By Osvaldo Oyola
Welcome to the fourth instalment of WAUGH and On and On, a modified continuation of the If It WAUGHs Like a Duck reading series that examined the original 1970s Howard the Duck comic book in conversation with the Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones volume(s) from 2015 to 2016. Now that the most recent version of the comic is over, I am continuing my examination of the original Howard the Duck series one arc at a time.
Howard the Duck #24 is a transition story (if you can call it a story at all), moving Howard and the reader — after all the time he has spent fighting racist sudd-monsters, resisting being brainwashed by Anita Bryant, and traveling to a dimension far far away to help save the universe—back towards the narrative involving his supporting cast by the final page. The issue is mostly filler, but still includes some fascinating thematic features that, closely read, reflect the series as a whole, so I decided to examine those elements in list form.
1. Synec-Ducky: Howard the Duck #24 is a synecdoche. What is a synecdoche? It is a literary device in which a part of something represents the whole, or it may use a whole to represent a part. This one issue seems to hold in it all the elements of the Howard the Duck series so far, even as it is by itself just a part of the series—a transitional step between the last arc and the next. Each of the nine items in the rest of this list are examples of what makes up the whole of which this comic book is part. In that way, this “filler” issue is kind of brilliant and demonstrates how those common elements both offer promise for and seem to limit what is possible in Howard the Duck.
2. The Cover: I like this cover. It not only references an actual scene in the comic (in which Howard goes from bemoaning the attention of a deluded drunk to saving the vulnerable man from a trio of roughs who see them as “easy pluckin’s”), but I love how the dark blue sky, the streetlight, and the perspective evoke the lonely hours of the late night/early morning, even the glint of light on the liquor bottle and the sole Camaro parked on the street give it just the right sense of place and time. There is also a tension between the call-out box—asking “Where do you go– What do you do– The night after you save the universe?”—and the street life scene Howard finds himself in. The expression on Howard’s face—the position of his gloved hand in front of his bill, his eyes wide and peering back—evokes simultaneous fear and embarrassment, a combination that pervades Howard’s adventures among the hairless apes. Furthermore, the cover also brings to mind the frequency with which Steve Gerber writes Howard the Duck as to interact with people on the lowest echelons of American urban society.
Perhaps in his role as “Everyman,” Howard encapsulates that sense some people like to have of themselves, as too authentic and practical to be part of the social and/or intellectual elite but also better than common “street people.” At every turn, Howard is put into moral opposition with street people and people on the street. There are many examples: the kids reveling in kung-fu violence and drawing the attention of an actual gang in Howard the Duck #3, the Kidney Lady in Howard the Duck #2 (and beyond), who visually evokes what in the latter half of the last century was insensitively referred to as a “bag lady.” Or worst of all, the racist scene in Howard the Duck #20 that I can’t seem to avoid coming back to, where locals cheer the massacre of black folks who hangout in front of their building.
Howard is both a part of and at odds with what can only be described as (given how it is presented in the comic books themselves) a lower social order. He finds himself in greasy spoons and all-night donut shops. He rides cross-country buses with the other poor who can’t afford to fly. If I were creating a Howard the Duck TV show I’d maybe even use 1979’s “Street Life” by The Crusaders (featuring Randy Crawford) as its theme song.
3. Marie: Speaking of being both of something and at odds with it, the drunk that Howard encounters wandering the streets of New York at night mistakes the duck for someone named Marie (or as he says it, “Muh-Rhee”), begging her not to leave him. I have no idea if the choice of name has intentional origins, but, I of course, thought of Mary Skrenes, Gerber’s Omega the Unknown co-writer, inspiration for Bev, and sometimes girlfriend. If so, Gerber seems to be putting himself in the place of that pathetic moaning drunk. Howard leaves the unnamed drunk to wallow in pain, feeling some sympathy for him, but the duck also thinks to himself that his own anguish (that which drove him to wander New York in the night in the first place) has not yet subsided. Whether “Marie” is meant to be a (very thinly veiled reference) to Skrenes or not, that moment of empathy and turn towards his own feelings resonates with a recurring motif in the comic book series: Howard’s insecurity and its role in the ambiguity of his relationship with Bev.
4. Cyclical Trauma: As I mentioned above Howard the Duck #24 serves mostly as a transitional filler issue between arcs, and as such, it spends a good amount of its time summarizing past events and catching the reader up. Having recently arrived back in New York City to take up residence in Bev’s uncle’s place after the universe-saving events of Howard the Duck #22 and #23, Howard hopes to get some rest but his mind won’t let him do that. Instead, restless and anxious, what little sleep he gets is beset with dreams of his antagonists like the Kidney Lady, Dr. Bong, and the latter’s animal-hybrid abominations that only say “Neez!” There is also a moment when that disembodied voice and its string of non-sequiturs that we saw back in issues #11 and #12 returns to let regular readers know that the duck’s mental state is shaky. When watching some late-night TV doesn’t work to soothe his nerves, he goes for the walk that takes up most of this issue.
