Sunday, March 6, 2011

I brake for Ducks: Steve Gerber's satire masterpiece

"From the time of his hatching, he was...different. A potentially brilliant scholar who dreaded the structured environment of school, he educated himself in the streets, taking whatever work was available, formulating his philosophy of self from what he learned of the world about him. And then the Cosmic Axis shifted...and that world changed. Suddenly, he was stranded in a universe he could not fathom. Without warning, he became a strange fowl in an even stranger land."

The spirit of underground comics arrived in the mainstream in a big way when HOWARD THE DUCK #1 hit the stands in 1976. The movie? I've never seen it. Don't recommend it. Had nothing to do with Steve Gerber, who said "Howard is my conscience."
By spirit, I'm talking about social satire, mature themes, visual hilarity and smart writing, usually plotted by the seat of the pants.

This adventure starts off with his roommate and best human friend Beverly Switzer cheerfully finding the one quarter left in the whole apartment. Bev encourages a moment of jet-setting fantasy, but on an empty stomach her irascible sees a glass almost empty.

Bev and the duck's money problems drive this entire episode from here out; she promises to "pose for some life drawing classes" while he goes to the store to buy them two candy bars for dinner. In the midst of pondering "might be a new brand o' laxative ta look at---or a special on deodorant that'd tug at yer heart" he discovers a Quackie Duck comic that irritates him with its "stereotypes" but inspires him to try hosting the local cartoon program. He's announced as "Dopey Duck"; from there, his encounter with the show's clown pushes him too far, as does the insulting programming the show feeds children.

His outburst on the show, however, gets him recognized on the street by an appliance store owner, who needs someone to call and "remind people to be honest." This leads to Howard curiously visiting a lady and discovering the rip-off terms under which her husband, now vanished, left her with an over-priced television that breaks constantly. It's just not in his heart to pressure her further.

What I can't convey is the way the art, with its realistic figures juxtaposed with the rendered but cartoon-looking duck, supports the wit and humanity of the stories. It's not a world of cartoon rules, but rather, real world rules. They may be absurd, but as you can see, real life details generously displayed within speak to the absurdity in our society.

Now we get a nice little homage to the origin of Spider-man, which you don't need to know but might find a laugh about. Howard sees an ad for wrestling, a challenge worth $10,000 dollars (1976 dollars!) to whoever can stay in the ring with Klout, the man-mountain depicted on the cover. Beverly gives a humorous account in a very worried demeanor, but, complete with homemade mask, the Duck arrives at the arena. The slaughter is merciless, but Howard bears up bravely. The fight itself is hilarious, and ends on a slightly ironic note.

But I've said too much, while I haven't said enough. Howard's comic is clever, sports a terrific vocabulary and social criticism that rings true to this day. Not only would I recommend finding this issue for as little as a dollar in good condition, I would say you can't go wrong with a "phonebook" sized collection of the strips in black and white: Howard the Duck Essentials vol. 1.

Gene Colan's moody and occasionally surreal art in TOMB OF DRACULA changes shape again to convey warmth, menace, and comedy, most especially in his highly expressive duck.

If you check the tags for Steve Gerber on this column, I assure you I haven't even covered his most universally appealing work, like NEVADA or OMEGA THE UNKNOWN. For that matter, you may have grown up on the G.I. Joe cartoon he edited, or Thundarr the Barbarian which he co-created. I can't help but wonder what his novels would've been like; he cited Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Satre as seminal influences as well as Stan Lee, but he truly drew from incisive observations for his stories. Something in the collaborative process of art and story drew him to his lifelong love of comics.

Steve watched the world, and thought about it, maybe too much; then he plunged himself into an affordable apartment in Hell's Kitchen, as full of real life as any sane person could bear. The influence of close friends, like writer Mary Skrenes, cannot be ignored, either. I could easily spend an entire column re-Gerber-tating what I've read about the man, but it's fair to say, his work does the talking like nothing else.

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