How Howard the Duck’s original creator pulled off one of the greatest creative “heists” in comic book history...
Does creativity beat out industry, in the sum of all things? We’d like to believe so, but a casual glance at the pop culture landscape - strewn with the wreckage of various artists who’ve stood by and watched characters and IP they’ve created make companies billions of dollars while they in return get squat - suggests quite the opposite. But, every once in a very short while, the cleverness of creators wins out… every once in a while, those very creators are able to stick it to their corporate overlords, even if in only small, barely noticeable gestures. Just like the time Steve Gerber, co-creator of Marvel Comics’ Howard the Duck, stole his own character back from the company right out from under their noses.
If all you know of Howard the Duck is the disastrous 1986 movie, then do yourself a favor: track down Gerber’s original run on the character (the omnibus of which is due to be reissued this year!). Working with amazing artists like Val Mayerik, Frank Brunner and, most especially, Gene Colan, Gerber - an immensely talented and influential writer who just doesn’t get enough credit - created nothing short of a comic book masterpiece: an amazing, shotgun blast of satire aimed at the comics industry and popular culture at large, equally as funny as it was revolutionary. The title sold well enough that Gerber was left alone to do pretty much anything he wanted for a while there, even having Howard run for U.S. President in the 1976 elections (which apparently resulted in thousands of real world write-in votes). But the truly remarkable thing about Gerber’s run on Howard the Duck was how it wasn’t just an angry, rant-filled screed raging against whatever the writer found ridiculous or absurd. At the heart of his run was a deep, almost melancholic existentialism which plumbed the depths of existence and what it meant to be alive in the world at that time. A quote from Gerber himself perfectly encapsulates the absurd/melancholic tone of his seminal series: “Life's most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view.”
But, like most things, nothing gold can stay, and Gerber was eventually fired from the book, with Howard the Duck being canceled not long thereafter. Gerber later sued Marvel to regain the rights back to his character, in one of the first examples of the constant battle for creator’s rights in the comic industry. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, and the exact details are not public knowledge. Marvel came out still in full ownership of the character, but - for whatever reason - Gerber later returned to write Howard intermittently throughout the years, even getting a chance to have his final say on the character in the totally-worth-tracking-down MAX (Marvel’s mature readers imprint) series from the early 2000s, which is every bit as sharp as his original run.
Gerber also returned to Howard in Spider-Man Team-Up #5, and that brings us back around to Gerber’s rather brilliant and sly reclaiming of his own character. You see, Gerber was also writing another team-up at roughly the same time, a pairing of his own Destroyer Duck (a parody created with Jack Kirby in an attempt to help fund Gerber’s previous lawsuit against Marvel) with Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, and the writer came up with a devious notion as to how he could unofficially tie both team-ups together. He did it in a way that was completely valid, and yet free of any legal entanglements from Marvel. Although given the chance to write his iconic character once again, Gerber was growing tired of the character’s misuse at the hands of others who didn’t quite get it (Lobo the Duck, anyone?). Gerber decided that he was going to “steal” Howard - the real Howard - back from Marvel, leaving the company none the wiser in the process.
See, both comics feature a big fight taking place simultaneously in a warehouse in Cleveland. The scene plays out virtually the same in both comics, although some clever silhouetting of the respective copyright holder’s characters in each issue keeps everything nice and non-litigious. One could read either story without having to track down the other, as the “crossover” has no bearing on either issue’s plot, and the status quo is reset at the end when Spidey and Howard beat the bad guys and walk off together into the sunset.
Or is it? The Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck expands a little on the scene in the warehouse, revealing that in the fracas, the silhouette that is Howard the Duck is cloned, resulting in a thousand different “Howards” running rampant. In the chaos, both parties leave, with Spidey taking one of the clones with him, and Destroyer Duck grabbing another one, proclaiming to the Dragon that he’s “got the real one.” The three promptly escape, along with Howard’s girlfriend Beverly. After their getaway, Dragon asks Destroyer Duck if they shouldn’t take Howard and Bev back to “the other side,” where they can rejoin their friends. “They haven’t got any friends over there,” Destroyer Duck proclaims. “They’re comin’ with us!”
And with that, Steve Gerber took back the reigns to his old character, with Marvel stuck in the position where they couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
The issue ends with the kidnapped duck being placed in witness protection, having dyed his feathers green and changed his name to “Leonard.” Leonard the Duck was intended to be Gerber’s new character, but he only made one further appearance, in Gerber’s Vertigo series from the nineties, Nevada. I suppose you can only test the fates so much.
Still, Steve Gerber pulled off one of the greatest coups in all of comicdom - a blow in the favor of creator’s rights that ultimately amounts to little more than a drop of water in the corporate bucket, but remains a brilliant creative endeavor totally worthy of the guy who helped proliferate mainstream satire in American comics; a statement of the hollow trademark Marvel’s duck became in comparison to the true essence of Howard that lived and died with Steve Gerber, who left us in 2008.
Marvel may still publish comic books with Howard in them. They may even plop him in at the end-credits tag to their latest mega-blockbuster. But you and I know the truth… that’s not the real Howard. That laughter you hear? That’s Steve Gerber, chuckling to himself at executing a ploy so ridiculous, it could have easily been featured in an issue of one of his own comics.