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The Essential Howard The Duck
Steve Gerber, Frank Brunner, and Gene Colan
Marvel paperback £9.99

review by Patrick Hudson

Howard the Duck first appeared in the pages of Man-Thing, a feature in Mavel's 1970s' horror anthology Adventure Into Fear. Man-Thing was a rather tepid entry in the 'misunderstood vehicle of cosmic retribution' subgenre that included Werewolf By Night, Ghost Rider, Hellstrom - Son Of Satan and a number of others, including DC's very similar Swamp Thing. By the time of Adventure Into Fear #19, Man-Thing was involved in the kind of convoluted trans-dimensional eschatology that aimless comics and sci-fi sink to when the initial creative momentum dries up, when out of the Florida Everglades stepped Howard the Duck.

Within a few pages the plain spoken and sceptical duck slipped off a carelessly placed dimensional platform and out of the Man-Thing's story for good, but there was sufficient positive feed back for Marvel to spin the character off into a couple of tales in the pages of Giant Size Man-Thing, and these generated even more interest which convinced Marvel to give the character a whirl in his own book.

This volume collects all of Howard the Duck's appearances from that moment in Adventure Into Fear through the first 27 issues of his own title. Howard's adventures begin as wild parodies of comics, sci-fi and fantasy and while they never really lose that flavour, Howard quickly turns his attention to the world at large, taking in the 1976 US presidential election, the Moonies, mental health and descending into Howard's subconscious for several issues worth of rather postmodern navel gazing. Even some of the comics parodies go further than genre mockery into actual deconstruction, and the curtain is pulled away entirely in issue 16 when Gerber, overcome by a conflation of deadline-doom and real life issues delivers an essay on life, comics and everything illustrated by a roster of Marvel's top artists, before picking up the haphazard plot in issue 17. The plot never makes much sense, but has the genuine feeling of extemporisation, with story lines frequently set aside in favour of the latest whim.

Gerber has a surer hand with the characterisation, and one of the most appealing elements is Howard's relationship with the main female co-star Beverly, an unabashedly romantic bond. While it's never made explicit, it is clear that they are having a sexual relationship, unusually frank for Marvel comics of the era, particularly as one of the participants is a duck. Maybe Gerber's low-key handling of it slipped past the censors, but there's something very sophisticated about the way it's handled that's very different from the gee whiz dating of Peter Parker and Mary Jane.

Art is supplied mainly by Gene Colan, who was rare among US mainstream comics artists of that era in that he could do 'ordinary'. He adds to the comic's matter of fact characterisation and gives the characters a human touch that is often missing from the Marvel comics of the 1960s and 1970s. The occasional interjection of superheroes into the title - Spider-Man makes a couple of appearances, The Defenders feature in one storyline, - simply blend into the other absurd elements, not least the presence of Howard himself. There's even a guest appearance by the rock group Kiss, apparently for no other reason than that Gerber wrote two Marvel Super Specials featuring Kiss in 1977.

Howard The Duck taps a vein of satirical humour that had its roots in Mad Magazine and had flowered during the 1960s in the underground comics into an enjoyably scurrilous satirical vernacular. Howard's anti-establishment tirades aspire to this level of commentary. The title even echoes Robert Crumb's everyman 'Fritz the Cat', and Howard's first appearance anticipates Dave Sim's 'Cerebus the Aardvark' by five years. Sim took the self-examining style of Howard The Duck into deeper and darker territory from very similar parodic and satirical roots; interestingly, the first issue of Howard's own comic is, like Cerebus', a swords and sorcery parody. While the artist/ writer split, and the unavoidable restrictions of the mainstream comics medium (all the issues are approved by the Comic Code Authority!) keep it from getting to edgy, Gerber uses the medium question political institutions, contemporary morals and the human condition in the same way as the underground creators. More than anything, Howard The Duck seems to come straight from the top of Gerber's head, and it's this feeling of immediacy that gives the comic its free wheeling atmosphere.

Looking at Marvel comics today, it's hard to see what the hell Marvel thought they were doing, but in the context of 1970s' Marvel it didn't seem all that out of place. Marvel was floundering somewhat after its 1960s' heyday, and quickly latched on to any trend that came along in the hope of a quick buck. This magpie instinct for trend hopping gave us martial arts heroes when Bruce Lee was filling the cinemas, black heroes when blaxploitation was big news and Dracula, Werewolf and Frankenstein comics when the public appetite seemed to be turning back to gothic horror in the wake of The Exorcist. Marvel simply responded to whatever they perceived as public demand, and Howard The Duck, with it's anti-establishment message and introspective narrative struck a chord with readers in the post-Watergate years.

It all went wrong in 1978 when Gerber challenged Marvel over ownership of the character and was removed from the title. Creative freedom was one thing, but Marvel was unwilling at this time to let go of their work-for-hire business plan. Howard's story continued, but lacked the vigour of Gerber's creation. Later, of course, there was a movie which pretty much threw away all the elements that made Howard The Duck so appealing and lost them amongst bad effects and bad direction. The character was briefly revived under Gerber's control for a well-received six-parter in 2001. As this volume shows, though, Howard The Duck is a fascinating and brilliant product of its time.
Essential Howard the Duck





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