WAUGH and On and On #2: Duck Naked

Welcome to the second installment of WAUGH and On and On, a continuation of the reading series, If It WAUGHs Like a Duck, which read the then most current Howard series against the original, a pair of issues a at time. This series, however, examines that first series alone, an arc at a time. It looks like I made a mistake in only covering issues #17 through #20 of Howard the Duck in the first installment of WAUGH and On and On. The Dr. Bong arc seemed to end in the middle of issue #20 and the story of the monstrous (and racist) Sudd felt more like a coda than the beginning of a new arc. In reading Howard the Duck #21, however, it became clear that the second half of #20 was the beginning of the story that takes up all of that issue. As a result, rather than cover several issues in this installment, I am just going to cover #21, and return soon for the two-issue arc that follows.

Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #21

Cover Date: February 1978
Release Date: November 22, 1977
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Klaus Jansen
Colorist: Glynnis Wein
Letterer:  Irving Watanabe

So-called “cancel culture” does not exist, as any thinking person who weighs the claims of those who bemoan its destruction of careers and lives should very quickly realize. But it fascinates me that there is an immeasurable sliver of people who think of themselves on the left of the political spectrum who like to equate the desire of a vocal minority to hold people (especially people with cultural or literal capital) accountable for their words and actions with the smarmy decency campaigns that have arisen throughout American history as a reaction to a genuine attempt to be inclusive of diverse people and ideas, especially when those ideas have to deal with sexuality. I also have a hard time equating something like the PMRC—with its warning labels and its “Filthy Fifteen” songs list—to folks on Twitter criticizing some famous dudes whose penchant to sexually harass and/or assault people has been an “open secret” for decades or for whom the most banal racist jibes count as edgy humor. The former had the personal connections to force congressional hearings and the latter are everyday people without much institutional power.

I bring this up because I have often read Howard the Duck as having edgy bro energy. Case in point: Howard the Duck #21 opens right where the previous issue left off, with Howard and his new boss fleeing a mob of local folks angry that they defeated Sudd, Howard’s mutated co-worker who was cleaning up the streets by killing the sketchy people hanging out on “sleaze-beleaguered” 8th Avenue. Exacerbating this, all those people he was killing just happen to be Black (a fact that an editorial note in Howard the Duck #20 tried to cover for and failed). It is the kind of scene I can imagine people on social media objecting to if it came out today. Furthermore, it is not hard to imagine Steve Gerber, in his role as both writer and editor, doubling down in order to defend it.

As usual, I want to add the caveat that it is probably not fair of me to ascribe positions to a man who died when Twitter was not yet two years old and for whom a cartoon duck is the most direct insight into his attitudes, but I guess I am doing it anyway. I just think it can be a productive exercise to think about Howard as an autobiographical writerly stand-in that likes to judge other people but takes a decidedly defensive tone when he finds himself judged (even if just by an imaginary audience).

Of course, it being 1978, Howard the Duck is not addressing pressure from individuals on social media who object to retrograde ideas about gender, race, and sexuality, among other things, but with an actual effort to censor and censure people as part of a reactionary project of the religious right. Or at least, that is what S.O.O.F.I (short for Save Our Offspring from Indecency) is supposed to represent. As by issue’s end, it becomes clear that their leader, the Supreme Soofi (dressed in Pope-like pajamas, a kingly crown, and a spherical helmet-like mask that looks like a peach-colored “Have a Nice Day” smiley face) is really Anita Bryant.