While on his walk, Howard questions himself as to the source of his anxiety, but it seems strange that he’d be confused as to why he feels as unsettled as he does. It leads me to think we are meant to read a sarcastic tone in his reflections, since given all the things he lists (conveniently providing a summary for readers) are clearly traumatic, beginning with being trapped in a world of “hairless apes” to begin with! But his adventures—his time in racist caricature of the Middle East, Bagmom (in Howard the Duck Annual #1, which I never covered here), his capture by Dr. Bong, Bev agreeing to marry the villain to save Howard’s life, being turned human, traveling the cosmos—all run counter to his claim upon review: “Nope! Nothin’ anxiety provoking there! Pure everyman stuff…” Disconnected from actual events, Howard feels like his only recourse in alleviating his anguish is “to walk it off,” but the walk itself is a recapitulation of Howard’s most common type of adventures (as this very post argues).
Rather than help him get his mind off what has happened to him (and what is still happening), the walk reinforces how inescapable those stressors really are. Issue #24 is a summary of trauma, both in terms of what is on Howard’s mind, and reflected in the picaresque events that fill the comic book itself. The fact that Howard does not make this connection but continues to struggle to know what it all means, even as he entertains the idea that it is all meaningless, is the mechanism by which this awful stuff can keep happening to him and he can remain kind of awful himself. He is trapped in a toxic pattern in which he has become complicit.
5. The Gregarious Misanthrope: Howard the Duck #24 opens with his space-faring companions dropping him off on the roof of Lee Switzler’s building. While Jennifer and Korrek are saying their earnest goodbyes to their irascible feathered-friend (Man-Thing just stands there), Howard can’t wait to get away from them and back to “normal.” When Jennifer bids him adieu with “Take care of yourself,” Howard replies “with you three out of my life it ought ta be a cinch.” Howard always claims to prefer to be left alone. And yet, despite his protests, Howard feels an immediate “emptiness” that gives way to the anxiety described above.
While he claims to have “never had much use for anybody…except maybe Bev…maybe…,” he also expresses an anxiousness to see Paul and Winda again. This contradiction in Howard is one that gives his character some shape and complexity, as he seems to hate everyone, but his comic is mostly about him going from place to place and meeting new people and— against his better judgment—sometimes trying to help them. He may claim that “heroism is against [his] religion” but he also checks on the drunk he finds passed out on the street and later rushes to help a woman at a bus stop he thinks is being attacked.
Of course, each one of these encounters gives him reason to think his general negative feelings about people are accurate, but he always reaches out to them in some way anyway—like trying to help Paul Same when he was transformed into Winky-Man or fighting to avenge the kid killed by Macho in Howard the Duck #3.
6. He Met a Meta-Bag Lady: Soon after his meeting with the drunk, Howard runs into a bag lady (literally), knocking her over and sending her bags flying as he turns a corner lost in deep reverie regarding his unsubsiding anguish. The woman is understandably upset, but she is also written in the typical extreme and aggressive way Gerber depicts street people in this series. She compares Howard to her son, Eben, who apparently has a violent streak. She complains that her son always apologizes — like the duck tries to do — so she is not having it. Instead, she spits on Howard, saying “Here’s to your remorse, lowlife!”
It is an interesting encounter in relation to the way this single comic reflects and refracts the series as a whole. First of all, her gender, condition, and aggression related to a past relation all recall Kidney Lady, as does her apparent loose grip on reality, reinforcing the mental health concerns that often go along with chronic homelessness. Her dress (in a cap, scarf, and long flowing coat), however, echoes the Winky-Man’s get-up from way back in Howard the Duck #4 (even if hers are winter clothes, not pyjamas). Secondly, her rejection of his remorse seems to resonate with Howard’s constant bad humor and lashing out at the people around him. She may have just met Howard, but he has a lot to apologize for, even as he keeps acting like a narcissistic curmudgeon who both feels sorry for himself and superior to everyone else.
Howard calls her “another forgettable incident,” a kind of wink at the fact that he is always meeting strange characters who find reasons to not like him, but she suggests otherwise. Claiming that she used to teach English Literature, she says she knows better, and that she is “symbolically significant to [Howard’s] story [and] integral to [its] thematic structure.” Howard, of course, refuses to believe her or help her with her bags (getting spit on will do that), but she’s right, she is thematically significant, a common figure in Howard’s story—the vulnerable person transformed by the narrative into an antagonist.
