WAUGH and On and On #1: Neither Fish Nor Fowl

After a nearly three-year hiatus from the If It WAUGHs Like a Duck series—reading the original Howard the Duck comic book against the most recent volume a pair of issues at a time—I have decided to return to the original series and write about each arc on its own. Since there is no current Howard the Duck comic (and even if there were, I would not necessarily be picking it up), I will be writing about an issue or four at a time, depending on the length of the story. Because of the occasionally interlaced arcs Steve Gerber came up with, these breaks won’t always be clearly defined, but I will do my best to break up the series in ways that make sense.

So, while this is a continuation of If It WAUGHs Like a Duck, I won’t be returning to the previous installment numbers (thus why this is not #17), instead think of this as the kind of pointless reboot that Marvel likes these days. The series continues, but now with a new name—WAUGH and On and On—and being numbered from #1 again. I don’t exactly know how often this new series will appear, but my guess is every month or so.

I also won’t be spending any time catching readers up to speed on who Howard and his supporting cast are and what brought them to where we’re starting from. I will leave it to readers to return to the previous posts (or read the comics) for themselves in order to fill in the necessary back story. You might also enjoy listening to What the Duck – a Podcast Most Fowl, but with a ‘W’ because He’s a Duck (that’s the full name of the show), which is a podcast by Nathaniel “Hub” Hubbard and his wife Lisa covering every appearance of Howard the Duck from Adventure into Fear #19 and into his own series. In order to get access to it, however, you’d need to support the Titan Up the Defense podcast Patreon at the one-dollar level or higher (which is totally worth it).

Anyway, in this re-inauguration of a Howard the Duck reading series, I’ll be tackling four issues that see Howard and Beverly dealing with who I think of as our favorite duck’s archnemesis, the archetype of toxic masculine nerdity, Dr. Bong.

Dr. Bong is so confident in his superiority he feels Beverly should be honored to marry him (anyway, he insists). [from Howard the Duck #18]

There is a letter printed in Howard the Duck #19 that provides a lens for carefully considering the degree of author-insertion both in the issues I am writing about today and all the issues of the original volume I have written about so far in If It WAUGHs Like a Duck. In the letter, Frank Watson of Dexter, Missouri goes through his theories regarding Steve Gerber’s use of characters as stand-ins for himself. He explains that at first he considered the possibility that Arthur Winslow (science fiction writing security guard taken over by a horny space turnip in Howard the Duck #2) could be a version of Gerber. But two issues later he thought the story of Paul Same (the timid narcoleptic artist who became the violent Winky-Man in Howard the Duck #4­—and occasionally still hangs with Howard, Bev, and Winda) could be a version of Gerber. This second one makes sense to me given the parallel between the introductory text at the start of each issue regarding Howard’s past and the history given Paul (something I wrote about in If It WAUGHs Like a Duck #4). The letter writer finally decides that Gerber is a part of every one of his characters (which seems like a safe, and thus not particularly meaningful, assumption). The response to the letter, however, is not coy in making clear who Gerber sees his characters as representing. He writes (in his role as his own editor—never a good idea), “Arthur Winslow is Don McGregor. Beverly Switzler is Mary Skrenes. And everybody else in the strip, including the villains, is Steve.” McGregor (famous for his early 70s Black Panther run) was the writer of Killraven, the character Gerber was sending up back in issue #2. Mary Skrenes was Gerber’s some time girlfriend and writing partner (my guess is that her influence is what makes Omega the Unknown Gerber’s best work), though if I were her, having Bev (or any of his female characters) represent me would be a little insulting. Regardless, the claim that the rest of the characters are all Gerber, despite being a little obvious, reinforces my general sense of irritation with the stories and characters in Howard the Duck as direct reflections of the author’s own problematic attitudes. Furthermore, the response to the letter goes on to say, “[Any writer taking over Howard the Duck is] faced with two choices: either they become Gerber…or they put as much of themselves on the line as he has.”

Back in Howard the Duck #11, another reader wrote in to say that the series was what underground comix should be. That parallel resonates given this claim about Gerber putting himself “on the line.” It is not uncommon for fans of some of the most well-regarded underground cartoonists to ascribe their genius not only to their drawing ability but to their raw honesty. Robert Crumb is probably the most common example of this, wherein his misogyny and willingness to lean into racial caricature is taken as a form of artistic vulnerability—a willingness to show his ugly inclinations (and perhaps a method of purging them) as art. I don’t buy it about Crumb, and I don’t buy it about Gerber. That kind of “honesty” is not very honest if it is obscured by a veneer of purported humor and not framed with sufficient reflection that makes clear why its imagery or assumptions are problematic.