One of the many clues that Anita Bryant is the Supreme Soofi, God’s word is a variation of the Florida Citrus Commission’s slogan (from Howard the Duck #21)

Howard the Duck #21 strikes me as a return to the satirical perspective of the early issues. But, instead of tackling kung fu violence in popular culture or gothic romances, the story is tackling the so-called “decency campaigns” that were not uncommon in the 70s and were around in various forms in the 80s and through to today. For those unfamiliar with her, Bryant is a former singer known for her 1970s “Save Our Children” campaign to oppose gay rights and enforce “decency.”  She was elected Good Housekeeping’s “Most Admired Woman in America” three years in a row and was also a Florida Citrus Commission spokesperson, appearing in orange juice commercials where she recited its slogan, “It’s not just for breakfast anymore,” a variation of which the Supreme Soofi uses when trying to convince Howard to join the cause: “Decency isn’t just for breakfast anymore.” An ally of cretins like Jerry Falwell and the kind of person who called gay people “human garbage,” Gerber is right to mercilessly send her up, even if the realities of the time mean he likely could not explicitly name her, use her likeness, or even state what she stood for or against except in the broadest possible terms. Sure, he could mention­—through S.O.O.F.I’s murderous agenda—her protest of rock shows and anti-pornography positions, but where her advocacy had the most success in harming people was in fighting for the repeal of anti-discrimination ordinances that protected gay people (something that happened in Dade County, Florida with her help). She was a proponent of the vile belief that gay men are child molesters who recruit children into their “lifestyle” since they cannot have children of their own and corrupt them. What was really corrupted, however, was our political process. Some historians argue that it was Bryant’s success that helped to inspire organized efforts by conservative Christians to make their purportedly religious convictions into law and undermine the separation of church and state. All that said, as the face of bigotry and homophobia, Bryant really helped galvanize the gay rights movement of the late 70s and into the 80s. A face that would turn out to be one of the first to be pied as a political protest.

Gerber and guest artist, Carmine Infantino, present this kind of decency campaign in an extreme and satirical way. The Supreme Soofi’s sycophants are suicide bombers for decency. Dressed in the happy face masks and sanitation worker coveralls, they bring exploding push brooms to adult bookstores, rock concerts, theaters that show exploitation films and blow them up! These “death commandos of love” follow their leader unquestioningly, and she commands them to “kill with compassion” as they “ride the cleansing edge of history’s squeegee.”

I love the moment when the ticket seller at a targeted theater complains that the film being screened—Zelda, Nazi Werewolf, a play on 1975’s Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS­—tries to be racy but falls short. To which the S.O.O.F.I replies, “The aesthetic success or failure is of no consequence! The attempt is all that counts!” That sentiment resonated with me because I often struggle to describe art or products of mass culture as “good” or “bad” but am much more interested in thinking about art in a context outside of my just own aesthetic preferences. It is the attempt that is worth discussing. Well, the attempt and what it accomplishes regardless of the intent. But targeting for discussion is not the same as targeting for bombing.

S.O.O.F.I blows up a movie theater.

A quick aside: I wonder if Rob Zombie was unintentionally influenced by the Zelda, Nazi Werewolf joke when he came up with Werewolf Women of the SS for his contribution to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007).

Meanwhile, it is not until Howard and his boss get back to the latter’s apartment that they finally exchange names (something attributed to the “dehumanizing effect of New York”) and it turns out that the boss is named BEVERLY SWITZLER! What? That’s right, he is not only Bev’s uncle, but she is named after him. He explains that “[his] mom wanted a girl” and that he goes by “Lee” for short. It is the kind of cheap and pointless joke that Gerber is prone to falling back on to the story’s detriment. It seems to exist only as an opportunity for Howard to express more self-pity as he unfairly complains about Bev (who doesn’t even appear in the comic!). He is upset that she has married Dr. Bong, but surely, he knows this happened against her will! Or at least, he would know if he weren’t so self-centered and actually thought about saving her somehow. Lee is surprised to hear that his niece, usually such a free spirit, has settled, but even he accepts it at face value, sans rapey implications.

It turns out Howard’s boss is Beverly Switzler’s uncle, also named Beverly Switzler.

