Two years ago I spent the summer dedicating Throwback Thursdays to reviewing a series of books that American Girl (yes, it’s the doll company that originally became successful for putting out dolls that reflected a certain period in U.S. history with the accompanying series of books that explains the era that the doll represents) put out about the historical aspects of the 1970’s as seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl named Julie Albright. I had lived through that era so I basically read those books (which are aimed at girls between the ages of 8-12) and compared the 1970’s as depicted in those books with my own actual experiences of them. I started reading and re-reading those books earlier that year, took notes as I read them, and wrote a series of rough drafts. By the time Memorial Day came around I started uploading my reviews and I kept at it until I reached the last of those books in early September.
I pretty much had fun working on them. A major hiccup came when, at the same time that I was uploading those reviews, American Girl decided to do a major revamp of its historical line by renaming that line BeForever, which I personally think is the worst name for a product line ever but that’s another story altogether. As part of that revamping, American Girl decided to consolidate each historical character’s eight book Central Series book into two volumes while removing the illustrations plus adding an extra third volume. They also decided to get rid of the Best Friends line which meant that the doll representing Julie’s best friend, Ivy Ling, was being discontinued around the same time as I uploaded my review of the accompanying Best Friend Book, Good Luck, Ivy! Ultimately I decided to leave the eight-book review as is (while adding a disclaimer that the review pertains to an earlier edition of the book that was published before the BeForeer revamp in 2014) while not bothering with reviewing the two volume consolidation (since I had already reviewed the books in their earlier forms), and adding an extra review of the BeForever third volume (which is basically a Choose Your Own Adventure style book) since that was the only book released as part of the BeForever revamp that I could consider as new.
So I basically burned out on doing those reviews. I initially didn’t get much response for my effort but in the two years since I’ve noticed that there’s a spike in people reading that series whenever American Girl is about to release a new doll. I noticed this last year when American Girl was about to release its latest BeForever doll, Maryellen (who is supposed to represent the 1950’s) and I saw a spike in people reading my reviews of the Julie books.
So now I’m going to change gears a bit. Last summer I didn’t do anything special for Throwback Thursday because I needed a break after working on the Julie books. I’ve pretty much recovered from what I did two years ago so this year I’m going to once again devote each Thursday between now and Labor Day to doing a set of reviews of another series of books that were set in the 1970’s but these are as different from the Julie books as night and day. Here’s a brief background.
From the late 1960’s until the mid-to-late 1970’s there was the rise in alternative comic books known as comix. These comix took on topics that Marvel and DC wouldn’t touch (mainly because these two had voluntarily followed the guidelines set out by the Comics Code Authority, which is a fascinating topic that falls far outside the scope of this blog post series). The comix made fun of politics, religion, social mores while including not only sexual innuendo but also sex acts themselves. At times these comix had plots that were very surreal. One of the most famous comix is R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, which would be turned into an X-rated animated film. (I finally saw that film a few years back when I purchased the DVD as a gift for my then-husband, who told me he saw the movie years before we even met. I found the movie boring while my husband didn’t like seeing the movie again years later as much as he said he did the first time around. After my husband left I ended up selling the DVD to a used DVD store.)
In the 1970’s there was a comic book series titled Howard the Duck that also had surreal plots and made fun of politics, famous people, and social mores. The character was frequently described as “Trapped in a world he never made” and the comic book was clearly aimed at teens and adults. The most surprising thing about Howard the Duck is that it wasn’t an underground comix. In fact this series was released by Marvel Comics and it was actually distributed in mainstream places like pharmacies, grocery stores, bookstores, and newsstands. What’s even more surprising is that this series not only lasted throughout the 1970’s but it led to a major motion picture that was directed by George Lucas. Last year Howard the Duck was given a reboot for the 21st century and it’s currently a thriving comic book series. The major difference between Howard the Duck and Fritz the Cat is that the former had no sexually explicit scenes or scenes depicting drug use because that comic book still had to meet the standards set out by the Comics Code Authority that pretty much banned such topics. Yet that series managed to thrive and gain a cult following despite those restrictions.
As for me I was into really goofy humor between the ages of 10-14. First there were Wacky Packages, which I collected for a couple of years, which were baseball card-sized stickers that satirized various consumer products. (One example is the real life cleaning product Ajax, which billed itself as “The Blue Dot Cleanser.” Wacky Packages satirized that product as Ajerx The Blue Blot Cleanser which was guaranteed to leave blue blots everywhere you cleaned.) I moved on to Mad magazine which I loved to read each month. (There was also Cracked magazine, which I occasionally read but I personally preferred Mad because I thought the humor was way better in that magazine.) I used to giggle over the satire that was aimed at public figures, consumer products, television shows, and movies. Mad used to satirize R-rated movies like The Exorcist, which I loved because I wasn’t allowed to watch those movies at the time so I was able to get the gist of those films through Mad.
One day I accompanied my mother on an errand at a local pharmacy. I was perusing the newsstand when I found a color comic book titled Howard the Duck. The title made it sound like a kid’s book but then I saw the front cover and it looked way more sophisticated than the usual kiddie comic books I saw featuring Archie, Mickey Mouse, Little Lulu, Ritchie Rich, or Bugs Bunny. I thumbed through it and I saw a reference to the Rev. Joon Moon Yuc and his Yuccies, which was obviously a satire of the then-controversial Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church (where his followers were derided as “Moonies”) and I was hooked. I purchased the issue with my allowance money, took it home, and enjoyed it immensely.
I felt that Howard the Duck was just as hilarious as Mad magazine. Except Mad was a black and white magazine and nearly all of the kids in my neighborhood and school read it on a regular basis. As for comic books, there was the attitude among the kids my age that they were for little kids only. While I liked the Howard the Duck issue I bought, I didn’t announce that I liked it to the other kids because I was afraid of being teased for liking “baby stuff.” It wasn’t just paranoid fear either because it was during this same time I had trouble with this really crazy psycho bully that I finally wrote a post about over a year ago where I not only scanned what she wrote in my yearbook (which she swiped after I gave it to a classmate whom I wanted to sign and she pretty much confessed that she was a bully and she liked it—unfortunately this happened a day or two before the school year ended and we were both scheduled to transfer from middle school to high school in the fall so there was nothing the teachers could do to punish her) but also her yearbook photo, her name (or at least the name she was using at the time), and the name of the middle school we both attended.
This issue was the kind of issue that I didn’t forget because it was unique. Despite that, I didn’t buy many more issues of that comic book because I didn’t want to give the kids another reason why they should tease me. I just kept that one issue of Howard the Duck I purchased on the down low. (I think I may have purchased one or two other issues but I don’t remember for sure.) Eventually my mother got rid of it during one of her periodic purges of excess clutter. Years later I got married to a man who was into collecting Marvel comics. When he took me to a local comic book shop (which has since closed) where he got the latest issue of his favorite comic book (The X-Men), I saw back issues of Howard the Duck on sale located in boxes on the bottom level of the store. I managed to convince him to buy them and he really loved them, especially since the series took place in Cleveland. (He spent his undergraduate years at Oberlin College, which is located about 30 miles south of Cleveland.) I also enjoying reading those back issues since I missed most of them the first time around. Over time we bought as many of the back issues that we could afford to buy but we didn’t have a complete collection. (The earlier Howard the Duck issues were especially hard to find and the few copies available were very expensive.)
When it was announced that a Howard the Duck movie directed by George Lucas was going to be released, my husband and I were excited. At that time George Lucas had just completed the third movie in the original Star Wars trilogy and he had also worked on the Indiana Jones movies with Steven Spielberg. We were definitely looking forward to seeing that movie only to find it a major disappointment. That movie had jettisoned much of the political and social satire that made the original comic book series so memorable. (The only scene I remember that even remotely harkened back to the comic book was the one where Howard and his friends went out to eat at a place that was billed as a “Cajun Sushi” restaurant.) Instead that movie was filled with boring car chases. To say that my husband and I were let down by that movie is an understatement. Other people felt the same way because that movie was a major box office bomb.
My husband and I eventually stopped collecting comic books when the prices of new issues shot up to $1.50 plus we were busy with other things in our lives (such as jobs and being involved with various church and community activities). I eventually forgot about Howard the Duck. When my marriage broke up my husband took the bulk of the comic book collection that he felt was valuable including all those old Howard the Duck issues while leaving me with the dregs that had no value on the secondary comic book market. (I ended up turning those dregs into comic book coasters that I sold at various craft shows but that’s another story.)
I was first reminded of Howard the Duck in 2014 when I saw the movie Guardians of the Galaxy. I decided to stick around and watch the closing credits after the movie ended because I knew that in recent years there has been a trend in animation and super hero movie to include something special at the tail end after all the credits were finished scrolling. I saw this scene that took place at the Collector’s compound after he was defeated and his place was wrecked by the aforementioned Guardians of the Galaxy. After showing the Collector’s face, the camera turned to none other than Howard the Duck.
I have to admit that it was such a surprising blast from the past but then I promptly put the entire end scene out of my mind for a few months.
But then last year I happened to be in Annapolis when I decided to check out Third Eye Comics on the spur of the moment since I was in the area anyway. I saw a rack in the middle of the store that featured copies of Howard the Duck #1. I saw that Marvel had issue a reboot of Howard the Duck. I was initially shocked because I never thought that Howard the Duck would ever make any kind of comeback after George Lucas trashed that character. But there it was being displayed in front of my eyes. I decided to buy it for old times sake and I read it. I found myself enjoying it and I’ve been buying it each month since. (Howard the Duck is the only monthly Marvel comic book series that I give a damn about buying these days. That’s because each comic book issue costs $3.99 and it would be so easy to drop over $200 a month trying to keep up on the latest doings of the X-Men, Rocket Raccoon, Spider-Man, etc.)
At that point I found myself wishing that I still had the old 1970’s issues that my ex-husband took custody of. But then something cool happened to me last summer. I attended a Bingo event in Annapolis that was put on by my support group for people who are separated or divorced. I ended up winning $75. Flushed with cash I decided to go to Third Eye Comics since I was in the area anyway while deciding that I could afford to make an impulse buy on something just once. I ended up finding a copy of Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection Volume 1 which included not only the original 1970’s Howard the Duck issues 1-16 (along with Marvel Treasury Edition #12: Howard the Duck and Howard the Duck King-Size Annual #1) but also the original comic books where the character first appeared. I read it all the way through while laughing my head off at times. Two months ago I saw Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection Volume 2, which I also bought. Thanks to those two volumes I now have reprints of the entire original 1970’s color comic book series (which fans sometimes call the Gerber Classics after the series’ original writer and Howard the Duck co-creator Steve Gerber) along with the comic books where Howard made his first appearances prior to getting his own comic book series, the first issue of the black and white Howard the Duck magazine (which replaced the color comic book series), and various Howard the Duck comic strips that were published in Crazy magazine (which was Marvel’s now-defunct black and white humor magazine that attempted to compete with Mad and Cracked but it never gained as much attention as the other two).
So I decided to come up with an idea where I would do reviews of these original 1970’s comic book series in the same vein as my reviews of the Julie books. Even though both dealt with the 1970’s there are differences between the two. The Julie books were published between 2007-2014 so the 1970’s were viewed through a nostalgic haze where the tough parts of that era (such as gas shortages and inflation) were completely ignored or glossed over. In contrast the Howard the Duck comic books were published in the 1970’s so that era was treated as current events to be satirized head-on so the content regarding the 1970’s are far more edgy and raw than the more distant look back at the 1970’s. On top of that, the Julie books are aimed at girls between the ages of 8-12 so there are certain events that weren’t even covered at all (such as Rev. Moon or Anita Bryant’s notorious anti-gay rights campaign) while Howard the Duck was aimed at teens and adults so the comic book had no problem with tacking issues that American Girl would never touch with a 20-foot pole.
For those of you who have short attention spans I know that this post is TL;DR but I wanted to lay the basic groundwork on why I even wanted to devote Throwback Thursdays to Howard the Duck this summer. At last here is the first of the reviews where I focus on Howard the Duck’s first appearances in other comic books before he got his own series.
Adventure Into Fear #19
The Enchanter’s Apprentice!
Credits: Steve Gerber, writer; Val Mayerik, artist; Sal Trapani, inker; Art Simek, letterer; Stan G., colorist; Roy Thomas, editor
This is the comic book issue that is notable for having the first-ever appearance of Howard the Duck. The story itself is one of those sword and sorcery epics that’s a far cry from the later Howard the Duck comic books. The story begins with a strange creature known as the Man-Thing, who lives in a swamp in the Florida Everglades. He doesn’t understand human communication nor can he communicate himself. He is an empathic creature in that he can detect emotions from others. His swamp is suddenly overrun with all kinds of people and machines from other eras including an army of barbarians from Europe’s Dark Age and an Army platoon from World War II.
Meanwhile a young woman named Jennifer Kale starts having nightmares where she meets up with the Man-Thing in his Florida swamp that’s overrun with all kinds of people and machines from other eras. Eventually a sorcerer known as Dakimh the Enchanter shows up and he tells her that her nightmares stem from the fact that the Nexus of the Cosmic Axis (also known as the Nexus of All Realities), which is located in Man-Thing’s swamp, has been disrupted so people and creatures from all kinds of alternate realities are converging on one another in such a way that all of the realities are in danger of colliding with one another and life, as we know it, will perish. So Jennifer and Dakimh go off to the Nexus of the Cosmic Axis to see if they can fix the source of that disruption. The story ends in a cliffhanger.
Howard the Duck makes his first appearance towards the end of the story. He is among those who arrived in the Man-Thing’s Florida swamp home from an alternate reality due to the disruption in the Nexus of the Cosmic Axis/the Nexus of All Realities. He sports bright yellow feathers, a blue jacket, and a fedora hat while smoking a cigar.
He brings a little light comic relief into what is otherwise a basic sword and sorcery story that’s okay to read but it’s really nothing special. (The only other memorable scene is the one where a barbarian warrior known as Korrek emerges in Jennifer’s home from a jar of peanut butter, which is a pretty wacky scene.) But, as the old saying goes, you have to start somewhere and this is where Howard the Duck started.
Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection Volume 1 includes an interview that the duck’s co-creator, Steve Gerber, gave to FOOM magazine where he said that the duck was originally created as a joke. He wanted to come up with a sight gag to rival a previous scene in Adventure Into Fear #19 where Korrek the Barbarian manages to emerge from a jar of peanut butter and he came up with a talking anthropomorphic duck emerging from bushes in the Man-Thing’s swamp home. He instructed artist Val Mayerick to come up with a sarcastic duck that had to be different from Donald Duck. He admitted that Mayerick added the cigar as a special touch, one that made Howard stand out from Donald. (Steve Gerber and Val Mayerick are generally credited as co-creators of Howard the Duck.) After he wrote Howard he realized that he had a special character that had a lot more potential than just being a throwaway guest character. He claimed that his bosses ordered him to get rid of Howard because they felt that Howard’s sarcastic humor was out of place in a comic book series that had been a serious drama that’s centered around the Man-Thing.
The Man-Thing #1
Battle for the Palace of the Gods!
Credits: Steve Gerber, writer; Val Mayerik, artist; Sal Trapani, inker; John Costanza, letterer; Dave Hunt, colorist; Roy Thomas, editor
After the 19th issue of Adventure Into Fear was published, the people at Marvel decided to re-name the series after the Man-Thing (since he was a regular in that comic book series) and start the issue numbering all over again with number 1. Yet the story picks up where Adventure Into Fear #19 left off.
Howard the Duck, Korrek the Barbarian, and the Man-Thing are attacked by a bunch of demons in the Man-Thing’s swamp homeland. Dakimh the Enchanter managed to use his magic to make those demons disappear. Then he brings the three of them to his castle while using his magic to also summon Jennifer Kale to his castle. Dakimh then tells the four of them that they have to set the Cosmic Axis right again so the order of the various eras and realities can be restored. In order to reach the Cosmic Axis Dakimh takes them to a place that’s beyond all realities where they initially begin climbing a set of stairs, which soon turns into a twisting ribbon which, in turn, leads to a series of stepping stones. Howard the Duck slips on one of the stepping stones and he falls to what looks like his apparent doom.
With Howard presumed dead, the remaining four move on to the Cosmic Axis where they end up arriving at this land where the gods live and defending the gods’ home against the enemies using sword and sorcery. To make a long story short, the enemies are defeated, Dakimh returns Korrek the Barbarian to his own time and place and he returns the Man-Thing back to his swamp home. Jennifer Kale opts to remain by Dakimh’s side because she finds out that she has the potential to become a powerful sorceress in her own right and Dakimh can provide the proper lessons so she can reach her full potential. At various times throughout the story the characters expressed concern over what happened to Howard but they concluded that he was dead and there was nothing else they could do other than to focus on defeating the demons who were messing with the Cosmic Axis and trying to attack the gods.
There is a cute gag at the end that plays off the fact that the word “dog” is “god” spelled backwards but, otherwise, it is basically a sword and sorcery story that’s a far cry from the later Howard the Duck comic books.
Giant-Size Man-Thing #4
Credits: Steve Gerber, writer; Frank Brunner, artist and colorist; Tom Orz, lettering; Carl Barks, spiritual guide
Howard the Duck was originally created to be a one-shot guest character who would make his appearance towards the end of Adventure Into Fear #19 and be given a more prominent role in The Man-Thing #1 until he was depicted as falling to his death. But then something happened—readers actually enthusiastically responded to the duck while writing protest letters to Marvel for killing Howard. The response was so big that Marvel began to reconsider the idea of Howard the Duck being dead and gone. Fortunately Howard’s dead body wasn’t shown at all—only his fall into an abyss was depicted. So it was no big deal to say that Howard the Duck didn’t really die in that fall and keep him around for a while longer.
Marvel decided to give Howard his own story as a back-up feature in the fourth issue of Giant-Size Man-Thing (which sounds more like the title of a gay porn movie than a Marvel comic book). Howard is also given his first makeover—albeit a minor one. His bright yellow feathers from the original two-part sword and sorcery story were toned down to the pale yellow feathers he would sport for the rest of the original 1970’s color comic book run.
This is also the story where, for the first time, Howard issues his signature “WAUGH!” sound (which he makes whenever he is frustrated). It soon becomes Howard’s catchphrase.
The story starts off after Howard slips off one of the stepping stones in the place that’s beyond all realities. He can be seen tumbling through the void that’s between worlds and realities while the narration implied that Howard has been stuck falling in this cosmic limbo for months. Eventually he lands on what he thinks is his home planet until he sees two young human boys and he realizes that he had not only returned to the planet of the humans (whom he would refer to as “hairless apes” throughout the series) but he had landed in Cleveland. (Of course this story was written back when Cleveland was thought of as a declining industrial city long before the world-famous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened there.)
Howard asks the boys to take him to the nearest cigar store where he encounters a very unfriendly store clerk. The boys tell him that it’s because the adults have gotten anxious ever since a man known only as Garko moved in the area and he has become notorious for sitting on his windowsill holding a jar full of an unknown liquid while openly talking about how he wants to conquer the world. After Howard and the boys walk past Garko sitting on his windowsill, Garko drinks the liquid from that jar that he has been holding in his lap for a long time. He immediately grows several feet taller while turning into a giant frog.
Garko catches up with Howard and the boys where he proclaims himself as Garko the Man-Frog (it’s obvious that part of the name is a parody of the Man-Thing) and he intends to kill them. Howard tells the boys to run and call the police while he distracts Garko the Man-Frog. Howard finds a board in a nearby alley where he uses it to beat Garko so savagely that Garko’s size shrinks down until he’s the size of an average frog. Garko becomes a full-fledged frog who can only croak and can’t speak like a human. Garko hops away at the precise time when the police arrives. The police naturally think that Howard is the strange maniac whom the kids called about so they arrest him and load him in a police car so they can take him to the police station. In a totally hilarious twist, the police car that Howard is riding in ends up running over Garko (while the frog was hopping across the street) so he becomes squished dead in the street and now there’s no evidence that Garko the Man-Frog had ever existed.
