There’s a term in the entertainment industry given to intellectual properties that carry such negative feelings with the public because of past poor performance that no amount of reimagining will wipe away the stink of failure on them.
That term is “radioactive,” and for almost three decades, the go-to, pop culture example to illustrate it has been Howard the Duck. Since the Marvel’s Comic character’s 1986 flop of a movie debut, Howard has been so radioactive that he makes Chernobyl look like a microwave on the fritz.
Even so, the cigar-chomping duck has become “fetch” to Marvel’s Gretchen Wieners and its attempt to make Howard happen despite a public of Regina Georges continually yelling at the company to stop trying. Last year, Howard popped up as the post-credits stinger in Guardians of the Galaxy, and this week, a new ongoing comic book series starring the character hits shelves.
Which begs the question: Was Howard the Duck ever cool?
The answer, believe it or not, is yes. In the mid-1970s, Howard the Duck was a cultural icon that attacked America’s post-Watergate malaise and cynicism with the flair of a counter-culture iconoclast. He was a disco-era Max Headroom, Bart Simpson or Eric Cartman, but with a social conscience. Howard’s free-thinking, don’t-trust-authority, wisecracking attitude was relevant to his times, making him a character very much of that time. But as the Me Decade of the 1980s rolled in, Howard transformed from rebellious rabble-rouser into cute, corporate mascot.
The duck’s downfall, though, wasn’t simply due to changing tastes. The character’s initial success and popularity rested on the shoulders of writer and co-creator Steve Gerber (Howard’s look was created by artist Val Mayerik). Howard became the uninhibited mouthpiece for Gerber’s absurdist humor, his cutting cultural critiques and even his nagging anxieties. It’s that humanity and authenticity that connected with readers. In 1978, Marvel fired Gerber over creative difficulties, missed deadlines and the writer’s threats of litigation over ownership of Howard. After that, Howard lost his voice, and the comic became more about toothless gags and pop parodies than actual satire. In the hand of other writers, the character was never able to achieve the creative heights it had attained thanks to Gerber, who died from complications of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in 2008.
Under Gerber’s stewardship, Howard the Duck is a comic series that’s still worth checking out. Some issues certainly feel dated, but others meet the standards of a 21st-century audience. In fact, these five stories might make you re-evaluate the character, even if they don’t erase the memory of that god-awful movie from your mind.
1. “Four Feathers of Death!” Howard the Duck #3 (1976)
On the surface, this John Buscema-Steve Leialoha issue seems to be a straightforward piss-take on the 1970s kung-fu movie explosion, Sonny Chiba’s The Street Fighter, in particular. But beneath it’s rhetorical bluster and the over-the-top characterization of Howard’s antagonist, Count Macho, the story actually forces the reader to carefully and seriously consider the consequences of violence, both on the screen and in real life. In fact, Count Macho is a none-too-subtle stand-in for self-proclaimed deadliest man alive Count Dante, a martial artist who achieved notoriety in the ‘70s thanks to his ubiquitous comic book ads claiming to teach students dim mak (“the death touch”), as well as being one of the main instigators in Chicago’s 1970 Dojo Wars, a conflict that eventually ended with the death of one of Dante’s friends.
2. “Open Season!” and “Scanda Pucks Duck, Howard the Duck #8 and #9 (1976)
Remember when Stephen Colbert’s TV talk show alter-ego made U.S. presidential runs in real life and the Marvel Universe back in 2007 and 2008, respectively? Howard did the same thing more than 30 years before. In the comic, Gerber and artist Gene Colan used the duck’s candidacy (as part of the fictional All-Night Party) to satirize the entire American political process, from those in power to those who put them there. Ultimately, Howard’s run was sabotaged by a phony sex-scandal ginned up by Le Beaver, a French-Canadian supervillain whose master plan was to ridicule the United States in such a way that it would make it easy for Canada to annex its southern neighbor. In real life, pins, ads and other merchandise were created to back Howard’s campaign, and the duck trapped in a world he never made actually gained thousands of write-in votes, according to Stan Lee.
Any writer will tell you that the desperation of hitting a deadline can sometimes lead to a better finished product. And sometimes the incontinence-causing panic of actually missing a deadline can lead to genius. It’s the latter that’s responsible for this issue, one of Gerber’s and this series’ most critically acclaimed. The issue is a prose story—no comic panels and no word balloons, except for the first page—illustrated by a variety of artists. Gerber uses it to document his real-life cross-country move from New York to Las Vegas with the fictional addition of Howard as traveling companion and sounding board. The capper, though, is the brutally honest final page: a “fan letter” to Gerber from himself that doesn’t pull punches on critiquing the issue’s—as well as the writer’s—shortcomings. FUN FACT: Gerber used a throwaway gag about an ostrich and a showgirl in this story as the inspiration for a comic book series, Nevada, he would create and write for DC Comics’ Vertigo line in 1998.
4. “The Night After You Save the Universe,” Howard the Duck #24 (1978)
This issue, much like “Four Feathers of Death!” uses a straightforward comedy setup to examine the aftermath of a much bigger event. In this case, Howard encounters a collection of oddballs as he wanders the streets of New York City because he’s still stressed out from his world-saving adventure that day. Gerber and Colan use Howard’s “downtime” to show how the worries and fears of normal people build inside and explode after those individuals have been kicked around by an uncaring world. And even coming through a harrowing experience on the winning end, like Howard did, doesn’t mean you’re immune from post-traumatic anxieties.