The History of Howard the Duck: Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last time, I gave a quick overview of Howard the Duck’s career in comic books and the history of his infamous film. Believe it or not, there is much more to be said about both topics, including the fact that the film featured music by the legendary John Barry and Thomas Dolby.

Howard’s history is very convoluted and lengthy to explain fully.

Today, I am going to discuss the Disney Company’s involvement in the character that goes back to 1977, as well as the story behind the Howard cameo in the popular feature film Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

Howard the Duck: The Disney Connection

Disney has always been a prominent victim of intellectual property theft, not only because its characters and films are so popular and pervasive in the culture that they seem as if they must be in public domain, but also because they provide a familiar positive reference ripe for attack and parody.

In order to protect its products, Disney is often placed in the position of aggressively enforcing its copyrights and trademarks, especially when the theft of the property might tarnish its brand.

A facet of intellectual-property law, called acquiescence, compels them to fight every infringement they find or give up the right to defend the trademark or copyright when it really matters, such as when a competing company appropriates an image, a character or anything else.

While there's a reluctance to appear to be bullying individuals (as when Disney sues daycare centers that feature unauthorized artwork on the walls featuring off model Disney characters), not acting can have severe consequences.

Those lawsuits are sometimes settled out of court in a confidential non-disclosure agreement that usually includes removal of the material and the promise not to do anything similar again.

National Lampoon magazine (Sept. 1970, Vol. 1, No. 6) had a cover with a cartoon of Minnie Mouse flashing so that she appears topless but with little yellow flower pasties on her nipples.

This cover was the braindchild of publisher Matty Simmons who wanted to bring attention to the struggling magazine and secretly hoped to spark Disney’s ire and get the resulting publicity. Disney sued for $11 million, but it was settled out of court (since it could be argued that a one-time use might be considered parody, especially considering the nature of this particular magazine).

While in the 1970s, Disney tried to ignore (in the hopes it was a one-time incident that would extinguish itself from lack of attention) or quietly settle these types of issues with some threatening saber rattling before instituting legal action, sometimes that was not enough as in the case of the Air Pirates.

The Air Pirates were a group of comic artists who released in 1971 an underground comix titled “Air Pirates Funnies.” Some of the stories featured the classic Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters involved in explicit sex and drug activities.

Not only were the artists infringing on Disney copyrights and trademarks, the defiant editor of the comix, Dan O’Neill, proclaimed that Disney had lost the rights to those claims due to its non-use of the earliest forms of the characters. Disney could not allow such a contention to go unchallenged.

The lawsuit dragged on until 1980, costing the Disney Company approximately $2 million in legal fees as O’Neill continued to ignore the judgement of the courts to cease and desist.

At the time, Disney was still battling bootleg blacklight posters of Wally Wood’s Disneyland Memorial Orgy artwork that had originally appeared in the magazine “The Realist” (Issue No 74, May 1967, pages 12-13).

Into this 1970s swampy mess of counterculture thieves stealing Disney property waddled Howard the Duck.

Western Publishing had been creating comic books with Disney characters since 1940 that were distributed and financed by Dell. In 1962, Western broke with Dell and began creating and distributing Disney comic books themselves under their own Gold Key imprint. By the mid-1970s, Disney comics were going through a huge decline in sales in the United States for a variety of reasons.

At this time, the Disney Company had a unit at the studio that created original Disney comic book material for overseas markets where some characters were so popular that they appeared in weekly, not monthly, issues. They quickly used up the inventory being produced by Western Publishing that was trimming back its comics line. Some of the same writers and artists who worked for Western also produced material directly for this unit at Disney.

Foreign markets who licensed this Disney material became deeply concerned when their comic book competitors started reprinting the adventures of Howard the Duck. He bore a superficial similarity to the Disney ducks.

Just his name of “duck” created confusion in a marketplace where pantless, talking cartoon ducks were automatically assumed to be connected somehow to Donald Duck, perhaps the most popular Disney character in the foreign comic book marketplace.

So, early in 1977, the Disney Company being flooded by these complaints from overseas licensees contacted Marvel. Disney was a legal juggernaunt and Marvel was not looking for a fight, especially over what they considered a minor character.

“Marvel never even attempted to negotiate the matter, never even submitted any alternate designs for Disney's consideration,” said advertising copywriter Steve Gerber, the artist assigned to Howard the Duck.

A Disney artist provided model sheets redesigning the character and showing the significant physical changes to be made to Howard to avoid a nasty lawsuit.