7. Let’s Talk About Sex: Howard the Duck has had some weird sex stuff going on — or at least suggested — since nearly the very beginning of the series. And if you count Bev being kidnapped and put in a chainmail bikini in the first issue as a sex thing — and why wouldn’t you? — then indeed, from the very first issue. Howard the Duck #24 does not ignore that in its recapitulation of the common themes and occurrences of the series. After running into the bag-lady, Howard hears a payphone ringing, and despite his claims not to care about others and objections to being constantly roped into shenanigans, he answers it. It is an obscene phone call (apparently being made by a woman, which seems in line with Gerber’s frequent weak attempts at comic reversal). It feels like a pointless gag to fill up about six panels.
This is followed up by the woman Howard spots alone at the bus stop. He walks by her without a second thought but when he hears a scream he runs back thinking, “Should’a realized she’d be a beacon in the night for every–” I am not sure what synonym for creep would have ended his thought because it is interrupted by the sight of the creepster crumpled on the floor. He was the one who screamed. The woman is upset, not because she was attacked, but because the “attacker” was her husband failing to fulfill her fantasy of being subdued and carried back bodily to their apartment. She explains that they’ve tried this every night for two weeks, but every time she resists to heighten the excitement, she ends up clobbering him because he won’t fight back, leaving him a beaten pulp on the sidewalk. The woman — looking a little like Rhoda-era Valerie Harper with headwrap — even invites Howard to take her husband’s place. It turns out that her fetish does not include actual sex but forcing her to dance a fandango. Howard refuses, continuing to wander off to contemplate the meaning of his life and thus of this comic.
This couple’s predilections and the pairing of an overbearing/powerful woman with a weak-willed sensitive man is something we’ve seen in Howard the Duck many times. It does not exactly reflect Howard and Bev (though Howard’s jealousy and insecurity regarding Bev does sometimes echo these other examples), but Amy and Elton from issue #19 definitely fit those roles.
The most interesting sex-related moment in the comic, however, comes earlier when Howard is turning on the TV to get his mind off his feeling of emptiness before giving up and going on his walk. He says to himself, “A long loving look at Marlene Dietrich’s legs…that’d be stimulating…! Funny, how I’ve developed a working aesthetic for the hairless ape anatomy…” This is the first time Howard has explicitly expressed such an attraction and serves as more evidence that Howard and Bev have (or rather at this point, since she is married to Dr. Bong, had) a romantic and maybe even sexual thing going on (see also sharing a bed in issue #2, Howard’s jealousy regarding Bev in issues #11 and #15).
8. Everyday I’m Hustlin’: There are a few interesting letters to talk about on the “Wise Quacks” letters page of Howard the Duck #24, but one of them stood out to me especially. Craig Miller writes in from Arlington, Texas (having recently moved from Ohio) to inform Gerber and the gang that his letter praising the Howard the Duck newspaper strip was printed in the Dayton Daily News. The original printed letter (which he includes) was in response to someone slagging the strip in a previous letter to the paper. Miller explains in his letter within a letter that Howard is “an Everyman” and that to judge Howard the Duck from a single strip would be like trying to write an “adequate review” of Moby Dick based on “several pages ripped from [it].” Miller excitedly adds that when the paper printed the letter, they used “HOWARD THE DUCK, LIKE MOBY DICK, IS LITERATURE” as a header for it. He ends his letter to “Wise Quacks” by urging other readers to call or write to their local newspapers to request they carry the Howard the Duck strip.
Gerber’s response to this enthusiastic fan’s explicit promotion of the strip is what youtubers would label a “call to action,” repeating what Miller said as to reinforce it: if you want to see this strip in your local paper, you need to actively work to make that happen. The letters page ends with yet another repetition of the request. This repetition struck me as not only yet another recapitulation of elements of the series, since “Howard for President” buttons and other Howard merchandise has been a long side hustle for Gerber and Mad Genius Associates but reminiscent of the kind of thing I see on social media frequently these days, comic book artists and writers having to promote both their own side projects and their Big Two work all the damn time if they want to be able to make ends meet. Twitter is a sea of comics professionals reminding people to pre-order comics. Freelance life sucks, but then again so does a 9-to-5. We’re just trapped in a world we never made.
This wasn’t the first mention of the comic strip, by the way, it has been mentioned by Gerber on the letters page for the last few issues. It would not last long, however — only from June 6, 1977 to October 29, 1978 — and eventually Gerber would be fired off the strip for missing too many deadlines. You can learn more about the strip as it appeared in one paper — the Edmonton Sun — in this video.
