WAUGH and On and On #3: The Dark Side of the Farce

Welcome to the third installment of WAUGH and On and On, a continuation of the reading series, If It WAUGHs Like a Duck, Before we begin I wanted to note that I was only able to complete this installment with the help of the preeminent Howard the Duck podcast, What the Duck?! A Podcast Most Fowl (but with a ‘W’ because He’s a Duck), that’s the full name of the show (a podcast name that the hosts themselves admit has diminishing returns, but heck that also describes Howard the Duck itself!). Anyway, I do not have access to those issues where Howard first appeared, and thus had to make do with listening to Hub and Lisa discuss them (you can hear the first episode covering Adventure into Fear #19 for free) to have some context for this two-issue story that calls back to those 1973 comics even as it is also firmly entrenched in the Star Wars mania of the late 1970s.

Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #22
Cover Date: March 1978
Release Date: December 27, 1977
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Val Mayerik
Inker: Bill Wray
Colorist: Janice Cohen
Letterer:  John Costanza

Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #23
Cover Date: April 1978
Release Date: January 24, 1978
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Val Mayerick
Inker: Val Mayerick
Colorist: Janice Cohen
Letterer:  Irving Watanabe

Star Wars is dumb. Don’t get me wrong. I love Star Wars. It was my first theater going experience that mattered. It imprinted on my imagination at age six and by my 20s had me religiously watching Kirosawa films and listening to Joseph Campbell lectures. But, as a friend and colleague recently reminded me, “Star Wars has always been stupid. It is called Star. Wars.” In other words, the dumbness of the franchise is in the name, once we defamiliarize it. This is also someone who loves Star Wars, so we understand where we are coming from when we critique and obsessively argue about whose read of the films and the franchise is “right.” I love the absurdity of Star Wars as an institution and a film, nevertheless absurd spectacle alone is not enough to make a Star Wars installment a good one. It takes a thread of pathos that binds the goofy aliens, improbable starships, and acrobatic laser sword choreography to make Star Wars work. It is for this reason that I was disappointed in The Rise of Skywalker, a film that felt like a pointless regurgitation of what came before, squandering the promise of The Last Jedi and its bold attempt to burn the past and move forward. Like a lot of J.J. Abrams work, Episode IX relies on the echo of something familiar rather than building its own stakes. There is nothing wrong with The Rise of Skywalker embracing the franchise’s stupidity, but it seemed to fall back on John Williams’ iconic score to get us to feel the things the stuff on the screen simply did not earn on its own. It was transparent and uncritical nostalgia, and thus, hollow.

Dakimh the Enchanter tells Howard of his special destiny (Howard the Duck #22)

At moments The Rise of Skywalker felt like a parody of Star Wars (or of Return of the Jedi, more specifically), but as venerable a tradition as Star Wars parody may be—from MAD magazine’s Star Wars musical in 1978 to Muppet Babies in 1984 to Robot Chicken’s 2007 episode dedicated to sending it up—there is a problem with Star Wars parody, a problem evident in perhaps its most famous send-up of all, Spaceballs (1987). The source material is so stupid in so many ways already that to parody it through exaggeration and repetition is to discover some sub-humorous realm where the joke becomes mostly pointing at things and going “Eh? Eh?” I actually re-watched Spaceballs recently as I had not seen it since it first ran. I remembered not finding it very funny at 16. Knowing I had to write this post and considering how self-serious I can be, especially when I was that age, I gave it another shot. I think I’d rather re-watch Rise of Skywalker than to make that mistake again. Spaceballs is just not very good.

This is all preamble for these two issues of Howard the Duck which serve as a kind of on-the-ground Star Wars parody, as it came out only six months after the film was released to immediately begin breaking records and blasting into the late 70s zeitgeist like a disco laser ray. Taking on Star Wars was a requirement of most comedic media back then and most of it was in good humor. This was before the dark times, before Star Wars was an excuse to harass people on the internet.