The character would now have a clearly oval head rather than a round one common with Disney ducks, proportionately smaller eyes, and a short, fat, upturned bill. Howard would also have toes (rather than webbed feet), prominent eyebrows, downy body texture with tufted feathers and a recognizably rotund body. Instead of the whitish color of Disney ducks, Howard would be more yellowish among other color changes.

And, most significantly, Howard would have to wear pants. Disney ducks, from Donald to Uncle Scrooge, did not wear pants so this was a way of quickly distinguishing the character as different from a Disney duck to even the most casual reader.

On June 30, 1977, Marvel art director John Romita (famous for his work on Spider-Man) issued a memo to the company (including writer Steve Gerber, artist Gene Colan and Stan Lee himself) detailing all the changes, including new color codes like that Howard’s eyes had to be distinctly brown. (They were blue in the movie.)

Reportedly, Romita was pleased that Marvel did not have to pay its own artists to come up with a redesign to try to get Disney’s approval but had gotten it at no cost.

Creator Steve Gerber was incensed and did not hesitate in sharing his resentment that his character was being tampered with by a huge corporation and expressed his anger in the stories he wrote.

In the comic book "Howard the Duck” No. 21 (February 1978), Howard confronts S.O.O.F.I. (Save Our Offspring From Indecency), a terrorist group centered on censorship of immoral acts around the world. The Supreme S.O.O.F.I. knocks out Howard and dresses him in tacky clothing, including pants, because it is indecent for a duck not to wear pants. At the end, Howard says about the attempt to put him in pants, “you just keep on tryin’–and I’ll just keep on resistin’–an’ we’ll both have a lot of cloudy days ahead.”

In the "Howard the Duck" magazine Volume 2, Number 2 (December 1979) there is a story written by Bill Mantlo titled “Animal Indecency!”

At Cleveland’s Arcade shopping center, Howard and Bev are confronted by an angry Demonstration for Decency mob denouncing the pants-less Howard as indecent. A fight ensued, but Howard and Bev found sanctuary with Wally Sidney (the word Disney with the “s” and “d” transposed), a failed cartoonist who made his fortune through retail clothing in his Conservative Clothier shop, Sidney Land.

Howard finds sanctuary with Wally Sidney in the second issue of the "Howard the Duck" magazine.

Sidney was behind the whole animal clothing movement and he got Howard to start wearing pants to avoid being assaulted again by the mob. At the end of the story, Howard encouraged the public to put pressure on the people who had done this to him.

Because Marvel had seemed so willing to make the changes to the character, Disney gave the comic book company some time to ease into the new redesign instead of instituting it immediately.

Marvel artists did not consistently comply with the new changes but Disney, feeling it had made its point, did not closely scrutinize the individual issues assuming that Marvel would monitor the artwork itself.

Artist Michael Golden came the closest to drawing Howard according to the redesign, but Marshall Rogers’ version had a thinner beak than usual. Regular artist Gene Colan’s interpretation was somewhere between the original version and the new redesign. For instance, while he made the beak somewhat shorter and puffier, it was not to the extent shown on the model sheet.

The Disney model sheets of Howard the Duck included several redesign options.

Other artists just ignored the changes entirely, including the inclusion of pants.

After a year, it was very apparent that the redesign still had not been fully incorporated and Disney’s requests had been held up to ridicule, so Disney came back with a more severe settlement that was twice the length of the previous one. Once again, Marvel capitulated without any argument, fearing a nasty lawsuit.

While some people believed that it was just a “handshake” agreement between competitors, there is in fact a lengthy and strongly worded written document.

“Disney never actually sued Marvel over Howard. There were threatening letters, but to my knowledge no suit was ever filed, and the matter never got anywhere near a courtroom,” recalled creator Gerber in an interview. “When we began talking about the new series [a 2002 Marvel six issue mini-series of Howard written by Gerber], we were all under the impression that Marvel's old management had simply agreed on a ‘handshake’ basis with Disney that Howard wouldn't look like Donald."

“Just to be safe, though, we checked with Marvel's legal department and discovered that a written agreement between the two companies pertaining to Howard's appearance did exist," he said. "The way that agreement is worded, Marvel isn't permitted to redesign Howard the Duck; the character has to look like the designs Disney provided. We really were on the verge of abandoning the whole project, when a bizarre idea occurred to me. What if we changed Howard into another species entirely? If the character wasn't a duck, how could Disney complain?"

According to a written agreement with Disney, Marvel wasn't able to redesign the Howard the Duck character.

“I suggested the idea of Howard as a mouse, to see if we could successfully transplant his personality into a rodent," Gerber said. "When I saw Glenn's sketches, I was overjoyed. He'd come up with a mouse that was unmistakably Howard.”

