A Brief Introduction to Howard the Duck

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Anyone who saw Guardians of the Galaxy last year and stayed for the post-credits scene will remember the Marvel Easter egg that instantly divided audiences into two factions: those who laughed because they recognized the duck and were in on the joke, and those who didn’t. Because Marvel has a history of using bonus scenes to tease upcoming projects, rumors began to circulate that Howard the Duck, the beloved comic book character from the 1970s and the less-beloved character from George Lucas’ 1986 film, would be making a comeback. A new comic series featuring Howard was launched in March, and Lucas was quoted as saying that he thinks Marvel will remake the film "because of the technology we have today." To bring you up to speed in case that does happen, here is a list of things you should know about the character and Marvel’s previous attempt to bring him to the big screen.


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Created by Marvel writer Steve Gerber and illustrator Val Mayerik, Howard the Duck first appeared in Adventure into Fear Issue 19 (December 1973). The comic features an explanation of how the Marvel multiverse works. Things were out of balance and alternate universes were converging, and the arrival of an anthropomorphic duck smoking a cigar was one of the results of that imbalance. Howard became a part of a team tasked with restoring balance to the multiverse, but he tripped and fell into oblivion. Howard the Duck returned in issues of Giant-Size Man-Thing, having landed in Cleveland, Ohio. The character’s story would later become a solo series in 1976.


Despite being a talking animal from a parallel world, Howard the Duck originally had no special powers or super strength. His adventures progressed from funny “duck out of water” stories and parodies into more politically and socially aware comics, but he isn’t exactly Earth’s savior. Howard does, however, have his sense of humor, sarcasm, luck, and later some magic skills that come in handy in life-or-death situations—as well as his mastery of "Quack Fu, an obscure martial art usable only by waterfowl."


Disney argued that Howard the Duck was too similar to their well-known character, Donald Duck. The Disney art department offered Marvel a set of character redesign sketches as "suggestions" on how to avoid trademark infringement. The designs included updates to Howard’s eyes, eyebrows, bill, feet, overall head shape, and the biggest change of all: the addition of pants.


Depending on who you ask, the 1986 feature film, Howard the Duck, is either the best or the worst thing to happen to the character. Produced by Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios, the film starred Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones, and Tim Robbins, with Broadway vet Chip Zien providing the voice of Howard while actor Ed Gale (who also played Chucky in Child's Play) was one of the actors who wore the costume. In a departure from the comics, the Howard in the film was preoccupied with getting home and lacked the humor and commentary that readers had come to love. There were also some questionable, uncomfortable hints at bestiality, a glimpse of duck boobs, and cheesy dialogue that audiences and critics were very confused by.

The film was very expensive, and failed miserably at the box office. Siskel and Ebert included the film on their "Worst of 1986" list, calling it "an all-time legendary bomb" and suggesting that the film might have worked if it was a comedy or if the filmmakers had stuck closer to the "wise-cracking, cynical Groucho Marx-type duck" from the comics. Howard the Duck still tops worst lists today (despite being a cult classic for comic fans and some children of the decade) and was silently ignored by Marvel for decades, until the Guardians of the Galaxy cameo and the reboot of the comic series.


Now that Marvel is printing money at the box office and has turned various less-popular characters into big names in pop culture (Iron Man, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.), it would not be a crazy idea to bring Howard the Duck back to the big screen. The comic relaunch is introducing the character to a new generation of readers, and as George Lucas suggested, the technology has advanced to a point where the animatronics and special effects could erase the memory of the previous iteration. Reboots in general have also reached their peak, with every property imaginable wiping the slate clean with fresh takes on familiar properties.

To get ahead of what seems inevitable at this point, Vulture created this trailer for what a gritty reboot of Howard the Duck could look like.