Canadian comics writer Chip Zdarsky talks about his Howard the Duck run, and playing around in the Marvel sandbox.
When I was a kid, I loved Howard the Duck, the comic book series and character created by Steve Gerber and published by Marvel Comics. After a falling-out between the writer and the publisher, Gerber left and Bill Mantlo, another writer from the Marvel stable, took over the duck’s adventures until no one cared anymore. And then there was a movie – a 1987 mega-flop that also happened to be the first big-budget movie ever based on a character from Marvel.
Remember, this is a company with thousands of characters in its intellectual property arsenal, including Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk… you know, all the names that have earned billions in box-office receipts in the last 10 years. And their first movie was a talking duck!
But Howard is back, brought to life through a synergy of luck, nostalgia and property rights; he made a cameo at the end credits of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and makes another cameo in the second, just-released movie. In between, Marvel re-launched a limited-run Howard the Duck series, hiring Canadian artist/writer Chip Zdarsky (Sex Criminals, the upcoming Marvel reboot Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man) to script*. One memorable story arc featured as a character none other than Lea Thompson, the actress who played Howard’s sort-of love interest Beverly Switzler in the movie.
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Chip (real name: Steve Murray) about Howard, his work on the title, and Marvel. Read on, true believers!
SC: We were talking (in the first part of the interview; read it at thesnipenews.com) about J. Jonah Jameson, and J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of him in the Spider-Man movie. Is this a case of everything feeding of each other, where he’s taking how the character’s written in the comics, but also now comics are kind of emulating what he’s brought to the character?
CZ: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m sure J.K. Simmons was also watching the old Spider-Man cartoons when he was a kid. I think that’s where most people know J. Jonah Jameson from. Everything kind of feeds off itself and circles around. I just did Star-Lord** for Marvel. Clearly the movies have influenced the books. They took a specific version of the comic characters, plopped them into the movies, made them a lot more light and fun, and that has influenced the books again. A character like Star-Lord has gone through so many variations, that it can’t help but be influenced by various takes on it.
SC: He was originally created for one of those black-and-white Marvel magazines in the seventies by John Byrne, am I remembering that right?
CZ: I think it was Steve Englehart, and Chris Claremont as well, he wrote some of the Marvel magazines. I’ve got a few of them. They’re trippy, psychedelic – you wouldn’t be able to draw a line from that to how Star-Lord is now in the comics or the movies. Even in Marvel continuity I think it’s considered something separate. But that’s the nature of the books, especially when they’ve been around as long as they have. Things will change, especially if they’re a secondary or tertiary character, like Star-Lord certainly was. You can revamp and change over and over again – less now that he’s been cemented with the movie. Spider-Man, though, there are certain elements that have to stay the same, or at least reset back once you’re done telling you’re story. Because he is Marvel’s biggest character, arguably.
SC: So from what I understand, you got into Howard the Duck comics through your Uncle Fred?
CZ: Yep. I think everyone should have an Uncle Fred in their life. He was the uncle who collected comics, specifically the underground stuff. He was the old hippie with the ponytail and mustache and acid flashbacks. Whenever we’d go over to his house, I would sneak away and read his books. Through him I was turned onto the old Marvel magazines, like Howard the Duck*** and Star-Lord, and anthology titles.
SC: So you would have read the Bill Mantlo Howards before the Steve Gerber comics?
CZ: Yeah. I have a very clear memory of reading the magazines first. And then finding my uncle’s Gerber comics and going back to those. As an adult, I’ve read and reread all of those books. As a kid they were just fascinating. My parents would look over and see I was reading a comic about a duck, they had no idea of what I was actually reading.
SC: I remember being disappointed by the Mantlo stories when I was 15, but I haven’t read any of those books for a long time.
