Welcome to the eighth (and final?) 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 comic book one arc at a time.
Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #30
Cover Date: March 1979
Release Date: December 19, 1978
Writer: Bill Mantlo
Penciler: Gene Colan
Inker: Al Milgrom
Colorist: Elain Heinl
Letterer: Michele Wolfman
Editor: Jim Shooter
Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #31
Cover Date: May 1979
Release Date: February 20, 1979
Writer: Bill Mantlo
Penciler: Gene Colan
Inker: Al Milgrom
Colorist: George Roussos
Letterer: Irving Watanabe
Editor: Jim Shooter
It could be that I have paratexts on the brain from our recent academic round table on the subject but the thing about Howard the Duck #30 and #31 that sticks out to me most are the conflicting editorial announcements about the future of the series only two months apart. In issue #30, a blue box on the letters page explains that the Howard the Duck series would not be cancelled and that if they publish a black and white Howard magazine it would be a supplement to the traditional comic book sized series. Don’t believe the rumors, True Believers! But then a yellow box on the letters page of issue #31 tells us “The Duck is Dead! You hold in your hands the last issue of HOWARD THE DUCK—the color comic, that is.” It then goes on to announce that the black and white mag will be replacing the comic series. The announcement is in the bottom right corner of the page, and thus presumably read last, while the contradictory announcement in the previous issue was on the top left (and thus presumably read first). This placement contributes to the sense that the cancellation announcement was a last-minute addition or that it was being “buried” for some reason (though that’d be a silly thing to do if you want the mag to sell). Furthermore, while it is possible the editor was referring to the black and white magazine, the responses to the letters on the very same page make it sound as if the color series will continue, when he assures readers that all the abandoned characters and plot threads (from Paul Same to the Kidney Lady to Joon Moon Yuc) would “soon be written back into continuity” by Bill Mantlo, the series’ new scribe. Speaking of that, the editorial note in issue #30 frames Steve Gerber’s departure as something that happened of his own volition, rather than being fired. The editors try to make it sound like Mantlo coming on is a great thing, but the letters are either addressed to Gerber (or Gerber and Colan) or explicitly mention him even when addressed as “Dear Marvel.” In other words, despite trying to put a good face on it, Howard the Duck is associated specifically with Gerber (at least at that time) in a way that other characters are not. The fact that Howard’s new magazine would only last nine issues and he would not have his own book again until Gerber’s return to volume three in 2002, suggests that Howard without Gerber is never going to be a big draw. Heck, even Howard with Gerber has cult appeal at best, even within the already insular world of superhero comics.
The other thing that stood out about the editorial announcement in the final issue is that it blames poor sales for the book’s cancellation in a roundabout way. They explain, “Howie often found himself trapped on a newsrack he never fit,” suggesting that the “not-for-kids” content of the comic book was not reaching the right audience because it was frequently shelved with books for the “bubblegum brigade,” so even “discerning readers” were having a hard time finding it. I wonder how much of this claim was based on feedback from readers and sellers and how much was speculation about less than stellar sales? Regardless, this paratextual material gives the impression that Marvel editorial in 1979 was throwing things at the wall to see what stuck and weren’t quite sure how best to move forward with Howard and regain some of the early enthusiasm for the fowl. Moving him into the magazine market for older readers seems as good a strategy as any, I guess—though it would eventually fail too.
But yeah, enough about editorial, what about the comics?
Gene Colan’s art is at its usual high quality. In some places you can tell when he is rushing, but that never detracts from the visual feel of the book which just might be the best part of Howard the Duck now that I am thinking about the series as a whole. It might even enhance it. Of course, his ability to render some gorgeous individual panels is on display as well, and Al Milgrom’s inks are superior to Klaus Jansen’s work on recent previous issues penciled by Colan. Readers are assured that Colan will be continuing with art duties in the new series, and it will be supplemented by work by greats like Michael Golden. It will be weird to read Howard without the amazing color work which has been consistent despite the rotating cast of colorists (there have been nine different colorists, though Michele Wolfman and Janice Cohen colored big swathes of the run).
