Asked how Howard the Duck was created, Gerber responded, "As a joke. It was the only sight gag I could think of to top Korrek jumping out of the jar of peanut butter..." As for his personality, Gerber said Howard "was a real character from the very beginning, and very easy to write. Howard is really my conscience."
Gerber explained why Val Mayerik had little to do with the creation of Howard the Duck: "...Val was in Ohio, and I was in New York, and they didn't have 5 cents-a-minute long distance in those days. I would send him very detailed plots for the stories." Gerber gave Mayerik a few visual cues, but left the rest of the Duck's appearance up to him: "I didn't mention the cigar; the cigar was Val Mayerik's creation. So was Howard's clothing. I just told Val, 'Don't make him look too much like Donald, and for God's sake, don't dress him in a sailor suit.' Because I included Howard's dialogue for that particular sequence of panels -- 'Clam up, buddy, you don't know what absurdity is,' etc. -- I think Val drew the kind of duck who might deliver that line."
Although Gerber refused to name or depict Howard's home world, he suggested that it was as real as our own planet: "Unlike the Disney and Warner's worlds, however, Howard's reality was beset with the same plethora of social ills and personal vicissitudes which human beings confront daily. And the same, or similar laws of nature applied there, too. (Example: if Wile E. Coyote gets run over by a steamroller, the result is a pancake-flat coyote who can be expected to snap back to three dimensions within moments; if Howard gets run over by a steamroller, the result is blood on asphalt.)"
Nor was Howard a two-dimensional cartoon living in a three-dimensional world, like Roger Rabbit. Gerber explained, "Howard isn't a 'toon.' He's a creature of flesh and blood who comes from a parallel universe where everybody looks like what we refer to as 'funny animals.' He was trapped in our world when something called the Cosmic Axis shifted, and beings from assorted realities began to spill over into neighbouring planes of existence."
When Mayerik's pencilled pages arrived at the Marvel offices, Gerber went in to retrieve them. With some trepidation, he showed the pages to editor-in-chief Roy Thomas so that any objections could be dealt with right away. Roy said it was okay, but that Gerber should get the duck out of there as soon as possible. "Roy never actually said, 'Kill the duck...'" Gerber recalled.
Roy Thomas recollected differently: "...I was involved in killing him. Steve Gerber came up with this character that, he wrote, 'vaguely resembles a duck.' When I saw it, I thought it was cute, but I was a little worried -- foolishly so -- that it might detract from this horror book. So I told Steve to kill him off and get him out of there."
FEAR #20 presented "Morbius, the Living Vampire" (which Gerber began scripting with issue #21), and the Man-Thing was given his own title. The Duck returned in the first issue of MAN-THING, where we learn his name is Howard. While traversing a surreal landscape similar to one you might find in DR. STRANGE, Howard slips and falls into limbo, presumably never to be seen again. The letters poured in praising Howard and demanding his return -- his own title, even. Legend has it that an irate Howard fan from Canada sent a large package to the Marvel offices. "I was out of the office at the time," said Gerber, "[but] someone sent Marvel the carcass of a duck. We had supposedly killed Howard off. It was a duck they had for Christmas, not the whole body, and tacked to the duck skeleton was a note that just read 'Murderers!'"
They knew they were onto something, so in the letters page for MAN-THING #5, Gerber proclaimed that "HOWARD THE DUCK SHALL RETURN!!" #9 presented further details: "Looks like the duck is out of the bag. Yep, it's true. Steve G. has already scripted the fantastic fowl's first solo story (entitled "Frog Death!"), and Neal Adams is indeed slated to draw it. Someday. At the rate it's going, we should be able to publish the splash page sometime early in 1979...As for which magazine it will grace, we don't know. We're not quite sure where it fits, exactly. At this point, it's kind of a toss-up among the HAUNT OF HORROR, CRAZY, and THE DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU."
Neal Adams must have dallied too long, because the art chores were handed over to Frank Brunner, and the finished product appeared eight months later in the quarterly GIANT-SIZE MAN-THING #4 (May, 1975), though the story was originally scheduled to appear in the third issue. Howard, literally in limbo, finally lands on terra firma, but, to his eternal regret, not on his home world. Rather, he ends up back on Earth, this time in Cleveland, Ohio.
Gerber said Howard's characterisation was his alone: "I had dinner with Frank when he decided to come aboard and do the book. I hadn't met him in person at the time we were doing the short stories, both of which were written as full scripts, not 'Marvel Style.' We had a really nice dinner, we talked out some ideas, I told him I wanted to do a sword and sorcery story, and he liked that." (Brunner, a former fandom artist and a fan of the sword and sorcery genre, drew in the Frazetta style.)
This was followed by another guest-shot in #5, again drawn by Brunner. Those two appearances were well received, and the issues sold well. When Gerber proposed the Howard comic to Stan Lee, he said "Great, do it." Gerber said, "By that time, he really liked the character and was very much in favour of it." Previously, Stan was barely even aware of the duck. Asked about him at comic conventions and lectures on the college circuit, Stan would invariably respond, "Howard the who?"
HOWARD THE DUCK #1 (March, 1976) was released in October, 1975, with Frank Brunner once again supplying the artwork. The ubiquitous Spider-Man made a guest appearance, but Gerber insisted that the idea wasn't foisted upon him: "I absolutely wanted Spider-Man in the first issue of HTD...I thought it would be completely outlandish."
The villain in the first issue is a "financial wizard" named Pro-Rata, who lives in a castle with walls composed of expired credit cards. More importantly, it introduced Beverly Switzler, a red-headed artists' model and Howard's future companion. (The nature of their relationship is never defined, though often speculated upon.) Mary Skrenes, who was also at the above mentioned dinner with Frank Brunner, came up with the name "Beverly," and Gerber admits that the character is loosely based on her. Bev's surname, "Switzler," was derived from Switzler Hall, a campus at the University of Missouri.
