Welcome to the sixth installment of WAUGH and On and On, a modified continuation of the If It WAUGHs Like a Duck reading series, examining the original Howard the Duck series one arc at a time.
Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #28
Cover Date: November 1978
Release Date: August 22, 1978
Guest Plotter: Marv Wolfman
Dialogue: Mary Skrenes
Penciler: Carmine Infantino
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Colorist: Glynis Wein
Letterer: Bruce Patterson
Editor: Steve Gerber
Consulting Editor: Jim Shooter
Even a quick glance at the creative credits of Howard the Duck #28 lets us know that it will be an odd one. Not only is Marv Wolfman credited as “guest plotter,” but Mary Skrenes, one-time writing partner and paramour of Steve Gerber, apparently wrote the dialogue (I wonder if that includes the narrative captions? I assume it does). Furthermore, Steve Gerber is still credited as editor for the issue, does that mean he approved of someone else writing Howard? That doesn’t seem like him from what I’ve read about his view on his work and characters. On the other hand, however, the fact that it is Mary Skrenes, who was sensitive to his feelings on creator-rights and wrote the words in the comic, suggests that Gerber would have been okay with it. I could not find out when this issue was written, but given Gerber’s infamous lateness and the desire to avoid another “Dread Deadline of Doom” disaster of an issue, I can imagine this was quickly cooked up to cover the gap before Gerber was officially canned.
The art team is also different. Gene Colan is not the penciler on this issue and Klaus Jansen is not around to ink it either. Instead, we get the seasoned artist, Carmine Infantino, who does a great job, except that his Howard looks a little off-brand. Howard looks like a primitive version of himself, like Val Mayerik’s original version from Adventure into Fear #19, but re-strained through a stencil of Donald Duck.
This issue of Howard the Duck is also odd in that this is the first time Howard’s point of view is not the central perspective, but rather it is built around the connective tissue of other people retelling their encounters with an anthropomorphic talking duck to a psychiatrist—a creep named Dr. Pheels Goode—after having their sanity questioned. The shrink ends up sending each of them off in restraints, carried by men in white jackets, for their admission of anatine visions. This story strikes me as Wolfman’s version of what Howard the Duck comics should be like, a talking duck in something close to the normal world but with some anodyne social commentary—if that much. It makes little sense in terms of the book’s usual tone and continuity. Furthermore, the story has Howard and Beverly walking around an unnamed town together (are they back in Cleveland?), but this is out of line with what is going on in terms of Bev’s coerced marriage to Dr. Bong and being a prisoner in his Himalayan refuge. According to a few online sources, this story takes place before Howard the Duck #5, but there is nothing in the issue to indicate as much. It may seem pedantic to worry about its continuity given the absurd nature of the series, but in combination with the change in tone and art, I can imagine it felt as jarring for a regular reader as it did for me 42 years later. The generic looking cover has a call-out box promising, “NEW heights of insanity! NEW depths of insight! From SAME OLE MARVEL!” I think the lady doth protest too much. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t a revised script meant for the Howard the Duck newspaper strip, which Wolfman took over after Gerber was fired from it.
All of this is not to say that there aren’t some interesting moments in the story, and as I suggested above, Infantino’s art— working in a very comic strip-like style—is great here despite not being as good a fit as his work on the SOOFI story in Howard the Duck #21.
The first vignette features a secret agent named “Miz” (which we learn when the shrink offers “Mrs…?” as a means of getting her name). It seems that her agency sent her to get analyzed because of a chance encounter with Howard the Duck at the Squirrel Cage Café. The old woman was working undercover at the thinly-veiled analog for the Playboy Club, awaiting her spy contact. When she finds out the contact is Mr. Dutch, she mishears it (perhaps on account of her age?) as “Mr. Duck” and passes the secret info to Howard, who is there in a full tux complaining about the slow service to his date, Beverly.