As for the story, there is an immediate sense of change to the book and its focus. Howard the Duck #30, this comic—in the words of Roland Barthes—“goes straight to the articulations of the anecdote,” taking up the story in the waiting room of the Skudge, Pennsylvania hospital where Winda and Paul are still recovering from their run-in with the Ringmaster and other scummy people. Thankfully, Winda has “come out of her trauma” (which I guess means she is conscious and speaking), though Paul is still comatose. Lee Switzler is still around but Iris Raritan isn’t. The narration draws attention to this supposedly beneficial return to the ongoing serial, calling it “our regularly scheduled storyline.” And as evidence that this new turn on Howard the Duck is not going to dawdle and meander like Steve Gerber’s did, the very first page turn reveals Dr. Bong, having arrived to deliver a final challenge to Howard and bonging his head bell to paralyze the hospital’s occupants. This also drives Winda back into her trauma-induced coma. As previously established, Bong wants to kill Howard in order to have Beverly all to himself. He wants her “undivided affections,” which he can never have while Howard is alive to care about. Bong tells Howard he has 24 hours before they will meet in mortal combat and that if the duck does not show up, Bong will destroy the hospital and all its occupants. In addition, the villain has already prepared a newspaper headline (once again demonstrating his powers of unethical journalism) that would lay the blame on Howard.
Bong leaves and despite being certain he will die in 24 hours, Mantlo makes sure to give Howard a moment to realize what should have been obvious to him from the beginning: Bev only married Bong to save Howard’s life.
After filling Lee in on the details of the first encounter with Dr. Bong—which serves as a great recap for a new reader jumping on with a new creative team—Bev’s uncle drives Howard to Cleveland to meet his mechanic friend who runs a place called “Iron Man Auto Wreckers” and might be able to help Howard with a way to at least give Bong a good fight, if not beat him. It turns out that Claude Starkowski—though he prefers to be called “Stark”—can build him a suit of armor, claiming it will be “like the one I built Iron Man.” The comic suggests this guy might be a bit delusional—he has shrapnel in his head from ‘Nam—but he can build some armor quickly because he had been working on a suit for his little nephew who is about Howard’s size. The whole thing is ridiculous and is meant to be. Howard objects, but Lee convinces him and soon we move on to a montage splash page of Starkowski working on the armor. Furthermore, he develops a ring of sonar dishes—that Howard calls “woks armed with shish kebab skewers”—that will serve as defense, nullifying Bong’s sonic vibration, assuming Howard can get him to step into the middle of them. We get to see a few of the Iron Duck’s built-in gizmos as Howard trains a bit in it. There is a flamethrower and spring boots, and of course it enhances his strength. As a final line of defense, Howard gets cotton balls to stuff in his ears. Soon, it is time to head back to Skudge and face Bong.
Meanwhile, we get a peek at what Bev is up to. While her captor husband is off challenging Howard, she is using the relationship she’s developed with Bong’s “evolved” creatures (who are drawn less and less to look like recognizable animals and now are just generic “monsters”) to get them to help her with her scheme to save herself and Howard. This means getting access to Bong’s “Evolvo-Chamber” and thus being able to use his “ultimate weapon” against him. Is this weapon the machine that turned Howard into a human back in Howard the Duck #18? Yes, I guess. But apparently the key part was access to Bong’s printing press—which I suppose makes sense given Bong’s re-telling of his origin story back in issue #17.
Howard the Duck #30 ends with Dr. Bong showing up a little early at the hospital to fight Howard and most of #31 is taken up by their battle. Paralyzed by Bong’s opening sonic salvo, Lee is unable to activate the sound nullifier that Starkowski provided, thus Howard is sucked into a running battle with Bong throughout the hospital. He considers trying to flee, but concern for Paul and Winda and his reputation, along with one of Dr. Bong’s sonic forcefields that separates Skudge hospital from the rest of the world, keep him engaged in the absurd duel. And absurd is the key word, when Howard’s helmeted head smashes into a watercooler we get a close up of his “transistorized windshield wipers” clearing off the liquid. Howard is able to temporarily get Bong off-balance with his armor’s flamethrowers, but then the duck has to flee through the floor by drilling a hole using his ‘Butt-Bit!” when Bong retaliates with his ability to animate objects, sending them flying at his foe, like Darth Vader in Cloud City. Once in the basement however, the spring coils on Howard’s feet send him back up the steps uncontrollably. Arriving back where they were set up for the battle, Howard is able to activate the sonar dishes meant to nullify Bong’s abilities, but a cutaway to Claude Starkowski back in Cleveland shows him realizing he forgot to install a battery in one of the dishes, so the device fails. In a desperate attempt to avoid Bong’s mortal blow, Howard breaks the glass case attached to his armor that holds a little hammer for emergencies only, which the duck uses to bang on his foe’s tintinnabulating head, activating Bong’s teleporting power and sending them both to his Himalayan fortress.
