With primary madness in full swing, I’m dusting off an old column about the 1976 candidacy of Howard the Duck. With a few tweaks, this is the same piece originally published in The Alliance Review on Oct. 21, 2004.
The red, white and blue campaign button, glossed with the yellow of age, reads “Get Down America! Vote Howard the Duck in ‘76.”
Howard, the wisecracking, foul- (or is that fowl-) tempered star of a 1970s Marvel Comics series, wears a blue business suit and a red-and-black polka-dotted tie. One white-gloved hand (the same brand worn by Mickey, Donald and a host of other cartoon characters) holds a cigar close to his orange beak. For a duck, his face looks rather devilish, with beady eyes and an unwholesome smile, as if he’s just pulled one over on the American public.
And perhaps he had.
Howard’s creator, Steve Gerber, recently commented on the duck’s fictional presidential campaign in an article in “Back Issue” magazine.
“The nature of the character lent itself to satire,” Gerber said, “and being the first election after Watergate it was a very peculiar time in American political history.”
But no more peculiar than the 2004 election year, when the biggest story after each debate is not necessarily “Who won?” but “Who stretched the truth the least?” (The word “liar,” perhaps because it is undignified for a president and a presidential hopeful, is seldom used.)
Howard’s background, admittedly, is much different from the Bush and Kerry biographies of entitlement and big money. According to Howard’s printed history, he falls into our world from an alternate reality where talking ducks are the dominant life form (think “Planet of the Apes” but without Charlton Heston or Roddy McDowall).
Homeless and broke, he eventually finds his way to Cleveland, at the time the butt of many “mistake by the lake” jokes. He spends time in jail, drives a stake (but not a steak) through the heart of a vampire cow and tussles with a turnip from outer space before Gerber has him accept a job as security guard for the All-Night Party’s national convention in New York City.
After foiling an assassination attempt on the party’s candidate, Howard is himself nominated. Since he has “nothin’ planned between now and November,” he accepts. If only all candidates had such humble motivations.
Howard’s campaign manager, G.Q. Studley, tracks the progress of the duck’s campaign: His assassination quotient is higher than Ford or Carter, and his speechwriters — whom he hasn’t met — create his entire platform.
When Howard’s companion questions the pre-scripted nature of the duck’s campaign, a snide Studley retorts, “Today’s candidate doesn’t think … he recites — nice, safe, pre-tested bromidic bombasts like this: ‘I’m tired of hearing people run down this country. Sure, we’ve got problems — pollution, inflation, recession, crime, pervasive moral decay — just to name a few. But what nation doesn’t have its troubles?”
Howard’s response? He bites Studley in the nose.
Perhaps because a talking mallard in the White House stretched political satire too far, or because kids preferred Howard fighting the Kidney Lady and Dr. Bong instead of inflation and ennui, Gerber soon had the duck embroiled in a bathtub sex scandal that dash his hopes for the Oval Office. (In those pre-Clinton years, it was perhaps mistakenly assumed that such scandals detracted from a candidate’s popularity.)
It was downhill for the duck from there. Gerber was fired after a tussle with Marvel’s head honchos, and the title was cancelled soon after. Howard reappeared in a 1986 movie that is widely considered one of the worst films of that decade. And earlier this year, Vermont governor and Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean was dubbed in some quarters as Howard “the (lame) Duck” Dean.
But for Howard the character, the ultimate indignity came from Disney, which threatened legal action because of similarities between Howard and Donald Duck, forcing Marvel to redesign the character and give him pants.
Maybe if he’d been wearing a pair during the campaign, those sex scandal charges wouldn’t have stuck.