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The Duck That Roared, Part 1
Steve Gerber, the creator of HOWARD THE DUCK, resurrects the cigar-chomping mouse...wait a minute! Mouse?!
By Arnold T. Blumberg
February 02, 2002
This isn't the first time Howard has changed his form. Cover of HOWARD THE DUCK #19 (a clever parody of the classic AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #50).
© Marvel Characters Inc.
Steve Gerber is trapped in a world he never made, but he's going to make the most of it. Decades have passed since Howard the Duck first burst onto the scene with his unique brand of anthropomorphic acid wit, and now the duck and his creator are to be reunited in an all-new comic book series. No one could be as surprised as Gerber that he and Howard have returned to the Marvel fold.
"When this happened, I checked the temperature in Hell," jokes Gerber. "It came completely out of the blue. I never expected to do the character again or work for Marvel again. Marvel and I had sort of a checkered history, kind of like a bad tablecloth in an Italian restaurant [laughs]."
"It was actually [artist] Phil Winslade who suggested the idea of a revival and campaigned for it pretty hard with [MAX Group Editor] Stuart Moore. [With] Phil drawing it, and Stuart, whom I knew from his work at DC and Vertigo, editing the book, I thought there was a chance to do the book this time the way it ought to be done. Then there was the fact that this was a MAX book."
The MAX line-a mature readers imprint launched by Marvel late last year-is the perfect new home for Howard. While the original series often offended readers with its frank subject matter, Gerber was determined to take advantage of this second chance and really
push the boundaries.
"Stuart asked me to come up with a short synopsis of the story to give him, [Marvel publisher] Bill Jemas and [Editor in Chief] Joe Quesada an idea of how I would handle the character today," says Gerber. "In order to do that, I literally came up with a story that I figured would offend just about anyone. There was something there for everyone to get mad at [laughs]."
As it turned out, the powers that be loved Gerber's 21st century take on Howard.
"Stuart gave the story to Bill and Joe, and they loved it," says Gerber. "Realizing that I had support at an executive level for the editorial direction I wanted to take the book, that was probably the thing that clinched it. It was just finally more positive than negative, so I decided to leap in and see what happens."
Howard the Duck's dark take on the world frequently offended readers, but that was all part of the fun.
© Marvel Characters Inc.
Now there was nothing standing in the way of a glorious revival for the acerbic duck. Nothing that is, except a certain monolithic entertainment company, whose past dealings with Howard had left both the duck and its creator scarred. If Howard was to return, a small change would have to be made...
"In the late '70s, [there were] threatening letters [sent by] Disney [to] Marvel," explains Gerber. "They claimed that Howard looked too much like Donald Duck. Unfortunately, I've got a really clear recollection. At the mention of the word Disney, Marvel turned to mush and gave in entirely."
Disney redesigned Howard for Marvel, presenting them with a far less appealing character that Marvel was then legally obligated to use in the series.
"It's pretty much what you'd expect when you have a competitor redesigning your character for you," says Gerber. "You don't necessarily get the best version of the character that you might. They designed this thing with the duck head, they changed the shape of the eyes, they changed the shape of the bill so that it looked like it was swollen with cold sores, and Marvel just went along with it. My feeling was that version of the duck was so ugly that I just didn't want to write it."
"The series went on without me," says Gerber. "It was done as a black and white book with that version of the duck, and the [movie's Howard] is based on the Disney design. It's worth mentioning I suppose that the black and white book never sold very well at all, and we know what happened to the movie! It's really a hideous duck!"
As if the loss of the Howard everyone knew wasn't bad enough, Gerber's departure from the series and Marvel was not a pleasant one.
"There was a disagreement that arose over the ownership of the character," says Gerber. "[It] resulted in a lawsuit and ultimately was settled out of court. But I was so angry about it, and Marvel's creative atmosphere was so restrictive at that time. We actually did make one attempt in the mid '80s to revive the character, but the editor went through the script with a felt tip pen, and that was the end of that. I said 'No, I'm not doing that.'"
HOWARD THE DUCK #1 gave the bitter little mallard his chance at stardom.
© Marvel Characters Inc.
Flash-forward to 2001, and Gerber, Jemas, Quesada and Moore all agreed that the Disney-fied Howard was not what they wanted. Unfortunately, they were still bound by the old legal agreement.
"Marvel can't even submit an alternate design for Disney's approval!" explains Gerber. Faced with the choice of changing the name of the title, "which Bill didn't want to do," or changing the duck himself, Gerber opted for the latter. The result?
"The book is still called HOWARD THE DUCK
...but he's a mouse!"
Hmm, how will Mickey respond to that
one? None too subtle digs at an old rival aside, Gerber was pleasantly surprised to learn that he still had it in him to write the duck-er, mouse-in the same style after all these years. Still crazy, eh?
"I think so, because people who have read the scripts said that it seems as if I've been away from the character for twenty-five minutes as opposed to twenty-five years," says Gerber.
While others may have been confident that Gerber could just jump right back into the pond, he wasn't so sure.
"It came as a big shock to me, because I was scared! Marvel [brought] out a collection of all the original material, and I knew that stuff was going to be out there as competition. It's a little difficult looking back at your 27 year old self and wondering, 'Can the old fart who's writing now live up to this?'"
Gerber needn't have worried. The familiar strains of Howard's distinctive voice came back almost immediately, and with the new Marvel regime, Gerber has far more leeway to write the series as he always intended.
HOWARD THE DUCK returns...sort of...in an all-new series under Marvel's MAX imprint.
© 2002 Marvel Characters Inc.
"The tone of the stories found itself almost automatically," says Gerber. "It's very much the original series, only more so. [I have] much more freedom to explore the character and do the kinds of stories that I wanted to do. This book is a lot more outrageous than the original one."
The original HOWARD THE DUCK
series did accrue its share of devoted followers, who stuck with Howard following his debut in the pages of FEAR
#19 (December 1973) and MAN-THING
#1 (January 1974) through to his own title two years later.
"The character originally came about as a throwaway character," says Gerber. "It got such positive response from readers that we would up bringing him back in his own series."
The fans were rabid for the duck. In fact, some of them were, shall we say...committed?
"I was out of the office at the time, [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!' I think that may have been the thing that signaled we had touched a nerve with [Howard]," laughs Gerber.
Despite the overwhelming (and somewhat frightening) fan support, the creative environment of the '70s just wasn't conducive to writing about a socially relevant duck.
"It was a question of finding creative ways around the Comics Code," says Gerber. "You always had the feeling that you were trying to get away with stuff as opposed to just writing what you felt."Next time, Gerber discusses the end of his first run on HOWARD THE DUCK, that damned movie, and all things swampy and muck-encrusted.