The rest of the battle consists of Dr. Bong beating Howard soundly (no pun intended), every gong of his clapper against his bell head peeling off more and more of the Iron Duck armor, as he continues with his delusional and sexist ideas about how Bev should and will treat him once Howard is killed. Throughout, Colan and Milgrom and colorist George Roussos do a great job of depicting Howard in a shaky form, multiple lines, and muted colors providing a visual representation of powerful reverberations.
Stripped naked before Bong, Howard is about to finally bite it when—surprisingly—Bev comes to the rescue! For the first time that I can recall in this entire series, it is Bev who rescues a threatened duck, and more importantly (to me) rescues herself. She even makes a snarky remark when she first spots Howard. “Thanks for comin’ to rescue me, Ducky! Good thing I didn’t hold my breath.” She arrives with a bell-shaped fishbowl full of little Bong tadpoles. It seems she used Dr. Bong’s evolve-chamber to clone bits of the villain and created a litter of five baby Bongs. She also used Bong’s press to make a newspaper headline that declares that her captor is a “negligent father.” She explains that if Bong harms Howard the headline will be made public and his reputation will be ruined. As she reminds the man formerly known as Lester Verde of his own words when explaining his origins, “Image is all!”
Defeated by his own weapons, Dr. Bong slaps his head one last time, teleporting both Bev and Howard back to Skudge.
On the final page of what was supposed to be the final issue of the Howard the Duck comic book, we see Winda sit up in bed as her friends pop into the room, saying “I’m so happy that I’ve fuwwy wecovered!” We see Dr. Bong demanding his monstrous servants heat up formula for his bell babies, and in the final two panels, we see the editor of a Cleveland newspaper receiving the headline and story Bev created and sent out. He tosses the clipping away, the word “negligent” clear on the paper as it floats down into the wastebasket in the final panel.
Tallying the Bill
In taking notes for this installment, I really wanted to find a way to link that final panel and its focus on being “negligent” to what was happening to the Howard the Duck comic in general. But “negligence” is not quite the right word. If anything, the development of the full-sized magazine to continue his adventures seems like more attention than the book was getting when Gerber was editing his own work and consistently being so late as to become the quintessential example of what happens when you’re allowed to supervise yourself. If these final issues are in any way “negligent” then it is in neglecting what the duck’s comic had been like in favor for a turn towards sending up the Marvel Universe itself, rather than being a social satire that happens to be set in the Marvel Universe (if on its margins).
This focus suggests to me that the Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones volume from 2015 is following on the legacy of Mantlo’s Howard the Duck rather than Gerber’s. Maybe I am wrong, and the magazine volume to follow goes back to social commentary, but based on the whole Iron Duck story line, I can’t help but feel like the character is becoming an in-house satirical reflection on Marvel properties rather than a reflection of social and cultural concerns. I may have disagreed with a lot of Gerber’s curmudgeonly social takes but at least he had some. The gag here is just Tony Stark as a Cleveland auto mechanic and a junkyard Iron Man suit shaped like a garbage can. The corkscrew “Butt-Bit” may or may not be a reference to a duck’s corkscrew penis, but it certainly is a bit of sophomoric “drill coming out his butt” humor to lighten things up. To give a sense of the prevalence of this humor in the book, at one key moment when Bong is about to finish off Howard, a piece of the duck’s armor falls off and lands on the villain’s toe, delaying him as he hops on one foot in pain.
If Steve Gerber had introduced Starkowski, he’d be a part of the Military-Jalopy Complex and be a send up of arms sales and corporate profits off of war, mocking the propagandistic spectacle of Iron Man.
Or maybe, just three issues since his departure, I am already romanticizing Gerber’s time on the book, and he’s immediately benefiting from the less than stellar Howard stuff to come after, which served to buff his rep as a maverick troubled genius who was screwed over by Marvel.
Something that does seem better in Mantlo’s hands is Bev’s treatment. She comes up with a plan that does not require Howard’s participation at all, makes use of kindness and attention to get the help of Bong’s island of Dr. Moreau rejects, and executes it without a hitch. Is this the first time we have seen her have any significant agency in the entire series? It just may be. It certainly stands out as the most prominent time in my view.
