Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Bitter Irony Alert: "Disney's Howard the Duck"

So yeah, this Marvel/Disney thing. They were going to get bought up by a corporate monolith sooner or later; Disney is as good as any, I suppose. I guess they have my permission.

One thing that kept coming up in articles about this were comments along the lines of: "Finally! Howard can team up with Donald!" "Howard the Duck and Mickey Mouse! It has to happen!" or "Maybe Pixar can do a Howard the Duck movie that works!"

Ugh. With all due respect to Pixar, who are great, no they fucking can't. And they shouldn't.

I'm fairly certain Howard the Duck hasn't even come up in corporate conversation yet, but before someone does get the bright idea to "strategically re-position Howard the Duck's branding paradigm" or whatever, let me remind everyone that Disney already has a family of Ducks, many of whom are cranky and irascible. One More or less won't make any difference. In fact, Disney actively worked to crush Howard back in the late 1970's.

Howard the Duck's popularity flared brightly and briefly after his debut in Adventure Into Fear #19 (1973). The book's idiosyncratic satire hit a nerve at the time, and the was quite popular for a time, thanks to the scripting of his creator, Steve Gerber. Gerber was Howard, basically, and the oddity-infested world he walked in reflected Gerber's unique mindset and worldview. Gerber was abruptly dismissed by Marvel over a number of issues, not the least of which was Disney's 1979 legal bullying of Marvel comics over Howard's alleged resemblance to Donald Duck.

Years later, Gerber was approached by Marvel to try a Howard relaunch under the newly minted, adult-slanted Marvel MAX imprint. Gerber was eager to try his hand at scripting the duck again, only to find that the Disney action was more than mere bullying. Here's the story in Gerber's words, from a 2001 Newsarama interview by Michael Doran (archived at Steve

SG: "Back in 1979 or so - I don't have the exact date handy - the Walt Disney Company threatened to sue Marvel Comics, claiming that Howard the Duck infringed on their Donald Duck trademark. To avoid a legal battle, Marvel's old management signed an unbelievably stupid agreement with Disney regarding the design of Howard the Duck. Under the terms of that agreement, Howard must conform to a set of designs that Disney provided for the character. It's the version with the beady eyes, the hideous swollen beak, and the baggy trousers, the one that appeared in the black-and-white Howard magazine and in the movie. The way the agreement is worded, Marvel isn't even allowed to come up with an entirely different design, even if that design bore no resemblance to Donald.

"Over the past couple of decades, I've done a lot of complaining about the idiocy of Marvel's old management, and if ever there was proof of my argument, this is it. They literally let another company redesign their own character for them. As best I can tell, Marvel never even attempted to negotiate the matter, never even submitted any alternate designs for Disney's consideration. I can just picture the Disney artists, hunched over their drawing boards, cackling like hyenas, as they designed the ugliest duck they could possibly imagine. Disney's lawyers and management must have had a real belly laugh, too, when Marvel accepted their design without balking.

"Now, I wasn't even aware that such an agreement existed on paper. I thought Marvel had simply agreed on a 'handshake' basis with Disney that Howard wouldn't look like Donald. We were in the process of redesigning Howard - Glenn Fabry had done some terrific sketches - when Stuart Moore checked with Marvel's legal department and turned up the written agreement. Needless to say, everyone concerned was horrified. None of us, least of all myself, wanted to do a character that had to look like that appalling Disney design."

Gerber went on to explain that he eventually devised a workaround for the issue, by mutating Howard into a MOUSE for the new series, and they moved ahead. The series came out, and as a Howard fan, I enjoyed it, but it never did feel quite right. They say you can't go home again, and all that. Further, the story suffered for having to shoehorn in the mutation storyline, so the whole thing landed with a thud. More recently Marvel tried redesigning Howard yet again, under different creators, to deafening indifference.

The bitter irony is that Disney now owns the character they helped to make unusable. Steve Gerber died in 2008, silencing Howard's only convincing voice. Any Howard that remains is an empty, corporate shell; indistinguishable from the denizens of Duckburg, and pointless in today's world. So no, Donald Duck should not meet Howard the Duck. And no, Howard doesn't need to show up in Dark Reign either. Now, more than ever, Marvel should let sleeping ducks lie.

Howard the Duck is Dead. Let him rest in peace.


pete doree said...

I couldn't agree more.

RAB said...

I agree wholeheartedly as well.

John Glenn Taylor said...

I have to cop to having a special place in my heart for the movie, but ONLY because it was one of the few movies my late mother and I attended together, and she liked it. As far as I'm concerned, any Howard project withought the late Steve Gerber's input would be blasphemy. It would be like a non-Sergio Aragones Groo. Also, it's pure BS that Disney felt Howard infringed on their precious Donald character. What, because neither wears pants?

Mego Thor said...

I've seen a lot of negative comments on the net over the Disney Marvel buy-out (go figure!), but as a lover of both comics and Disney, I'm pretty happy about it. I think the only immediate impact we'll see will be more comics in the Disney parks, which can't be a bad thing. One question I do have, is what this will mean for the Marvel area of Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando. Some of the rides are kind of hokey, but the Hulk roller-coaster and Spider-Man ride are fantastic! I can't see Disney allowing these rides to remain in a competitor's park. Since Univeral always reports a loss at these parks, I hope this is first step in Disney taking them over as well.

It would be cool if Disney took another shot at the Marvel Mania theme resaurant (kind of like Hard Rock Cafe, but with comics). I got to go to the one that was open briefly in California years ago, and it was awesome! There were plans to open one in Florida as well, but the whole thing went under. Disney has the kind of deep pockets that make something like that work.

Brian Hughes said...

I figured you would be happy about the merger, M. In general, I'm not against it either.

My one gripe with the Spider-Man ride at Universal was the cheesy 90's cartoon template it was based on. Can you imagine a Disney update?

Mego Thor said...

I think an update based on the new Spectacular Spider-Man series would be cool.

Anonymous said...

no doubt the moment the deal was signed Disney went right to work brain storming ideas on how they can put the final nail in Howard 's coffin in fact Mickey is proably shopping for orange sauce for Howard for Disney is going to send him where unused characters go .

Andrew Wahl said...

Well argued. I've never been a big Howard fan: The series was over my head as a kid, and hasn't aged all that well, making it difficult for Older Me to develop an appreciation. One thing is certain: Howard needs Steve Gerber's voice. Without Gerber, they should indeed let sleeping ducks lie.


Sea-of-Green said...

OMG, I hadn't even thought about that.

Howard the Duck in Duckburg ...! Ooh, the horror!

Yes, let the poor duck stay dead. Absolutely.

Perplex said...

Funny thing is, a 'real' Donald Duck copy was allowed from the 50's till the 90's, like 'Super Duck' as you can see on the interesting Stupid Comics-website

ZiggyMan said...

So, There will be a new post about Howard, now he is back in the 616 continuum. (But with pants)