Right from the beginning HOWARD challenged the Code. At one point in the story, Howard says to Bev, "We landed in some kinda nest -- reminds me of where I was first laid." Gerber credits that double-entendre to Brunner, who scribbled it in the margins of his pencilled page.
The first issue sold well. In fact, it sold out! Well, sort of. Comic book dealers, predicting that HOWARD THE DUCK #1 -- more or less an anomaly in a medium dominated by superheroes -- would become a collector's item, went straight to the distributors and bought as many copies as they could, so only a small quantity made it to the newsstands. For several years, the shortage of Howard's debut issue was supposed to have been the result of a low print run, thus it immediately became an expensive collector's item on the back issue market. Those who paid an exorbitant sum for their copies soon found that they weren't "rare" or "scarce" at all, and their value dropped drastically. HOWARD THE DUCK #1 wasn't worth more than the paper it was printed on. This hoarding by speculators infuriated Gerber: "I was angry as hell. I felt as if the book had been sabotaged by the very people who supposedly liked the character." According to Gerber, that underhanded plot wasn't without repercussions: "The sales on #2 were respectable...but I think it would've done a lot better -- I think the whole series would've done a lot better -- had that first issue reached the stands."
The 2nd issue has Howard sharing Beverly's bed in her Cleveland apartment. One panel, showing Bev and Howard (wearing only his feathers) in bed, had to be partially redrawn by Brunner after the Code objected. The panel that was printed shows Howard standing on top of the bed. Most of the conversation was about Bev's friend, Arthur Winslow, a struggling fiction writer earning a living as a security guard. (Gerber admits that Arthur Winslow was based on fellow comics writer Don McGregor; the opening dream sequence was obviously a parody of McGregor's WAR OF THE WORLDS.)
That same night, while on the job, Arthur discovers a turnip from outer space that has just crash-landed in a warehouse. The turnip telepathically proposes a symbiotic relationship: "Might I suggest a MERGER, then, Arthur-meat? You gain my insight into the universe, which has come to BORE me, whilst I avail myself of the mobility, the opposable thumb, and the pleasures of the flesh, which you DISDAIN, but which are denied to me by my form." Winslow agrees on the condition that the turnip makes him "a hero, a scourge of evil, a defender of the common man."
The next afternoon, Howard and Bev are on a bus to visit Arthur. There Howard meets the Kidney Lady, an overweight, half-crazed, decrepit hag who hits him over the head with her cane and accuses him of trying to steal her kidneys and chastises him for his "wanton women and low morals." (The "wanton women" refers to Beverly, wearing a midriff-revealing top which garners a lot of stares from the men on the bus.) "No offense, grandma, but you need help. Lots of it," grumbles Howard. The Kidney Lady starts to rave, making little sense, while stomping on Howard's cigar. Howard, outraged, cuts her off: "Aaah, shuddup, ya bug-brained old bag! Who cares about your kidneys? I'm goin' for the throat!!" Howard throttles the Kidney Lady, and in the ensuing battle the bus veers out of control, but before it can crash, it's held suspended in the air. The garishly-costumed rescuer flies into view: Arthur Winslow, now "Turnip-Man, garden-fresh guardian of the good!"
To Arthur Winslow's shock, the space turnip completely takes over his physical form, smothers Bev in kisses and flies off with her. Howard runs after them and tears the leaves off of the turnip, which is being used as Arthur's helmet, when he realises that "the brains are in the greens!" The space turnip is destroyed and Arthur learns a life lesson. The Kidney Lady, who would be a thorn in Howard's side in future issues, was based on a real person Gerber encountered in Times Square.
A zealous reader, not unlike the Kidney Lady, sent a letter to the Comics Magazine Association of America, who administrate the Comics Code, complaining about the content of HOWARD THE DUCK #2. They forwarded the complaint to Marvel. It was never printed in the letters page, but Gerber proudly proclaimed this to be his favourite "fan" letter:
"Dec. 17, 1975
"Comics Magazine Association of America
"It is my understanding that you are the approvers, as per the cover seal bearing your identification, of the comics produced by the company known as Marvel Comics. If this is, indeed, the case, I would like to point out to you something that may have slipped your notice. I am referring to a magazine called HOWARD THE DUCK #2, MARCH, produced and sold by the above-named comic magazine producers.
"This is, as far as I have been able to ascertain, the ONLY magazine available regularly that features talking animals of the Disney ilk, and, as such, it provides immediate gratification to a group of consumers who dote on this form of entertainment and who, through lack of alternatives, will purchase THIS magazine before all others of the super-hero, war, mystery variety -- I am referring to very young readers.
"But, once purchased, this magazine becomes a pseudo-sexual, liberal, pseudo-intellectual pretense obviously written by an over-sexed manic depressive. For the first seven pages, the talking animal of the book is seen smoking cigars and sharing a bed with a scantily dressed and well-endowed young woman, discussing their 'hang ups'. Later in the book, the duck, called Howard, is accosted on a bus by a woman who admonishes him to live clean, eat right and live morally...then this woman is shown as a toothless, raving fanatic that Howard immediately feels compelled to strangle, thus assuring little children that might shall conquer over goodness and righteousness and that the latter two are a sham, a mockery foisted upon the earth by diseased, fanatical, stricken human beings.
"Later in the book, Howard's companion, now dressed a little bit further, after having been reunited with her 'human' boyfriend who has been assumed control over by an extraterrestrial turnip, asks said boyfriend if...when he attempts to proposition her...he thinks he can '...sustain a level of AROUSAL?' This is a quote...in a magazine sold to children!
"The 'turnip' also refers to it's [sic] human host as 'meat'...which, while I'm not sure what the harm is in this, hardly seems necessary for, again, the readers of this magazine who, again, I am sure will be, for the most part, children.