Before the glut of Star Wars riffs would become the norm, Gerber was just poking fun at a break-out space opera hit by pointing out how common its tropes really are and the ways in which it has more in common with sword and sorcery type stuff than with science fiction. The story is also a call back to Howard’s first appearances, Adventure into Fear #19 (December 1973) and Man-Thing volume 1, #1 (January 1974) with the ghost of the wizard Dakimh (he  died in Giant Size Man-Thing #3 [February 1975]) recruiting Howard to join up with Korrek the Barbarian, Man-Thing, and Jennifer the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The swamp monster serves as a kind of Chewbacca, while Howard and Korrek split Han Solo and Luke Skywalker’s features between them. The boringly named Jennifer serves as the Princess Leia, a capable sorceress that can defend herself but that nevertheless becomes just another damsel in this version of the story.

And what is the story?

After being a-salted by a giant saltshaker with gorilla arms and wondering if he might be cracking up again, Howard is transported by the wizard Dakimh to his interdimensional castle to meet up with his former companions so they can save the universe. Howard is not happy about this and begins to complain the moment the adventure begins. From the perspective of his former companions, Howard appeared to die back in Man-Thing #1 when he fell off some interdimensional stairway into the “nether-space,” so Korrek and Jennifer are excited to see the duck again. Howard, on the other hand, grumbles his sarcastic greetings, annoyed by his conscription (and is a little afraid of the possible outcome of these violent adventures).

Korrek and Jennifer are reunited with a less than happy duck.

The universe is threatened by Bzzk’Joh, the offspring of an otherworldly immortal queen and the surviving “most savage of warriors” from the battle royale she stages to choose a mate every millennium or so. The child (now grown) inherited his father’s madness and his mother’s “depressive tendencies,” and thus with the “power beyond measure” he also inherited, he can only be stopped by contacting “the Farce.” Right before mysteriously disappearing—as wizards are bound to do—Dakimh explains that the Farce is “the binding energy of the universe — which permits [people] to yok it up in the face of death.” The adventurers must seek this power within themselves if they hope to defeat Bzzk’Joh. Oh, and one last thing, he appoints Howard the Duck as leader of the group, as the ghostly wizard claims the drake has a special destiny.

As I suggested above, what strikes me about this parody is how it brings Star Wars closer to some of its less savory ancestors, and in doing so foresees some of the elements and patterns made clear in the sequels which were still years away at this point. Princesses in gauzy see-through gowns and/or metal bikinis, ridiculous death machines, ghostly wizards dispensing advice, blasted landscapes, impossible monsters, cowboy ethics, pseudo-eastern philosophy, and gonzo humor all seem a natural part of this hybrid genre. It is hard to imagine this now given the eight Star Wars franchise films, several cartoons, and countless novel tie-ins, but there is very little about destiny in the first film. Luke is never spoken of as having a specific destiny at all. Yes, Obi-Wan Kenobi does say to Luke that his “destiny runs along a different path than [his],” but there is nothing about that line that suggests a “special” destiny. Closer is when Han Solo says (earlier in the film), “There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.” Yet, even that is explicitly mocking a theme that would not be mentioned until Luke and Vader have their famous first face-to-face in Cloud City. But here, Gerber mines the element of destiny that is implicitly embedded in that first Star Wars movie and applies it to Howard, who in this regard is the Luke Skywalker of the parody given how he is depicted on the cover of Howard the Duck #23.

If that pickle wasn’t explicitly drawn to look like an erect penis. . . (from Howard the Duck #22)

Howard—as to be expected—hates the idea of a special destiny, being obliged to do anything, or the thought that he is not in control of his own fate. (The concluding arc of Zdarksy and Quinones’s Howard the Duck run plays with the idea that as a comic book character such freedom will forever elude him). As he says to the ever-silent Man-Thing, “Dakimh assumes we’ve got a vested interest in preservin’ the universe! Well, I’m not so sure!” Howard loves to play the nihilist.

As to reinforce the ridiculousness of what is going on, Howard is assaulted by a phallic green monster pickle. It emerges from Dakimh’s refrigerator (he has a full electric kitchen in his medieval fantasy style castle between dimensions) and only another dick joke—MAN-THING!—can defeat it. The pickle monster is just a precursor to the arrival of Bzzk’Joh, who snatches up Jennifer the sorceress and declares her “a prisoner of the Imperium Emporium!” Going on to add, “Any attempt to rescue this chickee shall result in her instantaneous baldness!” The joke is the kind of cheap nonsense Steve Gerber falls back on too easily. I guess it makes sense to make fun of princess hair given Leia’s stylized cinnabons—Spaceballs riffs on Princess hair more than once—but it is the kind of cheap joke that just hangs a lampshade on what is already ridiculous hair. Then again, my annoyance at the “jokes” I do recognize might be resentment over the number of times I tried saying “Bzzk’Joh” aloud as to determine if it is a play on something. I guess if the name is just nonsense, it is the best of the nonsense in this issue.

