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Forget Thanos’ cinematic debut at the end of The Avengers. The character that appears in the post-credits sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy — a sequence kept under wraps and not attached to pre-release preview screenings — is a genuine shocker, especially for those familiar with the history of the character. Spoilers beyond this point, so be warned.
Howard the Duck is back on the big screen. Yes, back.
Surprisingly, Howard was the first Marvel character to make it to the big screen back in 1986, with the George Lucas-produced Howard the Duck, a movie famously known as one of the worst films ever made. (It scores just 14 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and won the Golden Raspberry Award for both worst picture and worst screenplay for its year of release). The release of the movie, which many at Marvel hoped would return the character to the heights of popularity he’d enjoyed in his 1970s heyday, instead pretty much finished him off for good.
The story of Howard the Duck begins with 1973’s Adventures Into Fear No. 19, in which Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik introduced a cynical, cigar-smoking, misanthropic and anthropomorphic duck into the Marvel universe. Surprisingly, he was a hit with readers, and after a run as a second feature in the Man-Thing title, he received his own series with 1976’s Howard the Duck No. 1, complete with the tagline “Tapped in a World He Never Made!”
Despite that line, Howard did make it. The series, which quickly evolved into a freewheeling social satire in which Gerber, through Howard, addressed whatever was on his mind at time of writing. The character became popular enough that a joke in the series about Howard running for president led to the character getting thousands of actual write-in votes in the real-life presidential election of 1976, something that gave Marvel the confidence to spin the character off into a daily newspaper strip the following year.
Conflicts over the character led to Gerber’s dismissal in 1978, and later to a lawsuit over ownership between Gerber and Marvel, eventually settled between the two parties in 1985. (Following Gerber’s departure, a number of other creators took up the reins of the character with little success; the series was canceled four issues later, and a relaunched magazine lasted only nine issues.)
At the same time that Gerber was suing Marvel over ownership of Howard, the publisher was also dealing with a legal challenge from, ironically, the Walt Disney Company, which was concerned that Howard bore too close a resemblance to Donald Duck. That challenge led to an agreement that stipulated that Howard’s future appearances would see the character sporting a redesign from Disney animators to differentiate the two characters. (Among the Disney-demanded changes: Howard had to wear pants).
A failed movie and two lawsuits should have been enough to doom any character. Certainly, Howard has never really recovered, despite numerous attempts to revive him in the last three decades (including one by Gerber himself, in 2002). There is one more strange wrinkle to the Duck’s story, however — namely, that the Howard the Duck that exists in the Marvel comic book universe isn’t the “real” Howard, thanks to a particularly perverse Gerber story.
In 1995, Steve Gerber was invited back to Marvel to write an issue of the Spider-Man Team-Up series guest-starring Howard. He took the opportunity to suggest to editors an unofficial crossover with another comic he was writing at the same time, The Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck, featuring two characters owned by their creators (Erik Larsen and Jack Kirby/Gerber himself, respectively). To those reading the Spider-Man issue, it would appear as if Howard would discover an attempt to clone himself and human companion Beverly Switzler that was foiled; those reading the Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck issue, however, were given a slightly more informed version of events.
What that issue revealed — unbeknown to anyone at Marvel — was that the Howard and Beverly who appeared in the final pages of the Spider-Man comic were, in fact, clones of the originals, with the “real” Howard and Beverly having escaped to the creator-owned world of Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck, where they adopted new identities as Leonard and Rhonda. (If all this sounds convoluted, it is.) In other words, Gerber had sneakily reclaimed ownership of his creations a decade after his legal attempt failed, while leaving Marvel with “a” Howard to use as it wished — including, as noted earlier, in a six-issue series written by Gerber himself.
Whether Howard’s return to the big screen in Guardians of the Galaxy marks anything other than an affectionate nod to Marvel’s first movie star on behalf of director James Gunn remains to be seen. It’s also worth noting that Gerber wrote many early appearances of the original Guardians of the Galaxy during his time at Marvel in the 1970s, making Howard’s cameo even more appropriate. But if it’s a sign of things to come, it’s a good way for Marvel to show that anything is possible — even a return from box-office limbo.
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