"I call this to your attention, without including my address, because I do not wish to be bothered answering counter-charges of any sort, because, as guardians of the morality of magazines sold to children, I feel you have been grossly derelict in your duties as set down in your code booklet, and I feel justified in asking that you either correct these errors in the future, or remove your name from the magazine's covers, so that educators, etc., will not be fooled into purchasing and distributing such garbage to their students, and so that parents will feel that they are being dealt with honestly.
Fred A. W---------" [last name withheld by Gerber]
Said Gerber, "I found it both delightful and gratifying -- a validation of everything I hoped to accomplish with HOWARD THE DUCK."
HOWARD had a new artist with issue #3: comics veteran John Buscema. Frank Brunner had quit, due to a "falling out" he had with Gerber: "...there were two reasons: Steve Gerber started writing full scripts, DC style, and giving them to me in pieces -- in other words, six pages here, six pages there, and I couldn't pace the story!" The other reason was that the sales figures for the first issue were good and Brunner wanted more money. The letters page for that issue told a less contentious story: "From what we understand, Mr. B. had grown a bit weary of the raw realism of this mag and wanted to get back to illustrating something a bit more fanciful." It was typical of Marvel at the time to not air their dirty laundry. (Despite referring to himself in the third person, Gerber wrote the replies to the letters himself, as he did with all of his books.)
The Kidney Lady was supposed to return the next issue, plotting Howard's "death at the legs and arms of the monstrous Chair-Thing," but Gerber, a very fickle writer, changed his mind. He said, "In my earliest years in comics, I used to plot everything on the fly. I'd start a story having no idea at all where it was going to end." This was a technique shared by few other writers: "Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not plot my stories months and months in advance. In fact, the 'next issue' blurb at the end of each story is the most difficult line for me to write. I change my mind like some people change underwear. Ideas go stale for me as quickly as...well, you get the gist. I'm easily bored." Indeed, those "next issue" blurbs didn't always deliver what they promised, but that very unpredictability is what made Gerber's stories fun.
Instead of the Kidney Lady, Gerber presented a commentary on the kung fu craze. "The best of them," opined Gerber, speaking of the martial arts movies, "depicted violence as a kind of poetry, a savage, exotic kind of ballet." As for the worst of them: "It's Sonny Chiba ripping out people's tongues and tearing off their genitals."
"Originally, I'd planned to do a parody of the MASTER OF KUNG FU book, with Howard doing the first-person narration, and so on. Then, Mary Skrenes and I were sitting in The Market diner at 44th Street and 11th Avenue in New York, trying to work out that plot and a couple of others, when some sort of incident took place out on the sidewalk. We couldn't even see clearly what was happening, but by the time we got up and left our seats to see what sort of insanity was going on out there, a kid came staggering into the diner, his face bloodied, stab wounds all over his body, and collapsed on the floor. We were told by one of the waitresses the next day that he had died. It was at that point, after that incident, after walking up and down 9th Avenue and Times Square in New York and seeing the kids play with nunchaku sticks as if they were squirt guns, that I decided a story like 'Four Feathers of Death' had to be done."
At the beginning of the story, Howard and Bev are leaving a theatre, having just viewed a martial arts movie. Howard hated the movie. "How can you call ripping out somebody's tongue 'entertainment'?" he grouses (no pun intended). Some boys on the street, who seem to be in their early teens, emulating the fighting seen in the movie, accidentally knock over Howard, putting him in an even worse mood. Howard and Bev find a diner to sit in, where the Duck continues to rant about how kids emulate violence in the media without understanding the reality of the consequences. "Ever been in a street brawl, Bev? Ever see a kid's face after a club or brass knuckles or a broken bottle has done its work?...Yeah, well...some punks feed on the sight, 'specially if they did the damage."
Suddenly, the boy who'd knocked Howard over is violently thrown through the diner window. A large brute enters, followed by four other punks, and in a commanding voice booms, "Stand away! Touch him, try to help him -- and you, too, will be maimed, crippled or disfigured by -- Count Macho!"
Howard intervenes: "Uh, look, champ -- you're comin' on pretty heavy. I think the kid got the message. Why dontcha -- ?"
Count Macho slaps Howard aside. "He attacked me! Blocked my path! Raised his hand to strike me! No man threatens Count Macho -- and lives!"
"B-but he's not a man!" Bev pleads. "He's barely into puberty. Why don't you pick on someone your own size?"
"Man or boy," Count Macho retorts, "he must pay the price -- for affronting a master of the deadly arts."
The boy attempts to get up and flee. "You're crazy, man -- it was a joke, that's all! I didn't mean -- "
Count Macho kicks the boy in the back of the head with tremendous force. "I am not one to be toyed with. I consider every attack to be real...and deal with it accordingly."
He continues beating the boy and other men in the diner enter the fray, attacking Macho's pals. The diner's patrons are no match for the thugs, and during the melee the boy is stabbed in the chest. The gang leaves, laughing and slapping each other on the back, revelling in their own violence. Howard, outraged, attacks Count Macho but gets punched in the beak.
The boy is taken away in an ambulance and Howard sets out for a walk, "too wired...to relax." He finds a late night adult bookstore, Lavender Flamingo ("For the Discriminating Adult Bibliophile"). Inside, drooling men are ogling magazines with titles like "For Love or Perspiration," "Carlin's Wild Night," and "Outside the Industry." Howard peruses the martial arts section, selecting a title at random, "Deadly Feet of Kung Fu." Flipping through the magazine, he's drawn to an ad: "Secrets of kung fu revealed! No tricks! No skill or previous training required! Mind and body tuned in minutes!" Master Chaaj's (get it?) school of instant achievement promises to give Howard the skill he needs to give Count Macho "a taste of his own medicine," especially since the school seems to be conveniently located in Cleveland, a mere two blocks away.