Howard the Duck #23 begins at the moment of Jennifer’s capture (I guess someone has to fill in for the missing Bev Switzler) with Bzzk leaping through a magic portal with his captive, and explaining that he plans to “bulldoze the universe and build on its ruins…a shopping center unrivaled in its crassness.” In that same moment, Jennifer is able to cast a spell transforming a stone statue and a trash can into parodies of C3P0 and R2-D2, named NAAC-P30 and “Tutu.” These two “magical robots” were created by the sorceress to guide the remaining part of her band across the dimensions to complete their quest to defeat Bzzk. I guess I should stop here and give thanks that Gerber resisted going any further than another hollow joke when he gave the Threepio analog the same designation as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and does not write the robot as a black caricature, because after that racist scene in Howard the Duck #20, I would not put it past him.

Before the heroes can take off for the heart of the universe on the “Epoch Weasel” (get it?)—a spaceship that looks, to quote Luke Skywalker, like “a hunk of junk”—Howard once again balks at going on this adventure and risking himself for the universe or to save the girl. This might be an example of Joseph Campbell’s “refusal of the call” portion of the Hero’s Journey, but if it is, it is the most curmudgeonly and selfish version of it I’ve seen. In fact, it takes Korrek threatening violence to get Howard to come along, and this only after Howard tries to shoot the barbarian with the rifle Dakimh granted him (think Obi-Wan giving Luke his father’s lightsaber). So, Howard is willing to kill his former compatriot rather than go on a heroic journey. Fortunately for Korrek, the gun seems to be a gag-prop that shoots a flag reading “BANG!” (Or at least, it can only do that so long as Howard has not yet “learned to use it in communion with the Farce”).

Yes, Howard is an asshole. If you’ve read these comics or been following along with this and the previous series you already know that. What strikes me about this, however, is that if I can trust Lisa and Hub’s analysis of the first two stories in which Howard and this crew appeared (and I don’t see why I can’t), then this is something of a reversal of these characters. In the first story Korrek was the asshole and Howard was the “everyman” drawn into a world of increasing absurdity and trauma. However, at the end of Man-Thing #1 (after Howard was conveniently removed by appearing to die), Korrek and the others reach a new level of understanding having become one with the universe or whatever, which may explain why this version of Korrek seems a lot more likeable compared to the cowardly and selfish duck.

The “Imperium Emporium” ships looks like long-haul trucks and are full of consumer products to stock the shelves of the “Death Store” (from Howard the Duck #23).

Howard the Duck #23 follows the beats of Star Wars more closely than the previous issue. The Epoch Weasel has to flee an “Imperium Emporium” warship (an 18-wheeler the size of a super Star Destroyer) that bombards them with consumer products like small appliances and jewelry at first but upgrading their artillery to pressure cookers and iron skillets (a move that reminds me of 1978’s short parody film Hardware Wars). They end up at a spaceport bar looking for a new ride, but instead of weird aliens, the place is full of Californians, a rainbow of laid back leisure suited blond dudes, whose threat is neutralized when they “collapse under the weight of their own pretensions” due to “their inability to accept the ultimate ridiculousness in themselves and the cosmos”—something that happens when Howard once again shoots his pop-gun. This time the flag reads “Down with peacocks,” which I guess is a reference to the preening Californian demeanor of the bar patrons. And finally, the heroic band finds a secret way into Bzzk’Joh’s combination headquarters and superweapon, the “Death Store,” thanks to information determined by Tutu.

California. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy (from Howard the Duck #23).

These references are not just goofy sendups. The “Death Store” also suggests that the film’s destiny itself was tied up with its relentless merchandising. Satirizing Star Wars’ consumer appeal might be the one joke from Spaceballs that works because it was released long after selling crap—Star Wars lunch boxes, Star Wars bed sheets, Star Wars beanbag chairs, Star Wars Christmas ornaments, and so on—was just an accepted aspect of the franchise (calling Yoda “Yogurt,” however, is only a good joke if you’re a third grader). I also can’t help but think of the Death Store as an analog for the pervasiveness of Walmart (and similar chains) in American consumer culture. In 1978, Walmart may not have existed the way it does now but the evil seeds of the Walton family were definitely being planted, as were the seeds for Star Wars consumer obsession, when parents paid for the promise of action figures that did not even exist yet.

