The History of Howard the Duck: Part Oneby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
When the movie Guardians of the Galaxy was released in August 2014, I was in the audience with my brother. When the post-credits tag came up with a brief encounter featuring the character Howard the Duck, I broke out into loud laughter, like several others in the audience.
Afterward, I looked at my brother, who was never a comic book fan, and I could see he was totally clueless why such an appearance evoked such hearty laughter.
I tried to explain to him that it was a huge joke. Not only was Howard an obscure Marvel comic book cult character, but it was also a commentary on the George Lucas franchise now owned by Disney since Lucas made a still notoriously horrible movie of the character. It was also a commentary on Disney itself who, in the 1970s, threatened legal action because the character resembled Donald Duck too closely and insisted the character always wear pants from that moment on to help distinguish between the ducks.
My brother’s expression did not change. I was reminded of the old adage that if you have to explain a joke, it is not funny.
Marvel comic book characters are now considered part of the Disney family and, as a Disney fan, I guess I will have to become as familiar with them (and all the Star Wars characters) as I am with the Seven Dwarfs.
Fortunately, I grew up being a huge comic book collector and wrote articles and continuing columns about comic books for a variety of magazines and fanzines. I even grew up when the original Howard the Duck comic books were published and experienced first hand the surrounding mania for the character.
However, for those Disney fans who, like my brother, are still a little puzzled over the excitement about Howard the Duck popping up in a cameo, I have put together a two-part column that covers the history of Howard in the comic books, the behind-the-scenes story of the infamous movie, the Disney involvement in redesigning the comic book character, and the story behind Howard’s last minute appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy.
So here is a brief guide to understanding who Howard the Duck is—and was—as well as some surprising connections to the worlds of Disney before Disney purchased Marvel comics and their characters.
Howard the Duck: The Comic Book
Advertising copywriter Steve Gerber was hired at Marvel Comics in 1972. One of the comic books he was assigned to write was “Adventure Into Fear” that featured a swamp creature called Man-Thing.
As a young writer, Gerber tried to set his character apart from other comic book muck monsters by having Man-Thing roam in a section of the Florida Everglades possessed by mystical properties that connected it to other realities.
This is an unintended Disney connection, since the Everglades begin in the Orlando area with the Kissimmee River near where Walt Disney World (WDW) opened in 1971. So Howard the Duck’s first appearance on Earth was near WDW.
In “Adventure Into Fear” No. 19 (December 1973), an extra-dimensional demon named Thog, trying to unite all the realities, creates a cosmic imbalance that inadvertently pulled some characters from these different realms to the swamp.
One of the characters was a barbarian named Korrek who appeared out of a jar of peanut butter with the kitchen knife transforming into his war sword.
As a joke, to try to top that sight gag, Gerber told artist Val Mayerik to have an anthropomorphic duck in the tradition of comic book funny animals come waddling out of the bushes later in the story.
Gerber insisted in later years that he told the artist to not make the character look too much like Donald Duck and not to have the character wear a sailor suit.
Mayerik came up with the business jacket, tie, hat and cigar. Gerber supplied the character with a rough Brooklynese type sarcastic attitude.
Finding yourself in a world of hairless talking apes…now THAT’S absurdity,” stated Howard the Duck as he waddled onto the scene.
Marvel Comics editor Roy Thomas did not care for the funny animal character appearing in a serious comic book with human characters, and told Gerber to get rid of Howard from the storyline as quickly as possible.
Man-Thing was given his own comic book series the following month in January 1974 that continued the story. Gerber had Howard, on his quest to return home, slip off a floating stepping stone bridge high in the sky into an inter-dimensional void supposedly never to be seen again.
However, comic book readers had taken a fancy to the character and, at comic book conventions and in letters to the publisher, fans were insisting on the unusual character returning. That request did not abate over time but kept growing.
Gerber and a new artist, Frank Brunner, reintroduced the Howard the Duck character in his own backup feature in the comic book “Giant Size Man-Thing” No. 4 (May 1975).
Howard tumbles out of the void to find himself in modern day Cleveland, Ohio. While trying to adjust to the strange different culture, he confronts Garko the Man Frog and, in the next issue, Bessie the Vampiric Hellcow.
