On Steve Gerber and Gene Colan’s Howard the Duck Story, “The Night After You Save the Universe?”

Violence is generally presented as a solution to problems in comics, because, being the illustrated form they are, they tend to over-simply, reduce everything to its most basic. Pure Good vs. Pure Evil, for example, is a conflict which rarely occurs in the real world. It’s a set of circumstances that doesn’t exist” (Steve Gerber, as interviewed by David Anthony, Kraft in Foom #15, September 1976).

The fate of the typical human being in the superhero book is almost inevitably a traumatic one.  Forever destined to be a source of endless conflict for the super-heroes around them, the unconstumed and essentially harmless individual in a super-book can look forward to little but a life on the page of angst, physical harm and, quite probably, an entirely untimely death. To return as a reader to a super-book after several years absence is to inevitably be faced with the evidence of what seems to have been an apocalypse. The long-established romances enjoyed by members of a supporting cast will have been shattered, mentors slaughtered, best friends crippled, hometowns destroyed. At the very least, a character who initially served as an everywoman or man will have been transformed into a super-person of some kind themselves, and, as with the likes of Snapper Carr and Rick Jones, they’ll keep being given remarkable abilities until it’s hard to remember why they were ever thought of as typical in the first place. In the end, Aunt May will meet Galactus, and she will probably defeat him too, just as she will pass on from this world before inevitably returning to it.

It was always a good part of the appeal of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck that the character simply couldn’t be assimilated into the ranks of either the melodramatically-diminished or the strangely super-powered of the Marvel Universe. For one thing, the whole appeal of Howard was that he was an anthropomorphised duck and nothing else. Enduring a perpetual exile from Duckworld, Howard’s function was to stand for that fundamental alienation which arrives when the inanity and unfairness of the day-in/day-out becomes too obvious to ignore. Whatever else he was temporarily transformed into during his misadventures, from a fowl Son Of Satan to a tiny Master of Quack Fu, the reader could always be reassured that their representative as a outlier in the MU would be soon be returned unscathed to his default status as our duck in their world. If he were anything else, then he wouldn’t be Howard. In a sub-genre which has found it progressively more difficult to capture anything of the real world in its pages, it was ironically Gerber’s duck who stood for those of us hairless apes who struggle to associate with the super-folks fighting for the cause of the good and noble, and who never cared to identify with the players on the less altruistic side of the conflict either.

In Where Do You Go – What Do You Do – The Night After You Save The Universe, which first appeared in this week some 34 years ago, Gerber kicked off his last four-issue arc on Howard The Duck before being sacked by the then-Editor-In-Chief Of Marvel Comics,  Jim Shooter.  In what still stands as some of Gerber’s very finest work, he stepped back from the fierce absurdity of the satire which he shaped for most of the book’s history and focused instead on the matter of what life as a member of the almost-underclass in the MU might involve. In particular, Gerber’s scripts concentrated on emphasising how typically unheroic a character Howard was while stressing the fact that that didn’t mean that the duck was lacking in a commendable measure of good will or bravery. It wouldn’t be until Gerber’s last issue that Howard would again briefly assume the role not just of protagonist, but hero, and even then, the duck’s rage as he pummelled the prone figure of the Ringmaster had everything to do with the marriage of his once-partner Beverley Switzler to Dr Bong, and relatively little to do with justice, or any associated concept.

Rather than focusing on how violence might ultimately be used to resolve problems, Howard The Duck #24 portrays the title character’s attempts to deal with the consequences of fear and brutality. The tale opens with the last appearance of any super-people in the issue, and finds Howard turning down an invitation to further adventures with his ridiculous comrades-in-arms with a declaration that “heroism’s just against my religion”. Yet the reader soon discovers that the situation’s far more complex than Howard might wish to express.  Bone-weary, anxious about what might be hiding on the other side of every door, plagued by nightmares and an understandable reluctance to return to them, a latter generation might have characterised Howard as suffering from at the very least exceptionally high levels of stress, and the word “trauma” might not have been too far from many people’s minds. In truth, Howard is suffering from the result of hours locked into a fight or flee response, from the inevitable physiological costs which accompany conflict and aggression and loss. Having helped to save the universe, he now finds himself defeated by the attempt to rest in his own apartment.

