The first in a series of posts about both the new and original Howard the Duck comic book series. They will eventually appear the week after each issue of the current series comes out, but right now we are an issue behind, but expect #2 by May 12, since issue #3 is due to be released the next day.
I’ve never really read much Howard the Duck. I had a few of the issues of the 70s run in the early 80s that I picked up at a yard sale, but that were in pretty bad shape. Honestly, I could not even tell you which ones they were. I just didn’t “get it” when I was 10 or 11, and by the time I was going to be old enough to re-appraise them the issues were gone. Instead, I really came to know of the character from the 1986 craptacular movie—a film based on a cult hit that was so bad it couldn’t become a cult hit of its own…that’s pretty bad. The Howard the Duck movie doesn’t even have the kind of low-budget charm and freakiness that makes a film like Rocky Horror Picture Show, a classic. Maybe if there was more duck/human sex… I did eventually read an isolated issue or two in my 20s and liked how it seemed closely connected to the time in which it was written, commenting pretty directly on the social and cultural climate of 1970s America.
Most of my knowledge about Howard the Duck, however, comes from stories shared by other comics aficionados—those a little older than I am, or who had an older sibling into comics who were able to appreciate it at just the right time. Well, that and from more recent sources, like Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (great book, go pick up a copy right now) and Robert Stanley Martin’s great post (formerly) on The Hooded Utilitarian going into all the behind the scenes details of Steve Gerber’s on-going struggle with Marvel editorial and his fight to keep the rights to his character and general editorial struggles. It was because of this history and my love of all things Bronze Age comics, that I tracked down a complete run of the original series for pretty cheap last year some time (might have even been the year before), but that I still have not made the time to go through. . . Until now…
Recently Marvel Comics started a new Howard the Duck title (I think it is the 5th volume), written by Chip Zdarsky (who does the art and co-plotting on Image Comics’ Sex Criminals—great book, btw), with art by Joe Quinones. I decided this is as good a time as any to read the original issues. So that is what this new on-going series of posts here on The Middle Spaces is going to be about, reading the original series and new series one issue at a time and seeing 1) If the original series lives up to its reputation as I have come to understand it, and 2) to how (if at all) this legacy will inform the new series.
Each installment of “If It WAUGHs like a Duck. . .” will be about a pair of issues of the same number but separated by 40 years. As I have not read the comics yet as I type these words, I cannot say the exact form the comparison will take, and my guess is that as time passes this series will evolve to tackle the themes I see developing in both runs. These installments will be part-reviews, part-close-reading, part contextualization, part-meditation on weird comics. And I hope others will chime in in the comments or via email with their own opinions and takes on the issues.
It probably bears mentioning that while I am aware of Howard the Duck’s appearances in titles like Adventure into Fear and Giant-Sized Man-Thing (heh, heh) before getting his own title, I am skipping those, mostly because I don’t own them (they are priced out of my back issue budget), but also because I like the parallel of issues bearing the same number.
Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #1
The Frank Brunner’s cover for Howard the Duck #1 isn’t anything special to look at, but it does seem indicative of a first issue of its time. Howard looks great, of course, with anxiousness in his eyes and posture, but with cigar firmly planted in bill (I don’t think Marvel characters are allowed to smoke anymore…not even Wolverine). But the generic inset Spider-Man in the bottom right corner with a big red arrow pointing to him, announcing his appearance within for readers who might not otherwise buy the strange comic, and the supine woman in mail bikini top and Dazzler eye make-up, hand to mouth as if in mid-hyper-feminine gasp of alarm are both rather lazy. Still, I appreciate the menacing barbarian warrior shadow, and the inset balloon telling us readers that since we “DEMANDED IT–” we get to hold “the fabulous FIRST ISSUE of Marvel’s Most Sensational new Super-Star!”
From the opening you can tell this comic is different from the usual Marvel superhero fare of the time. Howard the Duck has a sarcastic tone and suicidal urge, but he’s basically a good egg who doesn’t want his self-harm to lead to anyone else’s harm…Trapped in a world he never made (the comic’s long-time tagline) suggests the comic’s existential concerns. Howard simply doesn’t understand this world of “hairless apes” he’s trapped in, and he has no hope of finding his way back home. Even when he tries to calm himself down by going for a swim in the Cuyahoga River (he’s on the outskirts of everyone’s favorite punching bag of a city—birthplace of Superman and Harvey Pekar—Cleveland, OH), the pollution is so bad, he ends up with oily slime on his feet. Like a comic version of Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus starring a duck, the most important question he can ask himself is: Does the realization of the meaninglessness and absurdity of life necessarily require suicide? Apparently, yes…but my guess is that as the series progresses he will come to Camus’s same conclusion, that rather than self-destruction, such absurdity demands revolt!
In the meantime, searching for a place from which to hurl himself bodily, he finds a fantastical tower made of credit cards, inhabited by a sorcerous accountant, basically Kulan Gath as CPA. He is called “Pro-Rata” and can performs cosmic calculations to manifest his magic spells, but that for some reason needs a champion to retrieve some mystic do-dad in another dimension to take over the world. Oh, and he’s captured some chick and put her in a Red Sonja-like outfit to accompany the captured Duck on his journey. The plot itself is perfunctory, and Spider-Man does turn up to boost sales, but “Howard the Barbarian” is more about the absurdity of the whole situation than about the story.
