Thursday, September 04, 2014
Culture Shock 09.04.14: Every duck has his day
Yet there he was: Howard the Duck, still trapped in a world he never made.
If, like me, you tortured your bladder and stuck around through the end credits of "Guardians of the Galaxy," you were rewarded with a brief cameo appearance by Marvel Comics' most oddball character this side of Fin Fang Foom.
In the '86 movie, Howard was portrayed by actor Ed Gale wearing an unconvincing duck costume, plus seven other actors credited with providing Howard's voice (Chip Zien) and otherwise bringing the anthropomorphized fowl to some semblance of life. In "Guardians" Howard is a far more realistic CGI creation voiced by an uncredited Seth Green ("Family Guy"), who coincidentally voiced Rocket Raccoon in the "Avengers Assemble" animated series.
It was just a few seconds of screen time, but Howard the Duck can now lay claim to appearing in the year's No. 1 movie. Heading into the Labor Day weekend, "Guardians of the Galaxy" had grossed $274.6 million in North America, moving it ahead of "Captain America: The Winter Solder" and "The Lego Movie." OK, all that green has a lot more to do with the talking raccoon and the dancing tree than it does the wisecracking waterfowl, but still. For Howard, it's quite a comeback.
Before Jar Jar Binks, "Howard the Duck" was pretty much universally regarded as George Lucas' greatest failure. And Lucas just produced the movie. It wasn't as if he'd written and directed it.
Even today, the '86 "Howard the Duck" film is more Lucas' albatross than Marvel's.
At a showing of "Guardians of the Galaxy," I overheard someone speculate that Howard's post-credit cameo had come about because Disney owns both Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm. He didn't know Howard is a Marvel character, although one who has appeared only sporadically since his comic book's original 31-issue run from 1976 to 1979.
Howard was created by the late Steve Gerber, who brought the counterculture sensibilities of underground comics into the Marvel mainstream, and artist Val Mayerik. But it was the late Gene Colan who drew most of the "Howard the Duck" series, and he was the perfect complement to Gerber.
Gerber's stories were satirical with a tendency toward absurdism. But Colan kept Howard grounded with gritty, street-level illustrations. No matter how weird Howard's adventures were, you never forgot he was just a poor, schlubby duck out of water who happened to fall into a world run by "hairless apes." Even worse, he'd landed in Cleveland, and he wasn't getting out any time soon.
"Howard the Duck" was, briefly, something of a breakout hit for Marvel, which tried Howard out in a newspaper strip that ran 16 months and promoted him with a fake 1976 presidential campaign.
Unfortunately, Howard's hard luck extended from the printed page to the real world. Disney didn't like that Howard somewhat resembled Donald Duck, forcing Marvel to tweak Howard's design, including putting pants on him. Now Disney owns Howard, but he still wears pants.
Worse still, Gerber and Marvel clashed over creative control, which led to Marvel kicking Gerber off the book. That was the beginning of Howard's slide into obscurity, broken temporarily only by the Lucas movie, from which Howard is still recovering.
Marvel already has a full slate of films on its schedule, and no one thinks Howard is getting one of his own again anytime soon. Still, Marvel has made the 1976-79 "Howard the Duck" series available again as digital comics, on sale through ComiXology and Marvel.com.
Most tellingly, Howard the Duck merchandise is starting to crop up again, spurred by the demand Howard's "Guardians" appearance has generated. First a bobblehead, and then the sky is the limit.
"Guardians" director James Gunn says Howard's cameo is just a bit of fun. It doesn't portend anything. But with the world as screwy as it has ever been, maybe it's time for the duck to again have his day.