Even the violence dished out by the gunfighters on his tiny TV set seems to threaten him with “cardiac arrest”. With Colan and Palmer’s artwork wonderfully emphasising how alone and powerless the duck is, with his great sleepless eyes and nervous sideways glances, the sense is given of what really happens to everyday folks when their lives are swallowed up the untypically threatening.  By the early hours of the night, Howard’s off into the streets in an attempt to “try an’ walk it off … an’ hope like hell I survive the walk”. This is what behaving like a superhero does to the likes of you and me, Gerber is saying, and nothing in superhero comics makes the standard-issue punch-up seem less fascinating than Howard’s compelling and self-depreciating attempts to survive his own dalliance with evil empires and fearsome creatures. He’s quick to label himself a “coward”, but of course Howard’s nothing of the sort. He is, for all that he’s two-and-a-half feet’s worth of talking duck, behaving exactly as any other normal human being would when coping with both the loss of a lover and an extra-dimensional jaunt off to war.

Howard’s nightmare journey through a nocturnal Manhattan in search of peace of mind and fresh doughnuts is used to accentuate just how impractical consistently heroic behaviour would be in the context of everyday life. To a superhero, the sight of a single figure struggling with appalling circumstances is a responsibility, an obligation to lend a super-hand and solve the immediate crisis at hand. Yet, as the quote from Gerber at the head of this piece explains, life simply can’t be approached in that way, and so, when Howard finds himself grasped by a prone, delirious, heartsick drunk, he isn’t concerned to unearth the man’s life story and find him at the very least a place to sleep off the DTs. Instead, Howard just wants to be on his way, and he’s marked by the same understandable and yet distinctly unheroic attitude when he crashes into a bag lady who’s fearsomely good at covering the duck’s face in spittle. Though quick to apologise, Howard pays no attention to the fundamentals of the woman’s plight, and he’s far too distracted to notice that she, like the drunk before her, displays an excess of the same kind of lovelorn and obsessional behaviour that he himself is just beginning to show. (Somehow the bag lady does understand her role in Howard’s on-page life, declaring  that she’s “symbolically significant to your story … integral to the thematic structure”.)  Ironically, Howard’s one attempt to behave chivalrously ends disastrously when his attempts to save a vulnerable woman from the apparent attack of a sexual predator turns out to be a couple attempting to reignite their love-life through some deliberately public and risky role-playing. The easily distinguished conflicts between absolute good and evil may well occur under the water towers on the rooftops and in the secret headquarters of the Marvel Universe, but in the streets of the Big Apple in the hours before dawn, an attempt to see the world as a typical superhero might inevitably distorts events and leads to far more trouble than it resolves.

Gerber’s reputation as a cynic and satirist has on occasion led to the fundamental qualities of compassion and guarded optimism which distinguishes so much of his work being relatively discounted. But here, as in so much else that he was responsible for, the writer accentuates how the only real if incomplete cure for the ills of human society lies in the comforts offered by the same. Coming upon an apparently empty “donut” shop and discovering that it’s been robbed, Howard unties its owner and is rewarded with a cup of coffee and a conversation about “love, death, existence, the Super-Bowl … All the really heavy stuff!” And if that only just begins to diminish both his exhaustion and his despair, it does at the very least offer a measure of distraction and company. The theme of the need to trust to others to help heal the wounds caused by others is closed in the comic’s last scene, in which the “woebegone wittle creature” collapses exhausted into the arms of his lisping friend Winda. Howard’s never looked so frail and yet so unconditionally cared for as he does in those final two panels, at last able to trust to something of the world and therefore capable of rest.

In the first of the two pieces I’ve written this year which have touched on Steve Gerber’s scripts for Marvel in the Seventies, we discussed Marvel Two-In-One # 1 and how the young writer had struggled to make the meaning of his work as clear and entirely sensible there as it might have been. Written just 4 years later, The Night After You Save The Universe is marked by its author’s remarkable control of his material. Daring and deliberate, kind-hearted and scathing, Gerber’s work in the Marvel Universe provided his readers with one of the few convincing and moving portrayals of what everyday life in an fantastic universe might well be like for its everyday inhabitants. In short, what he reminded us of, and with such skill and such a conspicuous degree of good-heartedness, is that the real struggles in life don’t involve facing down the Doctor Dooms of the world, but rather in coming to terms with the routine and yet trying challenges of lives which can’t always be trusted not to be remarkable.

“Howard The Duck” # 24 by Steve Gerber, Gene Colan and Tom Palmer was most recently reprinted in the Howard The Duck Omnibus from Marvel Comics.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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