By Steve Grant
Originally Published in Howard the Duck Magazine 8
Life has the funniest way of dropping bricks on you. It waits
until things are going well - until you've paid off all your debts,
or lost that 10lbs, You'd worked for six months to lose, or until
you've finally achieved your lifelong dream of completing your
SPIDER-MAN collection - and then.....
WHAM! The brick.
It happens to everyone. Even comic book characters. The brick
that hit Howard the Duck began, "Dear Sirs..."
Howard the Duck hatched as a one-shot character in the Man-Thing
series in Fear #19. That was in 1973. Then-scripter Steve Gerber
was running a storyline that called for weirdness like barbarian
warriors emerging from jars of peanut butter. Then-artist Val
Mayerik responded with the weirdest thing he could imagine: a
talking, cigar-chomping, gun-toting duck with the demeanor of
Little Caesar. By the next episode, Gerber and Mayerik had done
the logical thing. The duck, who had by this time acquired the
name of Howard, took a wrong step off an extra-dimensional staircase
and plunged into oblivion forever.
The readers would have none of it. Within a matter of months,
Howard was back, first in his own series and then in his own title,
and virtually overnight he had become the third most popular duck
A few months later, Howard had crept into the #2 slot - and moving
up fast on #1.
And that is where the trouble began.
The Duck That Disney Built
The brick that rearranged Howard's face was picked up and hurled
by Walt Disney Productions.
In 1934, Donald Duck mad his debut in an animated cartoon, The
Wise Little Hen, one in Walt Disney's "Silly Symphony"
series. As Carl Barks describes him in the 1978 book, Donald Duck;
"In that film, Donald was introduced to the world, and,
strangely enough, in the early period of this development he was
more duck than human. He was a no-good hippie duck who lived ingloriously
on a half-sunken houseboat in a pond. "
It wasn't long before Donald left the houseboat to roam the world,
mostly in the company of Disney's most famous character, Mickey
Mouse. The mouse, in his first appearance, was an ill-mannered,
self-centered, tricksterish little beast. Time, and quick popularity,
had changed him into a fine, upstanding, and finally cute character
- and his discarded venom was quickly injected into Donald (who
has since undergone a similar, if less severe, mellowing). By
the late 1930s, Donald Duck had taken the world by storm, becoming
- for a time, at least- more popular even than the mouse. Appearing
in cartoons, comic strips, comicbooks, and numerous merchandised
products, Donald not only created an audience but a brood as well,
and his life was soon filled with a flock of ducks: nephews Huey,
Dewey and Louie; girlfriend Daisy Duck; Uncle Scrooge McDuck;
cousin Gladstone Gander; Grandma Duck; scientist Ludwig Von Drake;
and numerous other relatives, friends and enemies, The age of
the duck had arrived, and, except for Warner Bros. aberrant mallard,
Daffy, Walt Disney had cornered the market.
A Million Stories IN The Naked City
It was inevitable, than , that Walt Disney Productions and the
Marvel Comics Group woudl come into conflict on the subject of
Howard The Duck. There were certain similarities between the characters
- they were both ducks, after all, and it might have been possible
for someone to mistake Howard's blue suitcoat and hat for Donald's
sailor suit - and there were distinct differences.
Most notably, Donald lives in the anthropomorphic world of Duckburg
and deals almost solely with its animal inhabitants; Howard is
the only walking, talking intelligent duck on a world populated
by human beings (and frequently prompts the awe-striken response,
"you... you're a duck. ") Clearly, two different worlds.
How, then, did their worlds collide?
In 1978, changes slowly became apparent in Howard's appearance.
Of themselves, the changes would have gone unmentioned, had certain
parties in California not leaked to the fan press that the changes
were Disney's doing. Suddenly, speculations about reasons became
whispered rumors, and the rumors took on the appearance of fact.
Several stories were concocted:
Story #1: With the appearance of the Howard the Duck newspaper
strip, feature editors across the country replaced the long-running
Donald Duck with it, since it is bad editorial policy to have
two similar comic strips in the same section. Threatened wit the
loss of outlets for Donald Duck and the possible cancellation
of the feature, Disney - which, up to this point, had tolerated
the presence of a Howard The Duck comicbook - fought back.
Story #2: Disney's licensees overseas suddenly saw their markets
threatened when competitors issued the adventures of Howard The
Duck. (In countries where comics are translated into languages
other than English the word "duck" is synonymous with
"Donald Duck", and has been for more than 40 years.
Simply by virtue of the word "duck" in his name , Howard
became what no comics character had been before: a threat to Donald
Duck.) The overseas licensees took their grievances to Disney,
who in turn contacted Marvel.
Story #3: As Howard the Duck gained popular success in the comicbooks,
a comic strip promised to bring him to an even wider audience,
and various merchandising and film deals were pending. Someone
in Marvel's legal department made a courtesy call to Disney to
make sure no legal infringements would occur. Made aware of Howard
the Duck's existence, Disney's lawyers took steps to ensure his
dissimilarity from Donald Duck.
To anyone thinking about it logically for a few minutes, stories
#1 and 3 bear the stamp of the ludicrous. Story #1 can be disregarded
for a simple reason: it is virtually impossible to challenge the
popularity of Donald Duck. A phenomenally popular character, Donald
has survived the vagaries of public tastes for more years than
most of use have been alive; there is the apocryphal story that
the Third Reich itself was rocked by rioting and discontent when
Hitler banned Donald Duck cartoons because Donald had parodied
der Fuhrer himself. Apparently the world has an insatiable appetite
for Donald; while a character could join him at the pinnacle of
popularity, it is unthinkable that one could replace him.