I am pretty sure that elderly Miz’s undercover work as a waitress in a two-piece swimsuit is meant to be a poke at Gloria Steinem’s own undercover work at the Playboy Club in 1963 for a piece she wrote on the experience in Show magazine. The agent’s name, “Miz,” is what nails it since Steinem is the founder of Ms. Magazine. I guess, making the secret agent Steinem stand-in an elderly woman with sagging skin and an emaciated stooped frame is meant to mock both Steinem not demonstrating the physical assets typically associated with a Playboy Bunny and her age (considered over the hill at age 28 when she got the job). As must have been the case with Steinem’s time working at the club, no one seems to notice that the old woman does not belong. I guess, the idea that no one would notice “old bags” like Miz or Steinem in such an environment is meant to be the joke. While I can imagine Gerber writing something like this, here the joke is a throwaway and not the focus of even Gerber’s usual curmudgeonly social analysis.
The funniest thing to me about the bit is that 15 years after the actual investigative story, this is Wolfman’s attempt at relevant humor. Oh, those wacky feminists!
The second vignette involves a sight-impaired bus driver who arrives to tell of his own encounter. In the flashback, we see him refusing to take Howard to the nearest army base but then complying when the duck hijacks the bus by holding a number two pencil to the driver’s neck (threatening lead poisoning). The bus crashes through the military gate, allowing Howard to sneak onto the base, but leaving the driver’s sanity in question—especially since none of the passengers are willing to speak up on his behalf. I guess this is meant to be a form of exaggerated bystander effect. The bus driver ends up sent off to the asylum as well but not before a few Mr. Magoo level jokes.
Finally, Dr. Goode is visited by General D. Zastermarch, who is obsessed with the idea that everyone is a potential Commie. His own encounter with Howard occurs when the duck arrives at the general’s office on a covered platter meant to hold Chicken Kiev. When Howard is revealed, the bigot General accuses him of being a “Mandarin duck” and a “yellow menace,” and begins shooting at him with his sidearm. It turns out Howard is here to make use of the intelligence passed to him by Miz and find evidence that the army has been experimenting on civilians. When the trigger-happy general shoots the flagpole in his office, he ends up covered in the American flag and shooting even more wildly since he can’t see. When he accidentally shoots open his safe, Howard grabs the evidence and flees.
As he listens to each patient, the shrink is depicted as slowly succumbing to the madness he feels must be infecting them. The repetition of the duck delusion has him questioning himself. Once the orderlies carry off the general as well, the doctor’s paranoia takes hold. Is it an outbreak of mass insanity? A professional conspiracy against him by jealous colleagues? No, it is just an actual anthropomorphic duck, which he sees for himself when Howard and Bev happen to walk by his window, discussing having leaked the evidence of the experimentation to the press. He too quacks up and is soon carted off by the white coats, while insisting, “We’re being invaded by ducks!!” and quacking.
The punchline is delivered when Howard and Bev spot this. Bev says, “It’s such a shame when shrinks go nuts, ducky. What hope is there for the rest of us?” and Howard responds—not knowing he is the cause of all of this—“Not much, kiddo…Not much!” Ha ha ha? Save for the reference to the neutron bomb, this issue nearly feels like an Archie comic in terms of its humor and how the plot is structured. I don’t say this to put down Archies, but the Riverdale gang isn’t what I expect from Howard the Duck.
The neutron bomb turns out to be the reason that the army was testing out dispersing laughing gas through the sewers. The idea was to pacify the populace as “to die happy — knowing their property was safe…” If you don’t know it, the neutron bomb was in the news in 1978 because due to political pressure, President Jimmy Carter shut down the programs making them. The idea behind the neutron bomb is that it would be less explosive but contain a high yield of radiation, thus keeping infrastructure intact while killing people. It was originally designed as a way to take out Russian armored divisions should they slide into Europe. The radiation would penetrate the tanks, kill the drivers, and make the surrounding area into a no-go zone.