The popularity of those two stories resulted in Howard getting his own comic book series beginning with issue No. 1 released in October 1975. Despite giving the character his own comic book, Marvel did not have much faith in this fan favorite and only printed 275,000 copies (the minimum print run allowed for a regular color comic book at the time).
Many of those issues never made it into the hands of fans. Comic book speculators followed distributor trucks and grabbed up hundreds of copies of the issue moments after they were delivered to newsstands in hopes of selling the comic at inflated prices. Within days, the $0.25 cent comic book was being sold for $12 dollars, or more, if a fan could find a copy.
The issue introduced the character of Beverly Switzler, who worked as a nude model for life-drawing classes. After being rescued by Howard from a madman, she takes in the homeless duck. They become close friends and eventually lovers.
In the subsequent issues, Gerber wrote more and more ludicrous characters and absurd situations in order to offer satirical commentary. "Trapped in a world he never made,” Howard was like anyone else who had to do what they had to do to just survive another day despite the stupidities of the world.
Comic book fans found the book to be an existential experience dealing with the confusion and disorientation of an absurd world. Gerber stated, “Life’s most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view.”
Gerber told Mediascene magazine in 1977 that he felt that Howard was a flesh and blood duck and that, "if Wile E. Coyote gets run over by a steamroller, the result is a pancake-flat coyote who can be expected to snap back to three dimensions within moments; if Howard gets run over by a steamroller, the result is blood on asphalt."
Gerber wrote the first 27 issues of the series. Gene Colan took over as the primary artist in issue No. 4. There was a short-lived Howard the Duck syndicated comic newspaper strip from 1977 to 1978 that debuted in nearly 100 newspapers.
Under Gerber’s guidance, the character developed a substantial cult following.
Howard even campaigned for the office of president of the United States in 1976 under the auspices of the All-Night Party (an event later immortalized in a brief reference in Stephen King's novel The Tommyknockers). The character received some votes in the actual election.
Howard also popped up in the fiction of writer Phillip K. Dick and was referenced in an early Pretenders song (“Now Howard The Duck and Mr. Stress both stayed, trapped in a world that they never made”).
Gerber was often interviewed by the mainstream media, including Playboy, Washington Post, Circus magazine, and others, about the character who was perceived as cool, intellectual, caustic, and subversive.
A 1978 clash between Gerber and Marvel resulted in his being removed from writing the character. Gerber maintained that he had certain rights and ownership of the character he had created, while Marvel maintained that it was done under a work-for-hire contract and belonged to the company.
It is regarded as one of the first highly publicized creator’s rights cases in American comics. Gerber’s plight attracted the support from major figures in the industry and dragged on for years with no lack of vitrol from either side.
"It took years of my life and $140,000 to pursue," Gerber told Los Angeles' KPFK 90.7 FM radio station, explaining his eventual settlement with Marvel in 1985.
The terms were considered confidential and were sealed so Gerber never revealed specifics, although Gerber paid legal bills for the rest of his life until he died in 2008.
"I had to decide that a truly equitable settlement, which I felt this was, was the way to end the dispute," said Gerber in the interview. "Marvel owns Howard the Duck, and Marvel has creative control over him.”
During the lengthy legal wrangling, other writers took over the character, including Bill Mantlo (co-creator of Rocket Raccoon in 1976), who introduced the now accepted concept that Howard came from Duckworld, a parallel world that evolved from ducks rather than apes but was superficially similar to the real earth but with avian-inspired words and puns.
Over the decades, Marvel Comics has tried to revive the character, including using him in videogames and other comic book series, but primarily considers the character a phenomenon of the 1970s that might not appeal to today’s audiences. Although after the positive reaction of the cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel has launched a new series of comic books by Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones featuring the character as a private investigator in New York.
Unfortunately, the continuing legal battles during the peak of Howard’s popularity prevented several projects from being done, including an animated television series that was being prepared in the early 1980s by Marvel Productions (the Los Angeles area animation studio arm of Marvel comics) that had prepared story and art materials.