After the experience with Sudd and the angry mob, Lee decides to quit the New York restaurant business and return to Ohio, inviting Howard to come with him. Howard demurs, choosing to wait for Paul and Winda who have yet to arrive in New York City from the boat trip they were all on back in Howard the Duck #15 when Howard and Bev were abducted by Dr. Bong. Lee decides to let Howard use his apartment for the remainder of the month since its paid for, and takes off for Cleveland immediately. Unfortunately for Howard, this is how S.O.O.F.I eventually finds him. The Supreme Soofi (we don’t know it is Anita Bryant yet) has vowed revenge on those who turned Sudd into a martyr and tracks him down to the apartment,

We find Howard watching the morning news where a talking head asks “Shall we advocate slow death by harassment [or] swift death by explosive brooms–? The strangling of our freedoms by censorship — or the erosion of our moral fiber by pornography.” In other words, the news media is participating in the kind of bothsidesism that still besets our culture today, reducing issues to two positions of equal validity. After hearing the newsman state that President Carter needs to publicly take a side, Howard complains that this kind of controversy arises from people’s unwillingness to think for themselves. I take this to mean he thinks people’s need for moral leadership is a sign of weakness. In light of our present moment and the repeated attempts by the Trump administration to roll back rights and disaffect swathes of people, that actual moral leadership, not the opportunistic bigotry that often passes for it, is crucial. Without people willing to lead the way in tackling the nuanced specificity of a social question, the debate is often reduced to one of two extremes—“you should not be allowed to say that” or “anyone should be allowed to say whatever they want about anyone they want without any consequences.”

Disney did it to you, Howard!

Assaulted by the Supreme Soofi, Howard is knocked unconscious and awakens at the S.O.O.F.I HQ to find his personal dignity affronted. That’s right, he’s WEARING PANTS! Howard’s reaction to what he calls a “sartorial abomination” is hilarious when you consider that this is a reference to Gerber receiving pressure from Disney via his bosses at Marvel, to avoid any possible confusion between Howard the Duck and Donald Duck. One way in which Disney wanted this distinction made clear was to insist that Howard wear pants since Donald doesn’t. You have to keep in mind that this was over 30 years before Disney would buy Marvel, so it was fear of the viciousness of Disney’s lawyers in protecting their copyrights that was driving this acquiescence, not any actual authority on the part of Disney, or reasonable expectation of consumer confusion. It is this kind of overzealous penchant for litigation (and the U.S. court’s complicity in Uncle Walt’s greed) that led to the effective banning in the United States (until very recently) of one of the best works of comics criticism—Para Leer El Pato Donald/How to Read Donald Duck. While still stirring from his unconsciousness, the narration even describes Howard feeling the “constriction of some binding tight around his body,” which is an explicit reference to the pants they’ve put on him but also Disney’s attempt to literally dictate the shape of Howard’s body.

With this in mind, the Supreme Soofi’s plan to use a machine called the Blanditron to transform Howard into a spokesduck for her vision of “wholesomeness” seems like a thinly veiled satire of Disney’s appropriation and bowdlerization of culture. The S.O.O.F.I leader sees Howard as having “youth appeal,” the kind of Saturday Morning blandness that can win over people in “Peoria.” Despite an attempt to escape, Howard ends up in the Blanditron (which looks like a front-loading washing machine) and goes through a full-cycle. When the S.O.O.F.I Supreme opens up the machine she is greeted by a right cross that shatters the smiley face mask and reveals Anita Bryant beneath. (Well, readers only see the back of her head, but the decency campaign, the citrus slogan, the oranges around the HQ, and references to Dade County, Florida make it clear who it is supposed to be.) It turns out that Howard’s self-possession is just too strong for the machine to work on him. Howard is unmoved and unchanged, his identity is essential to his being, an iconoclast who is too smart to give into any influence that is not his own. In other words, he represents what I can’t help but think of as Gerber’s self-image, something I have suggested before and that I think is made pretty clear at least as far back as Howard the Duck #10. During his mental break, Howard realizes that his suffering is a result of somehow existing outside of society, having resisted its pernicious effects. It’s bullshit, I know, but some people (and ducks) prefer to think of themselves as self-made, when even that very perspective has ideological underpinnings. Not going along with the Anita Bryants of the world or not liking the Disneyfication of culture does not make us immune to countless other social forces that shape our views.