The mini-series did not sell well, perhaps because the mutation storyline did not give many glimpses of Howard as a duck, but it did satisfy Gerber’s desire to not accept the Disney redesign requirements.

Howard fell back into obscurity, never again came close to his original 1970s popularity and only sporadically appeared in Marvel projects. Disney paid no further attention.

Of course, since Disney now owns the character, it can once again redesign Howard or even go back to his original look.

Howard the Duck: The Guardians of the Galaxy Movie

Marvel has used its post credits scenes in its movies as previews for future films or to introduce characters that will appear in future films.

So it was a pleasant surprise for long time comic book fans when the post credits scene in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) featured Howard the Duck, an obscure Marvel comic book character who was popular when Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt) was originally abducted, and Howard the Duck would probably have been very familiar to the interstellar hero who referenced other cultural figures from the same time period.

The post credits scene features the Collector (Benicio Del Toro) in the ruined remains of his lair on Knowhere. As he sits with a drink in hand, Cosmo the Russian space dog licks his face resulting in an insulting remark from Howard the Duck, voiced by actor Seth Green.

At the end of that scene, the last thing that flickers on the screen is: "Howard the Duck created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik." That's not happened in any other post-credits scene, including the introduction of Thanos, created by writer/artist Jim Starlin.

I suspect it exists because the scene was a last-minute decision and too late to include Gerber and Mayerik in the final credits listing.

“When we first see the Collector and we push in on him, you will see a certain duck named Howard that turns to look at the group. [As the Collector turns to face the group, Howard is sitting in his glass box in the background above and just to the right of the Collector's head.] That’s one of my favorite little things in the background,” said the film’s director James Gunn. "And that is probably not the Collector’s only museum. I think he probably has other spaces in which he keeps his incredibly vast collection, so I don’t think it’s just his one collection, that’s just his Knowhere wing."

Where did the idea originate for having Howard the Duck make a post credits appearance in the movie?

Howard the Duck makes a cameo at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Certainly, Howard does tie in to the humorous tone of the film, as well as the fact that audiences had already seen an anthropomorphic raccoon for the previous two hours.

Of course, the animated television series, Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. that ran on Disney XD included an episode on August 25, 2013 titled “The Collector” that featured Hulk and Spider-Man trying to prevent the Collector from capturing every Earth hero for his collection.

In one of the Collector’s pods is Howard the Duck, whom the Collector states is an example of an “ultra-rare hero” in mint condition.

Director James Gunn talking to Empire magazine went into great detail explaining how the segment happened:

“I think it was some combination of me and the film editor Fred Raskin who said, ‘Let’s put Howard the Duck in there. What if the Collector looks over and sees Howard the Duck sitting there?’ And I wrote down the line, ‘Whaddya let it lick you like that for? Gross.’

“Fred and I thought it was hilarious, but we weren’t sure that (Head of Marvel Studios) Kevin Feige would go for it. But we told Kevin and Kevin couldn’t stop laughing, so that’s how it came about.

"We decided to do it very late in the game, only a couple of months (before the film was released), and we had to design Howard that day. Then we gave him over to the visual effects company that did him. They did a good job very quickly – I think it was Sony.

"Seth Green, who voices Howard, is a really close friend of mine. I hang out with him a lot and we’ve been friends for a long time, over 10 years now. I came up with a list of three guys I took to Kevin and said that these guys are all good friends, and I think they would come in and do it for me. He reacted really well to Seth Green.

"I’ll be honest with you. I was just talking about it with my assistant right now [Laughs]. It’s possible Howard could reappear as more of a character in the Marvel Universe. But if people think that’s going to lead to a Howard The Duck movie, that’s probably not going to happen in the next four years. Who knows after that?"

The tag with Howard the Duck was really a last minute thing and was not shown at press previews or the premiere but only in the general public showings. Even actor Del Toro was unaware that it would be Howard in the scene until the movie was released.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is scheduled for July 28, 2017, and Gunn has given no indication whether the foul fowl will return.

Kevin Feige is open to the idea.

"I think it would be fun to lay claim to Howard and to remind people that he's more than just a pseudonym for film failure. And that he is a Marvel character. That would be fun,” Feige recently said .

A fun fact is that the Lucas “Howard the Duck” movie premiered exactly 28 years and one day before the release of Guardians of the Galaxy.

I think it is safe to say that the positive reaction from the audience will guarantee that Howard the Duck will return in some way in the future. Thanks to these two columns you can now share some background on the character with your friends and hopefully, it may enhance your appreciation of that post credits gag.

My brother still doesn’t get the joke but that’s okay. I will have to explain other end tags in other Marvel movies to him but they won’t be as fun or as complicated as Howard the Duck.