Needless to say, the ethics of the neutron bomb were hotly debated in the 70s (even though the idea had been around for a couple of decades) with a major concern being that its less destructive nature in regards to property might make world leaders more likely to use them. The U.S. (Reagan’s doing, of course), U.S.S.R, and France would all go on to develop them, though eventually the projects were purportedly abandoned. Nevertheless, the mention here is a sardonic attempt to make Howard the Duck relevant, though why the irascible misanthropic anthropomorphic duck would even care enough to take it upon himself to hijack a bus and crash into a military installation to stop the purported gassing without wondering to himself if hairless apes are even worth saving, may be the most out of character aspect of the whole book.
Tallying the Bill
If this is what post-Steve Gerber Howard the Duck is going to be like, I understand why he was so angry at having to lose the character and why fans of the series might have abandoned it. For all its many flaws, at least Howard the Duck had something of an edge to it. It often felt mean-spirited and indiscriminate in who it targeted with its barbs, but a whole issue built around the frisson of “oh my god! A talking duck!” is not only weak on its own, it ignores the fact that Gerber made it a point of including some encounter where a hairless ape says something of the kind in order to be mocked by Howard and to remind the audience not to expect humor built on that absurd recognition. Furthermore, as lovely as Infantino’s art may be, its style also feels jarring compared to the dark dinginess of much of the series up to this point. The inking and the coloring also contribute to a “sunny” look that seems at odd with the world of Howard the Duck where usually it seems to always be dusk or at least, clouded over.
If I am feeling generous, I guess I can appreciate Wolfman’s attempt to reveal that it is easier to accept attempted acclimation to the existence of horrific things like the neutron bomb, than it is to accept a talking duck. There is something to recognizing the absurdity of that perspective.
Speaking of absurd recognition, there is one—rather long—letter from Dale Luciano published in this issue which ironically serves to praise Gerber’s work on the series, even as we are never going to see him again (well, kind of—we’ll see for sure next issue). This is not to say that the letter does not have any criticisms, but it is written with an infuriating faux-sophistication when plainer language would do. Let me give you a couple of example sentences: “The bold thrust peters out somewhat in the idiosyncratic and tiresomely banal ‘origin’ material of #17, although Bong’s ‘origin’ is very much in the tradition of Gerber’s fascination with offbeat social misfits. If nothing else, the Bong ‘origin’ is such ludicrous absurdism such convoluted dada, that it climaxes the series’ preoccupation with the ludicrous grotesque.” Not sure why he keeps putting “origin” in quotes and the repetition of “ludicrous” weakens his writing, but most of all it is the pretension of the style itself—who ya tryin’ ta impress buddy?—that made me laugh. Nevertheless, the letter writer’s perspective does strike me as accurate, as when he writes, “HOWARD wants to be absurdist in the worst possible way, and most often succeeds, but is now and again content with being incoherent in place of dramatizing the breakdown of coherence and adopting incoherence as its subject.” But when Luciano writes that it “remains amusing even on that level,” there we must part ways.
The letter goes on like this, providing analytical summaries of issues #15 through #22. Reading the letter again,perhaps I am being too tough on it. At least Luciano—who a quick google reveals as a frequent contributor to The Comics Journal in the 1980s and Professor Emeritus in South Oregon University’s Theater department—took this work of analysis seriously, even if his rhetoric seems aimed more at legitimizing comics as a subject of criticism than actual clarity (his analysis of the male-female dynamics in the comic are as incoherent as the comic tends to be itself). Anyway, I bring up the letter, not to tear down the writer but to suggest that the rich, if flawed, material he is digging into may be a thing of the past if this Wolfman penned issue is anything to go by. In an interview in the August 1978 issue of The Comics Journal (so right around when this comic came out), Gerber explains that Wolfman’s view of what Howard the Duck should be like is akin to the Star Wars parody of issues #22 and #23, but without the critique of the commercialism of the Star Wars phenomenon that Gerber was going for. In other words, superficial dreck.
Luckily, Wolfman’s tenure at the helm is a one-off and after a slight detour we’ll see a new cruise director on the duck boat.