Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #29
Cover Date: January 1979
Release Date: October 24, 1978
Plotter: Mark Evanier
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Will Meugniot
Inker: Ricardo Villamonte
Colorist: Michele Wolfman
Letterer: Joe Rosen
This issue is a conundrum for me. I know that by the time it came out Steve Gerber had been gone from Marvel for months. Nevertheless, he is credited as the writer (based on a plot by Mark Evanier) and the editor, and I can’t help but wonder if this story was something that had been sitting in a drawer somewhere and Jim Shooter gave the greenlight to use it to plug the gap left by Gerber’s absence. I actually reached out to Evanier via email a few weeks before sitting down to write this in hopes of finding out but never heard back. I considered trying to reach out via social media (as I was not sure if the email I got from a go-between was up-to-date) but in doing a little more googling about Evanier, I decided against bothering him. While I mostly know his name from his Jack Kirby biography, work on Groo scripts, and Hanna Barbera Cartoon comics, what I didn’t know was that he was good friends with Gerber and was even the one to take over and archive Gerber’s blog after his passing. As such, I couldn’t help but wonder if Evanier took a look at the links to this reading series I sent him and decided against helping the guy who is pretty friggin’ hard on Gerber’s writing and attitudes. I wouldn’t blame him, given not only that friendship but the laudatory way he writes about Gerber’s work in general. A part of me feels a twinge of guilt for bothering him and hopes he never even saw the email.
Still, it would have been nice to know how this collaboration came to be and the story’s timing in terms of Gerber’s conflict with, and ouster from, Marvel Comics. While Howard the Duck #29 ends with an allusion to a return to the main story and Dr. Bong, the issue is a stand-alone story that I can imagine easily being slipped in anywhere, and thus does not seem like it had to have been worked on around the time Gerber was leaving. The lackluster art and cheap repetitions of the story also give it the feel of a filler.
In many places the art is actually worse than lackluster, it is downright ugly. Sometimes that ugliness works, but other times it seems a result of hurry not a thematic choice. Not sure if the blame is on Meugniot—whose list of credits as an animation storyboard artist is really impressive and whose few other Marvel credits are comics I’ve never read—or on the inker, Ricardo Villamonte, but many panels feel cramped. The more time I spend with the art, the more I am leaning towards a rushed and murky inking job that just makes parts of the comic hard to look at. Sure, while there are some gem examples of facial close-ups, many of the full depictions of figures are awkward. Worst of all, while recognizable, Howard doesn’t seem quite himself. His bill is wider, his body more pear-shaped, and his eyes and expressions alternate between vacant and broadly mugging—save for a few exceptions that I really liked. Nothing like some fill-in guy to make you miss Gene Colan. Heck, even Carmine Infantino’s work in the previous issue was a better fit.
As for the story, well…while hanging back in Cleveland looking to wallow in a little nostalgia of better times with Bev, Howard ends up tripped over by a struggling never-quite-was comedian—Joey Goniff—who wasn’t looking where he was going. The comedian is horrified by Howard’s appearance and ropes the duck into the role of poster child for a made-up disease, “poultritus ampelopsis.” Two word origins/meanings of note here: first “gonif” (one F) is Yiddish for a disreputable/dishonest person, coming from the Hebrew for “thief” (a description that fits the comedian), and secondly “ampelopsis” is the scientific name for the peppervine, also known as the “porcelain berry,” which may just be a coincidence because I can’t figure out what meaning it might have in the context of the story. Clearly, “poultritus” was chosen to suggest Howard is a human suffering from duckish disfigurement.
Goniff’s plan is to get a telethon-hosting job from Amalgamated Charities in order to give his career a boost, exploiting “suffering children” in the process. Howard is not a child but is so misshapen and ugly a little biped that he can convince suckers soon parted from their money that he is, and being in on the scheme, serves as an even better accomplice. He is also getting his expenses taken care of, getting a little money in the process, and oddly (for Howard), enjoying all the attention being a “poster child” is getting him. Once the telethon is arranged to broadcast from a Vegas casino, it should be an easy grift, but Goniff freaks out because he owes fifty-four grand to some mobsters and was avoiding returning to Vegas. Eventually, despite all the money they end up raising, he cannot manage to pay off that gambling debt or convince his debtors that with the new job offers rolling in because of the telethon’s success he would be able to pay them off in no time. As such, at story’s end, Goniff is knocked off.
