Welcome to the fifth installment of WAUGH and On and On, a modified continuation of the If It WAUGHs Like a Duck reading series that examined the original 1970s Howard the Duck comic book in conversation with the Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones volume(s) from 2015 to 2016. Since the most recent version of the comic is over, I have returned to my examination of the original Howard the Duck series, now one arc at a time.
Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #25
Cover Date: June 1978
Release Date: March 28, 1978
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Gene Colan
Inker: Klaus Jansen
Colorist: Janice Cohen
Letterer: Irving Watanabe
Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #26
Cover Date: July 1978
Release Date: April 25, 1978
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Gene Colan
Inker: Klaus Jansen
Colorist: Janice Cohen
Letterer: Irving Watanabe
Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #27
Cover Date: September 1978
Release Date: July 4, 1978
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Gene Colan
Inker: Klaus Jansen
Colorist: Phil Rachelson
Letterer: Gaspar Saladino
The three issues I am writing about today are the final arc of Howard the Duck written by Steve Gerber. Yes, after a gap of one issue written by Marv Wolfman, Gerber is credited as co-writer for an issue (#29), but by then he was no longer a Marvel employee, contract or otherwise. Howard the Duck #25 through #27 really mark the end of his time on the title that by most standards won him his reputation as a comic book writer.
Notice the gap in release dates between issues #26 and #27. The two+ months between their release suggests that Gerber was missing deadlines at this time and, according to Robert Martin in his “All Quacked Up” essay, the move to bi-monthly was an editorial effort to mitigate the chronic lateness and the back-up of owed stories. It probably bears mentioning that in this era of Marvel Comics, blown deadlines were quite common and something associated with folks being allowed to be their own editors (like Gerber). And as common as it was, Gerber was the most notorious of the chronically late. As Val Mayerik said of his Howard co-creator in a 2012 interview, “I don’t know if there was ever anybody in the industry who was ever as late as Steve.” When Jim Shooter came on as editor-in-chief this would change immediately because he instituted a policy of no more writer-editors, enforced deadlines, and pushed people off books when they could not meet the timely demand for their work. Gerber would be kicked off the Howard the Duck newspaper comic strip (which I mentioned in the last installment) by March of 1978 and by May, Stan Lee sent Gerber a formal letter firing him from comic book scripting duties. Gerber would be gone from Marvel until the mid-80s when he’d be back to work on a project for the Epic line, and not return to regular comic scripting duties until 1988 when Shooter was out of the picture.
Marv Wolfman, who was Gerber’s editor for the first few issues of Howard the Duck (and initially a champion of Gerber and the series) did not like the tone of the later Howard comics (Howe 179), calling them “gruesome” and “revolting” in an interview in the Comics Reader (#129, April 1976). I bring this up because in the context of grappling for editorial and creative control, this perspective on the direction of Howard the Duck, might explain why these three issues mark a change, in that the duck’s adventures revolve around a Marvel Comics mainstay, the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime. While past issues have included cameos by some Marvel heroes like Spider-Man and Son of Satan, this is the first time Howard is going against an established Marvel supervillain, even if Ringmaster and his crew are C-listers at best. Or maybe, facing off against a C-lister is exactly in line with Howard’s own penchant for getting wrapped up in street level shenanigans. Nevertheless, the turn in the focus of the plot to include more common Marvel Universe characters seems like a potential effort to placate the Powers that Be and have Howard engage in something other than social commentary.
That said, the arc begins with what seems like it might be another descent into an aspect of culture for Howard to WAUGH off about: the art world. Yes, Howard has faced off against the art world before—way back in Howard the Duck #4, when Paul Same became the Winky Man and Howard cut the snobby hypocrite of an art critic down to size—but in this issue we learn that Paul gained a patron during his remaining time on the S.S. Damned with Winda on their way back from Bagmom. With the new patron’s help he has earned a whopping $2500 for art he sold, and now he is spending it willy-nilly all over town. He even buys Howard a box of the finest cigars despite (or perhaps because of) the duck’s complaints about Paul’s spendthrift ways. Paul’s new benefactor, Iris Raritan a Long Island debutante, however, has arranged a coming out party for the artist, introducing him to other rich art lovers, so he has hopes to make even more money in the near future.
It is at the party that Howard and the others run into what will become the actual focus of this three-issue arc, the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime. Iris has invited them to perform at her party for Paul (and we later find out she did this knowing they were criminals, hoping to give her party an edge and thinking they’d be pushovers to bring to justice after they’ve entertained her guests). Of course, the Ringmaster manages to mesmerize everyone with his top hat whirligig while his performers rob them blind. This includes what’s left of Paul’s $2500. Taking a fancy to Howard as a possible circus draw, the Ringmaster decides to nab the duck as well. When Howard awakens on the circus truck on Interstate 80 deep in the heart of Pennsylvania, the Ringmaster tells the duck that if he tries to escape he will claim Howard was in on it from the beginning, and since it is the word of six humans against one duck, no one would believe him. (This complication is never mentioned again).
Howard the Duck vol. 1, #26—entitled “Repercussions”—opens with Howard incorporated into the Ringmaster’s show, a hit with the fans in Skudge, Pennsylvania (near the Ohio border) and serving as the distracting segue into the mesmeric hat trick that relieves the audience of their wallets and other valuables. The Ringmaster is an increasingly cruel master to the duck and does not tolerate the waterfowl’s usual acerbic tongue. He backhands the duck for saying the villain is “pervertin’ the institution of the circus” by robbing his crowds and exploiting kids’ pure love of the show to do so (though the cruelty of that blow still pales in comparison to the abuse of animals you often find at actual circuses). The other members of the Circus of Crime seem convinced that their boss is the victim and two of them make an effort to get the duck to lay off his verbal assaults because
- It hurts the boss’s feelings, and
- He is highly likely to kill the duck if it continues.
The human cannonball really plays up the sense that this crime spree is a result of the unfairness of the world. They can’t compete with big circuses, so they need what they steal to survive. Furthermore, he explains that they aren’t even that good at being supervillains. “Every time we run up against Spider-Man or Daredevil or the Hulk–we end up getting’ the livin’ spit beat out of us!” he explains with a laugh. In other words, they are small potatoes.
This is an interesting effort to downplay the crime and build sympathy for the Ringmaster and his cohort. It doesn’t work, of course. Partially because it is hard to sympathize with criminals who are robbing working people (robbing Iris’s rich friends was a fluke) and partially because Howard so easily dismisses their explanations and motives, so as the primary point of view of the comic his perspective holds sway in terms of how the narrative wants the reader to evaluate their explanations.
Furthermore, while this is happening, we also get to see the fate of one of Ringmaster’s victims. Realizing that the last of his family’s savings was taken from him while he was watching the circus, Ignatz (named for the famous mouse from Herriman’s Krazy Kat) decides to rob a gas station rather than go back home and face his angry wife. Like a lot of western Pennsylvania, the mill shut down, and with it went the jobs. The circus was his splurge and a respite. While this is one of the repercussions of the Ringmaster’s crimes, the comic really wants us to see it as an unforeseen repercussion of Iris Raritan’s choice to hire the circus knowing their modus operandi.
It is at this gas station where all of the action of issue #26 converges.
It turns out that Iris, Paul, and Winda are in pursuit of the Circus of Crime. As part of her misguided effort to exploit the supervillains, Iris had put a tracking device in their truck which pinged a radar type device in her convertible. When Howard’s companions discover this, they get understandably upset. It is Iris’s fault this is all happening! As they approach the crappy western Pennsylvania town where the villains have brought their fowl friend, Paul and Winda abandon Iris. Paul jumps out of the car angry that his would-be patron turned out to be so reckless and manipulative in pursuit of some “excitement.” And Winda, standing up for Paul who is quickly out of sight, lets the rich woman know in no uncertain terms that she is “foowishwy immatuwe.” Iris kicks her out of the car in retaliation.
Lacking any money, Paul walks towards a gas station to see if he can find a ride to Cleveland, his New York art scene dreams drying up with Iris’s friendship.
Meanwhile, the Ringmaster and his cronies are on their way out of Skudge, PA and stop for gas. When no attendant comes out the Ringmaster goes in to see what’s going on and stumbles on the hold up. The villain tries his hypnotic hat, but Ignatz recognizes him as the person who robbed him at the circus and shoots the hat off his head, disrupting the effect. Hearing the gunshot Howard and the human cannonball run in to see the attendant, Paul, and the Ringmaster all being held at gunpoint. Feeling overwhelmed by too many people arriving and not sure who to point his gun at anymore, Ignatz makes a break for it, just in time to be hit by Iris’s car as she makes a dramatic arrival having tracked the truck to the gas station.
Unfortunately, the blow makes Ignatz squeeze the trigger and the stray bullet finds Paul. But Winda’s fate seems much worse.
The Trouble with Winda
Winda has never made much of an impression on me in my reading Howard the Duck. Basically, she was just the girl with the speech impediment that had KISS come out of her head at an asylum run by Nazi cultists. In these two issues, however, she very quickly became my favorite cast member. In addition to telling off Iris Raritan in issue #26, we get the pleasure of hearing her give her perspective on Paul’s success and her clear delight at the painter’s crush on his benefactor in issue #25. She also has no time for the rude snobs at Iris’s Long Island debut party for Paul, confronting a woman who disgustingly expresses bigoted sentiments about little people—“Midgets are such distasteful little creatures — regardless of how they’re attired”—because she thinks Howard is one in a duck suit. Sure, I wish she hadn’t body-shamed the rich ole bag in her retort, but Winda is also consistently the kindest, funniest, and most thoughtful of Howard’s regulars.
That said, like almost all women in this comic series, the narrative treats Winda terribly. Leaving aside the over the top representation of her mode of speech (with “W” replacing all instances of “L” and “R” without rhyme or reason for how they’d actually sound in real speech—a joke with diminishing returns that becomes frustrating to read and understand), the narrative reward for Winda’s standing up for her friends is an assault by a random wacko in Skudge, PA that has sexual overtones and is clearly depicted as having highly traumatic consequences for the young woman. Immediately after Iris Raritan drives off leaving Winda alone, a “bombed” guy named Lance shows up to harass her. Claiming it is love at first sight and adopting the too frequent discourse of “the nice guy” when she rebuffs him, Lance grabs her and offers to bring her back to his place for a drink. When “Please let go!” doesn’t work to get him to stop, Winda scratches his face bloody. As usual, when such a man reaps the reasonable consequences of his behavior, he reacts with violence. While we don’t get to see what he does to her, the transitional narration explains that “the local lunatic drags a terrified Winda into the shadows…” Between the imagery it evokes of a woman dragged into a dark place and the trauma associated with the assault later when Howard is waiting for news of her and Paul at the hospital after the incident at the gas station, there is definitely a sense that Winda has been sexually assaulted. And I hate it.
Gerber’s choice to have such a fate befall Winda for no good narrative reason is among the worst of many bad choices he’s made in the 25 issues before this one. If he wanted to remove both Winda and Paul from the story again (even if temporarily) he could have had her stay behind with Paul when he was shot. It is a shame because aside from that, this issue could have been one of the strongest in the series so far. The way the action and events are paced and rendered to come to a head at the gas station is masterfully done. And the competing narratives of sympathy for the Ringmaster, the Circus of Crime, poor working schlub Ignatz driven to despondent drinking and then armed robbery, and even Paul’s own realization that his artistic success comes with the price of being a pawn of the whims of the rich, calls on the reader to consider the very repercussions for which the story is named.
But Gerber’s Howard the Duck comics can’t seem to avoid problematic choices when it comes to its women characters. Case in point, even though Bev is not with Howard and the others, in issue #25 we get a glimpse into her life with Dr. Bong and it is a mess of subtextual hostility towards women with agency over their sexuality. Bev’s insistence on consummating her marriage with Dr. Bong is a mind-blowingly awful choice. This turn of events gives me Dave Sim Cerebus-type vibes, bemoaning the treatment of rational and superior men by inherently emotional inferior women. Howard as the (anti-?) hero of the series certainly has a recurring mode of self-pity, especially when it comes to his feelings for Bev and his jealousy over her agreeing to marry Bong to save the duck’s life. Ultimately, Howard is worried Bev might be liking it too much. Dr. Bong himself is yet another version of the Lance archetype—guys whose claims of being “nice” hide a menacing entitlement to the affection of women—a perspective which sometimes strikes me as a facet of Howard himself as an avatar for Gerber.
In case it is not clear, it does turn out that Bev does in fact like being Dr. Bong’s plaything. In issue #27, when we return for another glimpse of her domestic life in his Himalayan stronghold, she even says to her captor, “I confess! I’m glad you coerced me into marriage!” This is after the scene in issue #25 when Bev, expressing boredom, demands that Bong “play house” with her (a clear euphemism for sex). Beverly Switzler is (in)consistently written to embody the worst stereotypes of women as disloyal, fickle, and slutty. Sometimes I think that in the figure of Bev, Gerber has inadvertently revealed the incoherence of those stereotypes, by forcing her to be every kind of two-dimensional idea of a woman at once. Perhaps Gerber thought by making Bev confront Bong for sex he was mitigating the rapey implications of their relationship, but it does no such thing. All it does is reinforce the toxic notion that women “really want it” and they just need to be coerced a bit to discover that they like it. In the end, the scene of marital bliss is marred not by these sour implications, but by Dr. Bong’s announcement that in order to regain his dignity, he plans to once again seek out Howard and kill him, since the duck was “the only creature to ever thwart [his] ambitions.” Once again, problems matter when they effect Howard, Bev’s living conditions and what she has had to accept come second, if that high, on the list of narrative priorities.
The interlude between Bev and Dr. Bong made me think of 1972’s The Getaway and this scene in which Sally Struthers plays the wife in a kidnapped couple and falls for their captor. In case, it isn’t clear, the man tied to the chair is her husband and the guy with the fried chicken is their captor. Even when she gets the gun from their kidnapper, she is so enamored of him she jokes around and pretends to shoot her husband instead. The scene is framed so that we pity that poor schlub in the chair, but any concern about the woman is flensed by her participation in her husband’s metaphorical emasculation.
And to be clear, my issue here is not Beverly’s sexual agency. She can choose who she wants to sleep with, when and how. The issue is the framing—written and drawn by men—which denudes the turn of events of its explicit violations in pursuit of some cheap comedy in a way that lets Bev take some of the blame. It’s gross.
On with the Show
Howard the Duck #26 ends at the hospital. Iris Raritan, who was released by the police despite severely injuring Ignatz with her car (he survived), arrives to check on Paul and Winda, expressing remorse at her actions and agreeing with Winda’s claim that she is immature. Howard takes the opportunity of the final panel to put her in her place and to use her behavior as a reflection of all “hairless apes.” He tells her that “Actions have consequences” as if this is some deep wisdom and blaming the “self-obsess[ion]” of human beings for her not having figured that out. He then goes on to express a belief in the popular notion of karma, saying “mess with people’s lives — and fate eventually messes back!” It is not clear why the cynical duck would believe that, but maybe this quid pro quo notion of doing good or bad in the world wasn’t as tired and common an idea as it is currently, or maybe I am more cynical than either this duck or Steve Gerber when I say that in my estimation the arc of the universe does not bend anywhere close to the direction of justice.
After the too-long gap between issues, Howard the Duck #27 begins like Gerber himself had to be reminded what was happening because instead of just opening in the hospital waiting room, we get another of Howard’s execrable dream sequences.
