A little while ago I posted an article here about political cartoons written for me by Evelyn Robinson. Here's another article she recently sent me!
A Cat And a Duck Walk Into A Bar: Revisiting Fritz The Cat & Howard The Duck
One was as underground and alternative as it is possible to be, drawn by the man who made the “keep truckin’” 60s slogans possible and for decades was the reigning king of alternative comics. The other was a Marvel production, a cynical and strangely moving look at life which was doomed to an afterlife as a punchline in and of itself due to the effects of a famously ill-conceived movie. They were Fritz the Cat and Howard the Duck, and together they form a strange undercurrent which still moves through comics today - while long underwear heroes own the movie screens, these strange animal heroes remind us that comics can unsettle us, pose political problems and philosophical questions, and take us into situations so strange that superheroes can only dream of them. To re-read Fritz the Cat (created by R. Crumb) and Howard the Duck (primarily written by Steve Gerber) is to suspend your disbelief so far above your head that your perspective might change completely.
In 1959, the sixteen year old Robert Crumb drew a comic strip. Called “Cat Life” and based on his family’s ornery cat Fred, the comic then grew into a 1960 work which gave the now-anthropomorphic cat the name he’d wear for twelve years: Fritz. Drawing from the lush lunacy which was a feature of Walt Kelly’s seminal work Pogo (which would later inspire Bill Watterson to create Calvin & Hobbes) as well as the “funny animal” comics which had been a staple of his childhood, Crumb’s Fritz The Cat was an astonishing feat for such a young talent. Fritz was a cat for the coming decade.
Fritz was less counterculture and more - well. He was a cat without a culture, and was therefore able to provide commentary on the excesses, failures, and hypocrisies of both the left and right wings, the straight and narrow or the ones with their heads blown wide open. A strong proponent of marijuana, Crumb had his feline hero (as well as other anthropomorphic characters in Fritz’s modern “supercity”) smoke it regularly; however, he wasn’t shy about showing the effects of this and other drugs. Turning to marijuana to relax after a fight with his on-again-off-again vixen girlfriend, Fritz would find intoxicated solace from the stress, but would be unable to get around to doing anything about it. Mushrooms and acid, burnt-out hippies and racial revolutionaries, presidents and cops; everyone was fair game, and Crumb (along with his brother Charles) satirized them all. These might be funny animal comics, but they were underground for a reason, featuring plenty of animal-on-animal fun and other activities which were less than ideal for kids.
By the time Fritz the Cat ended his run in 1972, he had become a legend of the underground scene, and had starred in one of the most highly-rated independent animated movies of all time. The movie was, unfortunately, Fritz’s downfall, as Crumb argued with the filmmakers and moved on to other works (a second movie, unconnected to either Crumb of the original director, was later released). The world had lost a cat, but was just about to meet a duck.
An Existentialist Duck
He was originally supposed to be a minor character, a bit part in Man-Thing, which itself was just part of Marvel’s Adventure Into Fear series. Created in 1973 by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik, Howard The Duck would become a legend, graduating to his own miniseries and then to his own title in 1976. From his very first appearance, Howard was something new, shouting about the absurdity of emerging into a world of talking apes. Alien, duck, and frankly bizarre, Howard lived the life of a superhero - duck style - with plotlines and twists which continued to post strange philosophical questions of readers.
As a Marvel property, Howard was able to meet the likes of Spiderman, and comic lovers read and watched as Howard spoofed their favorite genres and tropes with the kind of complicated cruelty that comes from real affection for the medium. Yet through all the absurdity (Howard learns ‘Quack-Fu’), the comic created real emotional stakes for both its titular duck and the reader. Unfortunately, this strange, brilliant diamond was eventually shut away, the result of a movie which shared the comic’s name but not its bizarre spirit. The ‘Howard the Duck’ movie was a legendary failure, an ignoble end to a comic which, if not noble, was certainly provoking.