CZ: It’s definitely not the Gerber voice. In revisiting the material, I also read a lot of interviews and stories about Gerber and Howard. One of my rules at Marvel as a result was that I never mention Duckworld. I talk about him going home, but I never talk about Duckworld because that was a Mantlo creation that I knew Gerber hated at the time. Because his vision of Howard’s world was an anthropomorphic world, with Disney-style characters living ordinary, boring lives. I loved that idea, it was much more interesting than Duckworld. The fact that as soon as Gerber was kicked out of the company and off the book, what followed was the explicit nature of Howard and Bev’s nature, the Duckworld stuff – as a kid it was titillating and amazing, but as an adult it’s like, Aw, man. One’s a boring idea, and the other is kind of a weird sexist idea. Parts of the stories hold up, but not the overall feel, I don’t think.
SC: But do the Gerber stories hold up today?
CZ: I look at it a lot like fine art. If somebody did a Jackson Pollack painting today it would be a good painting but it wouldn’t change the way people view the art form. I think you always have to consider the time period. It’s a story that’s well-told and funny and interesting, but the broad satirical nature of it, which was kind of refreshing at the time, maybe doesn’t hold up as well now, considering how satire is used. In my run, I stayed away from that kind of stuff. There’s kind of an underlying satirical take on popular culture in the sense that Marvel is now the popular culture. Like, Howard the Duck would make fun of kung-fu movies or Star Wars, but now the thing to make fun of is Marvel and DC, because those are the things that are in the zeitgeist, that dominate Hollywood and culture. I tried to keep that as a subtle thing running through the book – the overabundance of superheroes in that world, reflecting the overabundance of them in ours.
SC: And then there’s the irony of Disney owning Marvel now, after that fight over the size of Howard’s bill.****
CZ: I don’t know if there was much a fight as it was Disney just told Marvel what to do, and Marvel didn’t even want to argue it.
SC: Lea Thompson, who played Beverly in the Howard the Duck movie, is a character in some of the issues you did. Did you collaborate with her?
CZ: There was some interaction between her and the artist, Joe (Quinones). I know he ended up meeting her and giving her some original pages to thank her for being a part of this. I love a good stunt, and I do have an affinity for that movie. Within the book, with the idea of superheroes taking over everything, and with variations of the character in different creator’s hands, it made sense to somehow weave the movie in.
I love Lea Thompson, she was my first crush and my favourite actress when I was a kid. I had the idea to put her into the book as herself, and Marvel reached out to her and she was game, she was totally on board, which was awesome. She didn’t balk at anything. They were so fun to write, and I think for Joe they were fun and daunting to draw. I don’t think it would have turned out as well if we didn’t have an artist as amazing as Joe.
SC: Is it a movie you can make a strong case for?
CZ: Nope. Not even close.
SC: There’s a tiny corner of revisionist thought that maybe it’s not as bad as everyone remembers it. But it’s a very small corner.
CZ: Yeah. I can’t bring myself to watch it. I watched some clips, in preparing for the book. As a kid, I thought it was awesome. I especially loved the music, I remember recording off the TV set when we had the video playing, just the final song of all of them onstage. I was enamoured with it.
Video – Howard the Duck theme song:
There was a thing that happened, I was in Victoria visiting my girlfriend’s parents. We went out to dinner one night and the owner of the restaurant knows my in-laws. And he’s also a Howard the Duck fan, and I’d just gotten the job (writing Howard). He found out and was super-excited. While we were eating he played the movie on the restaurant TV, and he sent me over a plate of duck wings. It was the weirdest experience. The movie was playing silently and I was watching it while I was gnawing on duck wings. It was so uncomfortable. Even without sound, I was like Oh no, I should never re-watch that. It’s a bad movie.
SC: It’s so weird to think that was the first real Marvel movie.
CZ: I know, it’s crazy.
SC: After all those years of Stan Lee trying to get a movie made of a Marvel character.
CZ: I wonder how Stan felt about it.
* I should note here that Howard has popped up in the Marvel Universe, in his own title – including a 2001 mini-series written by Gerber that featured the character transformed into a giant rodent – and others’, numerous times over the years.
** In 2016, Zdarsky wrote six issues and an annual featuring the character.
*** Marvel canceled the Howard the Duck comic book with issue #31 and moved him into a series of bi-monthly black-and-white magazines from 1979-1981. They featured some beautiful art by Michael Golden.
**** This really happened.