In this dream Howard is on trial for “terminal negativism.” Bev is the judge. She struts into the courtroom spitting a little rap and announcing “Here come de Judge! Here come de Judge!” This is a reference to Pigmeat Markham, an African-American comedian of the mid-20th century whose popularity on the Chitin’ Circuit “crossed over” to white audiences once his 1968 hit comedic song by that name was made into a recurring sketch on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Markham is a complex figure whose popularity was not without controversy; he regularly performed in the burnt cork and big white lips of Blackface at the Apollo following a vaudevillian tradition that Black leaders found degrading. Regardless of how Black audiences discussed the potentially troubling nature of Markham’s act, which is their right, its inclusion here in the figure of Bev, especially considering the other troubling racial caricatures and stereotypes we’ve encountered in Gerber’s work, is cringe-inducing. Ultimately, it is a throwaway moment calling back to pop culture that was already outdated in 1978, but I read it with a face like Crissy Teigan in that one GIF.
Anyway, Bev is presiding over “Karmic Court,” which I take as a play on Howard’s admonishment of Iris at the end of the previous issue. Howard pleads not guilty “by reason of sanity.” In other words, any sane person would have a negative attitude given the state of his life. This makes sense to me, but Howard the Duck continuing to have these self-indulgent and obsessive breaks from reality, while hypocritically accusing “hairless apes” of being the ones who are like that, is as boring as dream sequences tend to be. The jury is made up of 12 Howards who find him “Guilty as hell!” So, sure Howard seems aware of his own role in being irascible, but his “defense” is a litany of things that make him a typical and unlovable person…well, duck…you know what I mean. He complains to Judge Beverly that his life has “not exactly been a bed o’ roses” since they split up. He then goes on to presume that she is “happily married to Dr. Bong” while he’s been suffering through his recent adventures. He concludes his defense—based on this evidence—with the supposition that “I’m not negative — I’m angry!”
I need to stop here and get personal in my analysis for a minute, because I know I have said those exact words—“I’m not negative — I’m angry!” or my more common variation “I’m not a hater — I’m discerning!”—makes me have to consider whether my negative feelings about Howard the Duck might be an expression of what I don’t like about myself. As a person who is frequently angered and unsatisfied and disappointed in everyone, including myself, I would be lying to say that Howard’s concluding claim is not one that I feel deeply. And I can’t help but admire the way Gene Colan and Klaus Jansen render Howard’s declaration full of bilious pathos. But at the same time, the actual things he is complaining about seem to ignore that everyone else around him is suffering at least as much. If this reflective dreamspace is supposed to clarify Howard’s hypocrisy for the reader, he does not seem capable of seeing it himself. His outburst, which frees him from the dream, awakening back in the hospital, still comes off as a pathetic complaint that robs me of my ability to sympathize with him. These dreams and visions come off like a superficial self-awareness. The image of it, rather than the substance. He is guilty of everything he accuses hairless apes of being and doing, but no one ever calls him on it and repetitive oneiric depictions of mental crisis seem more interesting to Gerber than having Howard come to terms with this. His so-called “inner life” feels like a gimmick. In other words, Howard the Duck is better when it is Bojack Horseman.
At least when Howard the Duck annoys me (which is often) it is a productive annoyance that forces my own self-reflection so as to work towards being as little like this awful duck as I can be.
Now awake, but making no mention of the dream’s possible lessons, Howard offers Iris—who is still wracked with guilt—the opportunity to redeem herself by joining him to go after the Circus of Crime, who managed to escape in the commotion at the end of the previous issue. He tells her that her conscience needs him, but if that dream is anything to go by, it seems like his conscience needs to feel like he is doing something, too.
Howard and Iris hit the road to find the Ringmaster and the Circus of Crime. As they drive, we get more evidence of Howard being as bad as the humans he criticizes. He is bored by Iris’s attempts to tell him her life story and cuts her off, wanting to concentrate only on finding the bad guys, but when we see them drive into Cleveland where the Ringmaster has ended up, we catch the tail-end of their conversation and Howard has just finished telling Iris about Bev.
