Comics : Howard The Duck #1

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Al Observes

This review was first published on: 1997.

Background...

My favorite comic book character has always been Spider-Man but back in the 1970s my favorite comic book SERIES was Steve Gerber's Man-Thing. A wonderful combination of satire, social commentary, and downright strangeness, Gerber's Man-Thing never failed to deliver. If your reason for buying comics was so that you could sit back after reading an issue and say "wow", this was the perfect series for you. Gerber pulled out all the stops: a Mad Viking book burner, the ghost of a dead clown, a cursed pirate ship, centuries old drinkers from the fountain of youth, demons, a barbarian hero conjured up out of peanut butter (really!), the story of Superman as it would be if he spent his first 18 years stuck in his spacecraft, a text feature written by a "Living Dead" man, hallucingenic candles and on and on. (If this series is not the spiritual grandfather of such works as Alan Moore's Swamp-Thing and Neil Gaiman's Sandman, I would be very surprised.)

Early on in the run, as if to prove he had the nerve to try anything within the pages of the book, Steve Gerber presented a story of interdimensional beings and the palace of the Gods and into this story he placed a wise-cracking, jacket-and-tie wearing, cigar-smoking duck by the name of Howard.

Howard the Duck was never meant to be anything more than a brief novelty. He never even made it through the "Gods" story; introduced in Adventure Into Fear #19 (the last Man-Thing appearance in that title) then tripping while crossing some cosmic stepping stones and plunging into the void in Man-Thing #1. No one would have ever seen the little fellow again...except the outcry from fandom for his return was resounding.

Responding to the pleas, Marvel brought Howard back for two short features in the pages of Giant-Size Man-Thing (probably the most embarrassing title for a comic ever conceived)#4 and #5. Again written by Steve Gerber, proving himself a master of the comic as well as the bizarre, and distinctively drawn by Frank Brunner, the tales pitted Howard against a man turned giant frog (Gorko the Man-Frog) and a vampire cow (the Hellcow!). And how did Howard survive his terrifying plunge from the stepping stones? Well, the dimensional nexus landed him with a thump in, of all places, Cleveland.

Unexpectedly, Marvel had a hit character on their hands. Less than a year after his last Giant-Size Man-Thing appearance, Howard was given his own book. His guest-star in that first issue was the Amazing Spider-Man.

Now, the reputation of Howard the Duck has not stood up well over time. The biggest fault for that lies at George Lucas' feet for his disasterous live-action movie. But the other problem with Howard is also the problem with the Man-Thing. Nobody but Steve Gerber knows how to write him. When Gerber was at the helm of each series, they were brilliant. When others took over, they were simply dull. (Don't take my word for it. I recommend checking the back issue bins for both Gerber Man-Thing and Howard books. Both series, last time I checked, were very reasonably priced. And, hey, the Gerber-scripted issues of Morbius the Living Vampire, The Defenders, Daredevil, and Omega the Unknown are recommended as well.)

Howard the Duck #1 was the first comic I ever heard of that sold out in a hurry and climbed in price only weeks after its release. It was recently pointed out to me that Howard #1 was nearly impossible to get twenty years ago while Giant-Size X-Men #1 languished on the racks. There is a good reason for that, too. Howard the Duck #1 is a much better book.

What's the point of all this? Well, as I'm sure you all know Howard and Spidey have teamed up again in Spider-Man Team-Up #5...written by Steve Gerber and featuring the return of the Kidney Lady, the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime, Destroyer Duck, Kiss, and the gun-toting elf from The Defenders! (Oh, yeah...and no pants!) Confused? Don't know who all these characters are? Don't have the time to haunt the back-issues stacks? I'd love to give you the complete lowdown. Really I would. But you're going to have to settle for Howard the Duck #1. Steve Gerber writes, Frank Brunner pencils. Spider-Man guest-stars. "Waaaggh!"

In Detail...

Howard The Duck #1
Jan 1975 : SMURF 152.600 : SM Guest
Summary: Spider-Man Appears
Editor:  Marv Wolfman
Co-Plot/Pencils:  Frank Brunner
Writer:  Steve Gerber
Inker:  Steve Leialoha
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Review
 Reprinted In: Essential Howard the Duck #1
 Reprinted In: Howard The Duck Omnibus #1
 Reprinted In: Marvel Treasury Edition #12 (Story 2)
 Reprinted In: Spider-Man: Strange Adventures (TPB)
Articles: Howard The Duck, Jameson, J. Jonah

Homeless and penniless, Howard the Duck stands on a bank of the Cuyahoga River contemplating suicide. He gazes down into the awful, ugly, murky, swirling Frank Brunner-delineated waters and decides, "On the other hand, maybe something less drastic." A dip. Why not? But the polluted waters are filled with slime, repulsing the duck. The problem is that this world is "run by hairless apes instead of fowl". There's no getting around that. Off in the distance, Howard sees a strange, slim, "stelagmitish" tower in the middle of the river. Depressed again, he decides to climb the tower and jump off of it.

