Last week I started a new series of summertime Throwback Thursdays devoted to the original 1970’s Howard the Duck comic books. The first part dealt with Howard the Duck’s first appearances in other Marvel comic books. This week I’m going to delve into the actual comic book series themselves.
Howard the Duck #1
Howard the Barbarian
Credits: Steve Gerber, creator, writer, co-plotter; Frank Brunner, illustrator, colorer, co-plotter; John Costanza, letterer; Marv Wolfman, editor
Soon after Howard’s battle with the Hellcow was published in Giant-Size Man-Thing #5, Marvel decided to spin the duck into his own comic book series. This is the first issue of the new comic book series and is also the first one to include this slogan, which would be used throughout the entire series: Trapped in a world he never made.
Synopsis: The story starts where the Hellcow story left off. Despite the fact that Howard the Duck has managed to save the city of Cleveland from not one but two major calamities (Garko the Man-Frog and Hellcow), he’s still homeless and penniless and he has to deal with being an anthropomorphic talking duck in a world full of humans (whom he calls “hairless apes” throughout the series). Howard becomes despondent so he decides to try a brief dip in the Cuyahoga River to perk himself up. Except that river, like many major bays and rivers located along the major industrial cities in the 1970’s, is too polluted for anyone to swim in, including a duck like Howard.
In total despair, Howard decides to throw in the towel and kill himself. He sees a tall tower located across the river. Using a log and tree branch as a make-shift raft, Howard floats across the river until he arrives at the tower. His idea is to enter the tower, walk or climb up to the top, then throw himself down below. But that plan falls through when he sees that there is no door. Howard briefly notices that the tower is made up of old plastic credit cards before he decides to climb up to the top from the outside then throw himself to his death.
Once Howard reaches near the top, he sees a window and decides to rest on the ledge before throwing himself to his death. But then he hears a cry for help inside that window. It is the moment of the major turning point in the comic book series: When Howard met Beverly.
Beverly Switzler is a redheaded woman who has been held prisoner in the tower for a month. Howard changes his mind about killing himself and decides to rescue Beverly instead. Eventually Howard meets up with the first of a long line of ludicrous villains in his comic book series: Pro-Rata, whose big desire is to become Chief Accountant of the Universe before increasing his power by collecting the Cosmic Dividend. (Accountants will especially get a kick out of this story.)
At one point Spider-Man makes a guest appearance. That is because of Peter Parker’s day job as The Daily Planet photographer, when his boss makes him go to Cleveland in order to find out if those rumors of a talking duck in Cleveland are really true and, if so, get a photograph of that duck. Peter Parker reluctantly goes on that trip while calling Cleveland the “armpit of the nation”. (This was many years before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was built in Cleveland and it was during the time when Cleveland, like many other industrial areas, began to experience a decline in manufacturing due both to cheap imports from other nations and U.S. corporations outsourcing jobs to Third World countries so they could pay people less and they wouldn’t have to deal with unions.)
Topical 1970’s References: Environmental pollution (including the Cuyahoga River) and the rise of the environmentalist movement. The decline of Cleveland and other manufacturing industrial cities.
The Bottom Line: This issue not only satirizes the Marvel sword and sorcery epics (such as Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja) but it also pokes fun at the pollution problem in the United States which led to the rise of the environmentalist movement in the 1970’s. I grew up outside of Baltimore during that time and I remember the Chesapeake Bay had the same pollution problems that the Cuyahoga River did. That was the legacy of the intense manufacturing that sprung up during the Industrial Revolution and continued for many decades. I still remember many cars sporting those “Save the Bay” bumper stickers when I was growing up. The polluted Cuyahoga River did come in handy for it was used in such a way that ultimately defeated Pro-Rata. The whole issue was pretty humorous with even Spider-Man showing a lighter comedy touch than in his own comic book series. The idea of an accountant seeking to use his accounting knowledge to control the universe is pretty hilarious since accountants are usually stereotyped as being dull and cautious people. Howard the Duck #1 shows a lot of promise for this series.
Howard the Duck #2
Credits: Steve Gerber, writer; Frank Brunner, illustrator; Steve Leialoha, inker; Tom Orzechowski, letterer; Michele Wolfman, colorist; Marv Wolfman, editor
Synopsis: The story begins with Howard and Beverly facing off against a group of aliens invading the Earth known as Muurks. Just when Howard is about to be killed, he wakes up and it turns out that the previous scenario had been a dream that was spurred by Howard reading some of the unpublished writings by Beverly’s roommate, a struggling writer known as Arthur Winslow. Since the last issue Howard is staying in that apartment with Beverly and Arthur (whom Beverly made clear to Howard that they are just roommates and he is not her boyfriend). It is also the issue where Beverly mentions her occupation as an artist model and she said that she became a prisoner of Pro-Rata in the last issue when she answered a Help Wanted ad looking for a model.