That said, with this consideration in mind, Howard the Duck comics are much more interesting to me as an example of the problematic outlooks written into comics by white dudes in the 70s (and beyond) and the popular response to it, rather than in terms of the stories themselves. More specifically, in the four issues I am examining here today, the figure of Dr. Bong as a facet of Gerber’s life and psyche makes a lot of sense.

The cover to Howard the Duck #17. Howard is swinging from a chandelier with a cigar in his mouth, while Dr. Bong and his monsters (and a frightened Bev) are below.Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #17

Cover Date: October 1977
Release Date: July 26, 1977
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Gene Colan
Inker: Klaus Jansen
Colorist: Janice Cohen
Letterer:  Annette Kawecki

We last left Howard and Bev when they were kidnapped by Dr. Bong’s Island of Doctor Moreau rejects and were brought to his island fortress in Howard the Duck #15. Or maybe it is actually a mountain fortress in the Himalayas? Since Bong is a master of illusions, we never know for sure. What we do eventually learn is that despite kidnapping both woman and duck, the villain’s primary interest is Bev. It seems that even when both of them are captured it is Bev who is the primary target. I have lost count of how many times now Bev has been grabbed up by lusty men of different stripes. While Howard represents some degree of Dr. Bong’s interest in “evolving” animals into human-like hybrids, the focus of this issue is a telling of Bong’s origins as yet another version of a man who thinks he is special, misunderstood by society around him, and deserves the attentions of the voluptuous Beverly Switzler. As I suggested above, looking back at issue #4, I realized that the beginnings of Dr. Bong’s origins are nearly the same as that of Paul Same: schooltime ridicule leading to a seething resentment and thus to a kind of creative genius (using the word “genius” loosely). While Same would end up an artist who sublimates his anger, Dr. Bong became a writer (and geneticist, I guess) who uses his typewriter—he calls his place at a writing desk the “true seat of power”—to shape reality around him. As he explains to Bev, he began by being a rumor-spreading muckraking journalist in college, though we never learn how he went from ruining the reputation of professors he didn’t like to making humanoid duck people (he states that he has only told Bev half the story, so maybe we’ll learn the rest in a future issue). We do learn, however, that it was during college that he first encountered Bev when she was a nude model for a painting class. Her rebuff of his proposal for a date is included as an important part of making him the mad scientist with evil plans he becomes.

The comic does do a good job of juxtaposing Dr. Bong’s perception of himself throughout his story with what we see illustrated in the panels. For example, despite Bong’s description of approaching Bev with “consummate gentlemanliness,” the panels depict him blocking her way down the stairs and grabbing her by the necklace to pull her close to (in his words) “politely” ask for a date. Simultaneous to this critique of masculinity, the comic is also critiquing tabloid journalism and the primacy of image in evaluating reality—an idea that is even more true today that it was in 1977. Dr. Bong’s claim to Bev that “Image is everything! What appears to be is far more persuasive than what is…The dominance of style over substance, form over content” might be an expression of the postmodern condition and relation to reality but is also an appropriate description of this very comic book title, which tries so hard to be a social satire but doesn’t really have much of any true profundity to say about the topics it tackles save for the satisfying affect of snarky dissatisfaction. And given the repetition of the scenes or descriptions of characters in this series who end up representing just that kind of “too-cool-for-school” attitude, I feel confident in my evaluation.

Nevertheless, it is because of this obvious and proleptic critique of nerdy masculine entitlement and the grossness of Dr. Bong’s obsession with Bev and his toxic belief in the role of women to be obedient and subservient to men (especially their husbands, since of course he demands that Bev marry him in order to save Howard’s life) that I find this issue the most interesting one since probably Howard the Duck #11. Despite his every word and action belying his claim of “consummate gentlemanliness,” Dr. Bong still feels that he is entitled to Bev’s attention and obedience due to his superiority to other men like the “straight arrow frat type” Bev was dating in college when he first met her or even when the man is not a man but a duck.