There, Howard finds a solitary figure, an old man, shaven head and long whiskers, in a robe. Howard admits that he's only interested in vengeance, not enlightenment. "What do you know of your adversary besides his self-aggrandizing name?" Master Chaaj inquires. "Zilch," says Howard, but he shows him an amulet which belonged to Count Macho, which he tore from Macho's neck during their struggle. Master Chaaj recognizes it. It turns out Count Macho had been one of his students who now misuses his teachings. "It is necessary, I think, he be taught one lesson more," says Master Chaaj. "And for this final instruction, you shall be his teacher..." Howard concurs.
Lesson One: "Behold: a live caterpillar and a dead butterfly. Which of the two would you rather be?"
"The caterpillar, natch," says Howard. "It's still breathin'!"
"Wrong. The caterpillar is two metamorphoses behind the butterfly on the path to eternal life."
And so the lessons, both philosophical and physical, go, until the final lesson: "The irrelevance of chronological time to the enlightenment of man or fowl. Your will to achieve has enabled you to complete a lifetime of study in a mere three hours and seventeen minutes." Master Chaaj presents Howard with a silken robe and bandanna, the same design used by Marvel's Shang Chi character from the excellent MASTER OF KUNG FU comic.
While Howard was taking lessons, Bev was kidnapped by Count Macho's men. Arriving back at the apartment, Howard finds a ransom note stuck to the door with a dagger. "Nuts, you'd think he could just use tape..." Howard says to himself. He reads the note: "If you wanna see you-know-who you-know-how again, bring you-know-what to the top of the construction site at the corner of Hueno and Wayre Streets you-know-when."
Count Macho wants his medallion back. (Why he wants it back so badly is a mystery. As Master Chaaj told Howard: "We offer that charm -- for only $5.98 -- to all our graduates.") The Count and his goons are atop a skyscraper-in-progress with Bev. Her hands tied to a hook at the end of a crane, she's suspended high above the city streets.
Count Macho's threats to Beverly are interrupted when Howard arrives: "Aw, button yer lip, ya puny, pusillanimous, pea-brained pugilist!"
Count Macho turns. "What?! Who dares -- ?!"
Howard is leaning against the wall casually, and insolently says, "Ah, c'mon -- knock off the comic book dialogue, will ya? What's so daring about calling you names? You're a big, hairy, barrel-chested mouth with nothin' to back it up!"
Count Macho orders his men to "waste him." Howard takes care of his opponents forthwith, and then turning to Count Macho, says, "You're fresh outta goons, Count. Looks like yer gonna have ta take me on yourself -- assuming you're man enough, ya sissy!"
Count Macho simply LOSES IT! In a terrific rage he jumps at Howard, kicking him, almost knocking him off the building. He swings his nunchaku at Howard, only to be disarmed. In final frustration, he tears a knife from inside his shirt and whips it at his nemesis, screaming "DIE!!"
Howard catches the knife between his fingers and calmly utters, "No."
Furious, Count Macho leaps at Howard: "Yes! Yes! Die when I tell you to die!" Howard steps aside and Count Macho dives off the building. The caption reads: "And he falls, still screaming curses at the woman and the duck, still protesting fate's unfairness -- that he, a man's man, a fighter, a street warrior who never let anyone push him around, should be squashed like an insect on the pavement 42 stories below..."
Bev, brought to safety, tells Howard, "Don't suffer any self-recrimination. Macho got what he deserved. The kid...didn't make it. Funny...it doesn't make me feel any better. Death is death. Macho deserved worse, really..." Sometimes it's hard to determine which of the two is less of a bleeding heart: Howard or Beverly.
The letters page in issue #5 contained a rarity: a letter from Stan Lee in response to a story. Stan wrote:
"I hate you.
"'Master of Quak Fu' was one of the best written comics I've ever been jealous of.
"Who needs the competition?"
Needless to say, Gerber was elated. The Bullpen Bulletin page for the June, 1976 issues revealed some inside info on HOWARD's future artists: "Hot on the tail of Big John Buscema's rendering of the Duck's third issue, Gentleman Gene Colan will be putting his titanic talents to pencilling issue four, and after Gene, the previously mentioned Bernie Wrightson will be taking over as Howard's permanent penciller." Wrightson was one of the greatest horror/fantasy illustrators of the 20th century, and it would have been nice to see him illustrate at least one issue of HOWARD, but it was never to be. But things have a way of working themselves out, and Colan remained the permanent artist on HOWARD. His realistic, natural style made Howard's plight as a cartoonish duck trapped in a world he never made seem even more absurd.
The fourth issue introduced a new supporting character, Paul Same, a painter and sculptor, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Gerber. Paul suffers from narcolepsy, and sleepwalks at night as a vigilante calling himself "Winky-Man," his costume consisting of pyjamas, robe, slippers, and night cap; his weapon, a Roman candle.
Howard, unable to sleep, patronizes a bar at three in the morning, and sits positioned between two drunken slobs:
"You rilly a duck?" says one. "Lemme hear ya quack!"
"He-e-ey! he's my buddy! You let 'im alone!" says the other, grabbing the first one by the lapels and pulling him closer, squashing Howard between them.
"Don't tell me whadda do! I want 'im ta quack -- or I'll bash yer head in!" He pulls the other's hat down over his face. The conversation breaks down: "Hey!!" "Hey, whad?" "Hey, you!"
Howard looks like he's going to be sick. "Guys...you're gassin' me...!" he gasps.
The two drunks start punching each other, and suddenly the bar is a war zone. Winky-Man bursts through the doors with his Roman candle: "Knock it off, you drunken bums! Something Winky this way comes!" Howard recognizes Paul right away, and pulls him from the bar, saving him from a beating. Eventually, Paul exorcises his psychological demons and is able to sleep like a baby for the first time in his life.
On the "Wise Quacks" letters page for that issue, an important announcement was made:
"Marvel Comics has never before endorsed a candidate for office, but now, in this Bicentennial bummer of a year, at this crossroads in the pathway of our nation and civilization, in this impossible era when tumult and social trauma have given way to the mire of mediocrity and monotony...well, it's time to take a stand.
"WE'RE DRAFTING HOWARD AS A CANDIDATE IN THE 1976 PRESIDENTIAL RACE!
"For this reason, we're backing THE candidate with charisma; THE candidate who has no vested interests, owes no favours, and believes that all hairless apes were created equal!"
Assuring the readers that this was no gag, campaign buttons were available, with the slogan, "Get down, America!" and sporting an illustration of Howard by Bernie Wrightson, selling for $1.00 plus 25 cents for postage and handling, cheques made payable to Gerber.
Issue #5 dealt with Howard and Bev's money problems in a realistic way. They were flat broke. The first page shows Beverly in her robe and slippers triumphantly displaying a quarter found after ransacking the apartment in search of cash. "Let's see..." says Bev, counting the coins. "With the change we found in drawers...yep! Just enough for a candy bar apiece for dinner!"
With rent and overdue bills to pay, Howard heads to the store to get two Snickers bars. There, he notices an insipid comic book called "Quackie Duck" and concludes that he could make big money exploiting himself as a talking duck. He tries out for Gonzo the clown's kids' show, but when he steps out on stage he's introduced as "Dopey Duck" and gets a pie in the face. He punches out Gonzo during the live broadcast. In the end, Howard and Bev start hitchhiking, hoping to find their fortune in New York.
The letters page contains a campaign bulletin: "Though entered in none of the major primaries across the country, the Waddle (ducks don't gallop) Poll shows Howard already several percentage points ahead of President Ford..."
It was a dark and stormy night when issue #6 opens, with Howard and Bev stranded in the middle of nowhere. Bev leaves Howard, tired of his negativity. Howard is devastated, but tries to hide his feelings: "S-sure. Shucks, if this's what ya really want. I can't deny I'm hell to live with..."
Bev walks uphill for hours through the storm and a flash of lightning illuminates an old mansion. Mistaken for the new governess, she's let in by Patsy, a young girl living there with her insane mother.
In the morning, Howard meets a cult, the "Yucchies," led by the Reverend Joon Moon Yuc. An eccentric real estate agent named Heathcliff comes galloping along on a horse and seizes Howard, mistaking him for "Reverend Duck," to close the deal on the old mansion which the cult wishes to purchase cheap. The superstitious townspeople want to raze it, however, believing that Patsy is creating something sinister in the basement laboratory. The girl insists she's just baking cookies. "Uh, sweetheart...this isn't exactly a Home Ec lab," Howard remarks as Patsy gives everyone a tour of her bakery. "And much as I desperately wanna believe you -- no chef I ever knew hadda strap down his pastries." Indeed, Patsy was baking a giant ginger bread monster.
Gerber, who'd written many stories involving cults, had originally named the Korean leader of the Yucchies "Sun Moon Dung," but, he says, someone at Marvel changed it so as not to offend the obvious target.
As of that issue, HOWARD THE DUCK went monthly. Gerber was still offering Howard buttons on the letters page, same price: "For your trouble, you'll receive a genuine brown envelope containing your massive, two-inch diameter, full-colour HTD button and an incredibly sloppy note from Steve on yucchy green paper." The text of that yucchy green paper read:
"DUCK-PADDLING UP THE POLITICAL MAINSTREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS -- WITHOUT AN OAR-ELSE.
"This year, the nation celebrates two hundred years of political quackery by offering its citizens a choice for leadership from among a Grand Rapids rattletrap, a well-oiled peanut, and a ray-gun more terrifying than any devised by science fiction.
"Our options are clear, perhaps even blatant: either we collapse in hysterical sobs, hum a Kaddish for the country, and shuffle off the way of the buffalo -- or we go "Waaaaugh!" in the face of the system and VOTE HOWARD THE DUCK IN '76!
"WHAT HOWARD REPRESENTS:
"THE WEANING OF AMERICA: no more breast-fed platitudes, no more government by homily. "You'd think," says The Duck, "that after two hundred years, we'd get tired of the taste of bland mother's milk from our Presidential candidates."
"CLEANER, BRIGHTER GOVERNMENT WITH NO WAXY YELLOW BUILD-UP: In fact, no hype of any kind -- without regard to race, creed, or texture. Waddling forward into the 21st Century with no apologies, no regrets, no promises, and no shoes.
"AND MUCH, MUCH MORE, TOO, ALSO, BESIDES! Positions on issues too numerous to list in a flier devoted basically to puffery.
"WATCH FOR HTD'S WEAKLY CAMPAIGN UPDATES, BEGINNING IN SEPTEMBER, TAKING UP VALUABLE SPACE ON VIRTUALLY EVERY MARVEL COMICS LETTERS PAGE.
"ATTENTION BOOKSTORE OWNERS: WANNA BE OFFICIAL HTD CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS IN YOUR TOWN? INQUIRE ABOUT OUR SPECIAL CAUCUS TO BE HELD DURING JULYCON.
"GET DOWN, AMERICA!!"
The "weakly" was intentional. Those little updates did appear weekly, but only in select titles. Another newsletter was released, this time even cruder than the first.
In issue #8, Patsy's ginger bread monster is alive and Howard and Bev are trapped in the basement with it, along with Patsy, her mother, Heathcliff, and Reverend Yuc. Howard starts chewing its leg: "It can't eat us -- if we eat it first!!" One leg detached, the abomination topples over into electrical equipment, which starts a fire. Howard and Bev escape through the tower.
Bev wonders if the others managed to get out of the conflagration and Howard responds, "Maybe. Maybe not. But we're not goin' back to check."
"B-but Howard -- " says Bev, "she's just a little girl!"
Unmoved, Howard mumbles, "Uh-huh...an' only slightly homicidal!"
