‘Howard The Duck #16:’ The Bond Between a Writer and His Creation
Whenever I ask myself, “why am I such a loon?” the answer stares back with horrid obviousness–Howard the Duck is one of my favorite comic book characters. Now, I can hear all of you asking, “what is wrong with you?” and “what the hell is interesting about Howard?” My response is, “you’re all too mainstream.” Howard and Steve have built a unique experience in comics, including satirical elements to parody storylines, creating something unique and different from the rest of the field. A giant saltshaker fought Howard once, his arch nemeses is Dr. Bong (no, he’s not a walking bong), who Howard fought with a knockoff Iron Man suit made from a fire hydrant, and most notably, Howard ran for President! However, if this doesn’t persuade you, maybe this will: Steve Gerber and Howard have the chemistry of a real-life SpongeBob writing a story about Patrick. The two are slightly more intelligent Beevus and Butthead, a wombo-combo as closely related as Mario and Luigi and that relationship is undeniable after issue sixteen which includes an essay written by Gerber after failing to meet his deadline.
Before diving into Howard the Duck #16, first, we need to cover some basic information about Steve Gerber. Gaining most of his success from his creation, Howard the Duck and work with Man-Thing, Steve Gerber worked brilliantly with these characters. Something about Gerber and these two characters brought out the best in the writer, but Howard was still leagues ahead of Man-Thing, though some of Gerber’s best work includes the Giant-Size Man-Thing series with Mike Ploog. Howard, however, seemed to be Gerber’s golden boy, his ride-or-die in the comic industry. Gerber built Howard from the ground up, using the character as a secondary character for his Man-Thing storylines before fighting to get Howard in a backup feature for issues four and five of Giant-Size Man-Thing. Then, the battle continued, and Gerber would partner with Frank Brunner and later Gene Colan in a combined twenty-seven issues in Howard’s self-titled series. That series would gather a cult following, leading fans to vote for Howard as a write-in during the 1976 Presidential Election.
And that’s how our duo closer than Bert and Ernie climbed the ranks together, but inconsistency plagued Gerber’s career. He failed to meet deadlines, choosing to write his scripts as the series continued from month-to-month instead of planning out issues months in advance like other writers. Sure, Gerber wasn’t the only writer to do this, but using a system that could be described as “freestyling” or “living in the moment” cost Gerber several issues with Marvel and DC. Much like Howard’s popularity, Gerber experienced an incredibly high ceiling during his career while also experiencing an unwelcoming low floor; there was one time Gerber avoided a reprint or being dropped from a series, however, and that’s what the rest of this article will cover!
At the start of the issue, the ominous Dr. Bong greets the reader. Then, he’s gone on the next page, and you’re looking at a two-page spread of Howard floating over a van motoring through a Western American highway. There’s a massive, yellow textbox taking up most of the page’s height on the left, a transparent one above it, and immediately you’re asking, “what the hell is this?!” That is when you, as the reader, learn that this isn’t a comic; it’s an essay and a confession. Naturally, the impulsive urge to put the comic down because you don’t want to read all that gibberish takes hold, but those who trudge through the text find something special.
After a chaotic few weeks, Gerber does his best to keep up with the looming deadlines while also struggling to keep up with the upcoming plans of his move from Hell’s Kitchen to California. For Howard the Duck #16, he misses the deadline, and instead of putting the issue on reprint, Gerber does what he can–he vents. Well, venting is an unfair and insulting label for something this unique and a writer who acknowledges that he’s struggling; Gerber is on the move and lost. Throughout the issue, Gerber commonly refers to how his job is on the line, he’s gone mad, and the fans will hate him. But guess who’s there to help him through it! That’s right, Howard!
“Y’know what, Gerbs? Deep down, I’ve always suspected you don’t know as much as yer stories would infer. You’ve learned how ta manipulate words an’ pictures to give a semblance of profundity, but it’s all superficial! Cosmetic Surgery performed on creaky old ideas an’ thoughts! Whaddaya say ta that?!”
“I would say that, uhm, on occasion, I’ve harbored similar suspicions, Howard.”Conversation between Howard and Gerber on page eleven of Howard the Duck #16
The little dialogue in the issue comes from conversations between Gerber and Howard. They talk about the screw-up, what it means to be a writer, and what the future holds. Oh wait, here comes the required action scene that all comics MUST have between an ostrich, a Las Vegas chorus girl, and a lampshade! Gerber is always finding a way to sneak some humor writing and satire in front of his audience, and regardless of the scene being mostly unwarranted, a two-page spread of these characters fighting is both hilarious and refreshing. It’s my second favorite spread in the comic, behind the image of Berber and Howard looking out into the Grand Canyon from a ridge.
Howards says, “Ya gotta be yourself without tryin’ like that river down there” on page seventeen of the issue after calling the Grand Canyon the “world’s largest rut.” He’s right, and throughout the comic, the reader shares this feeling of angst with a Gerber searching for something unknown to himself. The scene also shows how two people can have different perceptions of something, how the Grand Canyon be this mammoth, glamorous phenomenon, or a simple rut (it’s also symbolic of life). At times, Gerber has had stunning success, and his life has been phenomenal like a rockstar’s, and at others, it’s felt like he’s stuck and uncertain.
Then, during the conclusion of the issue, Howard takes the role of a teacher and reads a story about a struggling marriage, and Gerber gives a complex insight into what the story means as he sits at a desk as Howard’s student. Howard responds, “I’m suggesting that this clown doesn’t believe two hairless apes can inhibit the same clucking planet!” It shows, once again, that things aren’t always as complex as they seem. Sometimes, a story is a story, and a pen is just a pen, and in turning them into something they’re not, we make them more complex than they need to be. Anyway, I’m rambling like Gerber now, aren’t I? Let me explain what all this means.
The reason Howard the Duck #16 is so special is because it’s a rare glimpse at something a reader rarely gets to look at, the reader’s mind. Even though the issue lacks a coherent plot, Gerber wrote a beautifully intrusive comic covering the struggles and anxieties of a comic writer (and writers as a whole). Constant doubt is present in Gerber’s life; a feeling of being overwhelmed cripples him and pulls a feeling of anxiousness from the reader about their own future. Howard is simply a vessel of hope in this comic, a way out, and a close friend that Gerber can turn to, and he learns something vital. Keep it simple stupid–a story is just a story, and a pen is just a pen. Sometimes, taking one step at a time is all we can do, and Gerber throws his anxieties and struggles to the packs of savages that read his comics, praying that he still has a job in the morning. It was a gamble, but it was memorable since most writers would’ve accepted the loss and sent the issue to reprint. Instead, Gerber did what a writer does; he wrote something meaningful, impactful, and memorable.
Thank you, Steve Gerber
“Plants are like people. Writers are like plants. Therefore, and this may come as a surprise, writers are like people. Give them light, water, nourishment, a comfortable pot, and an encouraging word, and they’ll grow. Really. They’ll blossom. They’ll create things of beauty.“