Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Howard the Duck Annual #1

Howard the Duck Annual #1, 1977, Marvel Comics
writer: Steve Gerber
artist: Val Mayerik
letterer: Joe Rosen
colorist: Jan Cohen

Blogger’s note: Entry for Saturday, February 16, 2008.

I wasn't an avid follower of Steve Gerber's work, but I mourn any time a comic book creator passes away, particularly when his name surpasses the very breadth of his work. Steve Gerber either created or contributed to some of the most quirky characters in comics, stretching the bounds of the medium to its next natural level and championing creators' rights all at the same time. His recent death has inspired pages of fond remembrance on-line, including Steven Grant's personal essay on Comic Book Resources. The easiest contribution this little blog can make is a look back at one of his comics, starring the character that, as Grant describes, "made and broke Steve Gerber," Howard the Duck.

(Howard the Duck Annual #1 isn't A Comic A Day's first look at the foul-mouthed fowl, inadvertently contributing to my upcoming series of "second impression" reviews. I wish the timing wasn't so unfortunate.)

In the beginning of Howard the Duck Annual #1, Howard suffers from cabin fever, but by this issue’s end, he and his friends are nearly stranded in the Middle East, fighting a prince consumed with the ways of the West and willing to sell out his land’s legacy for oil and profit. An interesting leap, eh? If only the means to this end weren’t as peculiar to explain! See, when Howard’s friends try to cheer him up with some fresh décor, their new carpet flies Winda and Beverly to Bagmom (a nation more mired in Oedipal lust than Baghdad, I presume), where they unwillingly join the king’s harem. Howard and Paul follow when they best a pair of Bagmomian (?) soldiers and use their lamp to wish transport. There, the fearless fowl learns of the prince’s seedy dealings with Roxxon, infiltrates the castle as an offering, and thwarts the evil heir’s plan to enslave his people and mine his land’s oil. This global adventure is a frivolous romp with subtle political implications.

Howard the Duck Annual #1 celebrates the five-year reunion of the character’s original creative team, and Gerber and Mayerik’s collaboration shines as the only way an oddball like Howard can materialize on the printed page. Howard is obviously a humorous hero, but what kind of humor is difficult to describe. Since Gerber infuses his work with political undertones, and Mayerik’s artwork occasionally resembles a daily political cartoon, a comparison with another billed comic bird, Doonesbury. Fortunately, Howard’s adventures lack Doonesbury’s biting reverence and boast a fair share of cartoonish pratfalls, sometimes fueled by Howard’s own anger or frustration, not unlike Donald Duck dealing with his three nephews. So, am I claiming that Gerber created the perfect Doonesbury-meets-Donald formula? Eh, I’d be more inclined to insist that Howard’s adventures add a relevance to those other feathered icons, accomplishing in one character what it took at least two to accomplish in the budding sociopolitical landscape of pop culture illustration and animation.

That’s the thing about Steve Gerber’s work. I’ve read some Howard the Duck and some original Omega the Unknown, and while each title betrays an apparent love for campy dialogue and outrageous circumstance, they also inspire the feeling that one should read those mere comic books as more than they really are, as if Gerber is trying to tell us something between the lines -- something important, something global. Perhaps we shouldn’t ignore the fact that most of Gerber’s most memorable works also boast the theme of inherent alienation, from monsters like Man-Thing, to aliens like Omega, to . . . well, ducks like Howard. Was Gerber trying to tell us something about himself? Surely, in the comics industry, he was never alone, evidenced by the many admirers that have spoken up about him since his passing. Further, thanks to his expansive body of work, novice fans like me can look forward to reading plenty more Steve Gerber in the future.

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