“So, what’s the deal with the talking duck?” This is a question many people have pondered after watching some of the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Yes, the Seth Green voiced fowl is actually a character in the Marvel Universe. In a world full of witches, Asgardian gods, and monsters, is an anthropomorphic duck really so bizarre?
While his name is Howard Duckson, we affectionately call him Howard the Duck. Believe it or not, he’s a fan favorite character. Though Howard isn’t a superhero or an adventurer and just a duck trapped in a world of “hairless apes,” he is known for his love of cigars and his sarcastic social commentary. He even once ran for President of the United States, and he’s the star of Marvel’s first full-length theatrical film. No, I’m not making this up.
If you want a crash course on what makes Howard the Duck so special, here are the comics you should check out. It sure beats bird watching.
This comic is Howard the Duck’s first appearance. It may not have the iconic reputation of Action Comics #1 or Detective Comics #27, but Howard’s debut is just as nutty as he is.
At the time, Adventure into Fear was a vehicle for the swamp monster known as Man-Thing. When several realities begin to converge in a nexus, Howard finds himself transported to Earth. His appearance is short, but it’s memorable. In fact, series writer Steve Gerber doesn’t even name Howard in this issue. When a warrior named Korrek calls his plight absurd, Howard enters the scene speaking his first lines of dialogue.
“Aw, clam up bud! You don’t even know the meaning of the word! Finding yourself in a world of talking hairless apes – now that’s absurdity,” Howard said. He wore a tie, a suit jacket, and he was chomping on a cigar. With an introduction like that, is it any wonder Howard became a sensation?
Howard’s adventures with Korrek and Man-Thing continued in the first issue of Man-Thing’s solo series. Well, that is to say that they continued briefly. While traveling on some interdimensional stepping stones, Howard (who is named for the first time) stumbles and falls into an endless void. Yes, Howard the Duck was killed off in his second appearance. It might not be as iconic as other comic book character deaths, but at least Howard died doing what he loved – being snarky.
Like most Marvel characters, Howard didn’t stay dead for very long. Fans loved Howard, and Steve Gerber loved writing him, so the character was given his own backup feature in Giant-Size Man-Thing. (Yes, Marvel actually published a comic with that title. You can stop snickering now.)
Remember that endless void Howard fell into? It turned out it wasn’t as endless as we originally thought. After falling for months, Howard ends up in Cleveland, where he immediately begins a series of misadventures. Humans aren’t sure what to make of Howard, believing him to be either a mutant or a man in a duck costume. The poor fowl is arrested, manhandled, and strip searched. Howard also fights a sorcerer who turns into a demonic frog, and almost becomes dinner for a vampiric cow. These stories set the tone for Howard’s future comics and established his unusual role in the Marvel Universe.
After the success of the Giant-Size Man-Thing backups, Steve Gerber convinced Marvel to give Howard his own ongoing series. This story introduces Beverly Switzler, a character who would later become an important part of Howard’s story. Beverly is mostly known as Howard’s best friend, but some comics have portrayed them as romantic partners. Howard the Duck’s ongoing comic was where Steve Gerber was able to let loose with the character. The book stood apart from Marvel’s other monthly titles, thanks to Howard’s irreverent tone, and witty social commentary.
The series begins with Howard contemplating suicide due to his traumatic experiences on Earth. Before he can act, he finds himself caught in a struggle with a sorcerer named Pro-Rata, and a woman named Beverly Switzler. This issue also features a guest appearance from Spider-Man, who has traveled to Cleveland to investigate the strange duck sightings.
In 1976, Marvel promoted the Howard the Duck title by launching a presidential campaign. Fans were invited to send Marvel money for exclusive campaign merchandise. Of course, the campaign was just Marvel having fun since Howard is fictitious, and ducks are not eligible for public office. Marvel publisher Stan Lee would later claim that Howard received thousands of write-in votes during the 1976 Presidential election. However, historical records indicate that Lee had made that number up.
