Waddling into History:
Howard the Duck’s Presidential Campaign
DC may think they’re trying something new in 2000, by running Lex Luthor for President, but ol’ Lex is hardly the first comics character to do it — or to get media coverage about it in the “real world.” Let’s go back 24 years, when it was a Marvel character who had his webbed foot firmly in the race….
You think the candidates aren’t very special THIS year? Think about 1976, when the options included Gerald Ford, best-known now for (a) pardoning Richard Nixon and (b) his cameo appearance in a Simpsons episode, where it becomes clear that he and Homer were separated at birth (“Do you like…football, Homer? Do you like…nachoes?”). Running against him was Jimmy Carter, a candidate who embodied the American dream that an intelligent, decent, hard-working guy can grow up and become…a really mediocre president. What was a voter to do?
Fortunately, there was Howard, the candidate of the All-Night Party, offering himself as a straight-quacking alternative. Howard had been around since 1973, created by Steve Gerber as a throwaway character in two Man-Thing stories. Reader response to the cynical, wise-cracking waterfowl had been surprisingly positive, though, and two back-up stories in Giant-Size Man-Thing (you! stop that snickering!) had convinced Marvel to give the Duck his own comic. In the fourth issue (cover-dated July, 1976), the letters page announced Howard’s run for the Presidency. Fans could send in a buck and get a campaign button drawn by Bernie Wrightson, showing Howard, his omnipresent cigar, and the slogan “Get Down, America! Vote Howard the Duck in 1976!”
What made the campaign, and the character, work? One part of it was the art — from the third issue of HTD on, the team of Gene Colan and Steve Leialoha did a remarkable job of convincing readers that Howard could exist in the “real” world (maybe only comics can pull off an illusion like that so well). The biggest factor, though, was Gerber’s writing – in his hands, Howard was a feathered Everyman, a weary denizen of another dimension who’d become trapped in our world of “hairless apes.” The Duck’s outsider status meant that Gerber could make him both hard-bitten and innocent, a classically angry, feisty little guy with a heart of gold. He ranted, on topics like mindless consumerism, corrupt politicians, and the soul-draining conformity demanded by the American education system, and the rants turned Howard the Duck into a sophisticated (for comics) social satire.
Thus, Howard on unemployment: “You want the plain, unvarnished truth? The unemployed in this country are just plain lazy — and I RESPECT them for it.! It takes guts to resist the societal pressure to entrap oneself in a meaningless, boring, socially-unproductive nine-to-five automaton existence.”
Howard on violence: “I’m all for it…as long as it’s never presented as cathartic — as a release, as a solution. A kid oughtta know what he’s gettin’ into if he’s contemplatin’ stabbing or shootin’ somebody. It’s messy. The blood gets all over the floor. It smells bad. It’s ugly to look at. I think violence should be presented honestly — as disgustingly and offensively as possible. There’s no such thing as tasteful violence.”
Howard to an industry lobbyist: “S’poze I toldja I don’t CARE if I’m elected? That I’d rather LOSE than sell out to you oily guys with steel brains and exhaust pipe mouths? HUH?”
Astonished bystander in the comic: “My God, he’s telling the TRUTH! He’ll be DEAD in a week!”
For mainstream comics in 1976, this was heady stuff — it’s no wonder that Howard got writeups in both the New Yorker and the New York Times, and for a few weeks got to be a national story, a wiseass sidebar to the real-life campaign.
Prophetically, Gerber had Howard lose the election because of a sex scandal — a doctored photo of him nude in a tub with Beverly, his human girlfriend (although, come to think of it, that was a weird enough relationship to be a scandal anyway…). The Duck went on to get his own newspaper strip, and stake out a small slice of pop-culture history. Gerber eventually got into a legal dispute with Marvel over who owned the character, and was fired after 27 issues of the comic. Marvel tried to continue the book, but Howard WAS Gerber, or a piece of him, and no one else could make the character work. (Years later, in 1986, there was a movie version, but absolutely none of us want to go THERE, do we?)
Nowadays, on eBay, the campaign buttons sometimes turn up, going for anywhere from $5-$10. Howard’s still a Copyrighted Marvel Character, although a seldom-used one. Politicians, to judge by the current crop, are about the same as ever; so are presidential campaigns. But Howard lives on, every time a fan reads one of those first 27 issues and gets transported back into Howard’s seedy, fantastic and all-too-human little corner of the Marvel Universe.