Howard the Duck: The George Lucas Movie
What was legendary filmmaker George Lucas thinking when he decided to make the film Howard the Duck (1986)? That is the question that is still asked today.
The movie is universally considered one of the very worst films ever made, winning four Razzies (the award given for worst achievements in filmmaking), including worst picture of the year.
It was also the very first theatrical movie (as opposed to television movies) based on a Marvel comic book (at least since the 1944 Captain America serial).
A decade prior to Howard the Duck, Lucas had teamed up with a husband-and-wife screenwriting team (Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck) to make his first commercially successful feature film, American Grafitti (1973).
George Lucas was also spending a lot of time, starting in 1970, visiting the Supersnipe Comic Book Euphorium in New York owned by Ed Summer. In 1974, thanks to an influx of money from the film, Lucas became co-owner with Summer of Supersnipe Comic Art Gallery, an adjunct to the original business.
Lucas was immensely involved with the world of comic books when Howard the Duck was starting. Reportedly, he thought Howard was very funny and especially enjoyed the absurd nature of the series. He even discussed this with Huyck and Katz.
In fact, he tried to interest a movie studio in producing a film based on the character with no success. Fortunately, he felt stronger about pushing a personal project of his own called Star Wars (1977) that became the highest-grossing film of all time when it was released.
He followed this success with two Star Wars sequels and two films about Indiana Jones. That second film,Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), was also written by Huyck and Katz. While the film received mixed reviews, it was the 10th-highest grossing film of all time during the year of its release.
With all that success, Lucas decided to once again pitch the idea of a feature film of Howard the Duck and had Huyck and Katz develop a screenplay.
Apparently they sat down with Steve Gerber to toss around some ideas. Gerber would be credited in the film’s opening titles as Howard’s creator, as well as in advertising. Gerber claimed he also had a “financial interest” in the film and spoke positively about it before its disastrous release. Later, he confessed “I lied” when asked why he was so positive.
Universal Studios aggressively lobbied to get the project, especially since it had passed on previous Lucas projects that turned out to be incredibly profitable. Huyck and Katz strongly pushed for Howard the Duck to be an animated film, but Universal already had another animated feature in production, An American Tail (1986), by Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg.
Lucas agreed to do it in live action because he was intrigued about using technology and special effects from his Industrial Light and Magic company and Universal wanted the film for the following summer blockbuster season.
In October 1985, Lucas announced that “the Duck version of Indiana Jones” was set to begin production that month. Lucas had wanted his friend John Landis to direct but, when Landis passed, the job was given to Willard Huyck, who had co-written the screenplay. Huyck never directed another film.
Through a laser beam experiment by Ohio physicist Dr. Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones), an inter-dimensional portal is opened and accidentally brings, from a planet called Duckworld, a 3-foot tall anthropomorphic duck named Howard to an alley in Cleveland. (According to the movie, Howard was 27 years old and arrived on Earth on September 8.)
The opening shot on Duckworld is rife with punnish references ,including movie posters on the walls of Howard’s apartment for "Mae Nest" and "W.C. Fowl" in My Little Chickadee and Breeders of The Lost Stork. In addition, Howard has magazines like “Rolling Egg” and “Playduck."
In the alley, Howard rescues the aspiring lead singer of a punk rock band, Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson), from two thugs using his expertise in the martial art of Quack Fu. A grateful Beverly takes the confused and homeless fowl to her apartment.
Beverly later gets her friend, a janitor named Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins), and Dr. Jenning to help Howard. However, to make things more difficult, a Dark Overlord of Evil has also arrived through the beam as well and takes possession of Dr. Jenning’s body. His plan is to bring his fellow demons from the Nexus of Sominus to take over the world.
He kidnaps Beverly so another demon can possess her body, and it is up to Howard and Phil to rescue her. In the final confrontation, Howard must make a difficult decision to save the Earth or go back to his homeworld.
The movie was filmed from November 1985 to March 1986 with second-unit photography for action scenes and stunt work during April 1986.
The film had many difficulties during its shooting.
To begin with, the duck suit was a nightmare. A 12-year-old boy was originally cast to be the main actor in the suit, but problems quickly arose because of the limited amount of shooting time allowed for a minor on set, plus challenges with the claustrophobic nature of the suit, among other things.