He uses a log as a boat, a branch as an oar, and rows himself over to the small island. When he gets to the tower, he discovers it has no door. He also discovers that the whole thing is made out of credit cards. Strange circumstances but "I came here to kill myself, not play building inspector", Howard decides. He starts to climb to the top of the tower.

Passing a window, Howard hears a cry for help. He enters through the window and sees a beautiful redhead clad in a Red Sonja metal bikini. She is chained to a pillar. "Y...you're a duck!" she exclaims upon seeing Howard. (This is what almost everyone says the first time they see Howard.) But she also tells him, "I'm a prisoner of a madman!" and Howard figures, oh, what the heck...might as well save her before he dies.

But the prisoner is protected by a snarling wolf with a spiked collar. The redhead tells the duck to seize the "ceremonial axe" to defend himself. Howard tries, grumbling all the way. "Seize it, she says! It weighs a ton! And it's stuck in this stupid stump!" Somehow Howard manages to work the axe free but the strength of his tug carries him backwards, flying through the air, until the axe strikes a rope hanging over by the far wall. The axe severs the rope, the rope holds a chandelier, the chandelier falls and strikes the wolf, the wolf breaks its back and dies. At death, the wolf turns into a human being. Waaggh! Too busy brooding over the fact that he is now a murderer (and who can blame him?) Howard fails to notice the wizard who sneaks up behind him and zaps him with a spell. Lights out.

Meanwhile in New York City, in the offices of the Daily Bugle, Peter Parker is stopped by J. Jonah Jameson and offered a plane ticket to the "assignment of the century". Peter is stoked by this offer. After all, he's been to Florida, Canada, and Europe courtesy of JJJ. What exotic place houses the "assignment of the century"? JJJ tells him. There are reports of "some strange mutant menace" and the Daily Bugle wants pictures. The assignment location is Cleveland. The menace is a duck that talks like a man. Peter's response: "Cleveland. A duck. I'm gonna be sick."

Back at the tower, Howard comes to only to discover he is now a captive along with the scantily clad woman AND that his clothes have been replaced by a pair of furry Conan shorts, a necklace, a sword in scabbard and a horned Viking helmet. His fellow captive tells him that they are prisoners of Pro-Rata, the Mad Financial Wizard. "Soon to be Chief Accountant of the Universe", adds Pro-Rata himself. He shows his two captives his "cosmic calculator" (which is a big clunky accounting calculator studded with gems) and tells them that it is missing its jeweled key. "By whatever means necessary", he says, "I must procure that key by midnight. For at that hour, the stellar balance sheet comes into alignment...the astral audit may be taken...and I...I alone shall collect the cosmic dividend."

Since Howard has broken every bone in the body of Pro-Rata's "hired barbarian" and since it was that very barbarian who was originally going to take a dimensional portal to retrieve the jeweled key, it is only fitting that Howard be forced to take his place. But the fowl doesn't see it that way. He tries to weasel out of the job until the wizard literally kicks him into the portal. His fellow captive accompanies him. As the two go tumbling between universes, Pro-Rata regales them with his origin. It seems that he comes from a long line of sorcerors, witches and druids but all of his ancestors were "mystical slobs" who "failed to see world domination in terms of accountancy".

The two dimension-hoppers land in a gigantic nest on a world that looks like something out of Dr. Strange. (This is not surprising since Frank Brunner was once the artist on Dr. Strange as well.) Up ahead is the Citadel of Sai-Fuur (get it? get it?) where the mystic key is stored. Beverly...(oh heck, I'm tired of concealing the identity of Howard's companion. It is Beverly Switzler who, in all subsequent issues, becomes HTD's main squeeze. This is how they first met.)...yes, Beverly tells Howard that they should quickly get the key and split the scene. "Why don't we not get it and split anyway?" replies the heroic duck. But before they can do anything, they are attacked by a local barbarian who thinks Bev is being pursued by a "newly-hatched bahnd bird". ("Must slay it before it matures!") Riding a strange creature (like a horse with a big beak), the barbarian charges, pointing his wooden lance right at our avian hero. Howard defends himself by closing his eyes and wildly swinging his sword. He shatters the lance, pitching the rider off his steed.