Most of the story focuses on Howard enjoying the Vegas lifestyle but something seems off about that. Aside from a couple of moments where we get a glimpse of the cynical Howard we know and may or may not love, the duck seems a little too enthusiastic about the superficial pleasures of Sin City, when typically I think he’d have a handful of rants about everything from gambling to showgirls to organized crime to all-you-can-eat buffets. In the middle of the telethon, he does go lay a nickel on the roulette table and ends up turning it into a few million bucks in no time by letting it ride on his lucky number 17 (coincidentally, my lucky number as well!) but then loses it all, complaining only that he lost his lucky nickel. Not sure what that is supposed to say about gambling—you can’t miss what you never really had?—but mostly it feels just like taking up space in the comic. I get the same feeling when his room service arrives and he is aghast to be served fowl once again (or as he calls it “an ancestor”), a joke that was used in Howard the Duck #15, which also felt in large parts like a filler issue. Recycling jokes feels like a new low for this series, and if Gerber was really scripting this based on a plot, it is really unforgivable (though at least Howard points out that this is not the first time he has been given another bird to eat).
The more interesting aspect of the issue (but by interesting, I am by no means suggesting that it is “good”), is Howard’s interactions with various human women. It fascinates me how Howard has gone from a kind of ribald disgust for “hairless ape women” to a grudging admission of love and sexual admiration for Bev, but then to see him depicted poolside, happily surrounded by nameless Vegas babes in bikinis just feels so out of character that it makes me wonder if maybe Gerber had less to do with this issue than the credits would have us believe. The poolside scene has Howard comforted by one gal in particular. She says, “Aw-w-w, you poor little malformed little thingy! So tiny and yet so brave!” As he is pulled close to her chest, Howard— teary-eyed with joy—asks, “Are you always this vapid with all your men-friends, toots — or just the afflicted?” She replies, “Oh yes — Yes! I swear I am!” apparently not understanding the question and adding, “I don’t pity you — I admire your courage!” Howard cuts off his response too early to know for sure what might go in that notable absence implied by the asyndeton, but the lecherous look on his face in that final panel and the cadence of the dialog suggests to me that his reply was going to mirror hers. In other words, he was going to tell her what about her he admires… Look, the truth is that I probably would have had a problem with whatever prudish and/or sexist reactionary opinion Howard might express about this kind of “groupie” (for lack of a better term), and I think we can guess what form that might have taken from his use of the word “vapid,” but having him not say or think something about it, when that seems to be all Howard ever does—have strong opinions—is somehow worse.
Ultimately, the telethon raises $250,000 (though a disconnect between the dialog and art has the donation tally on the board up on stage reading just $50000). Meanwhile, $54,000 of those donations ends up in a suitcase that Goniff is gonna abscond with until confronted by Howard, who threatens to spill the beans and expose his fraud. They had agreed that any money that came from the public would be donated to a different real charity, as exposure was the only reward Goniff was looking for, and Howard just wanted to bilk the crooked company Amalgamated Charities that put up the money for their travel, food, hotel, and the show itself. Leaving the comedian to his fate, Howard takes the briefcase of cash to go find a good charity but is immediately overtaken with paranoia, certain someone is going to gank him for the money. When a big guy who recognized him from TV runs over to give a cash donation, Howard flees, ducking down an alley. Hearing someone else following him, he hustles away again, stumbling into a pile of garbage. Certain he is about to die amid trash bags, he looks up only to find that his pursuer is just a little blonde girl with a Spider-Man t-shirt trying to give him the 22 bucks she raised for him going door to door. She apologizes that it wasn’t more—last year she raised “50 clams” for UNICEF—but explains that “brand-name” charities “always do better.”
Realizing she has the pure heart needed to make sure it goes to a proper cause, Howard gives her the briefcase of cash, making a quip that he might try “Christian Science,” when the girl asks how he will ever “get better” without the charity money.
At issue’s end, Howard is on a bus back to Cleveland, being annoyed by an elderly woman who is in a generous mood after winning three bucks at the slots—but I would have preferred the Kidney Lady. A roadside billboard promises the reader a return to “our regular story and the return of DOCTOR BONG!”