Ed Gale, who had been hired as a stand-in for the character (because he was a little too tall to play Howard), stepped in to primarily handle the role (although there were a half dozen other little people who also did some of Howard’s scenes).
This was Gale’s first role, but he went on to a rich film career including playing the Little Man in O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), one of the Dinks in Spaceballs (1987), and a host of other film and television roles.
It cost more than $2 million to create an Audio-Animatronic duck operated by multiple puppeteers who were unable to always coordinate.
Because of the design of the suit, Gale was literally blind most of the time, including when flying the Ultralight at the end of the film, but could occasionally see through Howard’s beak.
His voice could not be heard clearly when he was in the costume, so lead puppeteer Tim Rose spoke Howard’s lines during the filming using a microphone connected to a speaker so actors could respond to Howard’s dialog. Howard’s voice was later dubbed in by actor Chip Zien in post-production. Actors John Cusack and Martin Short also auditioned for that speaking role.
The film was released August 1, 1986 with a running time of almost two hours.
Film reviews were brutal and overwhelmingly trashed the movie. Respected film critic and historian Leonard Maltin has written that it was a “hopeless mess of a movie.”
Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel began his review with the question, “Who was this stupid film made for?” The following year, he and his fellow critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times included it in a special episode of their popular television review show as one of the worst movies of 1986.
Co-screenwriter Gloria Katz, defended the film by saying, "It's a film about a duck from outer space… It's not supposed to be an existential experience… We're supposed to have fun with this concept, but for some reason reviewers weren't able to get over that problem."
Except, of course, that statement ignored the fact that the fascination by fans with the series was that it was indeed existential and that Howard was rude and obnoxious and not nice as he was in the movie.
The film wasn’t true to the satire and caustic attitude of the comic book and on the other hand, the implied possible bestiality between Howard and Beverly (even though they try to portray it as all a “joke”) in a PG film certainly wasn’t appealing to a general family audience, or the fact that the cigar-smoking, beer-drinking Howard kept a condom in his wallet and gets a job working at a “romance spa” type brothel.
In an interview from 2001, Gerber said, “Howard was treated as little more than a visual gag and a mouthpiece for lame one-liners. The film, in a misguided attempt to appeal to a mass audience, turned Bev into a rock star and told a rather simple-minded alien monster story. There were some nice performances in the film – Jeffrey Jones was particularly funny, and Lea Thompson as Beverly was very pleasant to look at – but it wasn't Howard the Duck.”
Howard the Duck cost approximately $36 million to make (not counting marketing costs that exceeded another $10 million) but earned barely $16 million at the box office in the United States.
It forced the resignation of Universal Studio President Frank Price less than two months after the film’s release. The “Variety” trade paper headline was “’Duck’ Cooks Price’s Goose.”
Lucas neither wrote nor directed the film, but, as the primary producer (who made decisions), and inspiration behind the film has always been the one blamed for the poorly executed and overly expensive mistake. It has always been considered his greatest personal “flop” and one of the top 10 movie flops of all time.
At the time, Lucas had just spent $50 million dollars to build Skywalker Ranch and, with the failure of Howard the Duck adding to his financial problems from his recent divorce, and the drop off in Star Wars licenses after the release of the third and supposedly final film in the series, Lucas had to sell off some of his assets to remain solvent.
Previously, Lucas had created Pixar to assist Industrial Light and Magic with its computer-generated special effects for movies like The Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). He sold Pixar to Apple CEO Steve Jobs for $5 million dollars. Jobs then put an additional $5 million dollars into Pixar.
If not for that sale, Pixar might never have developed as it did into an award-winning computer animation studio responsible for many memorable animated shorts and feature films.
The official Lucasfilm website describes Howard the Duck as “an offbeat, visual effects-filled comedy.” A bargain-priced special edition DVD of the film with extras was released in 2009.
In Part Two: A close examination of the Disney Company’s complaints about Howard the Duck and how they physically redesigned the character; how Marvel parodied Disney’s complaints; how Steve Gerber, in retaliation, later changed the character temporarily into a mouse; and the behind-the-scenes story of how Howard ended up as a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy.