On Strips: Howard the Duck

By | Friday, March 11, 2016 3 comments
One of the short-lived strips of the late 1970s was Howard the Duck. The character was first introduced in Adventure into Fear in 1973, and got his own self-titled comic book in 1976. Despite some distribution problems, the character became popular -- largely, I think, thanks to Steve Gerber's unique vision for the character. In fact, the character was considered so popular that Marvel began toying with the idea of launching it as a newspaper strip as well. So in June 1977, Howard the Duck was thrust into newspaper funny pages across the country.

That's probably a misleading statement. Whatever popularity HtD had in comic books didn't translate into popularity in comic strips. Only about 70 newspapers picked the strip up initially, and many of them didn't keep the series long. I think, at its height, HtD still never made it into more than 100 papers. The problem was largely, I think, thanks to Steve Gerber's unique vision for the character.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's insightful and sarcastic and cynical and brilliant (I just picked up the just-published second volume of Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection earlier this week) but Gerber is something of an outside entity. He never really seemed to fit in with any crowd, and was very much a free-thinker that espoused ideas and concepts that frequently challenged the status quo. Not that he always disagreed with them, I don't think, but he felt it was useful, if not downright necessary, to never accept things as they are just because that's how things are. That basic philosophy has pretty much NEVER been popular, and thinking that would fly in a mass media like newspapers seems pretty misguided on the face of it. (Although I suppose that alone is reason enough to try it, if you're following Gerber's thinking!) The popularity that Howard enjoyed in comic books was precisely because the medium itself tapped into something of a counter-culture that was against much of the establishment, whatever the establishment might be.

(This might seem odd that people railing against "the establishment" might pick up on something coming from Marvel, but they were hardly the media giant in 1976 that they are today. While successful, Marvel at the time was still viewed as a scrappy newcomer to the industry.)

Gerber, still writing the Howard the Duck comic book, started running into conflict with Marvel over ownership/control of the character. In the spring of 1978, Gerber was removed from both the comic book and comic strip and they were turned over to Marv Wolfman. Wolfman's vision wasn't quite the same, however, and he took the character in a somewhat different direction. What little support newspapers had given the strip (it was down to being carried in only about 20 papers) fell away and the strip was cancelled altogether about six months later, replaced soon after by The Incredible Hulk. The comic book lasted another few months beyond that.

I don't believe the strips have ever been collected in full. A few 'zines and fan publications ran portions of the strip back in the '70s, but it's never seen anything resembling a collected form. As far as I can determine, in fact, the only place that one can find the entire strip would be The Washington Star. I believe this is the only newspaper that carried the strip from beginning to end.

High time this has been collected, don't you think?
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3 comments:

Richard said...

I wish you'd included an actual Gerber-written installment as the illustration! This one just shows why Howard didn't work at all without Steve. AT ALL.

Part of the problem with the Howard strip was Marvel trying to stuff it into mainstream syndication alongside the likes of Dagwood Bumstead and Cathy. If only they'd had the wit to understand the rise of alt weeklies...I can well imagine a long-running and successful Howard strip alongside Stan Mack, Life In Hell, Ernie Pook's Comeek, and Tom the Dancing Bug.

(But doing that would require a Marvel that understood investing in the long-term health of a valuable property instead of just going for the immediate payout...)

Unknown said...

Everything you want to know about the
Howard the Duck comic strip is at
http://nemsworld.com/howard/

That site actually posted the Gerber strips
until, I assume, some Marvel copyright lawyers
asked him(?) to please take them down.

I, for the first time, subscribed to an
out-of-town newspaper (The Oakland Tribune)
just to get the Howard the Duck comic strip.

Gerber's Howard and Man-Thing comics still remain favorites.

D.D.Degg

demoncat_4 said...

sadly given how things got with steve and marvel over ownership of howard odds are unless some how howard becomes hot again odds marvel figures that the newspaper strip does not have enough of fan base for the cost of reprinting it unless they do it in a howard the duck essentail trade.