Duckworld No More? Mark Waid Returns Howard the Duck to His Origins in S.H.I.E.L.D. #10
If you’ve seen the much maligned Howard the Duck film or read any Howard the Duck stories published since 1979, you’re probably familiar with the concept of Duckworld. You know, an alternate Earth where everyone is ducks and everything is duck-themed: Ducktor Strange, Bloomingducks, etc, etc. Sounds like a recipe for a finite barrel of bad jokes, right? It is, and it’s also not Howard’s real point of origin. During his landmark initial run, Howard’s creator Steve Gerber had the down-and-out duck hailing from a world of talking animals, but all that changed when Gerber was kicked off the book and Disney flashed a lawsuit. Now, after decades of Marvel fumbling Howard’s backstory, Mark Waid has reinstated Howard’s point of origin in a one-shot issue of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Here’s the whole story:
In 1973, comics author Steve Gerber pulled an average, unassuming duck named Howard from his home dimension into the Marvel Universe. It was a watershed moment for mainstream comics in the 1970s. The edge of the independent comics movement was bleeding over into funnybooks and Gerber’s Howard was at the epicenter of it. Howard became the Harvey Pekar of the Marvel Universe; holding American culture, the fictional world he lived in, and the comics industry itself under his scrutinizing lens. He was Marvel’s everyman, and a caricature of Gerber himself, beaten down by the idiocy of politics and superheroics, yet inevitably drawn into the fray.
For Gerber, Howard was a personal project, but ownership doesn’t play in a corporate setting and in 1978 Gerber was removed from the book. Issues followed written by other authors and the regular color book was cancelled in favor of a more adult-centric black and white comics magazine for Howard. During the magazine years, Howard was forced to wear pants (as mandated by Disney, so as not to be mistaken for Donald), and author Bill Mantlo introduced the concept of Duckworld, which 6 years later would be immortalized in film. Gerber hated Duckworld and had a clear vision of where he really came from, as he said in a 1977 issue of Mediascene: “Howard’s world, which would never be depicted visually, was inhabited by other anthropomorphized animals like himself. Like the cartoon worlds of Disney and Warner Brothers. Unlike the Disney and Warners worlds, however, Howard’s reality was beset with the same plethora of social ills and personal vicissitudes which human beings confront daily. And the same, or similar, laws of nature applied there, too.”
During the magazine run, Gerber fought a precedent-setting battle for creator’s rights and teamed up with Jack Kirby to create Destroyer Duck – a character definitively existing in the cartoon animal world he’d meant for Howard. Destroyer was on a vengeance quest to take out Godcorp, a company that used, abused, and exploited a friend of his. Gerber was asked to continue Howard in ’85, but his script was turned down as it pointedly undid and destroyed everything Mantlo created. The script, which you can download from Gerber’s website, also painted Howard as having a multiversal identity crisis. Though unpublished, this explanation for incongruities in Howard’s character and backstory has seemingly been present behind the scenes. Best example: The drastic difference between Ty Templeton’s Howard the Duck miniseries and Fred Van Lente’s run on Marvel Zombies. In Templeton’s book, Howard is Gerber’s down-and-out incarnation (though he wears pants – explained in a 2011 tweet by Dan Slott, “Why is Howard the Duck the only cartoon duck who wears pants? — Because he’s also the only cartoon duck who has a penis.”), and in Van Lente’s book Howard is a gun-toting agent of A.R.M.O.R. the alternate reality defense organization as S.H.I.E.L.D. is to land and S.W.O.R.D. is to space. There’s clearly more than one Howard running around.
Enter Waid’s issue of S.H.I.E.L.D; (published in tandem with Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones’ current Howard the Duck run) Howard gets caught up in a parody of the recent Spider-Verse storyline, where Spider-Man had to team up with alternate reality versions of himself to destroy a common enemy. In Howard’s case, the enemy is a twisted spin on Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote, who’s out to collect anthro duck livers for a multiversal pate. Howard begrudgingly teams up with super-powered alternate reality selves including an elastic nun, Sister Howard the Duck. After reality is saved by a cosmic zipper unripper, Howard experiences a vision of alternate selves from various continuities. There’s one vision that lingers: an older version of himself, with a wife and kids in a planet of cartoon animals.
At this point, there’s never likely to be any one definitive Howard out there, but after decades it’s refreshing to see Gerber’s version of his origin reinstated, or at least referenced. Even with Disney now being the parent company, Howard is likely to keep wearing pants. After all, that’s been his look for 30 years. Hopefully this is only the beginning of a continued exploration of Howard’s world being a grittier Disney-verse, rather than the eye-roller that is Duckworld. Heck, maybe we’re finally going to get the reveal that Howard is in fact the missing dad of Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Here at Nerdy Show, we’ve been pushing that idea for years. Make it happen Marvel!
You can get Mark Waid and Evan “Doc Shaner’s phenomenal standalone Howard story in S.H.I.E.L.D issue 10, on sale today – and be sure to pick up the recent paperback collection of Gerber’s Howard the Duck.