He may be a duck, but he's only human. A strange fowl in a stranger land.
The name is Howard, buddy, Howard the Duck, America's newest comic book juggernaut; and as he tells his girl friend, the ravishing, all-too-human Beverley "Thunder-Thighs" Switzler, "Listen, honey - if anybody in this world knows what it is to be oppressed! I'm a minority of one in this screwy place! Every institutional structure you got is loaded against me!" TRAPPED IN A WORLD HE NEVER MADE!
It says so on each and every cover. "I'm my own duck," Howard's prone to say on the inside. "I go where I want, say what I want!" A talking duck with a definite chip on his shoulder, an Everyman with feathers, forever shooting his mouth off, battling a gloomy reality. Trying to get a job. Having a nervous breakdown. Lusting after a good cigar. Trying to have an adult relationship with Beverley, whom he likes to call "Toots," as in "Don't worry, Toots, danger is my business."
The villains he battles range from the Deadly Space Turnip to Pro-rata, the mad financial wizard who lives in a castle constructed of expired credit cards, to the Kidney Lady, a sleazy crone who gives him a piece of her demented mind whenever he rides the buses in his hometown of Cleveland. (Yes, Cleveland.)
"Blood," Howard says, "has become as familiar a sight to me as the underside of Beverley's knee." Yet no matter how often he utters his noncurdling battlecry of "Waaaugh," he inevitably meets some uncomprehending human who'll say, "But you're a duck, a talking duck."
"Unless you figure a prune is better suited to the job," Howard likes to snap back, "stay outa my way!"
The Village Voice called Howard "the last angry duck"; the New Yorker saw him as a believer in "mainstream social Darwinism a web-footed Eric Hoffer." Howard an for president last year under the slogan, "Get Down, America!" and reports indicate he got 300 to 400 genuine votes. Relaxation is obviously just not Howard's style.
Howard is syndicated in close to 70 daily newspapers and his monthly Marvel comic is already something of a legend, with issue No. 1, the January 1976 number, selling for an average price of $12.50. That's a 5,000 per cent rise, which Robert Overstreet, compiler of the authoritative "Comic Book Price Guide," calls "the most phenomenal growth of any comic book that has been published."
If the 1980s and '40s belonged to the likes of Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie, if the '50s succored Superman and the '60s Charlie Brown, Howard the Duck's time is definitely now. And Steve Gerber, the whimsical 30-year-old who is Howard's creator and who says his success "has swollen my ego beyond all reasonable proportions, I'm just even hell to be in the same room with," ought to know why.
"The alienation theme has a lot to do with it," he says from his home in Southern California. "The duck really is a highly visible minority of one and he has to live with that every minute of every day.
"Also, he's a wiseass, really not a very nice guy, who refuses to stand on custom and propriety. He's victimized so constantly he won't let anyone push him around anymore., All of those things have a very strong, basic appeal for the '70s and," he can't resist adding after a pause, "he did it without est."
Adding to the poignance of Howard's situation is the reality that he's doomed to be always far, far from home. Marvel editor-in-chief Archie Godwin explains that a "kind of flat tire in the cosmic wheel" flipped him from his universe of talking animals to ours. "He's like this rabid individualist who just found out as graphically as possible that there are infinite possibilities beyond his own world," Gerber adds helpfully."Philosophically, he's in the position of trying to reconcile Ayn Rand and Carlos Casteneda."
Try as he might, though, Gerber can't remember exactly how he got the idea for Howard. "It just happened," he says of that night back in 1973 when he was sitting in his apartment in Brooklyn working on a plot for Fear No. 19, trying to figure out how he was going to top the sight of Korrek the Barbarian materializing out of a jar of peanut butter.
"The time, the place, irritation at the story, the Latino music across the yard; it all combined," Gerber says, the end result being a duck that walked like a man. The Marvel folks. however, feared that the presence of an iconolastic duck "might disturb the horrific mood of the story." so they ordered Howard off a precipice and into eternity.
They did not reckon. however, with Howard's instataneous sizzling popularity "People wrote in screaming threats. yelling 'Murderers, how can you kill this duck!'" Gerber remembers. Someone even sent in a duck carcass from Canada. The upshot was that Howard was resurrected out of the space-time continuum, given guest appearances in Giant Sizhe battled Garko the Man-Frog and Bessie the Vampire-Cow, respectively, and finally was given a book of his own, the famous Howard No. 1.
Out in Cleveland, comic-book dealer Jim Kovacs was lying in wait for that first issue: "Everyone was screaming, "Give us more Howard, give us more Howard. the character was a character people were looking for, you knew it was going to be a popular book." So when the truck that distributed Howard No. 1 went around the Cleveland area, Jim Kovacs followed it with a truck of his own and bought 900 copies right off the newstands.
All around the country, dealers and comic speculators such as Jim Kovacs were doing the same thing, making Howard No. 1 an instant collector's item, a rarity that has occasionally sold for as much as $25. and starting rumors that its searcity was caused by everything from hijacked trucks to misplaced staples to a computer error that sent the entire pressrun off to Canada.
The scandal surrounding No. 1, however, has hardly been the only controversy the feisty fowl has been involved in. There is his ongoing relationship with Beverly Switzler, for one. and a contretemps with another duck named Donald for another.
As to Ms. Switzler, the plain facts are that she and Howard, woman and duck though they be, are the only comic book characters to be pictured sharing the same double bed. As to whether they do anything in that bed, both Gerber and his editor answer with a unanimous, "I dunno."
When the Cleveland Plain Dealer dropped the daily Howard, however, there were rumors, as Jim Kovacs puts it, that "a duck sleeping with a broad, they just didn't think it was right." The Plain Dealer denies that had anything to do with Howard's demise and anyway a Cleveland TV station has since picked up the strip and puts the duck on the air for two minutes every night. their and campaign: "Howard the Duck will not be dented. They can take away his comic strip but not his dignity."
The problem with Donald was the more serious one, with the Walt Disney folks thinking that the resemblance between the two ducks was definitely NOT flattering and starting to make noises about lawsuits and such. But the latest word from a Disney attorney is that "an accommodation" has been reached with Marvel and small charges will be made in Howard, possibly including a permanent discarding of his blue sailor jacket, so thald Duck character anymore. He's just a duck."
None of this particularly bothers Steve Gerber, who says he may "just give Howard a whole new wardrobe, turn him loose in Saks and see what he comes out with." Because in the next few months "the duck's fortunes are going to change. Scrounging for nickles and Jimes in that dingy little apartment in Cleveland, he's been knocking around like that for too long. He recently met Beverly Switzler's uncle and they're going ot go into business together - I won't say what except that it's legal - and it's probably going to work out well."
As for the future of the man who dares call Howard his alter ego - "Yeah, I don't take it anymore either, that's why I moved out to California, the sidewalks are less crowded, you don't get buffeted that much" - that also looks more than promising.
Working on a novel and fooling around with television and film possibilities, Steve Gerber's only inty fear is that "people are going to think of me as the duck person and nothing else. So let me say right now, officially, that this is a lucky accident. I've never thought of myself in terms of ducks. Or ever a human character that waddles."