Howard the Duck, George Lucas' best movie about a talking duck, finally arrives on DVD.
Failure goes by many names. Waterloo. The Edsel. The '62 Mets. Joey. These disasters can fairly be called upon to convey calamity on a large scale. But some reputations for failure are undeserved. Here's one: Howard the Duck, a synonym for artistic and financial disaster since the premiere of a little-loved movie in late-summer 1986. Released with great fanfare and rejected emphatically by critics and audiences alike, Howard the Duck quickly became a favorite target of late-night comics (and even, in one episode, The Golden Girls). It wasn't available on DVD until last month.
Howard the Duck, the movie, is as bad as you've heard. Actually, it's worse. But its failings as a film have overshadowed the frequently brilliant 1970s comic book that inspired it. Using only the most superficial elements of its source material while discarding most of what made the comic interesting, the film serves as a textbook example of how to turn something into nothing.
Howard, the character, first appeared in a 1973 issue of Adventure Into Fear, dropping from another dimension into a story starring the swamp monster Man-Thing and the barbarian warrior Korrek, who emerged from a jar of peanut butter. Clearly, this wasn't the usual comic-book adventure. Nor was its writer the usual comic-book writer. A comics fan from an early age, Steve Gerber was of the generation of 1960s readers who haunted comic books' letters pages, offering colorfully phrased praise and criticism, and then took over the industry in the 1970s. At Marvel, Gerber earned a reputation for inventive characters, new takes on old standbys, and a streak of wicked, self-aware humor that owed as much to Robert Crumb and Mad as Stan Lee.
When Gerber died at the age of 60 last year, tributes—including Grady Hendrix's for Slate—stressed that his influence stretched beyond Howard the Duck. But there's a reason Howard was his most famous creation: He channeled Gerber's acidic humor, emphasizing satire and philosophical asides over slapstick. His hero may have been a visitor from another dimension, but Gerber didn't dwell on it, using him instead as an acerbic Everyman, always a bit appalled and disappointed by the world around him. He was a stand-in for a generation that grew up believing in '60s idealism only to see it turn into Me Decade self-absorption. Gerber counted existentialist icon Albert Camus among his heroes, and the comic's tagline—"Trapped in a world he never made!"—doubles as a sendup of Marvel's hyperbolic prose and a statement of philosophical purpose.
Howard was first drawn by Val Mayerick, then Frank Brunner and John Buscema. But it was Gene Colan's art that defined the title. Grounded in illustrative realism, Colan would seem to have no business working on a funny animal book, but the pairing proved inspired. Landing in Cleveland, Howard walked through an instantly recognizable 1970s America filled with urban grime, religious cults, moral crusaders, and spectacle-first politics. One of the comic's best jokes is also its subtlest: Each issue usually contained at least one panel of someone reacting in surprise at encountering a talking duck—followed by Howard's annoyance at their reaction. Yes, he was a duck, but that was beside the point. It was the world around him that was really weird.
Howard's duckdom asserted itself most often through his signature exclamation—"Wauaugh!"—part surprised squawk, part cri de coeur, and Gerber's stories always gave him plenty of reasons to squawk. Howard's companion in his adventures was Beverly Switzler, a sometime model who takes the duck into her home and heart. Gerber was coy about the exact nature of their relationship, but their squabbles and reconciliations have the lived-in feel of a volatile-but-viable love affair. The comic's early, best issues find the pair dealing with petty jealousies—and the occasional supervillain—while trying to scrape together an honest living in a dishonest world. (In one issue, Howard takes a job as a repo man for a rent-to-own business only to quit in disgust.)
Gerber didn't stick with the comic's initial setup for too long, sometimes to his creation's benefit, sometimes not. An extended road trip found Howard running for president—he didn't win—and Gerber engaging in storylines and formal experiments that varied from brilliant to bizarre to strained. Working, by his own admission, from no grand scheme, Gerber threw in hallucinations, dream sequences, pop-culture parodies, and whatever else he thought he could get away with. Once promoted to the title's editor, he got away with a lot. In "Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing," an issue easier to admire than enjoy, Gerber throws the plot out the window for an extended, self-reflective essay on his own craft that includes a fourth-wall-breaking conversation with Howard and an "obligatory fight scene" involving a lampshade, a showgirl, and an ostrich.
For such an eccentric creation, Howard found a surprisingly wide audience, earning a mention in a Pretenders song and a daily newspaper strip, an honor previously bestowed only on one other original Marvel creation, Spider-Man. Then, in 1978, Gerber left Marvel, after a conflict that began with corporate politics, editorial battles, and late payments for the newspaper strip and escalated into a full-blown legal fight for the rights to Howard the Duck. Marvel handed Howard over to other writers as Gerber waged a public battle for control, at one point even launching a thinly veiled allegory called Destroyer Duck with artist Jack Kirby, who was engaged in his own struggle with Marvel at the time. But by 1986, Gerber and Marvel had come to terms, a settlement kept private but apparently partly tied up with the development of a sure-to-be-blockbuster film produced by high-profile fan George Lucas.
The film hit screens with the credit "Based on the Marvel Comics character 'Howard the Duck' created by Steve Gerber," but as happy endings go, it's pretty miserable. Directed by Willard Hyuck and co-written by Hyuck and Gloria Katz, the writing team behind Lucas' classic American Graffiti, the film essentially takes a single joke—he's a duck!—and repeats it for nearly two hours to the accompaniment of explosions. Little of Howard's original personality remains, the depressive tendencies replaced by Catskills-quality wisecracks. In Katz's and Hyuck's hands, he's not a particularly endearing character, and he's an eyesore to boot.
Howard never looks like anything but a little person in an unconvincing Halloween costume, even when he's surrounded with some of the best special effects 1986 dollars could buy.
Yes, that is Tim Robbins. Howard is very much a Lucas production, and the sensibilities never mesh. An early scene of Howard working in a sleazy massage parlor maintains a bit of Gerber's humor and a later set piece that takes place in Joe Roma's Cajun Sushi is a positively Gerberian take on '80s culinary fads. But after a while, everything takes a backseat to indifferently staged action set pieces and a special-effects extravaganza in which a Lovecraft-ian beastie attempts to take over the world, with only a duck standing in its way. While a scantily clad Lea Thompson gives a game performance as Beverly—now a struggling member of an all-girl band—her flirtatious relationship with Howard feels creepy. It's one thing for a pen-and-ink woman to have a thing for a sentient duck, quite another when the woman doing the feather-stroking is made of flesh and blood.
The film hollows out Gerber's creation and uses what's left as a vessel for a tacky and trend-chasing would-be crowd-pleaser. In short, Katz and Hyuck didn't get it and still don't. "This is a movie about a duck from outer space," Katz says in a new interview on one of the DVD's bonus features. "It's not supposed to be an existential experience."
Except, of course, it was supposed to be exactly that. Comics writer Alan Moore, whose dislike for adaptations of his books has been widely documented, is fond of telling a story about Raymond Chandler. When asked if he worried about Hollywood ruining his books, Chandler replied, "They're not ruined. They're right there on the shelf." But if Gerber's story illustrates anything, it's that Hollywood casts a long and lasting shadow. What little mystique Howard the Duck has earned over the years can be traced to its unavailability. That mystique is likely to fade soon after viewers drink in the film's opening scene, which finds Howard lounging in his Duckworld apartment, reading a copy of Playduck beneath a poster for Splashdance. It's '80 blockbuster filmmaking at its most thoughtless, all laser beams and quips. Gerber's original, which has been collected and reprinted a couple of times (including last year in a handsome, if expensive, hardcover), remains as crankily original as ever. More people may know about Howard from his misadventure in filmmaking than his genre-busting adventures in the comics, but, thankfully, the latter are still right there on the shelf.
Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.