Since Arthur’s writing career has yet to take off, he has been working nights as a security guard just to pay the bills. His job is boring until one night when he hears a crash in one of the buildings. It turns out to be a giant turnip. When he investigates further, the turnip possesses Arthur with a laser beam pointed at Arthur’s head. The turnip says that he is the last of a race of highly intelligent space vegetables. The turnip is frustrated by the fact that his movements are limited because he is, well, a turnip. Arthur confesses that he has always wanted to be a hero. Arthur accepts the turnip’s proposal that the two of them merge together so Arthur would have access to the turnip’s extensive knowledge of the universe while the turnip would be able to use Arthur’s limbs to move. The turnip also promises to make Arthur into a hero, which results in Arthur becoming known as Turnip-Man.
Meanwhile Howard and Beverly are riding on a bus where the Kidney Lady makes her first appearance. (She would continue to make guest appearances throughout the series while being a constant thorn in Howard’s side.) The Kidney Lady is obsessed with keeping her kidneys healthy to the point of fanaticism that’s not unlike religious fanatics or political fanatics who end up turning to terrorism (such as Al Qaeda or ISIS). The Kidney Lady objects to Howard smoking his trademark cigar on a bus (this was back in the day before smoking bans became commonplace like they are today) because the cigar smoke threatens her kidneys. She swipes Howard’s cigar and squashes it, which prompts a brawl between Howard and the Kidney Lady.
The bus they are on almost gets into an accident due to the brawl between Howard and the Kidney Lady. But Turnip-Man happens to be in the same area so he stops the bus and prevents an accident. When the passengers all get off of the bus, Beverly recognizes Arthur’s voice in the Turnip-Man outfit, who then responds by grabbing Beverly and flying away.
It turns out that the bargain Arthur made with the turnip is starting to haunt him because the turnip begins to take over more of Arthur’s body to the point where Arthur is losing control over his own body. The turnip wants to have sex with Beverly in order to know what it’s like to experience, in the turnip’s words, “the making of whoopee.” Beverly fights off Turnip-Man’s advances while Arthur and the turnip argue with each other (try to imagine a person arguing with himself). Howard eventually tracks the pair down. He figures out that the turnip’s brains are located in the greens that are part of the Turnip-Man’s helmet so he pulls out the greens and manages to destroy them by flinging them into one of the many smokestacks that dot the Cleveland skyline.
The story ends back in the apartment where Arthur is very remorseful and repentant for willingly giving up control over his own body to someone else whom he had never met before.
Topical 1970’s References: Back in the 1970’s there was a popular game show on television known as The Newlywed Game. Newlywed couples would answer personal questions about their new marriage for the chance to win a special prize (usually a trip to somewhere exotic or a set of ultra-expensive furniture). The host, Bob Eubanks, would frequently term anything to do with sex as “making whoopee.” The censors at that time were way more cautious about depicting any kind of sex on television to the point where some shows refused to even use the word “sex.”
I found it pretty hilarious that the turnip would clinically refer to sex as “the making of whoopee.”
The Kidney Lady’s protest of Howard’s smoking a cigar on a bus is reminiscent of the beginning of an anti-smoking movement that was formed over the health concerns of people who breathe in secondhand smoke from smokers. I can remember when people could smoke anywhere they wanted. But then there were laws passed where public places (such as restaurants) were required to have segregated smoking and non-smoking areas. Over time those laws were amended to the point where most public places no longer allow smoking anywhere.
The Bottom Line: This issue is definitely a hilarious satire of the Marvel superheroes, including the personal angst that many of these superheroes have in their daily lives when they are not fighting the bad guys (such as Arthur’s struggle to become a successful writer). The idea of a superhero based around a turnip from outer space is pretty hysterical to me.
Howard the Duck #3
Four Feathers of Death or Enter the Duck!
Credits: Steve Gerber, writer; John Buscema, illustrator; Steve Leialoha, inker; Marv Wolfman, editor; Annette Kawecki, Letterer; Michele Wolfman, colorist
Synopsis: Howard and Beverly have just left the movie theater, which was showing the latest kung-fu hit. Howard shows his distaste towards the violence of kung-fu movies in general by complaining about what he has just saw on the silver screen while noting that the filmmakers take an ancient philosophy and martial arts and sell it as a violent entertainment package. An African American youth who attended the same movie blocks Howard’s path by doing the kung fu movies that he has just saw, which leads to Howard making this comment that modern readers may interpret as racist.
It is true that Howard calls all humans “hairless apes,” regardless of race or ethnicity. But Howard hurls the “hairless apes” epithet at a boy who’s from an ethnic group who, prior to the 1950’s, were routinely depicted in illustrations and cartoons as looking like apes or monkeys. I’m not saying that the people behind the comic book were racists, it’s very likely that they were unaware of why it’s not wise to refer to African Americans as “hairless apes” (even if Howard calls all humans that) because of white privilege. White privilege doesn’t mean that the person is intentionally racist (like joining the Ku Klux Klan). White privilege means that a white person is so insulated from what non-whites go through that he/she may inadvertently say or write something that offends a non-white person because that white person never knew that it was offensive. This especially happens if a white person grew up in an all-white neighborhood without having any non-white playmates and classmates, continues living in majority-white neighborhoods as an adult, and has a job in a workplace with very few non-white colleagues (or the non-white employees may be in lower-ranking jobs like security guard or janitor).
Well, anyway, back to the synopsis. Howard and Beverly decides to go to a local diner where many of the patrons started to talk about kung fu movies, much to Howard’s chagrin. Suddenly the same African American youth who previously blocked Howard’s path doing kung fu moves is hurled through the diner’s front window. It turns out that the youth had also blocked another person’s path while doing kung fu moves and that person turns out to be a gang leader known as Count Macho, who took that youth’s kung fu moves as a threat to his masculinity. Count Macho enters the diner by saying that what the youth did was an affront to a master of the martial arts like himself so the youth must be violently punished by him and his gang.
Soon a brawl breaks out as other patrons try to stop Count Macho and his gang from beating and stabbing the African American youth to no avail since the youth ends up getting stabbed. The gang is driven away while Beverly goes to a pay phone so she can call for help. (You can tell this comic book was printed before cell phones were even invented.) The ambulance and police arrive and Howard recognizes one of the cops from having previous run-ins with him as depicted in Giant-Size Man-Thing #4. Beverly is kneeling over the stabbed African American youth and Howard tells the police that she is a nurse (even though she is really a model) so she can ride with the youth in the ambulance.
As the ambulance drives away, Howard decides to walk around outside in order to calm his nerves from what he has just witnessed. He arrives in a book store that stocks lots of kung-fu magazines. Howard picks up one of the magazines and he sees an ad for a place that offers kung-fu lessons 24 hours a day. Howard meets a teacher who proceeds to teach Howard in all the ways of kung-fu. Howard masters his lessons in three hours, which leads the teacher to declare him as the Master of Quack-Fu.
Howard returns to his apartment only to see a note from Count Macho saying that he and his gang have kidnapped Beverly and Howard should meet them at a certain location where there is a construction site. Howard does so and he proceeds to use his newly acquired knowledge of quack-fu to defeat Count Macho and his gang. Count Macho lunges at Howard, who ducks, which results in Count Macho falling from the building beam. He grabs Beverly, who’s dangling from that building beam on a crane, but the sweat on his hands makes them so slippery that he loses his grip and falls to his death.
After Howard frees Beverly, she tells Howard that the youth whom Count Macho and his gang stabbed had died at the hospital.
Topical 1970’s References: Kung-fu movies were the big rage in the 1970’s, which included such films as Enter the Dragon. Bruce Lee was a huge kung-fu movie star whose life was cut short while he was still in the prime of his career. In addition, there was a hit TV show called Kung-Fu which starred David Carradine as a half-white, half-Chinese man named Caine who wandered through the American West in the 1800’s dispensing ancient Eastern philosophical wisdom while using his kung-fu skills to kick the asses of various villains in each episode. I remember my mother and grandmother used to watch that show each week. The scenes where Howard trains with that kung-fu teacher is reminiscent of the frequent flashbacks on Kung-Fu where Caine, as a young boy growing up in a Chinese orphanage, frequently interacts with his teacher, who calls him “Grasshopper.” The fact that Howard’s kung-fu teacher calls Howard “Pondhopper” is definitely a parody of the Kung-Fu TV show. There was even the Carl Douglas song “Kung Fu Fighting,” which was a big hit when it was released in 1974.
The Bottom Line: This issue is a humorous parody of the kung-fu craze that swept America at the time despite the unfortunate cartoon panel showing Howard hurling the “hairless apes” term at an African American youth. It is a thought-provoking issue, especially when Howard speaks about the insanity of kung-fu films glamorizing street brawling even though, in real life, people get hurt in such brawls.
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.
The Howard the Duck Series
Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection, Volume 1
The Early Stories
Howard the Duck #1-3
Howard the Duck #4-5
Howard the Duck #6
Howard the Duck #7 and Marvel Treasury Edition #12: Howard the Duck
Howard the Duck #8
Howard the Duck #9-11
Howard the Duck #12-14
Howard the Duck King Size Annual #1 and Howard the Duck #15
Howard the Duck #16
Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection, Volume 2