Fording the Mainstream logo

Steve Gerber: The Dark Duck Returns

By Darren Schroeder

WORD is out that Steve Gerber has decided to return to the writer's chair for his seminal seventies creation, Howard the Duck. Once I got over the shock of the news I just had to get some answers from Steve....

Darren Schroeder: Whose idea was it for you to revisit The Duck?

Steve Gerber: It originated with Phil Winslade. He's been a fan of the character for years, and, as you know, he and I did Nevada together for Vertigo. Over the past year or so, Phil has been doing a lot of work for Marvel Knights, and he was in regular communication with Stuart Moore at the time Marvel decided to move forward with their new "mature readers" line. Phil proposed the idea to Stuart. Stuart, I gather, ran the idea past Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas about it before anyone ever approached me about writing it.

DS: Did you and/or Marvel take much convincing?

SG: There was some skepticism -- for different reasons -- on both sides. Joe Quesada was concerned that Howard might have been too much a phenomenon of its time, an idea that worked in the 1970s but that might not play 25 years later.

Given the current political, social, and cultural climate, I had no worries in that regard. The situation in the U.S. now -- a dork in the White House, the country split down the middle politically, every form of popular culture from music to movies at a creative nadir, and so on  almost exactly parallels the state of things in 1975. In that sense, the time has never been more appropriate for Howard's return.

The source of my skepticism could be summed up in one word: "Marvel." It's been my experience that no matter who was running the joint at any given moment, the Marvel corporate culture had proved impervious to change. Its attitude had always been that there was only one right way to do comics, that artists and writers were virtually interchangeable, and that the corporate assets -- the characters, the trademarks -- were more valuable than the people who kept them alive for forty years. There was no real reason to believe any of that would change just because two guys named Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas were now in charge.

To be honest, had the call come from anyone at Marvel other than Stuart Moore or Axel Alonso, both of whom I knew from my work at Vertigo, I probably would have said "no" immediately. Stuart and I talked about the project at length, though, and I became convinced that he understood the character, why it worked the first time, and what would be necessary to make it work again, so many years later.

Howard Held CaptiveStuart asked me to dash off a quick story idea, something to demonstrate to Joe and Bill that the character wasn't a captive of the 1970s. At first, I resisted doing that, because the original Howard book had always been plotted "on the fly." Its spontaneity had been one of its greatest strengths. Working on a monthly schedule, I could respond to what was going on in the world around me at that moment, and I never had time to overthink the stories. The writing was less polished for that reason -- there was never even time to do a second draft of a plot or dialogue -- but the raw energy and anger more than made up for that.

Eventually, though, I decided that a sample story premise would be by far the best way to find out whether Marvel would allow me to write the book the way I felt it would have to be written for a contemporary audience. So I wrote up two or three paragraphs on a story that included something to offend just about everybody -- a story so politically, culturally, and commercially incorrect that I figured it would put an end to the whole discussion. Marvel would simply decide not to do the book, or at least not to do it with me, and that would be that.

It's rare that I'm literally rendered speechless, but when I heard from Stuart that Bill and Joe loved the story, and that it convinced them Howard could indeed be made to work for a contemporary readership, I was dumbfounded. My response was something along the lines of, "You've got to be kidding."

It was only at that point that I decided the plusses -- Stuart as editor, Phil as artist, Glenn Fabry as cover artist -- might actually outweigh my trepidation at the notion of getting involved in any way with Marvel again. So I said "yes," and here we are.

DS: When you say things won't change just because new people are in charge, isn't this because they are facing the same financial reality of those that come before them? That is, Marvel has to operate as a business and if it can't then it won't operate at all.

SG: What? No -- hell, no! The way Marvel treated people had nothing to do with it being "a business." There are businesses that treat people well, businesses that treat people like week-old weasel dung, and a broad spectrum of degrees in between. For most of its history, Marvel has been the weasel dung type. Whether that's changed, I honestly don't know yet. I'm seeing certain indications that it may have. But this renewed relationship is very young, and only time will tell. I hope I'm right. It would be a nice change of pace, after all these years, to be able to say something positive about the company.

DS: How much of the story-line have you worked out so far?

SG: I know what the first two issues are going to be, and I know what I want to do with the rest. It's my intention to dismantle the entire apparatus of popular culture, starting with a couple of very easy targets and drilling progressively deeper, into the manipulative machinery at its core.

DS: Will the story be set in 2001?

SG: Well, 2002. The book won't be coming out 'til next year.

DS: What will this mini series mean for your "final Howard the Duck" script?

SG: You mean the one on my website? It'll remain available there, as a monument to Marvel's glorious editorial past.

Thanks A<br>Bunch, George.DS: Will mention be made of events in the Howard the Duck film?

SG: No.

DS: Why not?

SG: For the same reason Krypton isn't an ice world in the comics, and the Joker didn't kill Thomas and Martha Wayne. The movie was an adaptation of the comic book material. It stands -- or, in this case, huddles shamefully in a corner -- on its own, as another, separate interpretation of the character.

For that matter, I don't even intend to acknowledge any of the Howard stories published after the first 27 issues of the original comic book. As far as I'm concerned, they're not part of the Howard "canon." They're apocrypha.

DS: Have Marvel made any stipulations regarding content/tone of the mini-series?

SG: Not so far. We'll see what happens. (I'm maintaining a healthy skepticism, for all the obvious reasons.)

DS: Who will be involved on the art side of things?

SG: As I mentioned, Phil Winslade will be drawing the book with Glenn Fabry doing covers. We're also hoping to bring in Gene Colan to do at least one sequence during the run.

DS: Any guest appearances of other Marvel characters such as Man-Thing, or the other past co-stars.

SG: Some of the old villains may show up. I haven't given much thought to the possibility of other guest stars yet.

DS: Is there any truth the rumor that it is going to be called The Dark Duck Returns?

SG: No. We're going to call it DLA and make the wholly specious claim that it features both Hal Jordan and Aunt May's return from the dead -- as star-crossed lovers.

DS: Will there be a "Howard the Duck Created by..." acknowledgement in the credits?

SG: It'll probably appear in the credits as "Created & Written by," but yes. The creator credit was supposed to have appeared on all of Howard's appearances subsequent to the settlement of the lawsuit. Marvel has slipped up on it once or twice, but those instances have been accidental, and it certainly won't happen on this project.

DS: What sort of promotion are Marvel discussing for the book?

SG: I don't want to spoil any surprises, but they have some pretty elaborate plans in mind.

One thing I can talk about, though, is that they're planning to publish an "Essentials" trade paperback collection of the original Howard material prior to the release of the new series. For me, this is both an extremely gratifying and slightly scary prospect. On one hand, I'm very pleased that people will be able to read those stories again. As I told you in our first interview, I think they stand the test of time very well, and I've always found it annoying that they've never been reprinted. On the other hand, this means readers will have the original material immediately at hand as a point of comparison to the new stuff, and that's a bit daunting. All in all, though, I would much rather confront the intimidation from my younger self than see those stories remain out of print.

DS: There are sure to be some fans who won't be happy with an updated Howard, any words of advice for them?

SG: Not really. Anyone who's already made up his or her mind is beyond persuasion. If I were addressing the merely skeptical, though, I suppose I'd ask them to remember what Howard the Duck represented in its first iteration -- a major departure from just about everything else in mainstream comics at the time, and a book that was itself in a constant state of evolution and change. If there's any tradition I feel is necessary to uphold with this new series, that's the one.

DS: Apart from the imminent return of the Duck, are their any good things about the beginning of the 21st century?

SG: Oh, sure. Heck, we got past both alleged starts of the Millennium without God descending to pass His final judgment upon the Earth. That's promising. And we're about to enter into some very interesting, very non-20th century debates on matters like stem cell research and human cloning. And, as you know, I like the current technology a lot, though it's certainly a double-, if not a triple- or quadruple-edged sword.

For me, one of the more intriguing things to watch over the next few years will be what happens to the mega-conglomerates like AOL Time Warner, Disney, Microsoft, and Viacom. Either they're going to wind up controlling every aspect of our lives in a kind of William Gibson/Neal Stephenson scenario, or their corporate nervous systems will start to break down, and they'll begin eating themselves alive, once there's nothing else left out there for them to devour. Or, worse -- both.

Harking back to my first snide comment, I think we also may be on the verge of some major revolution -- or revelation -- in terms of religion and its role in people's lives. I'm not even sure why I believe this, maybe I'm just a little crazy, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least if, in the next decade or so, something happens that radically alters, or even collapses, some of the world's major religions. Maybe they'll find a Dead Sea Scroll that proves Jesus was just a hot, tired construction worker who mouthed off to a Roman centurion, or they'll locate the Lost Ark and discover that it was Moses's sleepover case for long nights in the desert, or maybe the Vulcans really will land somewhere in Montana and explain that, well, yeah, maybe your planet is subject to the prophecies of some two thousand-year-old Mediterranean text, but on Eminiar-7, "armageddon" is the word for "doorknob."

I'm not sure any of these qualify as "good things," but somehow I doubt the early 21st century is going to be a boring period to live through.

DS: When can we expect to see this comic hit the shelves?

SG: We haven't set a definite date yet, but it'll be early in 2002.

DS: Due to various agreements and release dates that Marvel and Steve had to keep in mind we've waited for the first pieces of artwork to become available before running the story, as Steve was sure I'd have some more questions when I saw it. You bet I do Steve....

Howard the Duck??? by Glenn FabryDS: .....What the..... is that
really Howard on the cover?

SG: Yes, it is.

DS: If it is, I guess how he ended up like this is explained in the comic, so I'll just ask why you decided on this transformation?

SG: Back in the late 1970s, the Walt Disney Company threatened to sue Marvel Comics over the design of Howard the Duck, which, or so they claimed, was too similar in appearance to Donald Duck. To avoid litigation, Marvel's old management signed an incredibly stupid agreement with Disney. Under its terms, all future appearances of Howard must conform to a set of designs that Disney provided for the character. You've seen this design. It's the one from the black-and-white HTD magazine, with the ghastly swollen beak, the beady eyes, and the baggy trousers that make the duck look like a derelict. What's absolutely astonishing, though, is that the Disney agreement is worded in such a way that Marvel isn't even permitted to create a new, alternative design for the character, even if that design bears no resemblance to Donald.

When Stuart Moore and I began talking about the new HTD series, neither of us knew that any agreement existed on paper. I was under the impression that Marvel had simply reached an understanding with Disney, on a "handshake" basis, that Howard wouldn't look like Donald. Working on that assumption, Glenn Fabry had begun designing a new Howard the Duck. Glenn came up with a version that looked nothing like Donald, and that Stuart, Phil Winslade, and I thought was just wonderful. We were set to move forward with that version, when Stuart spoke to Marvel's legal department and learned of the written agreement with Disney.

Stuart faxed me a copy of the thing, and my heart sank when I read it. I've done a lot of complaining over the years about the people who used to run Marvel, but even I never expected to see their monumental stupidity memorialized in writing. They literally allowed another company to redesign their character for them! As far as I can tell, they never even attempted to submit any alternative designs for Disney's consideration. They just left it in Disney's hands, and Disney gave them exactly what you'd expect -- the ugliest, most unappealing, least salable character imaginable.

Let me come right out and say this: Marvel's former management was not only grossly incompetent; it was a pack of craven cowards. Oh, they were very big and tough when it came to dicking around their writers and artists, the people whose livelihoods they controlled, but they pissed their pants at the very idea of even having to negotiate with almighty Disney. The Disney artists who destroyed Howard must have had an enormous laugh at their expense, and the Disney lawyers must have thought they were dealing with a bunch of nitwits who lacked even the most basic instinct for self-preservation.

Howard the Mouse??? by Glenn FabryAnyway...

The agreement exists, and we were stuck with it -- with an appallingly ugly duck that I didn't want to write and that Marvel's current management didn't really want to publish. We were on the verge of junking the new series altogether, when a weird notion popped into my head: What if we turned Howard into something other than a duck? What was really more important, the essential nature of the character, or the beak and feathers?

I proposed the idea to Stuart. He found it intriguing but wasn't sure Joe Quesada or Bill Jemas could be persuaded to accept such a radical departure.

That was understandable enough, so I asked Glenn Fabry, as a favor, if he'd be willing to attempt a few sketches of Howard as a mouse -- yes, there was a certain element of revenge involved -- just to see if we could successfully transplant Howard's personality into another species. Glenn agreed, and in just a few days came up with a mouse that was unmistakably Howard. (In case you're wondering, Phil Winslade, who'll be drawing the new book, couldn't work on the design, because he was knee-deep in a Daredevil project for Marvel Knights. Glenn was faxing Phil copies of the sketches as they progressed.)