9. The Art: There are some fine examples of art in this issue. Val Mayerik did a fine job returning to his co-creation in the two previous issues, but Gene Colan is a big part of why I stick with this project. There are a couple of just gorgeous and/or otherwise arresting single panels, as when Howard first trips over the lovelorn drunk or later drinking a cup of coffee in a donut shop and sarcastically responding to the donut man. The single panels that focus on Howard’s expression are always among the best in the series. It is impressive how much confusion, pity, and consternation artists are able to pack into the duck’s bill and those eyes.
In the encounter with the drunk, Howard decides the best way to scare off the approaching ruffians is to burn the poor delirious man with his cigar. The man screams bloody murder and the toughs take off. The way the cause (cigar against hand) and effect (the scream) are inset in two panels in a larger backwards L-shaped panel depicting the fleeing would-be muggers works really well.
10. Bring It On Home (Again): “Wise Quacks” also includes a letter from Steven Allen Bennet of Akron, Ohio (I guess they really love Howard the Duck in the Buckeye state). In it, he writes that while he enjoys the changing directions of the comic with each year, he also wants the Dr. Bong and Bev situation resolved, and to find out what happened to Paul and Winda. As Gerber explains in his response, Howard the Duck #24 ends with Howard arriving at the docks at dawn to greet Paul and Winda on the arriving S.S. Damned.
If it feels like a long time since we’ve seen Paul and Winda, that’s because it has been — not since Howard the Duck #15 when Howard and Bev were kidnapped by Dr. Bong on the way back from Bagmom and the Orientalist fantasy that was Howard the Duck Annual #1. Howard the Duck #15 came out in April of 1977, nearly 10 months before this issue did. Gerber’s response goes on to promise a view of Bong and Bev’s marital life in the next issue, so maybe we can get those things resolved. And yet, while the individual issues and individual elements of those issues have been hit or miss (with more miss than hit), looking back on them as a run since the “Dreaded Deadline of Doom” issue, the pacing of the book has been pretty good. If anything, the Dr. Bong vs. Howard the Duck stuff felt a little too stretched out, and a break between their last encounter and their next gives a needed breather. It is not a good look on Howard’s part, however, to seem to hold a grudge against Bev for agreeing to marry Bong to save her duckie. Fragile masculinity is not sexy, Howard.
Sometimes it seems like Bev can do nothing right. It sucks that she has to sacrifice herself to a creepy stalker for the sake of a man (even if he is a duck, he’s still a man) and then to have that sacrifice denigrated as if she is some kind of disloyal slut. Maybe like the drunk and Marie, Gerber is writing a Howard who is trying to let her go and do her own thing, but that doesn’t work when that “own thing” is still for Howard’s sake and she is disparaged for it. I hope that when they are eventually reunited Bev reads Howard the riot act, but my guess is that never happens in this or subsequent runs, given their temporary reunion near the end of 2016’s Howard the Duck vol. 6, #8 and Bev’s accusation that he was too self-involved and never really paid enough attention to her.
Then again, maybe Gerber or some other writer did write the confrontation I’d like to see, and Zdarsky chose to ignore it for the sake of his own narrative needs. I guess I will find out eventually if I manage to make my way through Howard the Duck in its various iterations (I started collecting the short-lived black and white magazine and am thinking about moving on to it after I am done with the comic book’s first volume). After this issue, I am ready to dive back in…
Tallying the Bill
Ultimately, the breather between portions of the Dr. Bong plot is a welcome one for this reader (maybe readers following month-to-month back in the day didn’t feel that way). Furthermore, this felt like a perfect jumping on point for a new reader. I kind of love the thematic recapitulation, even if the individual elements being re-presented here are not all ones I tend to like about the series. If the goal of this single issue was to rope in new readers and re-energize returning ones, I think it did a pretty good job because I am looking forward to checking out the next arc even if we are only three issues away from Gerber’s departure from the book (three issues that might be the whole of the next instalment of WAUGH and On and On).
To read WAUGH and On and On from the beginning, click the link and head right back to the start!
Dr. Osvaldo Oyola is a public scholar, editor, and member of the International Comic Arts Forum executive board. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, INKS, the Journal of Comics and Culture, and Apex Magazine. He has a chapter in the recently released Unstable Masks: Whiteness and the American Superhero (Ohio State UP). Osvaldo posts his thoughts (and those of guest writers) on popular culture, race, and gender on The Middle Spaces, focusing on popular music and comic books. He is the first winner of the Gilbert Seldes Prize for Public Scholarship awarded by the Comics Studies Society, and currently lives in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife, two cats and a dog.