Saturday, April 24, 2010

Standing the Test of Time (With or Without Pants)

Coming in around 800 pages and weighing just over five pounds, this week I finally finished reading the Howard the Duck Omnibus. I had started reading this almost immediately after I got it a year or two ago, but I had only read through issue 5 of the 31 issue original run. I picked it up again at the beginning of this year. This is now the third omnibus I’ve read from cover-to-cover with the other two being the Amazing Fantasy Omnibus and the Incredible Hulk Omnibus (that probably counts as 10 Marvel Masterworks! – not that it’s a competition or anything). I probably would have finished it sooner, but I’ve been filling my “spare” time reading the Silver Age Green Lantern archives – now on Volume 5 I’m happy to say.

In addition to the original series, including the Annual and Marvel Treasury Edition, this book also contains Howard’s first appearances in Adventure into Fear, Man-Thing, and Giant-size Man-Thing. There is also a Marvel Team-up story, the very short-lived two-issue HTD revival (issues 32 and 33), and an in-depth interview with Steve Gerber from FOOM #15 . All of Howard’s 1976 Presidential Campaign updates are reprinted; however, the full letter pages are not, even though they are for the Silver Age omnibuses.

I’ve been a Howard fan since I first started collecting comics and I picked up issue #15 on the stands (most likely at the Colonial Heights 7-11) back in 1977. It was also a favorite of my older brother. I eventually got the earlier issues. Initially, I was really on the fence about getting this volume, since I already have every issue, except for #32, #33 and the FOOM article. Yet, I couldn’t resist the lure of the hardcover, even though it’s a bit unwieldy.

Now, I’ve read the entire series a few times, but it’s been quite a while since I last did, so it’s always interesting to see how my maturity affects my reading of the material. I certainly appreciated some of the humor this time around that I didn’t get as a kid. The great thing is that although the series is FIRMLY rooted in the culture of the seventies, the stories don’t seem outdated at all. Certainly, HTD is known for it’s biting social commentary, which is excellent, but it’s the characterization of Howard and all those he encounters that really stand out.

The series was strongest from issue 4 through 19, and it’s no coincidence that issue 4 was the start of Gene Colan’s nearly uninterrupted run on the title. These issues consist of one on-going “organic” saga, where Howard becomes a Presidential candidate, which ends due to a fabricated scandal, suffers a nervous breakdown, meets KISS, and tangles with Doctor Bong and loses his girlfriend, Beverly, and much more (see below). Along the way he teams up with the Defenders and is even possessed by the Son of Satan’s soul-self. The presidential issues (#7, 8, and 9) should be required reading for everyone, especially since we still have the same problems with politics today.

One of my favorite issues is number 19. As you can see, the cover is a parody of Amazing Spider-man #50. Howard has been turned into a human being or a “hairless ape”, as he likes to call them. His human persona always reminded me of Peter Falk’s Columbo. Throughout the issue, Howard’s duck persona is seen floating around as his conscience. The real strength of the issue is Howard’s involvement with Amy, a woman, who practically drags him back to her place where they basically have a discourse on human relationships. Amy is involved with another guy named Elton and he’s been draining the life out of her by his neediness. By the end of the issue Howard is a duck again – the transformation was spurred on by their intimate activities – VERY tastefully revealed in one of the next issue’s recap sequences. The whole Doctor Bong/human-Howard storyline, running through issues 15, 17, 18, and 19 is really good, but it really marks the end of the book's momentum.

I didn’t include number 16 above, because that was the revolutionary “Deadline Doom” issue. This was a very sought after comic 30 years ago and at the time was the most difficult to find for my collection. Rather than using a reprint, which was common place then, Steve Gerber wrote a text piece about his move to the West Coast with him talking with Howard along the way. It provides a great insight into Gerber; however, it had an unexpected negative effect for me. Since Howard is Gerber’s conscience, I couldn’t see Howard as just Howard for the rest of the series. I was too focused on Gerber. If Howard was having relationship problems, then Gerber must have been having similar problems. Howard was always Gerber’s voice, but Gerber became Howard’s voice.

Knowing of Gerber’s later struggles with the HTD newspaper strip, the conflict with Disney over Howard’s supposed similarity to Donald Duck, putting pants on Howard, and his battle to gain ownership rights further affected my reading of the rest of the series. However, most of the remaining stories were still enjoyable, especially the Ringmaster trilogy (#25, #26,and #27). So, Gerber left on a very high note.

I did discover that the two-part Star Wars parody issues (#22 and #23) that I loved as a kid were a little too over-the-top for me today. Bill Mantlo picked up the book with issue #30 after Gerber had left and continued the series in the Black and White magazines – all of which I own, but I’ve yet to take the time to read all of them. Some of the non-Gerber/Mantlo fill-in issues and the revival series were VERY difficult to finish – the magic was gone by then.

You’ve got to give Marvel credit for putting this together. They were trying to get it published so sales would help Steve with his medical expenses. Steve wrote the forward to the book not long before his death and it seems like he made peace with Marvel and his past frustrations with Howard. The volume was printed just after he died, but it’s a fitting tribute to his legacy as a comic book writer. It’s a great way for new readers to discover that Howard the Duck still works after all this time (with or without pants). Ironically, now that Disney owns Marvel, maybe Howard can finally leave the trousers behind.


  1. Nice review. I followed Gerber's blog for awhile and was well aware of his struggles with his illness at the end of his life. Now I want this Omnibus, Although it sounds like it is one of the Omni's that are just too darn big. Maybe I can find it cheap at Balto-Con.

  2. Last year there was this one booth at the Con that was selling them for 60% off. Unfortunately, most of them I had already and I was waiting to sell some books so I could get a commission (I wanted a Pat Broderick Firestorm -- but he never showed up), so when I went back everything else I would have wanted was gone. You can probably get it for 50% off on ebay.

    I read on-line somewhere that they put this in the omnibus format, rather than the Masterworks format to get it published more quickly.