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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, January 29, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "QUACK-UP!" (HOWARD THE DUCK #11, 1976)

Since in this post  I devoted some space to asserting how poorly Bill Mantlo did with a particular HOWARD THE DUCK story, it seems only fair to address the question of mythicity in Steve Gerber's original run on the franchise he co-created.



A quick scan of the first 27 issues of the HTD comic book suggests that Gerber's stories-- and they seem to be principally his creation, with only minimal creative input from artists like Gene Colan and Val Mayerik-- are not generally intended to evoke the mythopoeic potentiality. While Gerber's preoccupations on the Man-Thing-- one story analyzed here-- tend toward the kinetic and the mythopoeic, most of the HOWARD stories focus on elements of the dramatic and the didactic. This seems to have been a logical development, given that Gerber's protagonist was a classic misanthrope, his animus toward society accentuated by the fact that, as a talking duck, he wasn't even an "anthrope." Gerber sometimes wrote HOWARD into situations that required him to play the part of a "hero," in keeping with 1970s Marvel's emphasis upon having a fight-scene in every issue. However, Howard was what I've termed a *demihero,* more concerned with survival than with the glories of the heroic life. It's arguable that the HOWARD series is the first mainstream Marvel series that seriously called into question the glory-seeking ethic of the Marvel superhero line.

The story in question here is actually one segment on an arc concerning Howard's inability to tolerare the heroic ethic. At the end of issue #9, Howard refused to meet the challenge of a villain called "Le Beaver," even though said villain was threatening Howard's quasi-romantic "hairless ape" companion, Beverly Switzler. By sheer dumb luck, Le Beaver is killed and Beverly's life is preserved. However, the duck is tormented by his psychological conflicts. Even during his dreams, he reflects that "There's really nothin' glamorous or honorable about gettin' killed to perpetuate [other people's] masculine stereotype." Yet the refusal of heroic action generates enough mental stress that Howard experiences something akin to a nervous breakdown, leading to a surrealistic dream-sequence that lasts throughout issue #10. Issues #11 through #14 deal with Howard being sentenced to a mental health ward for observation-- but overall the arc is still largely concerned with the dramatic and didactic sides of Howard's conflict, not the mythopoeic. In the end Howard receives help from a Marvel guest-star whose adventures Gerber had been writing the previous year-- Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan-- but at best the arc of Howard's "quack-up" was a mixed bag.

The story of HOWARD #11, though, is strong enough that it can read without much reference to the other issues, particularly because Gerber conceived a means to place his protagonist in a situation absurd enough to generate its own ironic mythos. Howard awakens from his dream-- literally a bedeviling nightmare, since it ends with him being tormented in hell by a comic-looking devil-- yet the duck remains haunted by quasi-schizophrenic voices that only he hears. He happens to see Beverly apparently making up to a handsome "hairless ape," and his jealousy provokes him to seek out the local bus-station and take the first bus out of town. The duck is so aggravated that he doesn't even notice that the bus is going to Cleveland, a hairless-ape city Howard has encountered before and for which he has no pleasant associations.

The idea of being stuck on a long bus-ride with a bunch of strangers would ordinarily connote only mundane experience. However, Gerber makes Howard's experience in the consensual world almost as surrealistic as anything in his dreams. Gerber's probable inspiration here is the Firesign Theater's 1971 comedy album I THINK WE'RE ALL BOZOS ON THIS BUS, but Howard's bus is overrun not with clowns but with religious frauds.

The duck, who styles himself a "pragmatist," would be among the last to ever seek religious counseling for his mental difficulties. So of course in an ironic universe he boards a bus replete with wackos who seem to sense his psychic upheaval and try to sell him their wares-- a book on "Gnosticology" (a spoof on Scientology), a neo-Christian text called "Martyrdom for the Millions" (hawked by a guy dressed up like Jesus), and others. Howard does make one marginal ally-- a cheerful, lisp-voiced innocent named "Winda," who will continue as a supporting character for the rest of Gerber's run.




However, the inevitable fight-scene occurs when Howard encounters an old nemesis from his part: the Kidney Lady (seen from behind on the cover), who is convinced that Howard is part of an "international kidney-poisoning conspiracy."




A fracas ensures, in which the Kidney Lady demonstrates her religious tolerance.





Gerber's at the top of his form here. He delivers a lot of silly puns that read better in a comic than they would if I put them in a blogpost. Many writers (*koff* Mantlo) would not be able to think of Howard as anything but a repository of MAD-like puns and simplistically moral storylines, Gerber's strength, in contrast, lies in his ability to merge the banal and the surrealistic in a manner that goes beyond mere frivolity. And while none of the religious goofballs on the bus are, properly speaking, representatives of genuine religions (even within the context of the Marvel Universe), it's surely not coincidence that Howard, though greatly in need of counseling, can only find religious elements intermixed with crass commercialism and verbal malapropisms ("You should love thy neighbor and be true to thy school.")

There are assorted myth-motifs throughout the "breakdown-arc," but only in "Quack-Up" do they assume a high level of mythicity.

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