‘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. I can hear all of you asking, “what is wrong with you?” and “what the hell is interesting about Howard?”

My response is, “Howard is a hidden gem.” Howard and Steve Gerber have built a unique experience in comics, including satire and parody in what becomes a unique experience within Marvel Comics. 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 a slightly more intelligent Beevus and Butthead, a wombo-combo as closely related as Mario and Luigi, and that relationship is undeniable after issue sixteen in Gerber’s run, 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 Howard the Duck and work with Man-Thing. These two characters brought out the best in Gerber, but his best work was with the self-created Howard, though some of Gerber’s best work includes his Giant-Size Man-Thing and Man-Thing runs with Mike Ploog. Howard, however, will forever be Gerber’s golden boy, his ride-or-die in the comic industry. Gerber built Howard from the ground up, using Howard as a secondary character for a Man-Thing feature in Adventure into Fear #19, then fought to get Howard in a backup feature for issues four and five of Giant-Size Man-Thing. The battle continued, and Gerber partnered with Frank Brunner, and later Gene Colan, for a combined twenty-seven issues in Howard’s self-titled series. That series would gather a cult following, and fans voted 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 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 “improv” 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 a horridly low floor. There was one time Gerber weaseled out of a reprint or being dropped from a series, however, and that’s what the rest of this article will cover!

At the start of Howard The Duck #16, the ominous Dr. Bong greets the reader and telling them he’ll be back next month. Then, he’s gone, 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 left side, and immediately you’re asking, “what the hell is this?!”

That is when you learn this isn’t a comic; it’s an essay and a confession. Naturally, you feel an urge to put the comic down because you don’t want to read all this gibberish, but those who trudge through the text find something special.

After a few chaotic weeks, Gerber does his best to keep up with looming deadlines while moving from Hell’s Kitchen to California. He’s about to miss the deadline for Howard the Duck #16, and instead of putting the last 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. Throughout the issue, Gerber commonly refers to how his job is on the line, he’s gone mad, and believes that 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 missed deadline, 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 humor writing and satire in front of his audience, and regardless of the scene being 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 Gerber and Howard looking out into the Grand Canyon.

Howards says, “Ya gotta be yourself without tryin’ like that river down there” on page seventeen of the issue. He also refers to the Grand Canyon as the “world’s largest rut.” Howard’s right, and throughout the comic, the reader shares this feeling of angst with Gerber, who’s searching for something he can’t quite define. The scene also shows how two people can have different perceptions of something, how the Grand Canyon is this mammoth, glamorous phenomenon, or a simple rut. 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!”

Once again, Howard takes something at face value. Sometimes, a story is just 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 writer’s mind. Even though the issue lacks a coherent plot, Gerber wrote a beautifully intrusive essay covering the struggles and anxieties of a comic writer. Constant doubt is present in Gerber’s writing; 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 last 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.

Steve Gerber

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *