Gerber’s Baby

Given how much I have in common with Steve Gerber, it probably shouldn’t surprise me that every time I attempt to get my hands on Howard the Duck I end up frustrated. When I found the movie on Hulu a few months ago, I immediately bookmarked it, but I guess I should have immediately watched it instead. By the time I finally clicked on the link last night, having just packed all my DVDs away in moving boxes, the movie had been taken down. (I never had even the mildest urge to watch any of those DVDs– never glanced at the shelf, in some cases never removed the shrink wrap– until immediately after packing them away.) When I was in San Diego, home of the fabled, more-elusive-than-Nessie Great Deals On Comics (I don’t know about you, but my city has 20 comic shops in it, and if any of them combined had three sales a year I’d feel like a looter) I spotted a few copies of the Howard the Duck Omnibus, but none of them were even slightly marked down. Every dealer wanted the full $99.99 list price, and that trigger has cobwebs on it. Nobody has ever pulled that trigger. If you’re spending $100 on a book at Comic Con, you’d better be coming home with something that was last opened in 1965. Something in a case, with jet black Stan Lee moustache hair pressed between pages nine and ten.

I find myself thinking about Howard the Duck and his creator a lot for someone who hasn’t read all that much of his work. Steve Gerber grew up in the neighborhood I’m about to move out of; he went to high school about five minutes up the street from here. He graduated from the same university I did, with one of the same majors I had. Given the shape Xavier Hall was in in 1995, we may have sat in the same desk. Of course, after graduating, I did not go on to write a comic book that was printed with Gene Simmons’ blood, so perhaps the similarities end there.

Still… he tended to inject humor and absurdity into his writing. He tended to be pretty confrontational in his youth. He did some pretty serious bridge burning with his employers in a pretty small industry. I can’t help but feel some kinship there.

I’ve really had Howard on the brain since a couple of weeks ago when Gene Colan drew that issue of Captain America. The man can draw better than anyone I’ll ever meet in my life, and he can see his 83rd birthday from where he’s sitting. Or he could, except he has glaucoma and can still draw that well. If I reach the age of 83 and can still zip my own pants, it will be impossible to live with me. I will open my bedroom window, lean out and sing “We Are the Champions” every time I get dressed.

Anyway, back when he was merely 53 Colan did a lot of the art for Steve Gerber’s most famous book, Howard the Duck. In fact, it was apparently Gerber’s insistence that Colan get treated right that ended up changing poor old Howard’s destiny forever. Gerber and Colan had been hired to do a Howard the Duck newspaper strip, and it seems the syndicate only paid them for their work three or four times a year; until that first check eventually rolled in, Colan was essentially working every day for free. Gerber demanded that Marvel pay Colan an advance so he could eat, things escalated, and by the time the argument was over Steve Gerber was fired and suing Marvel for the rights to Howard the Duck.

Gerber created Howard as a random sight gag in a Man-Thing story, but by the time he was fired the character had grown into a cult icon, and when I look at it now the book seems like the closest thing to an underground or “counterculture” comic the mainstream publishers had ever put out at the time. Howard was Gerber’s baby, no pun intended; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like when Marvel grabbed it from him and handed it to other people. They ended up settling out of court, and although Gerber said he was satisfied I can’t see how that could have been entirely true; when the blood dried, Marvel still owned the character and could do whatever they wanted with it as long as he got a “created by” credit. In interviews on the subject, Gerber always said that one of the conditions of the settlement was that he couldn’t disclose the terms, but it always reads like the words are begging to burst out of his mouth, like the reporters could see them poking at the insides of his cheeks like a bag of angry bees. If I were in his position, it would only be a matter of time before I died of a ruptured larynx.

Imagine being a comics writer in 1979 and suing Marvel. So much for working with half of the industry. And what if that move made DC skittish about working with you, too? Unless you’ve got a killer Betty and Veronica story in your desk drawer, it’s back to the ad agency for you.

I’m sure I’m naive, but I don’t think you could do today what Marvel ’79 did, just from a P.R. standpoint. Imagine if someone had the power to, say, yank Fear Agent away from Rick Remender and just give it to Marv Wolfman or somebody. Would anyone keep buying that book? Millions of readers would grab pitchforks and inhalers and very slowly march on those offices. Hell, a couple of years ago Bill Jemas tried to pull Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo off of Fantastic Four because he wanted to change the direction of the book, and people almost burned the internet down. And Mark Waid was just the 200th guy to do a couple years of work for hire on those characters.

Of course, Fear Agent isn’t owned by DC or Marvel. Creators are smarter about that stuff now, probably in no small part because of what Gerber did, or at least what he went through. Sometimes I can’t help wondering about the extent to which writers save their “good” ideas for the indie books they own themselves. Think of your favorite writers working for Marvel right now, and then think of the new characters they’ve created in their Marvel work over the last ten years. How many can you come up with? Echo, Jessica Jones, the Hood… Girl Wolverine… Son of Wolverine… Son of Hulk… Red Hulk… Red She-Hulk, apparently… very original, very enduring… who do I have to thank for Maria Hill?… Oh! And the accursed Sentry. And let us never forget Xorn.

I’m not complaining about this. It’s fun to play in the big toy box, of course, but one day Marvel could very well decide that Jessica Jones should get her own book as Jewel the Space Pirate and Jeph Loeb should write it, and there would be nothing Brian Bendis or I could do about that except hold one another and cry. Everybody knows that going in, so if you love it why not own it yourself?

Imagine what it must have been like to be Steve Gerber the year that movie came out. This is the part I think about all the time, and the reason I tried to Hulu the movie this weekend. (Is Hulu a verb yet?) As much as we insist, “Well, even the worst movie adaptation can’t do anything to ruin the book on your shelf,” there is a pretty ironclad counter-argument to be made by just shouting, “Howard the Duck.” Twenty-three years later, when you mention the name of Gerber’s most famous creation, no one you are talking to is ever going to say, “You mean the groundbreaking cult magazine from the seventies?” Even half the people reading this, who are up to their empty pockets in comics, are more likely to say, “You mean the worst thing crafted by human hands, worse than herpes? The horrible, unholy portent of George Lucas’ creative trajectory?” There would not have been enough poppy fields in the world to get me through that summer, especially if I’d fought so hard for the rights that would have prevented it from happening.

At the time, I was one of the kids who didn’t know any better. I went to see the movie because it was a comic book movie (in 1986, they didn’t come out nine times a year) and I sort of liked it, but I was eleven and had sort of decided to like it before I sat down. At the same time, I saw the comics in the back issue bins and didn’t buy them; with their funny animals and Dr. Bongs, they looked like kid stuff at a time when I was trying to pass as a grownup. (This was right around the time when you started to hear on a weekly basis, “Comics are not for kids anymore! Comics are a mature art form full of mature themes and sophisticated storytelling.” Later, I would look back on this era and realize that everyone I ever heard saying that was eleven and a half.) It’s for the best; I wouldn’t have been ready for those books in 1986. I was barely ready for Rodimus Prime in 1986.

Now I (more or less) know better, and I’m in no position to do anything about it. One of these days I’ll get my hands on these stories, and in the meantime I’ll have to settle for being inspired by their creator. The few issues I have read surprised me with every page; I’d encourage you to seek the book out, read it, and then give it to me.

Jim Mroczkowski still thinks that anyone responsible for Thundarr the Barbarian should at least get a plaque somewhere on campus. E-mail him or join him on Twitter before he becomes one with the seventies forever. For an exhaustively in-depth examination of Steve Gerber’s life and work, check out The Gerber Curse.


  1. Fantastic Work. I have never felt compelled to seek out any Howard The Duck stories, but you have convinced me. In my younger days, I disliked the look of the character and my only understanding of satire was the unshakable belief that it was in fact, some kind of tire.

    Corporate creation is a tricky beast indeed.

  2. I own the Essential Howard the Duck vol 1, sadly Marvel has never completed it with a vol 2.  I can’t afford to double dip for the Omnibus right now but I will one day.

    I have not seen the movie since I was a kid, but I liked it then.  Who knows if I would enjoy it now.

  3. I remember when i was 16 or so, a old friend of my dads came and  visited us and He and I got to talking about comics and he said how much he loved reading Howard the Duck b/c it was so absurd and counter-culture and that it was some great satire of its time dealing with politics and comis in general, anyway before he left he gave me the Howard the Duck Essential vol. 1 and i have to say that the comics are truly classic and the art is amazing.