Howard (now human) and Fifi the former (normal) duck (from Howard the Duck #18)

Despite being threatened by the other men in Bev’s life, issue #17 ends with Dr. Bong explaining he plans to put Howard in his “evolvo-chamber” to transform him into something closer to human. Bong’s plan is to breed Howard with Fifi, a female duck evolved into a duck-woman who wears a French maid’s outfit with fishnet stockings and speaks in an outrageous French accent for some reason. It is not clear what Bong hopes to accomplish with this plan (or why Fifi can’t be bred with the duck man that rescued Howard and Bev from quicksand in issue #15). In issue #18, however, the procedure goes awry and rather than be transformed into even more of a duck-man than he already is Howard is transformed into a human (leading to the fantastic homage to Amazing Spider-Man #50 and “Spider-Man No More” on the cover of #19).

The cover to Howard the Duck #18. Howard mid-transformation into some kind of monster as Bev recoilsHoward the Duck Vol. 1, #18

Cover Date: November 1977
Release Date: August 24, 1977
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Gene Colan
Inker: Klaus Jansen
Colorist: Janice Cohen
Letterer:  Irving Watanabe

Howard as short ugly man versus short cute duck is actually a great moment in the series. He is able to escape Dr. Bong’s tower with Fifi’s help, but when the “flying bonger” they take to New York is mistaken for a UFO and shot down by the U.S. Air Force, Fifi is killed, though Howard is able to walk away unscathed. When the police and others wonder over the “alien body” of Fifi—saying of her clothing, “I think she wanted to pass as human”—Howard the Human goes off on a rant. He sarcastically explains how she abhorred being hatched a duck and how that makes sense since humanity is the supreme measure of all things. As he walks off, he grumbles, “Human! Better she should try ta pass herself off as beef jerky! At least she’d be accepted on her own terms.” At its best Howard the Duck serves as a critical eye on human society and the assumptions of our superiority and mastery of all things. The very human but-not-quite-human duck provides an adjacent spot from which to observe and comment on the absurdity around us. Having been transformed into a human, some might think that his sense of anomic solitude might be mitigated, but one of the first things he says upon discovering his change is “I’ve never passed for normal anywhere before — let alone on this cockeyed world!!” and then goes on to bemoan his “brand new identity crisis.” Howard never felt at home even in the duck world he came from (as the introductory text on the opening of each issue explains) and it is hard not to imagine that Gerber is saying as much about himself in this world of hairless apes.

Howard the Human beset by mental trauma of his transformation (Howard the Duck #18)

Howard’s “new identity crisis” is not actually all that “new.” It is an extension of his pre-existing one. Remember, back in Howard the Duck #11 when Howard starts dissociating after being in a days-long coma? In that issue there is a second inner voice in Howard’s consciousness questioning his every choice and the motives of those around him. He flees New York for Cleveland in a jealous fit over Bev getting attention from another man but ends up in an asylum. Well, now back in New York that voice returns, now visually accompanied by the ghostly visage of his duckish form and whose attitude is even more misanthropic than Howard usually is. The sympathetic suicidal duck from the first issue of the series is long gone, replaced with an abrasive dickhead.

The cover to Howard the Duck #19. A human walks away from the ghostly image of Howard in profile.Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #19

Cover Date: December 1977
Release Date: September 27, 1977
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Gene Colan
Inker: Klaus Jansen
Colorist: Phil Rachelson
Letterer:  Irving Watanabe

Howard the Duck #19 begins with Howard still in human form wandering Times Square and Hell’s Kitchen and thus allowing Gerber to write about one of his favorite topics, the “sleaze” of that part of the city, something he returns to time and again in his issues of Omega the Unknown but that easily slips into casual racism and classism. Sure, that part of the city was dirty and seedy in the 1970s (and despite its Disney-veneer can still be that way these days), but the way it is depicted in the comic—wherein the men are all black and brown and the women are white and easy—is more than a little troubling. First of all, women of color are almost completely erased, and secondly, when a comic represents as diverse a city as New York by having the only minority characters be pimps, con-artists, and stick-up men speaking in exaggerated slang and AAVE, it is difficult to just chalk that up as simply “how it was” back then. Writers and artists are making choices here, and those choices reveal prejudiced perspectives on city life. This is reinforced in Howard the Duck #20 when, after having been transformed back into his duck form, Howard must help his new boss deal with a co-worker who has been transformed into a sudsy and abrasive monster of radioactive soap bubbles bent on “cleaning up the streets.”