I have to admit that the short Garko story is more hilarious and enjoyable than the two-part sword and sorcery epic where Howard the Duck made his first appearance. That twist at the end reminds me of so many endings of different Twilight Zone episodes that were full of irony. (Such as the famous episode where a bookworm wearing thick glasses had a hard time with finding time to indulge his love of reading books. He managed to be the only survivor in his area of a nuclear blast. He found a library full of books and he expresses happiness that, at last, he now has all the time in the world to read. But then he breaks his glasses, which he needs to read the books so, once again, he couldn’t indulge his love of reading books.) It’s a very short story but I found it enjoyable nonetheless.The story also sets the tone for future Howard the Duck stories as Howard frequently encounters the strangest assortment of villains anywhere in the comic book world.
Giant-Size Man-Thing #5
Credits: Steve Gerber, writer; Frank Brunner, artist; Tom Palmer, inker; Annette Kawecki, letterer; Glynis Wein, colorist; Len Wein, editor
Once again Howard the Duck has his own story as a back-up feature to the further adventures of the Man-Thing. Howard’s story starts where his previous back-up feature in Giant-Size Man-Thing #4 leaves off: With him sitting in jail since he was arrested after the police assumed that he was the inhuman maniac when the real thing, Garko the Man-Frog, accidentally met his demise under the wheels of a police car. The police commissioner meets Howard in his cell because his officers, who feel that Howard is really a midget in a duck suit, were unable to find a way of removing the presumed “duck suit.” So the police commissioner does a thorough strip search of Howard and finds out, to his horror, that Howard is really a talking duck so he immediately boots the duck from jail.
So Howard’s one problem (being in jail) is solved only for a new problem to emerge: How is he going to find work in a strange planet so he could afford to get an apartment and purchase food? Soon Howard finds a newspaper that has a story about a farmer who was murdered under mysterious circumstances. Howard then comes up with this scheme: He would solve the murder, turn the murderer in to the police who, in turn, would give Howard a job with the police force. Not long after Howard starts searching for the murderer he comes face-to-face with the killer known as the Hellcow, who is literally a vampire cow. Yes, that’s right, a vampire cow whose original mortal cow name was Bessie (there was a brief backstory that had her originally living on a farm in Switzerland until a desperately hungry vampire who couldn’t find human blood to drink decided to go after cow blood instead) and who wears a cape that can convert into bat wings so Hellcow can fly away at a moment’s notice. Yes, that’s right, a flying vampire bat cow (or a flying vampire cow bat).
The climatic battle takes place in an auto repair shop where Howard is able to stun Hellcow by showing her the cross-shaped lug wrench (since vampires have traditionally been depicted as fearing crosses in general) while finding a hammer and wooden stake. The Hellcow tries to attack Howard but she lands in a pile of steel-belted radial tires where her vampire fangs are stuck in one of the tires. Howard drives the stake through Hellcow’s heart just in time for the police to arrive. However when the police gets inside of the auto repair shop they see that Hellcow’s dead body had reverted back to her original cow form and the same officers who previously arrested Howard encounter him again. They decide that they want nothing to do with this strange scene so they split, leaving Howard still penniless, jobless, and homeless.
Howard’s tangle with the Hellcow is the best of the early stories. Hellcow’s appearance sets the stage for the subsequent Howard the Duck comic book series as the duck frequently faces off against the most ludicrous villains who have ever appeared in the Marvel Universe.
The Bottom Line: Looking at all of the stories that came before the comic book series it’s clear that the topical satire and frequent 1970’s pop culture references aren’t present in any of them. The two-part story that introduced Howard the Duck is basically a typical sword and sorcery epic that fans of that genre would appreciate. For non-fans only the scenes featuring Korrek the Barbarian emerging out of the jar of peanut butter and the scenes featuring Howard the Duck are the most interesting parts. Without those scenes, there’s really nothing about that two-part story that would interest non-fans. But the later two horror parodies “Frog Death!” and “Hellcow!” are pretty funny to read, especially the latter story. I highly recommend those two stories because they set the satiric tone for the entire series.
These issues were reprinted in Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection, Volume 1, which can be purchased online at AbeBooks, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BookDepository, Google Play, Half.com, IndieBound, Indigo, Powell’s.
Next post in this series.
The Howard the Duck Series
Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection, Volume 1
The Early Stories
Howard the Duck #1-3