Despite its over-the-top silliness, the 1976 volume of Howard the Duck lays a foundation of irreverent regard for economic and social systems—the power of credit cards, the vagaries of economic magic, the setting fire to the Cuyahoga River—there is already a connection between a callous disregard for the consequences of economic manipulation and the perverse logic of capitalist impulse; i.e. the ecological disaster of rivers set ablaze. Half of Howard’s charm is his dumb luck. He is just thrown into the world with a kind of ethical abandon. He has an impulse to do good, but doesn’t know how in a world that doesn’t make sense to him. He sacrifices himself to save Spider-Man because he doesn’t care if he lives anyway. The capriciousness of human behavior, or in this case duck behavior rises from the inseparability of his existential crisis from his altruism. Just like any other hairless ape, I guess.
As for Beverly (the woman in the mail bikini to become his side-kick, and I guess love interest?), there isn’t much to her at this point. She starts as the womanly prop for the barbarian story, present just to look pretty, and serve the writer’s need for actions meant to be outside of duck’s sphere of control.
Howard the Duck #1 is good for its weirdness; for finding that weirdness in the banality of obvious puns and transparent allegory; for the promise present in it, but that promise might just be an artifact of the series’ reputation. It is not yet good enough. Just notable. Different.
Howard the Duck Vol. 5, #1
Cover Date: May 2015
Release Date: March 11, 2015.
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Penciller: Joe Quinones
Colorist: Rico Renzi
Inker: Joe Quinones (I assume)
Letterer: Travis Lanham
I didn’t get the “normal” cover for the first issue of the new Howard the Duck series. I got the Skottie Young variant cover, because 1) I like Skottie Young’s cartoony “kid” takes on Marvel characters, and 2) if I decide I don’t like the first issue of a new series and want to re-sell it on eBay the Skottie Young variants tend to go for a little more than cover price. But if you look at the “standard” cover (there were 7 variants), you see at the top a revision of Howard the Duck’s catchphrase: “Trapped In a World He’s Grown Accustomed To,” which is, sadly, an apt way to describe this issue. I am not saying it is bad. I like the art, and there are some genuinely funny moments—especially a distraught Spider-Man collapsing in tears when he thinks Howard has died because of his neglect, thus flashing back to Uncle Ben—but rather than the strange, nearly oneiric tone of the first issue of the 1976 series, this series feels neatly embedded in the “normalcy” of the Marvel Universe in a way that doesn’t seem right. It may be that despite what might actually be a better opening story for the series than the one Gerber penned, that it mostly serves to bring Howard where we found him in the post-credits scene of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
There are plenty of things about the new series that are obviously different from the original series. The coloring for one, and the use of caption boxes for thoughts rather than the more common Silver and Bronze Age strategy of having character narrate their thoughts aloud (or through thought bubbles—though the 1976 #1 doesn’t use them). This never bothered me much. I think of the old style as something akin to a Shakespearean aside or soliloquy. But the biggest difference is that Howard wears pants in this version, which I can only imagine is a concession to Marvel’s masters at Disney, since they have long fought about the point, claiming that the lack of pants makes Howard too much like Donald. I can only imagine that Steve Gerber is spinning in his grave about that one. But even more importantly despite the obvious humor (I like how the women characters call out the duck on his casual sexism), Zdarsky’s version does not have the satirical edge that makes Howard the Duck who he is as a character. Instead we get jokes about poor texting skills with feathered hands, movie ads, a training montage with a visual reference to the Catherine Zeta-Jones’s butt shot from 1999’s Entrapment, mocking allusions to DC comics characters like Superman and Catwoman, and a throwback to Spider-Man’s appearance in the first issue of the original series and his use of the Spider-Signal.
It is not a bad comic, I guess, but there is not much in that first issue to justify its existence either. With the Guardians of the Galaxy tie-in (including a cliffhanger with Marvel’s newest overrated character, Rocket Racoon), it just has the feel of a comic meant to make use of some corporate synergy. Perhaps I am being too cynical and maybe it is just a coincidence, but it nevertheless has that feel to it. Who needs a Howard the Duck trying to escape the Collector? I’d rather one that took on a goofy analogue of student debt or trapped him in a social media dystopia—something that connects him to the contemporary moment the way he was originally tied to the 1970s.
Tallying Up the Bill
Placed side by side there is no comparison between these two comics. For however strange and dated the original series may seem, from the outset it existed on the margins of the established continuity to do its own thing—to make some room for difference in what mainstream superhero comics had to offer. The new series, on the other hand, feels very “managed” and lacks the raw quality of the original. While there are new Marvel comics that are working to shape their own corners of that universe in interesting and fun ways, from Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye (though eventually that series seemed to lose its way) to Ms. Marvel and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, revisiting Howard the Duck could have allowed Marvel to really experiment, but if this first issue is any indication, that promise is going to mostly go unfulfilled, so based on that alone, the original wins this round, despite its flaws.
Lastly, I want to say that in the future these entries will be shorter, since there will be no lengthy preamble as in this one, being the inaugural post in the series. WAUGH!