The third story is harder to disregard, but the logic of it also
collapses under scrutiny: while there are surface similarities,
Howard The Duck is patently not a steal from Donald Duck, and
their backgrounds, lifestyles, modi operandi, and milieus are
completely different. There is virtually no overlapping save for
physical characteristics - and the word "duck," being
a generic term, cannot be trademarked, so no legal infraction
are possible thre.
As it turns out, story #2 was the true one. Donald Duck and Howard
The Duck finally locked beaks - but who could have suspected that
the battle would revolve around a pair of pants?
The Empire Strikes Back
It was not mere pique that prompted the Disney Organization to
investigate Howard the Duck. They had a long history of having
to defend themselves against imitators and simulators of Donald,
and they could not have known at the beginning that Howard was
another sort of bird altogether. Disney had already stopped the
Realist magazine, Paul Krassner and Wally Wood from publishing
a centerfold featuring Disney characters in "realistic"
poses and situations. More recently, they were forced to halt
the production of Donald Duck paintings that were appearing in
fan markets without any trademark or copyright notices. A group
of underground cartoonists published a magazine called Air Pirates
Funnies, in which they produced their own versions of Disney creations
- an act that aroused the ire of the Disney organization. The
case went to court; The Air Pirates - as the defendants were called
- claimed parody, Disney claimed copyright infringements, trademarks
infringements, unfair competition and trade disparagement. Though
Disney won, to the tune of $190,000, they later withdrew damage
claims in return for a promise that The Air Pirates would not
do more such "parodies." Obviously, they hade made their
point; they did not want to destroy anyone, but simply keep their
own toes from being stepped on.
In this light, it 's easy to see why Disney was concerned - albeit
unfoundedly - about Howard.
And it's easy to see why Marvel and Disney each saw it in their
best interests to differentiate the ducks.
"...WHEREAS, the image and name of Donald Duck are associated
in the eyes of the public with Disney; and "WHEREAS, over
the years the public has come to identify an particular type of
cartoon character and a particular style of background renditions
as being associated with Disney, and, in particular, with portrayals
of Donald Duck, such cartoon characters generally being stylized
representations of animals have human characteristics, and such
backgrounds being characterized by simplicity and lack of realistic
detail, generally creating the impression of a fantasy world;
"...WHEREAS, HOWARD THE DUCK is typically portrayed in conjunction
with (a) cartoon characters which are representations of humans
and (b) backgrounds renditions which are characterized by the
use of realistic detail, generally creating the impression of
the real world..."
This was the crux of the matter: how to keep those two worlds
from blending, and how to prevent a confusion between Donald and
Howard in the public eye. The solution was as simple as Donald
Duck's backgrounds: change Howard the Duck.
Why Howard? Changing Donald was impractical, and it would have
harmed Disney much more than changing Howard would harm Marvel.
Donald was a solidly established Character, universally identifiable
by his features and his navy-blue sailor suit. Howard, the contender,
was equally identifiable, if not as widespread - but Howard's
identity rested more on his unique, modern personality than on
any set of clothes. Being the more malleable mallard, he was the
easiest to remold. Besides, Donald had already gone through his
changes. At his introduction, Donald Duck possessed elongated
neck, and elongated beak, along with a squat head, tiny tailfeathers,
and a distinctly tubby body. The sailor suit was light blue, with
red and yellow trim and a black bowtie. By 1969, the standard
familiar form of Donald - shortened, squared beak; enlarged brow
and eyes; trimmed figure; humanlike hands and flat, wide, ducklike
feet; navy-blue or black sailor suit with red bowtie and yellow
trim - had been in use for decades.
Howard, on the other hand, had been in existence less than 10
years - and had gone through several changes in that time. No
amount of change or experiment, it seemed , could hinder his growing
Pre-e-esenting- Three Years in the Making- The All New Howard
Negotiations between the two companies began in mid - 1977, with
a proposed agreement that covered a mere four pages. By the time
the media magnates came to a final consensus, it was 1980, and
the agreement had doubled in length. In that agreement was spelled
out the Howard to be:
The "old" Howard The Duck - as protrayed in Howard
The Duck #1-19 - would disappear, to nevermore be seen in comics,
newspaper strips, TV, movies, books, etc., and would be replaced
in reprint (except for certain amount of "historical"
reprinting) by the "new" Howard The Duck.
Howard's long, ducklike bill would be replaced by a smaller,
upturned bill. It would be fat and heavy, instead of slim and
wide. His head would be oval instead of round, with eyes covering
less than one-third of his face. His feet would have small toes
at the end (curiously resembling those that had been adorned by
Donald Duck in the period of his creation). Howard would become
shorter and squatter. His feathers would have a yellowish hue,
in contrast to his previous white color. his head would be coered
by small tufts of feathers, which would resemble shaggy hair.
His eyebrows would be emphasized. and Howard would almost always
Oddly, the new Howard harkened back to the original, Val Mayerik
version. And while negotiations were proceeding, Howard's comicbook
life was undergoing serious changes. In an attempted to reach
a wider, more sophisticated audience, Marvel decided to experiment
with their wildest character - and Howard's four-color comic was
cancelled, to be replaced several months later by a new, larger-sized
black-and-white magazine. The change almost brought the negotiations
to a halt; news stories had spread the word that Howard The Duck
was cancelled -which, if true, would have rendered the negotiations
So say hello to the New Howard, and rest easy, America. Once
more, men have worked out their differences iwth communication
instead of battle. Once more, the world has ben made safe for
Howard The Duck - trapped in trousers he never made.