Bev and Howard hitchhike again, this time making it all the way to New York in the Rolls Royce of country star Dreyfuss Gultch, who's going there to sing at the "All-Night Party" convention, where the party is to elect their new candidate for President. Gultch gives Bev a job as a hostess and Howard a job as a security guard. Howard discovers a bomb planted at the convention and inserts it into a giant cake, minimizing the explosion. The elected leader quits, not willing to risk the dangers of his position. The people choose Howard as the party's new leader. Howard, befuddled, accepts: "Well...I mean...I guess I got nothin' planned between now an' November..."
They'd foregone the letters page that issue, offering instead a full page of campaign update articles, much of it excerpts from Howard's campaign speeches. On the issue of unemployment, he says "the problem isn't unemployment -- it's how to provide you hairless apes with a more convincing rationale for spending half your waking lives battling tedium just to make somebody else rich...As for hijackings, they've got to stop. Not only are people getting killed, nobody gets to see the end of their in-flight movie anymore." On the issue of crime in the streets: "I'm in favor of licensing muggers, pushers, and all criminals and taxing their profits. Why should the poor, middle-class slob be taxed for what's lifted from his pocket?"
A Howard the Duck campaign portrait was offered, sepia-toned, 8" x 10" on heavy stock, illustrated once again by Bernie Wrightson. The buttons, which measured "two inches in every direction except thick," were still for sale.
This issue, #7, continued in Marvel's over-sized HOWARD THE DUCK TREASURY EDITION. Hardly important to the continuity of the regular HOWARD THE DUCK series, the 28-page story guest starred The Defenders, and a new group of super-villains -- including someone calling himself The Spanker -- who want to make a name for themselves by assassinating the duck.
The book also featured a re-cap of Howard's appearances in FEAR #19 and MAN-THING #1, and reprints of his two solo adventures in GIANT-SIZE MAN-THING. It also reprinted HOWARD THE DUCK #1, unusual for such a recent issue. Gerber justified its inclusion on the letters page of HOWARD #5, offering a word of advice to all the "Friends of the Fowl who were deprived of that first issue by greedy souls: DON'T PAY GOUGERS' PRICES FOR HOWARD THE DUCK #1. We're already planning an unprecedented HOWARD THE DUCK TREASURY EDITION which will reprint that issue..."
The TREASURY EDITION also included a "Know Your Candidate" page, with Howard being interviewed by Gerber. Asked why he wanted to be President, Howard answered, "All the standard reasons. Your power. Your fame. Your niche in history. But mostly it's the salary. See, I'm currently unemployed, and 200 grand a year would fill the void nicely. Especially with four years' free rent tossed in to sweeten the deal."
There was even a page of "Unsolicited Testimonials" from superheroes. The Thing: "He smokes a mean stogie. That's good enough fer me!" Thor: "When thou lookest upon yon slate of candidates, then wilt thou see, with eyes moistened by sorrow, that thou truly hast no choice." Daredevil: "My super-hearing has been attuned to his heartbeat from the start of the campaign, so I can guarantee -- he'll never lie to you." The Hulk: "Hulk likes little duck! Duck is Hulk's friend! Vote for duck or Hulk will smash your face!"
Howard spends most of the ninth issue dodging assassins' bullets and other means of delivering death. Howard's advisor, Mr. Studley, explains to him, as though it were a positive thing, that his "assassination quotient" far exceeds Ford and Carter's.
"Th-that's good??" Bev asks.
"Good? It's great!" Studley exults. "It means people care!"
Gerber presented another of his long-winded text pages, this time a partial transcript of a nationally televised press conference at the Hotel Rykrisp in New York City, November 1, 1976. At one point Howard is asked how he feels about violence in the media. Like his creator, Howard is all for it: "As long as it's never presented as cathartic -- as a release, as a solution. A kid oughtta know what he's gettin' into if he's contemplatin' stabbing or shootin' somebody. It's messy. The blood gets all over the floor. It smells bad. It's ugly to look at. I think violence should be presented honestly -- as disgustingly and offensively as possible. There's no such thing as tasteful violence."
At the end of the issue, Dreyfuss Gultch shows Howard and Bev the latest headline: "Scandal Plucks Duck," beneath which is a faked photo of Howard and Bev sharing a bathtub.
The letters page presented the last of the campaign updates, including a "noose flash": "DUCK CAMPAIGN AT ALL-TIME LOW: CAMPAIGN MANAGER EMBEZZLING FUNDS, CLAIMS HTD. Howard the Duck today accuses his campaign manager, Stephen R. Gerber, of embezzling funds from the sale of official HTD FOR PRESIDENT BUTTONS and CAMPAIGN PORTRAITS of the Duck. Gerber claims that the buttons -- resplendEnt in four-colours, two inches in diameter, and redolent of printer's ink -- were his property..."
Issue #9 begins the day following the elections. Possibly due to the scandal, Howard lost. He didn't stand a chance, actually. "He got about 200 [write-in votes] in the general election," recalled Gerber. If Howard were to run for President today, Gerber half-jokingly suggested that he might have to fake the sex scandal "in order to win."
By this time, Howard had become a very popular duck, and what little time Gerber (now earning $26.50 per page) must have had left to himself was spent being interviewed for numerous national newspapers and magazines, like the NEW YORK MAGAZINE, the NEW YORKER, and the WASHINGTON POST. Even PLAYBOY jumped on the bandwagon in their June, 1977 issue. For that magazine, Gerber spoke about Howard's success -- and, naturally, the Duck's sex appeal: "The little kids like it because it's this funny little duck. The older kids are hip to the satire. Also, I think part of Howard's appeal has to do with his sexual presence. There's a sensual quality to him that is not present in other comic-book characters, who are generally so sleek and pristine that there seems to be no substance there. But Howard's always ruffled, you can see the wrinkles on his clothes, you have the feeling you could reach out and touch him. If you stood Howard next to Superman, you could tell instantly which would be more interesting to jump into bed with. It's no contest."
