"Get Down, America!" Howard the Duck for President

by Gregory L. Reece

2 April 2015

Howard the Duck ran for president way back in the year of the American Bicentennial. His platform sounds just as good today as it did back then.
 

Here we go again. The long slog to choose the next president of the United States is underway. Candidates are beginning to declare their intent, raise money, and plan trips to New Hampshire and the Iowa State Fair. The 2016 presidential election, of course, is over a year and a half away, but putting together a winning campaign takes time. You have to get an early start if you want to be able to raise and spend all the money necessary to successfully buy—I mean, win—the presidency.

Frankly, I’m already discouraged. Anything can happen, we’re told, but the odds are against it. We’re likely to get the same old big-money, out-of-touch-with-real-life, say-anything-to-get-elected cast of characters that we always get. The thought that we might end up with a Clinton/Bush rehash is enough to make me want to give up on the whole process, move to the desert, and bury my head in the sand.

Isn’t there anyone new out there, anyone different, anyone down-to-earth, authentic, and real? Is it too much to ask for a presidential candidate who would just tell us the truth, the cold hard truth?

There once was such a candidate, a candidate that was truly different, a candidate from way outside the political system, a candidate that understood the real issues faced by the common citizen. Granted, his first run for office was unsuccessful, but he wouldn’t be the first candidate to be given a second chance in American politics. (Who can forget the loveable comeback kid Richard Nixon?) The candidate that I have in mind almost pulled it off once before, and I think that he might go all the way this time around. Calm down, Al Gore; I’m not talking to you.

The candidate I am thinking about ran for office way back in the year of the American Bicentennial.  And his campaign slogan sounds just as good today as it did then.

“Get down, America!”

Of course, I’m talking about Howard the Duck for president.

I know what you’re thinking: Howard the Duck? The character from what is often regarded as one of the worst movies of all time? The strange monstrosity that appeared as a last laugh at the tail end of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie? That guy? Howard the Duck?

Well, yes and no.

You see, Howard has fallen on some hard times, even if he did have a career-rejuvenating cameo in last summer’s biggest movie and is getting a brand new comic book from Marvel Comics. Howard’s not really the same duck that he was way back in the day when he ran against Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Most people today have forgotten what the old Howard was really like. it’s this the “old Howard” that I would want to see run for president again.

We just have to get him back.

That’s why I want to start this campaign early, before Hillary Clinton officially throws her hat into the ring: not because he’ll need the time to raise money, but because that will give us plenty of time to bring Howard back to his roots, remind him of who he really is, and help him to find his authentic self and speak once again in his true voice.

Let me explain.

Most people who remember Howard at all probably know him best from his two cinematic appearances. First, Howard had the distinction of being the first Marvel Comics character to appear in a full-length theatrically-released movie. Produced by George Lucas, 1986’s Howard the Duck had potential. But while I really don’t think it is all that bad, it was both a critical and financial disaster upon its release. The biggest problem with the film is that the story it tells is not really true to the Howard the Duck who had appeared in the pages of his self-titled Marvel Comics magazine during his mid-‘70s heyday, back when creator Steve Gerber was writing the words and the great Gene Colan was drawing the pictures. 

The 1986 movie is a science fiction comedy. In it, Howard is an alien from another planet, or perhaps another dimension. The plot centers on scientists who want to examine and dissect him, and on extraterrestrial invaders against whom Howard is Earth’s last defense. The movie is a little like E.T., a little like The Last Starfighter and, with all that lame pretend guitar playing, a little like Back to the Future. It has very little in common with Gerber and Colan’s classic tales.

Now, Howard’s reappearance puts him smack in the middle of Marvel’s cosmic universe. Once again, in Guardians of the Galaxy and in his new monthly comic book, Howard is a science fiction character, surrounded by starships and aliens.

Not that Howard doesn’t have some pretty deep science fiction and fantasy roots. After all, his first appearance in 1973’s Adventure into Fear #19 came in the midst of Gerber’s and Man-Thing’s cosmic sword and sorcery Nexus of All Realities storyline. When he appeared in his own solo tales, first as a back-up for Man-Thing’s adventures and then in his own book, the first few stories were clearly superhero, horror, fantasy and science fiction spoofs. He battled Garko the Man-Frog, the vampiric Hellcow, the mystical Pro-Rata—“soon to be Chief Accountant of the Universe”—and the unforgettable Space Turnip!

So, if someone was introduced to Howard through just those original tales and his two big-screen appearances I can see why the character could be taken as a comedic sci-fi/fantasy hero. But along about issue number three, something amazing began to happen in his crazy little comic book. Though still occasionally bumping up against the strange and supernatural, Howard became, at heart, a realistic character. Indeed, I’m not afraid to say that beginning with Howard the Duck #4 (“The Sleep of the Just”) and extending through the end of the great Gerber/Colan team-up, Howard was arguably the most realistic character ever published by Marvel Comics.

Now I know that he often teamed up with superheroes and battled super villains and that the weird was always just around the corner. I also know that I am claiming that Howard the Duck was a realistic character. But even so, when Gerber and Colan were on a roll, when they were producing the very best of their Howard the Duck stories, those stories were firmly rooted in the real world. Far from being a science fiction or fantasy character, Howard at his strongest is a nuts-and-bolts, down-on-his-luck, regular Joe, everyman (or everyduck).

It was that Howard that Gerber and Colan ran for president in 1976, and it is that Howard that I want to see run again.

