Marvel’s Howard the Duck and the Great Intellectual Property Heist

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In 2019, Disney refused to allow grieving parents to place an image of spiderman on their child’s gravestone.  In 1989 , they sued a children’s hospital for depicting Disney characters on their mural to comfort sick and dying children. When it comes to intellectual property, The Mouse is harsh and that’s all I’m going to say about that for The Indiependent’s safety. Currently, The Ditko estate is suing Marvel comics to regain the rights to Spiderman and Doctor Strange. Expectedly, troves of Marvel fans are declaring it to be the end of Spiderman media if this succeeds. Of course, this is just catastrophising to protect a multibillion-dollar conglomerate. Spiderman movies, shows and musicals will live on regardless of who will win the lawsuit. He’s a cash cow lasting almost 60 years.

There’s an assumption that intellectual property laws’ sole purpose is to protect creators. However, that’s often not the case. A prime example of this is Comic book publishing. When working under The Big Two (Marvel and DC), the company owns any work you have made, including characters and stories. This has damaging to many of the original creators. A famous case of this is the reason Alan Moore refused to work with DC ever again, after they conned him out of the rights to Watchmen characters; when he agreed that the rights would revert back to him and Gibson after the publications. After its critical and commercial success, Watchmen then became one of the few comics to never go out of print. 

 But one of the best tales in Comic books involves a Duck, a greedy company and good old fashioned theft. Steve Gerber (Creator of The Guardians Of The Galaxy)  grew sour on Marvel after they forced many changes on his magnum opus Howard the Duck. This involved one instance of Disney forcing Marvel to make Howard wear pants in order to differentiate him from Donald Duck. Gerber refused until he was threatened to be fired, and only did so by having Howard forcibly clothed, via a ‘Bland-inator.’ 

His run on the titular character became increasingly popular in the 70s, with fans of the character including Phillip K Dick, George Lucas, and The Pretenders. The character is a bit of a joke now, but The Howard the Duck series was a sharp satire of modern American life, whilst lampooning popular comic book trends at the time. Underneath all the absurdity, existential concerns about corporate culture, aspects of capitalism, and the nature of reality all lay at the heart of Howard the Duck. The first issue involved Howard fighting the exploitative practices of credit card debt and introduced him by having him try to commit suicide on top of a tower of credit cards. The comic book was so successful that Gerber was allowed to do whatever he wanted, even having Howard run for President during the 1976 Presidential elections (Allegedly he even got some real-world votes).

 Marvel eventually let go of Gerber and replaced him with another writer. Gerber was furious that Marvel would use him to make this character a success, only to fire him and have someone else take over. This fury was only amplified when he found out that Marvel was planning on making a film based on the character. Because he had financial incentive to do so, he joined the production as a consultant. He and producer Gloria Kats disagreed and butted heads over the direction of the film, in her words “It’s a film about a duck from outer space … It’s not supposed to be an existential experience.”

One of the roles of intellectual property is to help assimilate creative labour into something more tangible. Therefore it places private property rights on mental constructs; Which begs the question, what does it mean to “own” a thought? Steve Gerber thought up Howard the Duck and expended all the creative labour into making the character a success, and yet Marvel were the only ones who owned and profited off of the character.

1986’s Howard the Duck was produced by none other than George Lucas, hot off the success of Indiana Jones and Star Wars at the time. And it’s considered one of the worst films ever made, and you should totally watch it, if not for the “so bad it’s good” factor, then definitely to see how potent and pure cocaine was during the 1980s. But its failure did lead to Pixar in a bizarre butterfly effect.

After all this, Gerber pursued a lengthy legal battle with Marvel comics. To fund his legal fees, he headed over to the recently created Image Comics, where creators owned the rights to their stories and characters. He created Destroyer Duck as a satirical dig at Marvel’s policies. He would eventually lose his legal battle and would be paying the legal bills until he died, penniless and almost forgotten.

Years had passed, and Gerber had not written a single comic book in many moons. One day, at the suggestion of his friend Erik Larsen at Image comics, they planned to pitch to Marvel a large crossover event that would include Larsen’s creation Savage Dragon teaming up with Destroyer duck in a crossover with Howard the Duck and Spiderman. You see, the plan was simple, to take Howard from the Marvel universe and transport him to the Image universe, where the rights would finally belong to Steve Gerber. If not legally then at least in spirit. 

The story climaxed in a big fight in a warehouse in Cleveland. The fight plays out the same in both comics, one could read the story without needing to track the other comic down. On Marvel’s side, the comic ends with Howard and Spiderman walking out of the warehouse defeating the bad guys and saving the day. Status quo restored with not a litigious issue in sight.

Or so they thought! The Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck comic goes into more detail on just what actually happened in the warehouse. During the battle, Howard is cloned, leading to thousands of Howard the Ducks running amok. Spidey unknowingly grabs one of the clones and swings out of there, and Destroyer Duck grabs the real Howard. The trio escape along with Howard’s girlfriend Beverly to the Image Universe. Howard and Beverly both enter witness protection, and Howard changes his name to Leonard and dyes his feathers black. And just like that, Gerber stole Howard from Marvel right from underneath their noses. And there was nothing they could do about it.

Leonard The Duck was supposed to be Gerber’s new character, but he only saw one more appearance in his 90s Vertigo series Nevada. I guess you can only push your luck too much. 

In recent years, comic books writers have been voicing their frustration at seeing their stories on the big screen and not receiving a single credit for it, let alone royalties. Despite the success of superhero movies, comic books have seen only a small rise in sales, in part due to its seemingly inaccessible nature. But in part due to Marvel treating its comic book publishing side like a Mistress they’re ashamed of.

Steve Gerber would return to write Howard the Duck in 2001 Marvel’s MAX line (a series of comic books aimed at an 18+ crowd) and in doing so was finally allowed to write Howard The Duck the way he always wanted, with no restrictions and no filters. He had Howard turn into a rat resembling Mickey Mouse, so I guess he never got over that whole pants thing. Gerber would later pass away in 2008, right before Marvel became a titan of cinema. But I’m sure it’s for the best that he never discovered that Disney now owns Howard the Duck.

Words by Hashaam Yaqoob

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