The redesign of Howard the Duck that Disney sent to Marvel [Click to enlarge].

But what interests me most here is the comic’s connection between Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign and Disney. The latter’s penchant to make the bits of public domain it incorporates into its films more palliative for its audience (for example most of the violence and all of the sex were removed for stuff like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty). Sure, they can claim that these changes are made for the sake of their child audiences, but they are also made as a form of control, transforming public domain properties into iterations that can be protected through litigation. This is a process that they perfected in more recent years by rebranding public domain fairy tales in order to better defend their trademarks and avoid the knock-offs that could legally use the original titles (so “Rapunzel” became Tangled and “The Snow Queen” became Frozen). Those of Bryant’s ilk may also claim to want to protect children, but they really want to defend white heteropatriarchal control of the culture “at any cost.” (At Any Cost, by the way, is the title of the book Bryant and her husband wrote about their Save Our Children campaign).

The issue ends with Howard walking off—leaving his pants behind—as a devastated Bryant begs him to join her. Riffing on another Florida Citrus Commission slogan—“A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine”—she bemoans that “a day without imposing her morality on someone else” is similarly lightless. The duck tells her she can keep trying but he will just keep on resisting and that he’s certain they will both “have a lotta cloudy days ahead,” a fitting description of the push and pull between conservative campaigns and progressive efforts at justice and inclusion. Heck, it’d take 20 years for the Dade County anti-discrimination ordinance that Bryant helped revoke to be re-instated! It took 30 years for the Florida ban on gay folks adopting (another of Bryant’s hateful missions) to be declared unconstitutional! They keep trying. We keep resisting, but unlike Howard, I don’t think it is safe to assume that our attitudes on morality exist in isolation and that the selves we are supposed to “remain true to” are somehow unassailable and should not need moral guides to know what is right. Of course, as writer R.S. Martin points out this “trying and resisting” is also a reference to Disney’s efforts to put popular culture into a “blanditron” and Gerber’s intention to keep fighting Mickey-fucking-Mouse, but in this Gerber seems to be right: the two forces work in tandem.

Howard is unflappable in the face of self-righteous brainwashing and soon discovers the Supreme Soofi’s true identity (even if she is not named in the comic).

Tallying the Bill

Overall, while this issue is light on plot, I appreciate its attempt at contemporary commentary by including Anita Bryant (even if she is not named). Sure, the comic is not making as explicit a stand against the kind of homophobia Bryant represents as I’d like, but I think that would be a lot to expect from Marvel at the time and even from Gerber, who appears to prefer vague political platitudes to specific positions, at least in how he presents them through his avian stand-in. Edgy dudes, like Howard, may think that being held accountable for their racist/sexist/homophobic bullshit is the current moment’s version of the Blanditron, but all that bigot shit is so common as to be a form of blandness, too.

Carmine Infantino’s art is great here. Howard seems returned to his rawer cartoonish form from his early appearances in Adventure into Fear and Man-Thing (or at least more evocative of it). In addition, Infantino eschews the non-standard panel shapes that can sometimes make Gene Colan’s otherwise gorgeous work on Howard the Duck disorienting, while rarely adding anything to the narrative.

We’re nearing the end of Gerber’s run on his creation, having run afoul—no pun intended—of his Marvel masters, especially soon-to-be editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. It is a shame because if this issue is anything to go by, Gerber can still deliver a sharp parody when he manages to meet a deadline. Sure, Howard remains uneven in his characterization and frequently unlikeable, but the former can be forgiven if the latter provides duckish insight into the foibles of us hairless apes.

Until next time… WAUGH!


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One thought on “WAUGH and On and On #2: Duck Naked

  1. Pingback: WAUGH and On and On #1: Neither Fish Nor Fowl | The Middle Spaces

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