Howard the Duck #8 played with the idea of the Presidential campaign, with Howard running as a member of the All-Night Party. Voters responded to Howard’s brutal honesty, propelling the duck to the top of the polls above Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The issue also gave Gerber an opportunity to have some fun with political commentary. In the end, a leaked picture of Howard in the bath with Beverly sank his campaign. Voters didn’t mind the idea of a duck in the White House, but the thought of a duck and woman getting romantic was a bridge too far.
This issue is a parody of the classic Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life. Feeling fed up with the world, Howard attempts to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge until he’s stopped by a guardian angel named Andy. Howard believes that the world would be better off without him, and Andy tries to prove him wrong. Andy shows Howard what his friends’ lives would’ve been like if the duck had never landed on Earth, but the plan backfires. All of Howard’s friends are richer and happier in this hypothetical world. Feeling like a failure, Andy attempts to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Howard stops him, inviting him to share a beer instead. It’s an unusual Christmas story, but it’s on-brand for Howard.
Howard is attempting to live a quiet life as a computer salesman, but trouble seems to find him wherever he goes. Before long, Howard finds himself on a multiversal adventure with She-Hulk. Howard and Jennifer battle strange forces, as they make their way through the Baloneyverse, a realm of floating lunch meats. This storyline contains some meta-commentary on the state of comics. It’s also notable for being the first time Howard co-creator Steve Gerber wrote the character after an 11-year absence.
This comic is a fun story where Howard and Spider-Man team-up to fight a homicidal elf. However, the story behind the scenes is just as interesting. This issue has a subtle crossover with Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck #1, which was published by Image Comics. Both comics were written by Steve Gerber, telling the same story from the perspective of different characters.
In Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck #1, Spider-Man and Howard are only seen in the shadows. In Spider-Man Team-Up #5, the reader never gets a good look at Savage Dragon or Destroyer Duck. Gerber had been fighting with Marvel for years over Howard’s ownership, and he decided to use this unofficial crossover to retake the character.
In the pages of Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck #1 Howard and Beverly are cloned. The original characters are then given new appearances and change their names to Leonard the Duck and Rhonda Martini. This was Gerber’s way of saying that any Howard stories published by Marvel from that point on were not the original character. Marvel editor Tom Brevoort had initially approved of the crossover, unaware of Gerber’s plans. Brevoort later called it the worst mistake of his career. According to the Official Marvel Handbook, the Leonard plot twist isn’t canon. However, Chip Zdarsky hinted that the current Howard was a clone of the original during his run.
This limited series was published as part of Marvel’s MAX line, which contained stories for mature readers. As a result, this story was more provocative, referencing a sexual relationship between Beverly and Howard. Gerber returned to write Howard once more, providing cold-hearted commentary on boy bands, the internet, religion, and Disney. Make sure your kids are in bed before you take this book out.
Howard reunites with his former companion Beverly Switzler, only to discover that she’s moved on with her life. The issue deconstructs their relationship, showing readers how Beverly internalized all the chaos that followed them. Once the Beverly crisis is done, Howard meets movie star Lea Thompson. Howard learns that Lea has been forced to play Beverly in a fictionalized version of his life. This leads to some fun meta-commentary, and a bit of an existential crisis.
Speaking of Lea Thompson…
Okay, hear me out – you should probably watch the 1986 Howard the Duck movie. Yes, I know it’s considered one of the biggest bombs in Hollywood history. Yes, I am aware that it’s the winner of four Razzie Awards, including Worst Picture of 1986. Yes, the Howard suit was unconvincing. The movie might have a horrible reputation, but it’s still worth watching.
As Marvel’s first full-length theatrical film (their 1944 Captain America production was a serial), Howard the Duck holds an important place in history. This movie stumbled so that films like Avengers: Endgame could thrive. Besides, it’s been 37 years, which is long enough to see the movie from another perspective. And according to Lea Thompson (who played Beverly Switzler) this film has devoted fans. Love it or hate it, everyone should experience it once.
For more on Howard, and his Marvel Universe allies, keep your eyes peeled to Popverse for more guides, features, character breakdowns, and other bits of fandom fun.