    Oh and on a side note to the whole legal battle Gerber had to go thru, During his legal battle he created a Comic Mini called Destroyer Duck. The basic premise is A Duck much like howard goes on a one Duck battle to take down a evil corporation. I’ve actually found a few old issues at SDCC back in 02 or 03, but never read them. 

  4. Great article and I’ll also recommend seeking out those stories any way you can – the Essential is probably the best. Those first 20 or so issues really constitute what Gerber was trying to do with the character – it includes the "Howard for President" campaign, which was great for the time and still holds up today.

    I’ll go ahead and also recommend the MAX mini Gerber did in the early 00’s. A great skewering of the whole "Howard can’t be a duck because of Disney" and comics in general (great satire of Vertigo there too). Highly underrated and a great way for Gerber to sign off on the character. It’s unfortunate we’ll not get any more Gerber Howard. RIP to a great creator.

  5. Good lord man! Do you have a 70’s nostalgia quota to fill? 😉

    I have the Howard the Duck Omnibus and it’s the best book in my collection. Given that Kingdom Come, The Killing Joke, and Transmetropolitan is on my shelf…that’s saying something.

    Howard the Duck is just so funny! It can be slapstick but then hit you over the hit with satire or inside jokes. Gerber was the master with this comic and nothing sadden me more when he died last year. Everyone should get the Howard the Duck issue involving Civil War, the Media Duckling arc (Ty Templeton wrote that), and his MAX run. It’s the last thing Gerber did with the character and it really holds up today. Plus it’s not collected in the Omnibus which is a pain…

  6. My only exposure to Howard the Duck was George Lucas’s abortion from the late 80’s and a brief, disturbing cameo in "Marvel Zombies vs. The Army of Darkness".

    This afternoon I will attempt to convince my local library to order a copy of the Omnibus for me. They are very, very good to me and are reasonably likely to actually order it.

    Also: I am sitting here zipping and unzipping my pants singing "The One and Only" by Chesney Hawkes (I prefer it to "We are the Champions" because there is no I in team and it’s really all about me.)  My chances for tenure just decreased significantly.

  7. I remember Howard The Duck was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid, but I can’t remember any of it.  All I remember seeing is Howard sitting there watching TV with some other duck like slashing prices like those old Crazy Eddy ads they used to have on the tube and then he warps into another dimension or something.  It has been quite a long time and I don’t remember much about The Karate Kid either, which was also one of my favorite 1980s movies alongside Ghostbusters, The Goonies, the Freddies, the Jasons, the Halloweens, and Godzilla coming back into the fold in 1985 (actually 1984 in his home town!).

    I think The Howard The Duck Essentials will be the next one I get after I finish Essential Godzilla.  I don’t think I’ll EVER finish all three of those Peter Parker/Spectacular Spidey Essentials I have though, I can’t even finish volume one.

    What I really want to see just as much is Marvel not only do Essential Howard The Duck volume two but they should take all those old Star Wars comics they used to do back in the day and collect them!!  I heard that they were a million times more fun than what Dark Horse has done with the license!!  It is probably the Star Wars novel writers who don’t want them to come out though, I doubt any of them are in the main Star Wars continuity timeline thing, but I could be wrong.  I think Shadows Of The Empire is the only Star Wars book I ever actually finished so it wouldn’t make any difference to me!  

    I’m more a fan of the Star Wars movies and games than the reading material but that would change instantly if I saw an Essential Star Wars volume one out there!  Do they already have it and I just don’t know about it?  I never saw it on Ebay and those old issues go for a pretty penny too…

  8. I started reading this article wondering why the hell you were looking for that movie.  By the end it all came together.  Well said!  I do have to put a word in for the original characters from Matt Fraction’s ‘The Order,’ especially Henry Hellrung & Kate Kildare, and take comfort in the fact that they’re probably too obscure to be resurrected, even just for the sake of killing them. Jewel, Space Pirate could totally happen, though. 