The showdown with Bzzk’Joh in the Death Store features his minions, twin Darth Vader clones called the Dearth Vapors, who remove their masks to reveal Donnie and Marie Osmond. Their shining smiles coat everything in a layer of crystallizing saccharine. When Man-Thing breaks out of his candied prison the frightened Mormon teen stars burn at his touch. The use of the Osmonds (their names are changed here to Donny and Tortuga Dearth) also seems cheap, even though they did have a Star Wars themed episode of their variety show that aired in September 1977. It is a bit of fan service to the cranky too-cool-for-school crowd that likes to complain about the banality of popular culture (and from whom Howard the Duck has printed a letter or two). The Osmonds are too easy a target, especially back then. Nowadays they are mostly forgotten, except as has-beens who host talk shows. But their presence and one-time mega-popularity as to rival Star Wars also reminds us that at some level the Osmonds and Star Wars are the same thing—commodities shaped to move product.

Donny and Marie Osmond as Donny and Tortuga Dearth (from Howard the Duck #23)

Bzzk is defeated when Howard uses the pop-gun on him, beating him much the same way the Californians were defeated, stating the obvious in a way that pierces the veneer of polity. This time the rifle’s sign reads, “You have no sense of humor” and Bzzk must confront this truth: the over the top satire of consumerism and blockbuster movies and the influence of old serial adventure stories (including the very story in which these characters all first joined together) is just not really all that funny and that includes his part in it. Throwing out random jokes in hope that one will stick is hardly indicative of a comedic sense (but the kind of humor that remains popular in garbage like Family Guy—which did its own Star Wars parody in 2007). Bzzk’Joh collapses in a crying heap, Jennifer is rescued, and the heroes blast off as the Death Store explodes. Out of business. The end.

The pacing of the story makes the ending feel abrupt, a conclusion that feels like the story itself suffers the same fate as the villain, it cannot support a third act and collapses under the weight of its own try-hard humor.

Bzzk’Joh is defeated (from Howard the Duck #23)

Tallying the Bill

These two issues felt more like what Howard the Duck was like early in the run, a little bit rawer in terms of art and less meandering given the structure of “parody of the month” type stories. The former is probably due to Howard’s co-creator Val Mayerik doing the penciling on these stories and joining his style to how the bird has evolved in the hands of Gene Colon over 17 issues (up to this point).

Storywise, I think Howard the Duck has been most successful when it has worked parodic references into its ongoing story of the life of Howard and Bev (like the presidential election) rather than making them into discrete one-off stories that blur too easily into each other. Though to be fair, serial fiction has a very loose relationship with memory as a general rule and counts on a rotating audience with a fragmented memory. It is only in the current binge-prone era of consumer completism that serial disjunctions are so jarring. Despite not having read the original issues in which they appear, I do like the attempt here to use the back story in service of the parody of the moment.

Reading these issues also made me more deeply understand how long Star Wars has remained a cultural focus in America. The debates over the current trilogy and the anger over the prequels are part of what is now an intergenerational transmedia experience. As big as Star Wars seemed when Gerber wrote this subtle suggestion that the cross-promotional marketing and consumption that Star Wars established is the soulless capitalist ideal of the culture industry, as part of the Disney conglomerate it is bigger than he could have ever imagined in 1977. Disney is a many-headed monster whose control is even more sophisticated now than the fair use/public domain/copyright footsie Gerber skewered as part of the S.O.O.F.I arc. They own everything. They even own Howard the Duck (who, as a rule, now wears pants and doesn’t complain about it). Gerber had no way of knowing how right he would be, but like a lot of things Star Wars these days, these parodies—however they might inevitably fail—force us to consider the degree to which Star Wars is just another arm of the Empire, and even our most irascible heroes cannot only be put to work for corporate overlords, but to some degree always did. This farce will be with us, always.

“– the Death Store!” (from Howard the Duck #23)


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One thought on “WAUGH and On and On #3: The Dark Side of the Farce

  1. Pingback: WAUGH and On and On #2: Duck Naked | The Middle Spaces

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