Wednesday, 1 January 2014

"Ducks? Who Cares About Ducks!"

Quack! #3 (Star*Reach, 1977)
Final cover by Dave Sim & Steve Leialoha; Preliminary sketch by Dave Sim
(Click image to enlarge)
(from Following Cerebus #7, February 2006)
...Your reproduction of the cover of Quack! No.3 reminded me of a couple of other trains of thought that were occupying my attention at the time both of which were clarified, at least indirectly, by Mike Friedrich around this time. As you can see from my preliminary sketch, I had taken Mike's initial idea and done what I considered to be a funny cover for a humour comic. The gag is dependent on the fact that it's called the "Special Dead Duck Issue" and that my character, Whitey, is depicted reading a copy of Quack! which he and his brother Red are evidently discussing, Red's bottom reaction being "Ducks? Who cares about ducks?" In the background I've attempted to do a Chuck Jones-style Daffy Duck, holding up  his "Help!" sign as he's about to get crushed by a safe. Not exactly a laugh riot, but with all three elements in place it was, I figured, a good chance to raise a smile.

Now when you look at the finished cover, first of all you notice that the angle has been reversed. This was Mike making use of the old adage that you should never have your characters walking "out" of the comic book. Seemed to me like one of those "editor" things, but Mike was the editor so the choice was out of my hands. Of course the first net result of that was that the front cover is no longer visible in Whitey's hands, ergo the self-referential gag of the two of them discussing the comic book they're actually in is lost. Instead it looks as if Red in interrupting Whitey's reading with a non-sequitur about the imminent fate of the unnamed duck they aren't even looking at. Add to that the fact that the "Special Dead Duck Issue" cover copy has been deleted and suddenly you have a virtually Seinfeldian cover that used to be about dead ducks that is now about... nothing. In fact, arguably the last thin you want to have is a comic book called Quack! with the central character on the cover saying "Ducks?!, Who cares?" You are practically ordering the reader not to buy the thing. You also lose the Yiddish flavour of "Ducks!, Who cares about ducks!" The "book-ending" of the observation with the inherently funny word "ducks". The exclamation mark and question mark on the only use of the term "Ducks?!" and the inflated size of the lettering throws off the humour, calling attention to the emphasis - the size of the lettering and the question mark and the exclamation mark - rather than the word itself. And of course the duck has changed from the hapless Daffy version into a generic Donald/Howard version. Daffy is funny, Donald isn't. I hate to break that to any Disney fans in the audience, but Donald Duck isn't funny and never has been. The Clarence Nash voice is funny, but that's it.

It really stuck with me because it seemed to call attention to the fact that no one seemed to know or care about doing actual humour in comics. It was either Kurtzman/Elder variants (filling the background with funny signs, book titles, bill boards) or underground humour which hinged on finding dope-smoking and getting the munchies inherently hilarious by using the comic strip conventions invented by Elzie Segar and Floyd Gottfredson and others.

It was really the cover to Quack! No.3 that made me realise that there was a irresolvable dilemma inherent between being a good obedient contributor that  did what my editor - Mike - asked me to do and producing actual humour. There was no way to draw a line in the sand over the fact that "Ducks!, Who cares about ducks!" is a funnier line that "Ducks? Who cares?" without being seen as a nitpicking prima donna. Either you understand that the one line is funnier and the other isn't or you don't. Mike didn't so that was the end of the discussion. The net result was that in my widest-ever exposure on the cover of a comic book, it meant that I had to take the blame for a cover being unfunny and not selling even though the decisions of how to make it  funny so it would sell were taken out of my hands. Ultimately this would be a major motivation to do my own comic book where I was the final arbiter of what was funny and what wasn't funny and where I would be in the position to decide what worked and what didn't.

It was no small point and I appreciate the fact that it was brought home to me so completely by this particular episode. The best lessons are usually those that are the hardest to take at the time.

Mike Friedrich published 18 issues of the science fiction and fantasy comics anthology Star*Reach between 1974 and 1979, one of the first mainstream independent comic books, which bridged the gap between the countercultural underground comics and traditional Marvel/DC Comics fare. Friedrich's company grew into a small publishing house in Hayward, California, that published the comic book series Quack, Imagine and a number of one-shot comics. The company ceased publishing in 1979.
Cerebus Archive #17 (December 2011)
Art by Dave Sim

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've gotta side with Dave over Mike Friedrich on this cover. Is "never have your characters walking 'out' of the comic book" really an old adage? That just seems like a preference. Dave's "the upper third of a cover is the real selling area, 'cause that's all that shows in a waterfall rack" actually has a reason. Losing the fact that Whitey is reading Quack damages the gag (though I don't think losing "Special dead duck issue" does). And "Ducks? Who cares about ducks?!" is a funnier line (although I would place it where "The Beavers" is now, so it comes before the action with the safe).

I never would have read the duck as Daffy, though. Daffy was always naked (unless he was wearing a costume for a part, eg. Doorlock Holmes). Putting a jacket and tie on the duck automatically says "Howard" to me. (And that's furthered (feathered?) by having Steve Leialoha ink it; he was actually HTD's inker at the time, if memory serves.)

-- Damian T. Lloyd, asc