Stuart showed the sketches to Joe and Bill, and explained the idea to them. Not only were they enthusiastic, Bill actually came up with an even more radical proposal -- that we try Howard as several different animals over the course of the six-issue series, which is exactly what we're going to do. Toward the end of the series, I'm hoping we can set up an Internet poll to let readers decide which animal Howard should remain on a permanent basis.

If you compare the two ducks side by side, you'll see that they don't have a single feature in common. The heads, eyes, beaks, bodies, and feet are all completely different. Even the hands are different -- Donald's are wing-shaped, whereas Howard's are more human-like, and gloved. The costuming, of course, is also completely different on the two characters. And the coloring would be different, as well; Howard's feathers were yellow, Donald is white. In spite of all that, Glenn's duck will likely never see publication because of the agreement Marvel signed with Disney.

DS: Blimey, [blimey /'blami/ interjection slang: expressing surprise.] Have you read No Logo by Naomi Klein? She makes a good argument about how the big multinationals spend huge amounts of money to become part of our shared culture through advertising, sponsorship and so on, while at the same denying artist/writers etc the ability to examine this public profile critically in their works. This "approved Duck" thing seems a perfect example of this enforcement of a one way cultural dialogue. Next thing we know political parties will copyright their manifestos and deny other parties or the press the right to debate/critic them.

SG: I haven't read No Logo ,but I love the title, and I certainly don't disagree with the premise. In fact, I'm going to be touching on some of the same subject matter, from a slightly different angle, in the new Howard series.

In the Howard the Duck situation, though, only one company was really at fault: Marvel, for making no attempt to protect its character. It took Glenn Fabry two days and a bit of original thinking to design a new duck that maintained the flavor of the original Howard and yet looked nothing at all like Donald. If Marvel's former management had had two functioning brain cells and one ball among them, if they hadn't shrunk in terror at the mere mention of the name "Disney," I'm convinced they could have resolved the dispute without wrecking the character.

Pretty damn lucky Disney never had a major character based on a spider, huh?

Howard the Duck by Glenn Fabry, followed by Donald Duck by Disney

DS: Yeah, but no doubt they will buy a couple up in the next few decades. Getting back to Howard, Where, or perhaps more importantly who, did he get the gloves from?

SG: How quickly they forget. Howard has always worn white gloves.

DS: I never noticed before how similar they were to Mickey Mouse's gloves. The illustration by Glenn Fabry is a great piece of work, were you happy with it when you first saw the artwork?

SG: I was overjoyed, both with Glenn's initial sketch and with the cover, yes. It's probably one of the best-kept secrets in comics that Glenn Fabry is an extremely talented funny animal artist. Like everyone else, I was mainly familiar with Glenn's work from his Preacher covers and the paintings he's done for other Vertigo titles, which, as you know, are highly realistic and darkly intense. I was floored when I saw these elegantly designed ducks and mice coming out of my fax machine. I asked Glenn about it, and it turns out that most of the work he did prior to landing his first professional gig was, in fact, funny animal cartooning. He loves the genre and was very excited to get a chance to play around with it again. (Like Phil, he was also a major fan of Howard the Duck in its first iteration, so working on this particular book is doubly a treat for him, which I find immensely flattering, of course.)

DS: Is this the final version of the cover or is it a mock-up?

SG: Somewhere in between. Glenn wants to add some background to the painting, and I want to make some changes to the balloon style and the spacing of the lettering. Other than that, this is the real first cover.

DS: Do you have a pet?

SG: Not at the moment.

DS: Why no pets?

SG: I've had dogs and cats all my life. I love animals, but I wanted a break from poop collection and litter box cleaning for a while. Before another year is up, I'll probably have a dog again.

DS: What sort of accent does Howard speak in?

SG: I always felt he should sound something like Burgess Meredith doing the Penguin.

DS: Oh heck, I can't help but ask, just how did Howard end up as a mouse?

SG: I can't give that away, but there will be a logical explanation -- as logical as comic books get, anyway. Any reader who's been able to accept the Hulk's changes of skin color, or the Beast turning blue and hairy, or any of the various transformations Ben Grimm has undergone over the years will probably be able to accept the explanation for Howard's metamorphoses.

For more on Howard the Duck visit Newsarama's When's A Duck Not A Duck.

Discuss this interview on the Feature Fiends Forum!