedy. This series has not aged well at all.

As for the stories themselves, throughout these pages Howard encounters many foes, most of who are of a decidedly surreal nature. Amongst them are Garkko the Man-Frog, a human who takes a potion and turns into a frog but the transformation goes all the way until he's just an animal who gets run over by a police car. Then there's Bessie the vampire cow, who has spent three hundred years pursuing the vampire who changed her in the first place. Pro-Rata a wizard who plans to become the Chief Accountant of the universe once he has obtained the final key for the Cosmic Calculator. Turnip-Man, the fusion of a frustrated writer with a sentient space turnip. Count Macho, a bullying show-off. Winky Man, the alter ego of a man with a sleeping disorder. In his daytime ego of Paul Same he becomes a friend and flatmate of Howard and Beverly. The Reverend John Moon Yuc, the charismatic leader of a religious cult known as "Yucchies". The Gingerbread Man, baked by a woman suspected of being a witch. Dr. Reich, the mysterious director of a psychiatric clinic, who looks like Adolph Hitler. Bzzk'Jho, the offspring of a demon and a madman. Howard's Presidential campaign brings other villains out of the woodwork, with the Treasury Edition special teaming Howard and the Defenders against the Band of the Bland, a group of unoriginal villains made up of Dr. Angst, Sitting Bullseye, Black Hole, Spanker and Tillie the Hun. Then the campaign is derailed by the schemes of Le Beaver, a fanatical Canadian nationalist. A trip to the Middle East country of "Bagmom" sees Howard and the others uncover a plot by Prince Hassim and Roxxon, Marvel's regular Dastardly Evil Corporation, to secure oil drilling rights from a reluctant Caliph. Then there's SOOFI - Save Our Offspring From Indecency - a morality crusade whose members are prepared to kill and commit suicide in the name of morality. One of their members is transformed by a microwave explosion into Sudd - a living bubble bath who sets out to clean up the neighbourhood. There are few villains from the wider Marvel universe but the last few issues see him encounter the Circus of Crime, here consisting of the classic line-up of the Ringmaster, the Clown, Cannonball, the Great Gambonnos and Princess Python.

Two foes of Howard's are better known than the others. Regularly popping up on the sidelines is the Kidney Lady, an old woman obsessed about preventing any possible damage to her kidneys. Midway through the run she tells how she fell for a book seller who went to go and fight in the war, leaving behind just a hotel bill and a book on the importance of kidneys. But issue #15 sees the debut of Howard's best known foe, Doctor Bong. A journalist specialising in distortion and smears, he has become a mad scientist operating out of a castle on a strange island, performing experiments that produce strange half-human, half-animal creatures. He also has a bizarre bell shaped helmet from which he can emit sonic frequencies to cause whatever effect is desired. He has been infatuated with Beverly since they were students and now he forces her to marry him to save Howard from death. By the standards of the title he's not the most bizarre thing around but he makes for a pretty rounded character

However this series is very much not a conventional adventuring hero series, even if it is set in the regular Marvel universe, and many issues focus on the problems Howard faces as he tries to go about life in a world he never made. Often he encounters twists on day to day problems, such as his quest for money in issue #5 as he successively works as an assistant to a clown on children's television until he attacks the star, then as a debt collector for an electrical appliance company, and finally tries his hand wrestling and actually beats champion "The Goat" only to be denied the promised money for any man who can last three rounds because he's not a man. Most bizarre of all is Howard's campaign for President. Whilst travelling from Cleveland to New York, Howard and Beverley take jobs at the All-Night Party convention. Soon Howard finds himself as the party nominee on a platform of straightforward, honest offensive talking. He rapidly attracts the assassins and smear merchants. With the slogan "Get Down, America!" and a managed campaign that tries to avoid saying anything, Howard could have swept to victory. But then on polling day the papers fall for a hoax and print an appallingly composited picture that purports to show Howard and Beverley in the bath together. These were the days before widespread early voting and the Clintons so Howard's chances evaporated. Nevertheless in the real world thousands of voters found a fictional fowl talker from another dimension a better prospect than Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter (I can't imagine why...) and wrote-in votes for the Duck. Imagine if so many had done so and he'd actually won electoral votes... It's a good satire on politics and provides the series with its best remembered moment.

The series also overtly satirises a number of its contemporary comics such as Conan the Barbarian, Killraven and Master of Kung-Fu, though the more overt superheroes are sent-up though guest appearances instead. Spider-Man was used in the first issue in one of his earliest full-on guest appearances to launch a title, then later in the run we get a couple of issues with Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan, in which his demonic side is inadvertently released to possess Howard. There are also overt parodies of other cultural phenomenons, most obviously a Star Wars parody in which Howard and a gang of heroes, including a guest appearance by the Man-Thing, have to save the universe using the power of the "Farce".

But not everyone Howard encounters is hostile to him. In the first issue he encounters by far his best known friend, Beverly Switzler. The two then stay together for the next eighteen issues until she agrees to marry Doctor Bong to save Howard. Beverly is a young woman trying to make her own way in life and brings a sense of positive optimism to contrast with Howard’s pessimism. It's astonishing how close their relationship is shown to be, even though comics in that era couldn't be totally explicit. But there's a naturalness to their relationship that makes it work in spite of the basic oddness of it. After all the basic theme of the series is that the difference between the serious and the silly is only a point of view. Along the way Howard and Beverly acquire two other recurring friends of note, Winda Wester, a young lady with a speech impediment who is initially demonically possessed, and Paul Same, a tenant in the same building as Beverly, who initially has a sleep problem caused by insecurities but he overcomes this and discovers his talent as an artist. There's also Beverly's uncle who has the same name, but goes by "Lee" who briefly employs Howard and then gives him the remainder of the time of his rented flat. Between the various recurring characters we get some good interactions that enhance the succession of situations Howard finds himself in.

Issue #16 is a curiosity. Having missed the regular deadline, Steve Gerber instead offer up a rambling essay that's a dialogue between Howard and his creator, discussing the problems writers face and various literary conventions and trappings. It's a reminder that there was a time when something had to be published and the alternative was a reprint as seen with some of the other volumes from the 1970s. Clearly the idea of creating in advance standby fill-in issues that would be ready to print in any emergency had not yet been implemented at Marvel, although even that approach would have created problems because issue #16 comes in the middle of the introduction of Doctor Bong. The essay is exactly what it says it is, namely the rushed ramblings of a writer in a hurry. There's a few interesting concepts in there such as the battle between a show girl, an ostrich and a lamp shade, but overall it's not too satisfying. As a one-off novelty it naturally excited a few and at least it wasn't a reprint or a delayed issue, but it feels terribly awkward and out of place. Still full kudos to Gerber and Marvel for confessing so publicly about the delays on the series.

Sadly this volume ends on an incomplete note. Howard has concluded his dealings with the Circus of Crime and is left in Cleveland with memories. Beverly is still married to Doctor Bong and seems to be liking it, at least until he husband announces his plans both for world conquest and to slay Howard. However we don't get to see how that would be resolved, because after issue #27 Steve Gerber left the title. He contributed to one further issue for contractual reasons but otherwise fell out with Marvel over the issue of the ownership of Howard. It would be many years before he would write for both the company and the character again. Other writers would handle the character in the meantime, but the Essentials have yet to show their take on things. And there also came Howard's biggest moment.

Now it's almost impossible to approach the subject of Howard the Duck without acknowledging the film. Somehow this has obtained a reputation as one of the worst movies of all time. Yes it fell into the trap that virtually all live Marvel adaptations pre-Blade did of just not understanding the source material (it's not just about a duck from another world landing in ours, it's a strong social satire) and yes the duck costume isn't the best, but it's a relatively straight forward tale of a stranger trying to get home, having to understand the world he's come to and face a threat that stands in his way. Perhaps the real problem was expectations - if you take the creator of Star Wars and have him present an adaptation of a cult comic book character then you're already building things up. And then who exactly was the film aimed at? Comic book movies still had a "for kids" reputation but this one has some quite racy moments, to the point that here in the UK there's two versions on DVD, an uncut 12 certificate and a cut PG version. So if it wasn't really aiming at the cult audience the comic attracted and not really suitable for kids and not a high action, far out science fiction piece then just who was the target audience? All that said the film has done better than reported - its total box office takings exceeded production costs and that's even before the home video and TV income. (When the DVD came out here some years ago, somebody even felt confident enough to take out adverts in Metro newspaper.) But the critics panned it, George Lucas disowned it and even in the comics it's been hard for Howard to avoid jokes about the film. But should Howard be dogged by the film? Captain America didn't spend two decades with his rather awful 1990 film brought up all the time and it's easy to forget that there was a TV movie that said it was based on Doctor Strange in the late 1970s. But then they've both done a lot of other things. By contrast Howard has had long periods of inertia. And there was the massive creators' rights case which invariably drew attention to the potential profitability of the property, so its seeming failure to do well stood out more.

His original series was more successful in its day and left a whole generation of fans who gave it legendary status. But sometimes series don't live up to the legends surrounding them and that's very much the case with this one. To a contemporary cult audience Howard the Duck may well have been a biting satire on life in the mid-70s but when viewed out of context and out of time it really doesn't stand up very well. All in all this is quite a disappointment.

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