It’s hard to imagine how popular Howard was in the mid-‘70s. When Gerber was ordered to remove the comical duck from his partnership with the horror character Man-Thing, fans clamored to bring him back. And when he came back, the first few issues of his comic book were instant collectors’ items. Gerber, part of the new generation of comicbook creators that swept into Marvel’s bullpen in the early 70’s, took full advantage of fan support for this strange bird. He held nothing back.

As much as I admire the work of original illustrator Frank Brunner, Howard and Gerber really came into their own when they were teamed with veteran illustrator Gene Colan.  (Keep in mind that Colan was also working on Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula at the same time, which means that he was the penciller for what are arguably the two best Marvel books of the early- and mid-‘70s. Colan is not a legend but he should be.) Colan provided the foundation that allowed the writer to put Howard and his cast of characters in the real world of Cleveland and beyond. Colan allowed Gerber to tell stories that pitted his character against supervillians, but also against some of the real villains of modern life.

In those days, Howard was pants-less. Later, Disney insisted that he be given more clothes so as to better distinguish him from their own Donald Duck. But Howard never needed pants to prove he was no Disney character. All he had to do was open his cigar-filled bill. Granted, like Donald, Howard was always a hothead, but he was a hothead with studied opinions.

Howard, and Gerber, had opinions about the violence and exploitation that they saw in the martial arts films that were then all the rage. They had opinions about the phony pretension of art critics. They had opinions about the awful state of the mid-‘70s’ economy, about predatory lending, about religious cults, and about American politics. They had opinions and they weren’t afraid to share them. As a matter of fact, Howard the Duck—angry, unemployed and powerless—became the perfect stand-in for the struggles and opinions of the great American masses who were sick of Vietnam, sick of Watergate, sick of unemployment, sick of inflation, and sick, especially, of the political class who couldn’t seem to find a way to bring common sense to the table and solve the problems of the day.

So, inauspiciously, halfway through the half-baked issue #7, where Howard and his friend and traveling companion Beverly Switzer have to fight off a gingerbread man Frankenstein monster, Gerber and Colan do a 180 degree turn and plop Howard right into the middle of the 1976 American presidential race.

Starting out as a security guard at the “All-Night” party’s national convention, Howard soon finds himself chosen as the party’s candidate for president. Once chosen, Howard has his work cut out for him. While it is true that he regularly has to dodge assassins’ bullets, the biggest threat he faces comes from the political operatives and polling experts hired by his own party. Howard, you see, doesn’t want to be a pre-packaged, molded, and mind-warped candidate. He just wants to be himself. He doesn’t want pollsters determining what he says and what he thinks. He wants to say what he believes, and believe what he says.

In an interview with Steve Gerber published in the giant-size Marvel Treasury Edition #12, Howard lays it all out.

Steve Gerber: I can’t picture a fellow with your sardonic bent plodding away at a workaday job.
Howard the Duck: How true, how true. I never kept one job more than three an’ a half weeks. Which is another advantage of the presidency. They can only fire ya for high crimes an’ misdemeanors. That stuff, I don’t pull. I just mouth off a lot…
SG: You’ve expressed dismay at certain trends in popular culture, particularly the glorification of the rogue and the glamorization of violence. Are we to infer from this that you’d advocate some form of media censorship?
HTD: You gotta be kidding! Ya don’t eliminate garbage by turnin’ it into a black market commodity, an’ ya don’t elevate tastes by gagging writers an’ artists. Look, there’s nothin’ wrong with makin’ heroes outta non-conformists. I’ll even admit to a rebellious streak myself. It’s just—at the risk o’ soundin’ pompous—what seems to distinguish today’s anti-hero from yesterday’s is the former’s willingness to callously exploit other people to achieve his own independence from the system. It’s the difference between a poet an’ a vulture, basically.
SG: That’s pretty heavy.
HTD: Yeah. Nearly collapsed under its own weight, didn’t it?
SG: I mean, do you think the American public is ready for that degree of subtle reasoning from its president?
HTD: They better be. If you turkeys can’t even think that deep, this nation’s had it!
SG: We seem to be gingerly approaching the core of your political philosophy, Howard. You want human beings to think.
HTD: Yeah, well, I know its askin’ a lot from a hairless ape, but… !

You know, maybe it’s just me, but I think this duck is on to something: subtlety of thought combined with frankness of speech. It just might work, although I don’t think that it’s ever been tried.

Of course, you know how it turns out. A faked photo of Howard in a compromising position (in the bathtub with Beverly) caught the attention of the press, and the issues were soon forgotten. Jimmy Carter squeaked by to victory over Gerald Ford. Carter lost to Reagan. Yada, yada, yada. And here we are again, getting ready to do it one more time.

And Howard? Now Howard is off in space chasing Rocket Racoon, battling Thanos and the Collector, making cameos in big budget movies.

We’ve got to get him back. We’ve got to let him know that we need his help, now more than ever. Wages are stagnant and temperatures are rising. The vultures are circling. We’re stuck here in this world that we all had a hand in making, and we’re gonna need some help to turn this thing around.

Now, more than ever, we need a duck who reads Hegel. We need a cigar-smoking Socrates. We need a candidate with ideas—and feathers.

We’ve tried Democrats. We’ve tried Republicans. It’s about time that we tried Howard the Duck.

Splash image from the cover of Howard the Duck #8 (January 1977), artwork by Gene Colan and Steve Leialoha.

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