My Favorite Things

Howard the Duck #1-27

Written by Steve Gerber
Pencils by Gene Colan (#4-20,23-27) etc.
Inked by Steve Leialoha (#1-13) etc.
Letters by Irving Watanabe (#5,8,15,18-19,21,23,25-26) etc.
Colors by Janice Cohen (#8,10-13,17,20,22-26) etc.

I wasn't planning to write about Howard the Duck today, but it seemed appropriate to.

I think I stumbled across Howard the Duck at just the right age — 14 or so. If you came across these comics as an adult you'd probably be amused. But if you came across them as a teenager, these comics would blow your mind. They're the perfect stepping stone for someone who's just about finished with adolescent power fantasies, who are looking for something more, but who aren't looking for everything to be weighed down by a stultifying adult serious.

We could use a lot more comics designed to blow a 14 year-old's mind.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Howard the Duck, Howard is the only sane man in a crazy world, a cranky Cassandra can see what's going on but who is unable to affect it. Also, he's also a duck. Trapped in our world by forces beyond our control, he's a perrential outsider, buffeted hither and yon by fate, and distinguished from most cartoon protagonists by the realism of his reactions to essentially absurd situations. He runs from conflict. He obsesses about trivialities. He procrastinates. He gives up. He gets irritable and angry over trivial tings. He has nervous breakdowns. And, like all Marvel characters, he's constantly thrown into one ludicrous conflict after another, which only serves to push him further and further over the edge.

A lot of people think of issue #16 — the "Dreaded Deadline Doom" issue — as the series' high point, but I think that's a mistake. I think #16 is a very good issue, and certainly like no other mainstream comic you'd be reading at the time (or since). But the series really kicks into high gear a lot earlier, in issue #11, when Howard has his first nervous breakdown. That's like nothing you've seen before or since, and except for a few missteps — such as an ill-conceived parody of Star Wars that goes nowhere — the series remains of consistently high quality through issue #27, which is coincidentally Gerber's last issue as writer.

Here's one of my favorite sequences1, from Howard the Duck #27. At this point, Howard has been kicked around by fate for over a year. He's lost his beloed Beverly to Dr. Bong, been turned into a human, forced to live on the streets, been forced to battle mystic forces for the fate of the entire universe, been assaulted by a human scouring pad, been brainwashed by an overzealous public decency committee, and been kidnapped by the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime. He's finally managed to escape from the Ringmaster, only to see one of his few friends get critically wounded in a freak gun accident.

His subconscious puts Howard on trial, and it seems he's headed for another crack-up...

Howard the Duck #27, p. 2-3 Howard the Duck #27, p. 6-7

Howard the Duck #27, p. 2-7

There's some nice storytelling from Gene Colan here, which is perfectly in tune with Gerber's writing. As Howard becomes more agitated, the panel borders and shapes become more and more out-of-kilter, the actions more exaggerated. The first two pages have a mirrored layout that lends them extra stability, which makes the pages that follow seem even more chaotic. Colan's usual distortions and exaggerated perspective lend the whole scene an eerie, dreamlike quality. And that final image of Howard, so angry that irritated cartoon steam is streaming out of his ears, is done with some masterful shading that makes it seem genuinely frightening instead of funny.

It's scenes like this one that made Howard a classic that's foundly remembered even today. I know it's one of my favorites.

  1. Or at least, my favorite sequence that wasn't already reprinted by the late Tim O'Neil last week.

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