Mantlo even tries to walk back the gross decision on the part of Gerber to have Bev get horny for her captor and enthusiastically give in to his sexual coercion. When she presents Bong with his cloned progeny he protests, “No! No! I deny any responsibility! Why — we have yet to consummate or [sic] marriage,” which she responds to by impugning his manhood by revealing his need to hear poetry (Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells”) in bed every night instead of having actual intercourse. On the one hand, I appreciate Mantlo undoing Gerber’s clear allusion to sex from Howard the Duck #27 given the rape-y context. On the other hand, for a writer who seems to be interested in continuity and tying up loose ends, such a blatant change strikes me as a bit shoddily done. Then again, maybe there is no way to properly address that subject in the pages of a cynical satirical funny animal comic book published by Marvel Comics. Nevertheless, the editorial paratexts reinforce the primacy of continuity, given these two issues include a record nine footnotes pointing back to past issues. The story does as well, of course, just by having Bev take one out of Bong’s playbook with her headline, even if it makes absolutely no sense, given that Dr. Bong would need to have a publicly known persona for the sensationalist garbage to have any stakes. This feels like a superficial call-back, proof Mantlo read the previous issues, but doesn’t really care enough to have Bev accurately replicate Bong’s past journalistic treacheries.
But maybe this hiccup of a retcon is more evidence of how in line with superhero comics Howard the Duck might become, since its attention to attaining closure seems to be about moving on to the next thing rather than patching every hole. Gerber’s approach, on the other hand, was more explicitly oneiric—not only in terms of how each single issue or short arc rarely had much to do with what came before or after it, but in the slippage between waking life, dreams and delusions that was common throughout Howard the Duck. Howard even alludes to this upon arriving back in Skudge and hearing Lee comment that “It’s all over!” By replying, “All except adjusting to reality, Lee! If ya can call this reality!”
Speaking of reality, I started the “If it WAUGHs Like a Duck” series back in 2015. Somehow that seems simultaneously an eon ago and like just yesterday. Yes, at one point I took a two and a half year break after the most recent volume was cancelled and before I started up WAUGH and On and On, but to have this project to be coming to an end in 2020 feels like another consequence of time’s fluidity during a pandemic. And much like how 2020 never stops giving us things to shake our fists at the sky about, Howard the Duck itself challenges my ability to digest and process everything that is happening. What I mean by this is that despite framing this post as the final installment of the series, I recently discovered there exists a Howard the Duck #32 and #33. They did not come out until 1986, and they were not written by Gerber or Mantlo or drawn by Colan. I presume that they were put out to capitalize on the Howard the Duck movie of the same year. While I have put them on my hunting list, I have not acquired them yet and I don’t know if I will ever cover them. If I do, chances are they would come after I make my way through the black and white magazine volume. But we’ll see… It took a couple of years to get back on the duck after the first incarnation of this reading series ended, not sure how long it will take this time (but at least as long as it takes me to find affordable copies of issues I am still missing).
I guess, coming to the end, I should try to make some final comments about this series, but it feels like too much to encapsulate in a pithy conclusion. My feelings about Howard the Duck are strangely ambivalent, given how much time and energy I have put into writing about it. For the most part the art has been fantastic, but when it comes to both Gerber’s time on his creation and the shift near the end as it was wrested from him, it is a mixed bag, and there must be a hole in it because anything laudatory must have fallen out. Howard the Duck simply does not hold up as a serial narrative OR as a series of satirical one-offs. Despite this, I still find it fascinating for what it was trying to do within the context of both Marvel Comics at the time, the coming explosion of indie comics to come with the 80s black and white boom, which would also include his Stewart the Rat OGN and the Destroyer Duck limited series, and as an exemplar of the rotten mess of the comics industry and creators’ rights. But where Howard the Duck is most valuable to me is when it reflects the events of its time, whether exploring the American presidential election of 1976 or the consumerist engine that helped drive the popularity of stuff like Star Wars. Howard the Duck may not have always (or even often) done a great job of coherently (or even humorously) critiquing the topics Gerber would incorporate into the serial, but by merely addressing them as explicitly as it did, he provided a lens on the concerns of the era and their resonance with or dissonance against the current cultural moment.
I may never return to Howard the Duck on The Middle Spaces, but even if I don’t, he will remain an avatar for a deeply felt complaint about being in a world that none of us made—but that we are all responsible for—a complaint that forever echoes: WAUGH!