Howard was so popular, Marvel was set to capitalize on it by introducing two new "cartoon" characters, Midas, the Million-Dollar Mouse and Super Rabbit, the Marvel Bunny, both to be written by Marv Wolfman and illlustrated by John Costanza and Sam Grainger, respectively. Gerber mentioned it briefly in the letters page of HOWARD #10: "As for Marvel's new funny-animal titles -- they're just that, funny-animals books, not HTD rip-offs. We know that Howard is unique...and that any attempts (by ourselves or anyone else) to duplicate the Duck would be turkeys." Regardless of that diplomatic justification, the books never saw the light of day.
The next few issues (#10-15) deal with Howard's nervous breakdown. #11 introduces Winda Wester, who would be added to the cast of supporting characters. (Winda speaks with a lisp, so her name might actually be Linda Lester.) Winda was possessed, so Gerber brought in Daimon Hellstrom to exorcise her. He also gave the rock band Kiss a cameo as Winda's demons. Their appearance was more or less to promote the upcoming KISS #1, a large, full-colour, $1.50 comic magazine starring the band -- battling Doctor Doom -- written by Gerber. Now a collector's item, the magazine was produced with the full cooperation of the band, particularly Gene Simmons. (In fact, the red ink used in the printing was partially mixed with blood donated by Kiss.) The initial press run of a quarter million sold out, and a second edition sold 80% of its press run. In all, half a million copies sold, in percentages not seen for decades.
The letters page in #13 announced that there would be a Howard the Duck newspaper strip beginning in June, written by Gerber and drawn by Gene Colan. The strip debuted on June 6, 1977.
Chronologically, the first (and only) HOWARD THE DUCK ANNUAL came next, with Val Mayerik returning as artist. Issue #15 of the regular series introduced Howard's arch-nemesis, Dr. Bong. Meant to be a Doctor Doom parody, Dr. Bong wears a cape and a bell completely covering his head, with his left hand replaced by a mace, used as a bell-clapper and weapon. Dr. Bong is in love with Beverly and kidnaps her from a cruise ship, as she, Howard, Winda and Paul return home from Bagmom in the Middle East, having been conveyed there by a flying carpet in the ANNUAL for an Arabian Nights adventure. The Dr. Bong storyline, however, was interrupted by the notorious HOWARD THE DUCK #16, the "deadline" issue.
If Gerber was testing readers' patience before by including a text page (accompanied by an illustration) in many of his comics, he went all the way this time. Issue #16 contained no dialogue or captions. Individual illustrations were provided by Alan Weiss, Ed Hannigan and Bob Wiacek, Dave Cockrum, Tom Palmer, John Buscema, Dick Giordano, and Mike Nasser and Terry Austin. Gerber -- between writing HOWARD THE DUCK, the Howard ANNUAL, the (yet to be published) Howard newspaper strip, OMEGA THE UNKNOWN, the KISS magazine, and moving from New York to Las Vegas -- missed the deadline for this issue, so Gene Colan had nothing to draw. Rather than go reprint, Gerber took a huge chance on an experimental fill-in issue in which he spoke frankly about his nervous breakdown, writing, philosophy, comics, and the Duck.
Early in 1977, Gerber moved out of his "luxurious Hell's Kitchen abode" and left for Vegas in a van. (He would only stay in Vegas for four months, before moving on to Los Angeles.) At the time, he had a "near-complete collection of the Marvel books from 1961 on..." He admitted, "I try to avoid talking about this, because it gives people heart failure. When I left New York in late 1976 [sic], I just abandoned it. I was sick of lugging all those boxes around."
It was midway on his drive while passing through Missouri that Gerber came up with the idea to produce a special album issue. A sort of abstract road journal/confessional, it might have been therapeutic for Gerber, but most of the fans weren't amused. The letters came in:
"Regarding HOWARD #16: the tedium is the message."
"What right have you (or any writer) to bore the reader with your own personal inner demon struggles? This is the kind of thing you write in your personal journal, not allow to be shown coast-to-coast to millions of readers...I read HTD for the satire and social commentary. Not for the personal problems of the writer." (This reader also says that the issue made him "want to puke.")
"Next time go reprint."
"Trying to watch the hour hand on a clock move is more interesting than reading HTD #16."
"...I don't think I will send you any more money. You will probably beg for my forgiveness tomorrow at the unemployment line, with my spit shining on your shallow foreheads, and did I not wish to avoid a scandal I would also slap your face."
"Where do you get off feeding us readers a bunch of trash like HTD #16?"
"Sick, absolutely sick! First Howard is a mental case, and now you! Waaaugh yourself!"
These were just some of the printable letters. There were others who enjoyed the issue, though one qualified his statement by adding, "...but, Steve -- see a shrink." Another said, "By all means give the Las Vegas chorus girl her own book and a return match with the killer lampshade." This was a reference to the "obligatory comic book fight scene," which Gerber criticized but included in the album issue to sustain the reader's interest, and which was accompanied by a double-page illustration by Tom Palmer. The Las Vegas chorus girl and her pet ostrich did get their own comic, written by Gerber -- but not until over 20 years later, and for another company.
As the cover of #16 stated, it was a "Once in a Lifetime Album Issue," and "Gerber was wise to promise he'd never do it again. And he won't. Not if he plans to see his thirty-first year."
Dr. Bong appeared in the next four issues, forcing Bev to marry him and remain on his island. Bong, also a parody of H.G. Wells's Dr. Moreau, changes Howard into a human, and Howard returns to New York in his new body, but later reverts back to his natural form. New Gerberesque villains appear: Sudd, a dishwasher at a greasy spoon diner, is chemically transformed into "the scrubbing bubble that walks like a man," and tries to clean and disinfect the sleaze from the city's streets by scouring people to death. A bucket of water is all it takes to dissolve Sudd.
