Tuesday, July 05, 2005

I'm Not Negative, I'm Angry

Howard The Duck 25 - 27

Howard is Marvel's unhealed, festering sore. Briefly a major force in the mid-1970's, Howard's fall was swift and brutal after the mother of all falling-outs between the company and Howard's creator, Steve Gerber. Morally, Gerber owns this character. Legally, it's Marvel's, and they have proved incapable in the last thirty years of doing anything with it.

Not that there haven't been attempts - the (not as bad as it's remembered) film, the (worse than you'd care to remember) black and white magazine, and a Marvel Max mini-series a couple of years ago, written by Gerber himself. At the time I was unaware that even existed, so I haven't read it.

Describing Howard to those who haven't read him is a problem. By turns thoughtful, angry, comic and tragic, Howard was Gerber's commentary on an incomprehensible world. There was a breathless exploration of different ideas which makes it seem as if it ran much longer than the twenty-eight Gerber scripted. The most popular were the first ten issues, where the the jokes were longer, the tone lighter and the absurdity was greater.

Yet the story I remember best was this one, the darkest of the lot. It is one of the few which uses established Marvel villains, in this case the Ringmaster and his Carnival of Crime. You don't see them too much these days, principally because they were a bit rubbish. The standard plot would be - Ringmaster hypnotises hero, hero helps Ringmaster nick some stuff, hero recovers from hypnotism, hero smacks entire Carnival of Crime around the Big Top. Difficult to believe, but they were Thor villains once.

Gerber takes this weakness and uses it to show them for what they are, petty criminals using tricks to rob the innocent, demonstrating just how much damage they cause to their victims. Ignatz Hubley, robbed of his last funds, gets drunk and decides to commit a robbery. Hit by the car of an irresponsible socialite, Hubley shoots Paul Same, a cast member. Simultaneously, another cast member, Winda, is hospitalised after a late-night assault by a drunk. Without the restrictions of the Comics Code, the assault would undoubtedly have been a rape.

There are light sides to this story - like when one of the Cannonballs has an emotional chat with a kidnapped Howard. "Heck, we're not even good at it. Next to a Dr Doom or a Red Skull, we're ludicrous. Every time we run up against Spider-Man or Davedevil or the Hulk, we get the living spit beat out of us." Howard is shown thinking "I hate it when they go sincere on you." And the art is fantastic - I love Gene Colan's work.

Bad points? Well, the portrayal of Winda's speech impediment, which I recall seeming cute at the time, looks to modern eyes like mocking the afflicted. The printing must have been done by a babboon, and the comic appears to have been printed on toilet paper. If dark negativity isn't your thing, you'd probably hate this arc.

This troubled, gloomy story ends weakly, as a furious Howard goes after the Ringmaster. And with that, Gerber's glorious run was more-or-less over. I was too young at the time to really understand Howard, but I still miss it terribly.


Blogger Luis said...

I had a small collection of Howard the Duck comics as a child -- maybe 6 to 8 issues. Found them in a dusty corner of some secondhand furniture shop that my Mom had dragged me into, in ugly condition and selling for next to nothing (the comics, not myself).

I remember finding those issues suitably entertaining -- particularly a Star Wars/fantasy parody involving a giant killer pickle -- but also unsettling in a way I had never associated with comics before. That quality of sadness, that bitter flailing against an uncaring universe, was probably a bit much for a kid whose age was not in the double digits yet.

I vaguely remember this Ringmaster issue too -- Howard used the word "smock" repeatedly during his stand-up routine, which for some reason I found hilarious. Anyway. Don't know where those comics are now. Maybe I could find that Howard Essentials TPB.

10:15 pm  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

I was about twelve the first time I read Howard. It was one where they spent most of the issue walking around a ship talking - and I just couldn't understand what the point was. It took me three or four years to work out what it was about, but it was probably the most important comic I ever read in terms of teaching me what the medium could aspire to. Buy the Howard TPB. You probably won't regret it.

8:49 am  
Blogger A BOY NAMED GMU said...


I think I still have a coupla issues kicking around somewhere. While not a huge comics fan, I had to get these because KISS made an appearance.

I gotta go dig 'em up...

11:30 am  
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