Iris is fascinated (and a little disgusted) by the notion of Howard’s romance with Bev, but she listens to what he has to say, when earlier he did not have the patience for reciprocal social interaction.
Howard and Iris slip into the audience for the next performance of the Circus of Crime, the latter in a cloak and hood I have a hard time calling inconspicuous, and the former obscured by the much taller crowd. As the show plays out before him in big well-rendered panels, Howard comes to see the circus as “a metaphor for the recent events of his life!” This seems potentially interesting, but like most ideas in Howard the Duck it is not only insufficiently developed but immediately dropped. It is unclear what Howard’s seeing the “graceful elusiveness” of the acrobats, “the meaningless bombast” of the human cannonball, the “lethally seductive dance” of the snake woman, the “implicit deception in the clown’s painted grin” as reflections of his own life is helping him (or us) to understand. There is no substance to this allusion. Instead, as soon as the Ringmaster does his mesmeric hat trick, Howard and Iris are able to look away and Howard snaps some pictures for evidence with a camera he had Iris buy along the way.
Of course, the Ringmaster hears the clicking camera, spots the duck and heiress, and a donnybrook ensues.
Thus, like in a more typical superhero comic, the conflict is resolved by the “good guys” beating the bad guys in a fight, despite the last two issues making the Ringmaster and the circus folk rather menacing and too difficult a challenge for an ordinary duck and his hairless ape friends to handle. I guess Howard rediscovered his Quack-Fu and Iris was always a trained fighter? It’s been three issues, the arc has to end some way, I guess. When all his underlings are defeated the Ringmaster tries to use his hat on Howard again, but this time Howard seems immune like he was when the Supreme SOOFI tried to brainwash him back in issue #21. Howard beats the shit out of the Ringmaster, smashing him in the face repeatedly until Iris pulls him off, still feeling the pangs of guilt and suggesting she might deserve the ringmaster’s fate as well.
After calling the hospital from a payphone to learn that both Paul and Winda will survive, the duck and the heiress part ways. Iris, to take the film evidence to the police and then return to Skudge, PA, while Howard decides to stick around in Cleveland (seeming to abandon his injured friends) to “nurse his memories” of the place “– or maybe just try to abort ‘em.” This is an obvious reference to Bev, who he first met and lived with in Cleveland, and who he is still pining over even as he blames her for their current circumstances.
Tallying the Bill
And so ends Steve Gerber’s tenure on his co-creation Howard the Duck. Yes, he would return to Marvel a couple of times and even get to write a little more Howard the Duck for them (after his lawsuit over owning Howard was thrown out and a new Editor-in-Chief took control), but this first ending seems the most significant. The middle issue of these three might be the strongest, but together these three issues still seem more like a whimper than a bang, especially since it spends so much time with a typical Marvel villain and fails to make any kind of incisive social commentary to an even greater degree than the series regularly fails to do.
As usual, the art in these issues of Howard the Duck is great. Even when it comes off as a little rushed in places, there is always a range of styles of panels, from close-ups of Howard’s expressive kisser to surreal dreamscapes to action sequences springing back and forth among oddly shaped panels that provide a sense of kinesis.
Ultimately, I can’t help but read this story through the lens of Gerber’s tumultuous last days at Marvel and the bosses’ wanting a more mainstream book that sold better. Gerber’s run has been inconsistent at best and often he was putting out substandard work that felt padded in places. Three issues about a standard supervillain certainly suggests Gerber was trying to appease someone. The panel telling us what to expect next issue at the end of #26 includes the parenthetical “I think,” as if to suggest that even Gerber himself was unsure if he’d be back. There is even a sense of “where were we again?” in the disjunction between issues #26 and #27, as if the long delay in Gerber providing a script is reflected in the inability to maintain momentum. Certainly, the dream sequence at the beginning of #27 seems superfluous and a repetitive page-filler. I guess as this series continues post-Gerber we’ll see how the tone, themes, and shape of Howard’s adventures change (or don’t).
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t past ready to give someone else a chance at ole Howard.