#20 was Gene Colan's last issue as regular artist. #21 had another veteran, Carmine Infantino, as guest-artist. In this issue, Howard meets the Soofi, an acronym for "Save Our Offspring From Indecency," a group trying to foist their own moral values on the public -- and using deadly terrorist tactics to achieve their goals. All members are disguised by a "happy face" mask, including the leader who, revealed to Howard at the end, is coyly suggested to be Anita Bryant.
Taking a break from heavy subject matter, the next two issues reunite Howard with Man-Thing, Jennifer Kale, Korrek the barbarian, and Dakimh the sorcerer in an other-worldly adventure, partially parodying the Star Wars movie.
After defeating Berserk Joe, who wanted to turn the universe into a giant shopping mall, Howard is back in New York, and spends issue #24 aimlessly wandering the nighttime streets. He attempts to rescue a young lady at a bus stop from what he thought was a predator, only to discover that he was interrupting a couple's kinky sexual play. Bored with that particular fantasy -- and her husband -- the girl suggests that Howard take his place. Howard passes on the offer.
The next three issues (#25-27) are some of the funniest, as Howard gets involved with old Marvel villains the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime. What made the appearances by Man-Thing, Spider-Man, the Defenders, Daimon Hellstrom and Ringmaster work were the fact that they played it "straight" and let the absurd situations around them -- Howard being the most absurd -- provide the humour.
After issue #26, the comic went bi-monthly. Regardless, issue #27 was Gerber's last issue. Mary Skrenes wrote #28 from a plot by Marv Wolfman, with Carmine Infantino pencilling, but this was a fill-in issue, produced over a year earlier. The next issue was also a fill-in produced much earlier, written by Gerber, from a plot by Mark Evanier, with art by Will Meugniot. It was in this issue that Gerber announced he would no longer be writing HOWARD THE DUCK, "for reasons much too complicated to elucidate..." Bill Mantlo took over as writer, but after two more issues the colour comic was discontinued and replaced by a larger, black and white HOWARD THE DUCK magazine, which lasted only nine issues.
Gerber not only wrote the KISS book, but also edited and, more or less, oversaw the production from start to finish. It was originally Gerber's idea back in 1977 to do Howard in magazine format. He first mentioned it in the Fall, 1977 issue of FOOM: "After issue #23, there's a possibility that someone else will be writing the regular HTD comic, under my editorial direction, while I launch an amazing, all new HOWARD THE DUCK magazine in the KISS format -- forty pages of full-colour comics, with painted covers by Jim Starlin. It will probably be a test title, at first, with approximately thirty-four pages of Howard comics material, and a six-page back-up feature, which I haven't quite decided on yet. Actually, the Duck story may vary in length. The magazine section will be printed on slick paper and will also be in colour, featuring articles on almost everything, as well as original short fiction. That's basically all I can say about it now. It'll be $1.50, and it'll also be slightly more sophisticated than the regular comic book."
The magazine idea was dropped, at least during Gerber's tenure at Marvel. His conception of the magazine format was "aimed at the readers who are much more likely to appreciate Howard. Older readers, excluding hardcore fans, just don't browse through the comic rack -- people who would buy the NATIONAL LAMPOON or HEAVY METAL on the newsstand. Canceling the 35-cent book in favour of the $1.50 magazine would have been a very smart move on Marvel's part. In fact, I suggested it to them last July . At the time, they told me that I must be insane." Gerber said Stan Lee didn't think it made good sense to cancel the regular comic. "They wanted to do both magazines, the four-colour comic and the Super Special format. Their master plan was to convert the regular comic into a slightly sophisticated funny-animal book. And I was opposed to that. I felt it was a bastardization of the concept, and really didn't want to see it done. The decision was made at the time to stay with the 35-cent book." Eventually, they did utilize the idea to some degree, publishing the new $1.50 HOWARD THE DUCK black and white magazine, the first issue cover-dated October, 1979.
It's often written that Gerber left Marvel in 1978. He didn't leave. He was fired (insomuch as a freelancer can be fired). The problem started with the newspaper strip. Gerber explained: "Gene and I were supposed to get a percentage of the syndicate's take on the strip. The problem was, the money came in 90 days, 120 days, six months -- I don't remember how long exactly -- after the strips were published. So, essentially, the artist was working for nothing up until that time, and no artist can afford to do that." Gerber and Colan were both freelancers and had no regular salary coming in, and Colan had already given up one comic to work on the newspaper strip. Gerber continues: "I had a huge fight with Marvel about getting Gene an advance for his work. I wasn't even asking them to pay Gene, as such -- just advance him regular comic book rates against the income from the syndication." Marvel didn't want to spend the money. "Once the arguments started, they escalated very quickly."
Marvel threw the first punch. "I was dismissed from the Howard the Duck newspaper strip in a manner which violated the terms of my written agreement with Marvel," Gerber told THE COMICS JOURNAL's Gary Groth in a publicized letter. "Marvel was advised that I was contemplating legal action which would likely result in my ownership of the Howard the Duck character and all rights therein. As a consequence of the notice given Marvel by my lawyers, the company chose to terminate my contract on the comic books as well."
Marv Wolfman took over the writing on the newspaper strip. Gerber had written the strip until February 26, 1978, and although his name appears in the credits until April 13, 1978, he claims he never wrote them. Gerber had a few comments about it: "[In] Marv Wolfman's version of the strip, about all that remains of the feel and thrust and the general direction of the magazine are the names of the characters. It has descended into simple-minded parody. They've amputated its social commentary as if it were a vestigial tail. It has been lobotomized." The newspaper strip was cancelled after October 29, 1978.
At the time of his firing, Gerber still owed Marvel about 20 pages, which would, he said, "probably take the form of a 'Lilith' story." That story, the last from Gerber, was published in MARVEL PREVIEW #16, (Fall, 1978).
The battle for the Duck was just beginning.