I was two years old when the George Lucas–produced Howard the Duck film was released, and by the time I became a comics reader nearly ten years later, it was largely forgotten except as a cautionary tale. Though I’d heard of the character from time to time, I don’t think I ever encountered him in comics form either until Marvel published the Essential Howard the Duck collection in 2002, at which point I was a freshman in college. It was also my first prolonged exposure to Howard’s cocreator Steve Gerber, and the collection made me an instant fan.
As I wrote when Gerber died, I was immediately struck by how angry the writing in Howard is, a quality I would later find in other Gerber-written comics I read on the strength of my love for Howard. It’s right there in the tagline, “Trapped in a world he never made”: life is unfair and so much of the world’s suffering—suffering being a theme Gerber returned to again and again, notably in his final work, Dr. Fate: Countdown to Mystery—is created by the callousness of forces beyond our control and people beyond accountability. A classic outsider, Howard has the insight to question elements of society that those who grew up within it take for granted and the lack of social graces to make those questions forceful. A classic outsider, much like Gerber himself in many ways.
Over the years I’d go on to read a lot more of Gerber’s work and learn more about his history with Marvel Comics, including his lengthy and hard-fought series of legal actions over Howard’s ownership and the suits filed against Marvel by Disney over an allegedly infringing similarity to Donald Duck. While Robert Stanley Martin assembled a very compelling case earlier this year that Gerber repeatedly affirmed his understanding that Howard was created in a work-for-hire environment and was unambiguously owned by Marvel (going so far as to promise never to sue over ownership), the case was still valuable in shedding light on how work-for-hire has been and is interpreted by the major publishers and the courts, and in spurring debate over the difference between a character’s legal ownership and its connection to its creator, who I believe can and should be said to “own” the character in a sense. That ownership is more meaningful to me than instruments like trademarks and copyrights, but as Gerber’s situation shows, the two can come into conflict, and the company’s rights to the character easily trump what since 1928 have been known as “moral rights.” (Correction: Disney’s actions regarding the Howard/Donald situation did not actually include a lawsuit. See Martin’s comment below for a better explanation.)
After all, the circumstances that led Gerber to attempt to claim ownership over Howard appear to have less to do with his ability to profit from Howard—he already licensed the character from Marvel for posters and buttons, which reportedly sold in great quantities—than with disagreements with Marvel stemming from his firing from the Howard comic book and strip, and Marvel’s acquiescence to Disney, in a settlement over the Donald Duck lawsuit, which allowed Disney to redesign Howard and enforce that design on Marvel and Gerber. (The Disney suit appears to have had more to do with overseas confusion in translation than concerns that Howard represented any threat to the Disney brand domestically, and the enforcement of the redesign, which mostly involved the shape of Howard’s head and a mandate that he wear pants, was lax to begin with, and abandoned after the failure of the Howard movie, until the last decade.)
Gerber’s attempts to win ownership of Howard has always seemed to me (and in case it’s not already clear, this essay is entirely my point of view not an objective declaration of how things are) something Gerber had to do because Howard meant so much to him personally. Gerber’s situation was not like the one faced by Jack Kirby, who had cocreated the bulk of the Marvel universe in a time of vaguer contracts and was repeatedly promised more than he received. Gerber appears to have completely understood the legal side of Howard’s ownership when creating the character, but the degree to which legal ownership allows businessmen with no investment in the character itself, only its earning potential, more say than the creator to whom that character is incredibly personal seems to be a grievance that built up over time, until he felt he had to take action. The case was ultimately settled out of court and nondisclosure agreements have kept the exact terms of the settlement private.
In the years since, Gerber has written the character a few more times, most memorably in an in-story smash-and-grab of the character in a crossover with the Savage Dragon and Destroyer Duck (a character Gerber cocreated with Kirby to fund Gerber’s suit against Marvel) and later a mature-readers miniseries from Marvel’s MAX imprint, in which the Disney redesign was obviated by Howard’s transformation into a mouse, surely a move aimed at tweaking Disney, if the company still cared at that point. Howard has shown up in occasional miniseries by other writers, none of which I’ve read, with the exception of Fred Van Lente’s Marvel Zombies 5, which includes Howard as part of an ensemble. I’ve never had much interest in Howard not written by Gerber.
Gerber died in 2008, and in 2009 Disney acquired Marvel, placing ownership of Howard with the company that once claimed he infringed on its trademarks. This year Howard appeared in an after-the-credits sequence of Disney/Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know anything about the Howard part beyond the still frame below, but there he is, wearing pants, owned by the second largest media company in the world. Looking at that frame makes me feel, in the kind of reductionism comics readers like me sometimes fall prey to, like the bad guys have won.
People remember Howard exists now, so naturally a new comics series has been announced. I like the work of both its writer and artist, and I wish them well with this series and their future endeavors, but I can’t feel anything but disappointment at this announcement. I don’t begrudge any writer or artist taking on a gig like this—for all I know they are huge fans of Gerber and Howard and intend to create this comic in his spirit—but I am saddened that the series will be published at all. There is already evidence that Marvel misunderstands Howard and Howard‘s value: in explaining who Howard is for readers unfamiliar with past stories, the word “everyman” has been thrown around. That’s incorrect. As mentioned up top, Howard isn’t an everyman; he’s an outsider. And more to point, in many ways he is Steve Gerber. Howard’s worldview, his anger, and his bouts of depression are Gerber’s. The series is full of things that interested and angered Gerber personally. Over the years, this has been remembered as general social satire, but it was explicitly satire from Gerber’s point of view.
It’s not that no one else can write angry, outsider work or skewer social mores that offend them personally, it’s that Howard is an alter ego of his creator, and the idea of someone other than the person to whom a character is an alter ego writing that character is uninteresting to me. I wouldn’t be able to care about someone other than John Updike writing Henry Bech, someone other than Kurt Vonnegut writing Kilgore Trout, someone other than Hunter S. Thompson writing Raoul Duke, or for that matter someone other than Woody Allen directing a film about Alvy Singer or someone other than Francois Truffaut directing a film about Antoine Doinel. And so on. I feel the same way about Steve Gerber and Howard the Duck. I’m confident that other creative teams, including probably this one, can create funny, clever Howard the Duck stories, but I read Howard the Duck for its look into Steve Gerber, and no one but Steve Gerber can provide that.
P. S. Earlier this year I sold my Essential Howard the Duck reprint and started assembling a collection of the original comics. It’s been a brand-new experience reading them in their original colors and with the letters columns and ads for the Howard for President buttons and so forth, and simply a pleasure rediscovering the work itself, which I hadn’t read for a few years. When Guardians of the Galaxy was released and word of the Howard cameo came out, I was worried this would boost the prices I was paying for the old comics, but that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. The series is available digitally, and Marvel is reissuing the Howard the Duck Omnibus, so hopefully the newly curious will be able to find out how great the original material is without making my efforts too much more expensive. (I’ve put together about half the series so far, with the Howard the Duck Treasury Edition standing in for the severely underprinted #1, and including issue #13, which costs more than the rest for the irrelevant-to-me reason that it is KISS’s first full appearance in a comic.)