Howard learns about SOOFI from Sudd (Howard the Duck #20)

Penniless, separated from Bev and wearing nothing but a “Foxy Lady” t-shirt he snatched from where he found it drying on a windowsill, Howard was forced to look for work. Sudd, the dishwasher who had been training Howard at his new job, is a member of SOOFI (Save Our Offspring From Indecency), a group that specializes in burning “immoral books, perverted movies [and] depraved records.” Transformed into a monster, this censorious ideology’s seemingly natural extension is to wipe out the “street culture” of Eighth Avenue we caught a glimpse of in the beginning of issue #19­—what Howard calls “the sleaze capital of the universe!”  Of course, the victims of this clean-up are all depicted as black. Sudd even laments as he attacks these black folks that “this black stuff don’t come off!” This obvious racist sentiment (associating skin color with depravity and criminality) is reinforced by an editorial caption that reads: “Caution: Despite appearances, do not interpret Sudd’s rampage as racist. He’ll kill anybody — ‘adult’ booksellers, fallen women, dealers of illicit substances, liberals — of any color or creed.” The fact that Gerber felt the need to warn us against coming to the conclusion made apparent by the very panel the caption accompanies demonstrates that he was aware of the problematic aspect of this image, but not enough to actually re-write it or have Gene Colan re-draw it. The notion of wiping off “the black” also reminds me of a gross racist caricature from the 1932 Our Gang short entitled “Birthday Blues” in which Stymie’s blackness is flicked off with his sweat, demonstrating the degree to which such imagery is passed down through media decade after decade under the guise of humor. Furthermore, the editorial note enacts the typical bait and switch wherein the reader is warned not to make an assumption about race that is obvious in what they are seeing and reading, flipping the blame for it from those presenting the image to those interpreting it. It is a coded version of that old canard regarding “who is the real racist?”

The cover to Howard the Duck #20. Howard cowers behind a trash can lid from a humanoid monster made of scrubbing bubbles.Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #20
Cover Date: January 1978
Release Date: October 25, 1977
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Gene Colan
Inker: Klaus Jansen
Colorist: Janice Cohen
Letterer: John Costanza

In addition, the residents of the neighborhood are depicted cheering on the monster’s homicidal cleansing from their windows. Howard even second guesses his efforts to stop Sudd, explaining to his boss, “Now there’s an unexpected wrinkle — he’s a homicidal maniac, but socially useful.” The boss agrees, saying that “urban blight rankles [him], too…” Howard decides to go through with dousing Sudd with his vinegar and lemon juice antidote anyway and it works—Sudd dissipates—but Howard complains that now he is a hero “ta every degenerate on the block.” Subsequently, the presumably law-abiding neighborhood folks (all depicted as white) get so angry that the duck stopped the “clean-up,” they attack him with brooms and a hatchet, complaining that he sabotaged “the first effective clean-up campaign in [the] neighborhood’s history!!!” In other words, the “normal people” were fine with indiscriminate murder as a solution to urban blight.

Yes, I know that taking these story elements as literal reflections of Gerber’s attitude is dangerous even with his own claims about the degree to which he inserts his views and life into this comic book series, but to represent city life this way even within the hyperbolic framework of a satire is more dangerous. The artificial designation of street versus resident life represents as cut and dry what is certainly not as simple. I love Gene Colon’s art, but the visual representation of this conflict as predominantly white versus black is also troubling. This is a theme common to Gerber’s work. It can be found not only in Omega the Unknown but in the response to the letter on the evils of “street culture” published in Howard the Duck #5 and in some plot points in some Gerber-penned issues of The Defenders. Unfortunately, this kind of attitude was common enough in the 1970s that it likely went unnoticed for its problems back then, so I do not write about this to single out Gerber and his collaborators but to consider what this reflection on racialized notions of crime and “sleaze” in the 1970s tells about that time and the subsequent policies of mass incarceration the United States is still dealing with to this day.

Howard the Human on the “sleazy” streets of Manhattan (from Howard the Duck #19)

Jumping back, in issue #18, Dr. Bong forces Bev to marry him (recruiting the captain of a Soviet trawler to perform the ceremony) in return for the promise of Howard’s safety. When they return (in issue #19), however, to find Howard has escaped, Dr. Bong decides he must exterminate the duck and leaves to find him in New York. Meanwhile, Howard (still in human form) met up with Amy Pope, a character I am guessing was meant to represent the modern woman (of 1977). She took a liking for Howard based on his unwillingness to get involved in a fight at a Port Authority diner that developed after a homeless man who had been following Howard was refused service. Amy brings Howard the Human home and slipping into a workout leotard (Jane Fonda style), begins her stretches and exercises while explaining her troubles with weak-willed men like Elton (who she had been with at the diner when the fracas began), who use women as compliant sounding boards for their feelings without acknowledging that women too have feelings and agency. As is typical for Gerber in Howard the Duck comics, the character serves as a way to examine what he considers a trend in human behavior and relationships—men whose weakness leads them to overcompensate by being controlling and potentially violent. As Amy explains to Howard, “[Guys like Elton] can’t allow [women] an intellect — or we’d be as threatening as men.” Unfortunately, at the same time Gerber seems to be writing a character expressing her treatment in a patriarchal world where men’s confidence is often based on putting down and constricting the choices of women, he also depicts her as simultaneously exceedingly compliant to Elton’s demands and something of an overthinker about their relationship. When Elton breaks into her place in a fit of insecurity and jealousy at knowing Howard has spent the night with her, they both freak out to see that the duck-turned-man has now turned back into a duck in his sleep. As Howard retreats into the bathroom, Amy cowering behind Elton, the mixed-up couple argues about defining their masculine and feminine roles in response to the shock of Howard’s true form. It is clear that their discussion is meant to be overwrought and ridiculous.

Amy Pope doing her yogic stretches while bemoaning her treatment by men (from Howard the Duck #19)

A flashback in Howard the Duck #20 explains that Howard’s off-panel amorous night with Amy “activated his adrenal glands, among others…and triggered a biochemical reversal of the evolvo-chambers’s effects.” An event that makes me wonder yet again about the degree of romance in his relationship with Bev (though this goes unmentioned). Howard doesn’t have much time to celebrate his recovery, however, because Dr. Bong arrives to kill him. At first, Howard flees, but realizing that the villain can find him anywhere, he decides to stand his ground and gets the drop on the bell-headed foe and smacks him on the dome with a steel pipe he finds in the garbage. I know I mentioned what Dr. Bong looks like back in If It WAUGHs Like a Duck #15 but as a reminder, his name is not a drug reference, but a reference to his literal bell for a head. The metal ball in place of his left hand (lost to a stage guillotine during his time after college working for a rock band while doing the kind of new journalism music writing that was popularized in the 70s) serves as the bell’s clapper. He bongs his own head to send out vibrations that can cause pain, disorientation, paralysis and even death to those around him. He uses this power to keep both Howard and Bev in line and to fend off assailants. But when Howard strikes him in that bell head by surprise, the “sour note” he hits has an effect on Dr. Bong himself and the villain disappears “to points unknown.”

Despite spending the last four issues on the conflict with Dr. Bong (not including Howard the Duck #16’s essayistic issue), he is dispatched a little too easily for my tastes. I know this will not be the last we or Howard will see of Dr. Bong, but it is the last we see for now. The rest of issue #20 goes on to tell the story of Sudd and introduce SOOFI (which presumably will be the focus of the next issue). My guess is that the SOOFI plot will be resolved in Howard the Duck #21. I considered only covering the part of issue #20 that wraps up the first Dr. Bong arc here and saving the rest of it for the next installment of WAUGH and On and On, but I think that’d get too confusing. And including issue #21 in this installment would have made this post even longer than it already is. This does mean, however, that the next installment may only be covering one issue. We’ll see.

Tallying the Bill

Howard the Duck #20 includes an ugly racist scene about street life. [Click to enlarge]

There is a lot going on in these issues—a lot more than I have room to go into here.

While I have not mentioned it much in this installment, Gene Colan’s art continues to be fantastic and when his work is inked by one of the best in the business­—Klaus Jansen—it is even better. I do find myself frequently complaining about how the panel layout leans towards the askew and non-standard, but that is mostly because of the difficulty of scanning individual panels for this project. Within the context of the comic’s absurdity and confusion, the layout—with overlapping and/or strangely-shaped panels—helps to evoke the feeling of being embroiled in weirdness.

I found these four issues much more entertaining and delightfully weird than the ones that came before it and (despite the racism) a lot more like what I imagined Howard the Duck to be like before I started reading the series. While Gerber’s repetition of certain ideas and character types—all riffing on some aspect of his self-image it seems—might appear to be a weakness of the series, I think repetition or iteration is a great feature of serial comics, allowing for the development of granular differences and new possibilities in evaluating those characters and events. Gerber’s efforts at social commentary may fall short of having anything meaningful to say and reveal more about him than about the implications of the issues he touches on, but that in itself makes the comic a compelling one with which to continue to engage.

Until next time…

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4 thoughts on “WAUGH and On and On #1: Neither Fish Nor Fowl

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