It’s likely you never knew Howard Downs, but how I wish you’d had the opportunity to meet him. Howard was my friend for almost thirty-five years—and now he’s gone.
Howard Downs died on February 4th, 2014. He was fifty-four years old.
July 2013: The last time I saw Howard, at my wedding reception.
We met because of a shared love of comics (which explains why this memoriam appears here). It was 1979 when I discovered my home state’s first and at the time only comic book store, Duck Soup, in the quaint little tourist town of Hallowell. It was a thirty-minute drive to “the Soup” for me, but as a lifelong Hallowell resident Howard was a regular customer, making it inevitable our paths would cross. Both our initial reactions were likely not positive ones—I think Howard saw me as a mouthy know-it-all and I viewed him as a lot of bluster without much backing it up. Sometimes first impressions are accurate and sometimes they’re not. Howard may have been right about me, but I was definitely wrong about him. It was our connection to comics that that allowed us to spend time together, fine-tune our perceptions, and build a connection between ourselves that would last until the end of the last millennium and well into this one.
There were a handful of us who frequented Duck Soup – Howard grew up down the street from our mutual friend, Marvel and DC Comics artist Lee Weeks – and the batch of us forged a connection that has been a constant in our lives. Addresses may change—jobs may change—there can be marriages and separations, children born or children graduating high school or college—but even though we are now scattered across multiple states, our ties to one another have remained firm, unshakeable. Until today, it has always been a pleasure to speak to one of my friends; the problem today is that I told Howard’s widow I would deliver the sad, sad news to our little social circle and as of this writing I’ve not yet been able to reach everyone, but will continue to pursue them, though perhaps the first time ever, I do not look forward to speaking with my friends.
August 2011: Howard at right, Walter at left, Dave (center background) and Tom (center foreground)
Howard had an encyclopedic knowledge of comics, and a large collection amassed over a lifetime – Lee once said Howard was a “comics savant” and that was a good label, I think. In the ’80s, Howard said it was inevitable that Wally West would become The Flash long before there was a Crisis on Infinite Earths to set up exactly such a change; Howard not only envisioned aWest Coast Avengers, he correctly reasoned out at least two-thirds of that super-team’s original membership. As the opportunity presented itself, he broadened and deepened his knowledge of comic strips – he wasn’t much for advant garde material like Krazy Kat, but he loved many a gag-a-day series and he dived into the adventure strips. Since LOAC raised its tent I’ve given Howard many a copy of our output. He never hesitated to tell me how the entire Downs family loved being introduced to Scorchy and Rip Kirby and renewing acquaintances with Terry and Tracy, Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim. It meant a lot to him to receive our books; it meant a lot to me that he enjoyed them.
Howard was not always loveable. He could be irascible, he could be more stubborn than a Missouri mule, and though it was never directly confronted, I suspect he was never satisfied with his accomplishments, never as confident as he should have been in his own abilities. Still, I always believed in him. In those times in my life when I was facing a dilemma I would contact Howard, knowing I’d get the straight, no b.s. answer. More than once Howard helped me chart a good course; when I needed help, he was there to offer it. He helped make me the man I am today, and I’m not sure I ever properly thanked him for that.
When we were frequenting Duck Soup with our other friends, the batch of us went to restaurants and watched movies, we prowled bookstores, we took occasional trips to Boston, and we endlessly talked about important issues and trivial topics—offering opinions, sharing dreams, and debating the roster of The Five Greatest Boston Celtics of All Time.
For a few years Howard and I lived in the same city – we regularly played pool at the Forest Avenue Tavern; I was a guest at his first wedding and ushered at his second, when he married the love of his life, Liz, who stood with him in good times and bad and took such good care of him in his final days. She and their daughter, Mary, have to take care of one another now. Howard would expect nothing less.
For myself and the rest of that Duck Soup Group, we will surely gather in the days ahead to say our farewells to our friend, but beyond attendance at the memorial service, we will honor his memory the best way we can, by keeping our connection, though diminished by his loss, strong in the months and years and decades that still lie ahead for us.
Rest easy, Howard. You were loved, and you are already missed.