  9. I never ‘got’ Howard The Duck. I mean I was 15 years old when the book came out and I remember having room for exactly TWO ducks in my life. And Daffy and Donald already had the positions filled. That didnt stop me from buying the comic books. In my life I have pretended to get it. Even to the point of chuckling and nodding knowingly when someone would praise this series. I felt it was something I should have gotten. I read the series. Went to see the movie. Pretended to be into it. But I never got it. Now I am 45. I still DON’T GET IT.

  10. You left the con one day early, Jimski! Sunday is the day for the really big markdowns because the retailers don’t want to carry all that crap back from whence they came!

  11. @conor, even I consoled myself by thinking, "Well, I wouldn’t have wanted to lug that thing 1000 miles on my back, anyway."

  12. @Unoob: If there is a god and he could make a Daffy Duck/Howard the Duck crossover. I would squeel like a little girl.

  13. Still nobody even answered me question if Marvel ever collected their old Star Wars comics or not.  I guess it’s all a big legal battle or something if they didn’t?

    I can’t wait until we can pull our books sometime today!!  I got like 11 pulls this week, yes!!  I can’t wait until Wednesday, and Batman Confidential is the only Batman book this week!!  Wow, that doesn’t happen often!  I am really excited about Final Crisis Aftermath #4!!  Plus The Mighty and Irredeemable in the same week!!  They should do a show about which one is better…

    The Boys is out this week too!!  YES

  14. Well, I am not a genie; you can’t just rub my article and get your wishes granted.

    That said, Dark Horse actually reprints Marvel’s old Star Wars comics through some deal I wouldn’t understand. Look for trades under the label "Star Wars: A Long Time Ago…" and you’ll be swimming in off-model Jabbas and space rabbits before you know it. There are at least 95 issues reprinted.

  15. Steve Gerber’s last work on Countdown to Mystery is what rekindled my love for comic books. His work on Dr. Fate had me riveted with each issue. I have Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown as well but his last Dr. Fate issues are what really stick with me.

    When the ship dates slipped a little I went online and found his blog. That’s when I learned he was really sick and in and out of the hospital between issues. The book took on a whole new meaning for me after that. Dr. Fate lived in Las Vegas (just like Steve Gerber) and I have to wonder if Dr. Fate’s own examination of his life and the mistakes he made were coming from Steve Gerber’s personal life. He died before finishing it and Gail Simone, Mark Waid, Mark Evanier, and Adam Beechen all chipped in their own ideas to finish the series but none quite captured the magic that Steve had put into it.

  16. Thanks for reminding me of the fearsome Dr. Bong.  He has been too long away from my consciousness.

  17. This may make me a horrible person, but I would TOTALLY read Jewel the Space Pirate.  Especially if she joined the Starjammers.

  18. @throughthebrush  You know what’s terrifying?  I almost came back here hours ago to make a similar comment.  "Wait a minute, is Corsair in this?  BECAUSE THAT CHANGES THINGS COMPLETELY!"

  19. Great article. I read a TP with one issue of Gerber’s and although the TP made me interested in the character, I’m in no hurry to read more – it was okay. This article got me interested even more and I’ll try to get an omnibus. From that one issue it seems like I’ll want it in color – trippy sickly look to it. Thanks.

  20. @Anville If you look at the 3rd Trade of Amazing Spider-man: Brand New day and look at the assembled villians in the bar you will see none other Dr. Bong himself.

  21. A very drunk Mark Hamill once walked into my LCS, bought a Howard the duck omni paid, in cash, and was never seen again.

  22. I love Howard the Duck. I have the Essential Vol 1 (and where is vol 2?) I really want that Omnibus. One day. one day…….

  23. i picked up the book and i loved it. thought the movie was iffy but its a great character

  24. Good news. One of my librarian freinds (Kell) agrees that they should order the Omnibus. I may be reading it very soon.

  25. I picked up the issue after Howard the Duck lost the presidential race and fought (?) against a Canadian beaver.  I’m surprised that you didn’t mention that Kiss’ first appearence in comics was in an issue of Howard the Duck, when they emerged from his mind during an exorcism.

    During a period when some comics seemed interchangeable, you could always tell which ones were written by Gerber.  You could always tell.

    P.S. Ironically, I had asked for a Steve Gerber topic of the weekly video shop.   Thanks for filling the void.