Essential Howard the Duck

Nothing ages as fast as parody, but the societal satire on view in Essential Howard the Duck is still fresh and funny. This phonebook-sized book contains 28 issues plus additional appearance stories for a huge slab of wacky reading.

Steve Gerber’s duck, “trapped in a world he never made”, is the classic outsider character made literal with feathers and cigar. His backstory — brought to Earth by a megalomaniacal supervillain playing with alternate realities — is irrelevant once he’s here. Since he has no respect for the “hairless apes” he’s surrounded by, his perspective takes nothing for granted.

Essential Howard the Duck cover
Essential
Howard the Duck
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The prosaic setting of Cleveland gives the book a different feel from most 70s comics. Early on, Howard fights a magical talking frog that, after defeated, gets run over by a car. No vengeful vows to return here, and Howard winds up in jail for creating a disturbance instead of being feted as a hero. He goes on to battle such antagonists as a vampire cow, a mad cosmic accountant, the struggles of the aspiring artist, and the lengthy storyline against Dr. Bong, the scientist with a bell for a head.

Howard runs for President when he’s not taking on con artist salesmen, street people, or cult leaders, and he also wanders through parodies of the most common comic types of the day: sword-and-sorcery, superheroes, sci-fi space opera, kung fu comics, and conspiracy thrillers. He has a nervous breakdown, resulting in a surreal, psychological story.

Most of his adventures are drawn by either Frank Brunner or Gene Colan, no talent to sneeze at, and Spider-Man, the Defenders, the Son of Satan, and Kiss guest-star. Later on, Gerber provides the world’s weirdest fill-in issue, a series of illustrated essays. Most of the time, he takes common, everyday elements and sends them through the subconscious to come out larger than life.

Howard is everyman, someone who tries to do what’s right when everything’s arrayed against him and often as not, winds up unthanked and ignored. No matter what, he’ll never fit in. His struggles are still darn funny, though.


7 Responses to “Essential Howard the Duck”

  1. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Johanna, I really enjoyed reading these comics. I was upset that the book didn’t collect the entire original series.

  2. Ralf Haring Says:

    I picked this up when it came out and only got around to reading it a few months ago. I came to the opposite conclusion that it’s impact must have dulled with time. The genre-bending and zaniness that must have been unique and groundbreaking in the 70s is commonplace now. It’s been imitated so many times, that that element of work failed to interest me.

  3. Dan Says:

    See, I always thought of Howard the Duck as pure unadulterated social satire, and that never gets dated. Gerber’s book was always about waay more than simple “genre bending” or “zaniness”. I have both this essential volume (mostly because I was gonna review it)(thanks a lot Johanna:) as well as the original books, and one thing I did notice, the stories do not suffer one bit from not being in color. In fact, it almost works better in black & white.

    Nice review on this Johanna.

  4. Journalista » Blog Archive » Oct. 19, 2006: I’d pay to hear her say “pants,” too Says:

    [...] Johanna Draper Carlson takes a look at Marvel’s Essential Howard the Duck, Volume One. [...]

  5. Stuart Moore Says:

    Ralf: I consulted on this while at Marvel Knights, and I was the person who urged the tpb people to increase the page count, in order to reach the end of the original Steve Gerber run. (At the time, the ESSENTIAL volumes collected a pretty rigid 24 issues per book. They’ve gotten longer since then.)

    Steve did dialogue one later issue, over Mark Evanier’s plot; but this book collects all of the “real” Gerber issues.

  6. Stuart Moore Says:

    Oops — meant “Ed” there, not “Ralf”!

    –Stuart

  7. Charlie Hancock Says:

    Howard The Duck is my favoritest thing Marvel ever did. (Bendis’ “Alias” comes close.) Gene Colan was the ideal artist for the series. Having read it when originally published in the ’70s, and the recent Essential collection, it doesn’t feel dated at all.

    I agree that the stories not scripted by Steve Gerber don’t count as real Howard stories.

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