Monday, February 26, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Howard the Duck

(or "It's Not For You")

When looking at Steve Gerber's 70s opus 'Howard the Duck', it seems in many ways to be a perfect example of what not to do when creating a storytelling engine. The reason for this is very simple: It is a perfect example of what not to do when creating a storytelling engine. Gerber freely admits (most notably in issue #16, the "album issue") that he has no overarching plan, no grand direction in which he plans to take the series. "In fact," he says, "the 'next issue blurb at the end of each story is always the most difficult line for me to write. I change my mind like some people change underwear. Ideas go stale for me as quickly as...well, you get the gist. I'm easily bored."

This is, as followers of this column might note, a poor way to go about building a book into a long-term series of self-generating stories. With Gerber's constant changes of setting, inconsistent supporting cast, and free-flowing stream-of-consciousness storylines, he puts himself in a position where he has to rely on inspiration striking him each month instead of letting established characters and settings do his work for him.

Which is the point of today's column: That doesn't mean he's doing things "wrong." He might be doing things in a way that makes it more difficult for himself in the long term, and it definitely might make things difficult for future writers on the series. (Which, in fact, it did; 'Howard' never recovered from Gerber's departure, and the series and character essentially vanished from the scene until the 21st century.) But Gerber isn't required to make the job easy for himself or others, and he's not required to make plans for the long haul. Sometimes, one story is all you ever want to tell.


Omar Karindu said...

Howard's engine: A cynical, wisecracking duck winds up trapped in a world he never made, whose inhabitants -- insane and absurd fromt he duck's POV -- refuse to take him seriously because he's a duck. His quest to find a place for himself only confirms in him the general misanthropy that results.

John Seavey said...

Well, that's the concept, yes...but the engine is more than just the concept. It's the supporting cast, which fluctuates wildly (apart from Bev, of course); the setting, which is Cleveland for about six issues and then goes all over the place; the lead character (getting Howard involved in the action is always a headache for Gerber, because Howard is essentially a disinterested misanthrope in the most literal sense of the word); even the tone, while keeping relatively consistent to "surrealist humor", fluctuates a lot. And the villains, well...I think the less said the better. Really, Doctor Bong's the only one anybody even remembers.

Lots of writers could do a series based on Howard's concept, but I don't think it would turn out anything like Steve Gerber's 'Howard the Duck'.

Omar Karindu said...

All true, and points I should've considered more carefully.

Gerber does seem to do this often, considering the wildness of his Man-Thing and Defenders work around the same period.

Cecil said...

That wildness is what made Steve's work Brilliant, and it would be next-to-impossible to duplicate without a great ally in corporate comics. He was so unique as a story-teller. However, this approach you describe makes it difficult to develop the cast like people. It could be most everything he did worked best because it was done briefly, but we'll never know. I'd just like to write stories so insightful and iconoclastic but within the operation of a storytelling engine...which I'm still working out as different than concept, since I haven't read your series for a while. I'm deeply concerned with what the individual stories have to say about life---a writer's concern beyond creating a useful engine.