Tallying the Bill
Gerber’s skepticism regarding telethons and charitable organizations is nothing new. He touched on the topic back in Omega the Unknown #3 (July 1976), which I assume Mark Evanier was familiar with…? I don’t know. But surely Gerber was. And clearly, he felt like it was a subject worth returning to. That said, the story does almost nothing with such fertile ground for social satire and taking the piss out of self-important saviors of the sick and disabled. Mostly, it feels like a chance to poke fun at Jerry Lewis (a legendarily irascible funnyman) and his decades as the spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and host of their yearly Labor Day telethon that ran from 1966 to 2010. Even as a kid I knew there was something distasteful about Lewis’s piteous pleading and use of “suffering children” to raise this money. Later, former “poster children” of the MDA telethon would protest the event and heavily criticize Lewis for his attitudes towards disability (suggesting that the disabled were less than fully human) and for focusing only on “curing” children, rather than using at least some of that money and influence to work towards accommodations for the disabled and providing a less maudlin picture of a disabled life by also showing how adults can live full lives with a disability, not just despite one. Furthermore, and here is where this comic seems most on the mark, telethons such as Lewis’s served as a modern day “freak show” (in this case, “the freak” is actually a duck). You can read more about this comparison in “‘Please Call Now, Before It’s Too Late’: Spectacle Discourse in the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon,” by Christopher R. Smit in the Journal of Popular Culture (2003), that is, if you have some kind of institutional access to reading that journal. (You gotta love paywalls…oh wait, no you don’t!).
I think the gorgeous cover by Gene Colan and Terry Austin (along with the story title “Help Stamp Out Ducks”) is meant to be a riff on Easter Seals, which were sold to raise funds and that in the old days people would affix to the outside of letters to demonstrate support for the organization once named the National Society for Crippled Children, but who officially changed their names in 1967 after over thirty years of being associated with that one fundraising program. From the little I know about Easter Seals, they actually help disabled people throughout their lives. Unfortunately, like the MDA, Easter Seals also has a history of putting children to use as pitiable spectacle in order to raise money and the corporate charity climate has not always been amenable to the growing discourse around disability from actually disabled people.
All of this is to say, these big charities are definitely not above being the target for satire. In fact, it all could have been even more biting.
Even leaving aside the telethon, it seems like the vices of Sin City would be the kind of thing Gerber would want to tackle through his anatine stand-in, but then again Gerber must have liked the town because he chose to live there after leaving New York and was still there at the time of his death in 2007. Not to be morbid, but this feels like the shambling corpse of a Howard the Duck comic, and for all my criticism of Gerber’s perspective on…well, just about everything…through his mouthpiece duck, it still feels wrong that the final comic in this series that he had any role in creating is so anemic.
I do want to add, however, as we really truly get past the final Gerber-linked issue of the first volume of Howard the Duck, that in researching Mark Evanier’s relationship to Gerber, I found myself on the latter’s archived blog. While I had followed links to the blog before, this time I skimmed through a lot of the posts looking for anything about the end of his time on the series or this issue in particular. I lost steam in my search, but in reading countless posts railing against George W. Bush and the Iraq War, bemoaning both the soft and explicit censorship of media, and singing the praises of <shudder> Bill Maher, I was able to finally put aside my long-running concern that I was being unfair in too-directly linking Gerber and his creation. Reading those blog posts I heard them in Howard’s voice, alternately scolding and pitiable, unreasonably grouchy, and grudgingly nostalgic, and an opinion on just about everything. To have his tenure end on what feels like a missed opportunity creates an ironic pang in me—a person who has frequently said that Howard the Duck is my favorite comic that I don’t really like much. Or perhaps, it is my least favorite comic that I love. Either way, the issue left me wanting more of exactly what I complain about. Or maybe, it is perfectly fitting that Gerber’s turn on the original volume of his cynical creation ends like this. As both Steve Gerber and Howard the Duck would likely admit, they can’t all be winners. Even the announcement that this is the last issue Gerber will be involved with—“for reasons much too complicated to elucidate here”—is buried in the response to a letter and after a long list of names to thank for their help on the book, Steve’s final words are simply, “Thanks, one and all. It’s been fun.” As his interviews at The Comics Journal and other places would make clear, those are not his actual final words on the matter, just the final in a Marvel book.
Anyway, next issue the new writer—Bill Mantlo—comes on board for the final two issues joined by regular Howard artist, Gene Colan. He will then go on to take up the Howard the Duck magazine (which I have been collecting). I’m looking forward to seeing the direction Mantlo takes and how he resolves the Doctor Bong mishegas, which has gone on way too long.