With the barbarian knocked out, Howard and Bev cop his mount and ride it to the citadel; an ominous-looking structure covered in numbers with two looming stone statues on each side of its "zero-shaped entrance". The duo tiptoe past the stone guardians. It all seems too easy until they spot the key. It is hanging by a thread over a deep pit with spikes at its bottom. The skeletons of the last people who went for the key are still impaled on the spikes below. (Maybe they're all clones of Spider-Man.) How can our heroes possibly get the key without killing themselves? Howard wishes he had a cigar to chomp on to help his thought processes and Beverly tells him she put one in his scabbard when she dressed him in his barbarian outfit. (I don't even want to think about what Freud would make of that preceding sentence.) She lights the cigar for him and a fast friendship is formed. An idea is formed in Howard's head, as well. He has Bev lean out over the pit, holding his helmet below the key. Then Howard takes aim and flicks his stogie at the thread. The cigar burns through (yeah, I know...this would never happen in a million years. And a talking duck would?) and the key drops in the helmet. Victory is won, but at a terrible price. Howard's last cigar is impaled on a spike below.

The twosome bolt out the door with their prize but the statues come to life and pursue. Suddenly a full-grown bahnd bird appears from out of the sky (and, believe me, it is big and ugly). It attacks the statues, destroying them, but quickly discovers they are not edible. It decides to gobble up Howard and Bev. Just as the big beak is about to chomp on them, Pro Rata pulls them back to our dimension.

And back in Cleveland, Spider-Man (remember Spider-Man? This is supposed to be his home page.) is riding his web looking for a talking duck. At the tower, Pro Rata has hit the wrong decimal, bringing the bahnd bird back along with Howard and Bev. The bird flaps its wings, shattering the top of the tower. Pro Rata screams for the key. Spidey notices the tumult in the distance. He hitchhikes on a helicopter to check it out.

There is a pause as the bird is momentarily disoriented. And in that pause, Howard decides that, all things considered, the world would be a better place if Pro Rata does not get his hands on the key. So he throws it off of the tower...where it is caught by an arriving Spider-Man. Pro Rata panicks at the sight of an honest to gosh super-hero and powers up a big time spell to fling at the Web-Slinger. But Howard throws his scabbard at the wizard's back, upsetting the direction of the spell. It soars out and strikes the Cuyahoga, "igniting the volatile pollutants therein!" Pro Rata and HTD grapple. Spidey webs up the bahnd bird's beak, preparing to "help out the little guy who saved my life!" Meanwhile, Pro Rata proclaims, "I could reduce you to drumsticks with a simple spell, duck, but there would be no budgetary logic in that! No way to justify the expenditure of magic!" But the wizard can justify killing Spider-Man and retrieving the key from him. He powers up again, planning to strike the distracted Spidey in the back. This time, Howard has nothing to throw at his enemy...except himself! Ah well, he figures, he was going to commit suicide anyway. So, with a leap, the duck knocks himself and wizard off the tower down toward the flaming river below. At the last instant, however, Howard is saved by Spider-Man's web. (Pro Rata is not so lucky.) Spidey hauls Howard back up to the top of the tower and "Web-foot meets Web-Head!"

To Spidey's cry of "Jameson didn't crack his nut! You're a talking duck!", Howard says, "You're not exactly Mr. Normal either, y'know." The bahnd bird flies the coop, spoiling the moment. Spidey hitches another ride on his "convenient helicopter" to pursue the creature. (And we never do hear what happens with that.) Howard and Beverly are left alone on top of the tower. Howard doesn't know what his next plans are going to be but he "sure could use a good cigar".

Now, for those of you who feel like there wasn't enough Spider-Man in this month's installment, let's take a look at the ads! Well, there's the Spider-Man medallion for sale. And, oh hey, "Try Spider-Man vitamins...and I'll send you a free Spider-Man poster!" (Oops, sorry. "Offer expires June 30, 1976.") Finally, there's the one page Twinkie ad entitled "Spider-Man and the Kidnap Caper". Let's take a look at that.

Someone has kidnapped Aunt May and they want fifty thousand dollars. (Smart kidnappers, right? Wait. It gets worse.) Spidey arrives at the drop-off point with a satchel. When the kidnappers open the case, Spidey spirits Aunt May away. The case is not full of money but full of Hostess Twinkies! Aunt May and Peter have a good laugh over Spidey's great sense of humor and excellent taste. Waaagh!

Overall Rating...

My all-time favorite Marvel series are the Lee-Ditko Amazing Spider-Man, Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four, Lee-Kirby Thor and... Steve Gerber's stints on Man-Thing and Howard the Duck. Give Howard his own book and guest-star Spidey in the first issue? That's a sure-fire five webs.