Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Again With the Comics is re-reading Howard the Duck

One of my earliest and most pivotal comics acquisitions happened when I was eight years old. I had a friend who lived next door with his grandparents, and as I spent more time over there, his granddad got wind of my nascent comics obsession. One afternoon, I came home to four grocery bags of comics that he brought over for me. To this day, I’m not sure why he didn’t just give them to my friend, but I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth, let alone a four-bags-full-of-comics shaped horse.

Those comics were 90% Marvel, with very few DC, and I devoured them. That was my introduction to the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, and many, many others. There were also some very strange comics in there: Son of Satan (I thought I’d go to Hell if I read it, so I never touched ‘em), Tomb of Dracula, and Howard The Duck.

I had only just started reading Spider-Man, and before that, my comics reading consisted solely of Whitman and Gold key three-packs. These packs were found in grocery stores in the 1970’s, where three kiddy comics would be packaged together in plastic bags and sold as a lot. This had nothing to do with collectability and everything to do with inventory control. The comics were very bland funny animal and licensed books for the most part, with the occasional Uncle $crooge or Little Lulu gem in the mix. Howard The Duck was completely unlike any Funny animal comic I had ever read. The whole thing reeked of unsavory weirdness, and the stories were clearly aimed at adults. Reading them, I had a child’s glee at “getting away” with something.

I didn’t understand the book at all, of course. I didn’t even much like it at first, but something about it kept me reading. I was fascinated with this weird, grouchy, cigar chomping duck who fought Giant cookies, ran for president, and had nervous breakdowns. I even read the whole infamous “Deadline Doom” all-essay issue.

Howard wasn’t the nicest duck, or the most sensitive. He was entirely willing to run from a fight. He suffered depression, anxiety, and outrage. For a time, a duck was Marvel's most human character. Beverly was a great character, too: sexy, smart and tough enough to hold her own against the foul tempered fowl.

I’m currently re-reading Howard the Duck #1-31, and they still hold up pretty well. They are, of course dated (“far out” and “turkey” get thrown around a lot) but only in the most superficial ways. Fashion and slang change, but most of the social issues mentioned have a modern day parallel.

Steve Gerber’s authorial voice is an acquired taste, to be sure. The narrative always veers in unexpected directions. Howard and Beverly start out in Cleveland, but Gerber’s not content to set up a status quo. He sends them on the road, where they encounter cultists, ambulatory cookies, and the Kidney lady. Howard makes a run for the presidency, and then has a nervous breakdown. I ask you: what other title character has ever had an issues-long, honest-to-God, blithering nervous breakdown?

The art was some of Gene Colan’s best. As a kid, I had no taste, and didn’t like Colan’s work much. What can I say - I was eight! I have since wised up. Even so, I liked him on Howard, maybe because his softer, more expressive style was better suited to the duck. After 28 issues, Gerber’s relationship with Marvel deteriorated and he left the book. Gerber invested so much of himself in the character that it’s almost impossible for any other writer to capture Howard’s voice. The character has been unusable since, but that doesn’t stop Marvel from trying occasionally.

1 comment:

cease ill said...

This ESSENTIALS volume was the sole comic book possession to make the shoestring trip to California; I actually first read about the Kidney Lady aboard a Greyhound! Angela and I had a great time reading this in our little hotel room in Escondido. You know, this comic was said to be made up on the fly from month to month, and that's where our lives were at that point!

That illicit feeling accompanied a few of my eight-year old readings; the line about Son of Satan was awesome.