Welcome to the second installment of this still young feature that covers both the original and the current Howard the Duck comic book series one issue (of each) at a time. We are still figuring out the format that works best, so expect these to be organized differently til I find a way that sticks. Let me know if you have suggestions or requests in the comments.
Cover Date: March 1976
Release Date: December 23, 1975.
Writer: Steve Gerber
Penciller: Frank Brunner
Colorist: Michele Wolfman
Inker: Steve Leialoha
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Cover Date: June 2015
Release Date: April 8, 2015.
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Penciller: Joe Quinones
Colorist: Rico Renz
Inker: Joe Rivera
Letterer: Travis Lanham
The cover to 1976’s Howard the Duck #2 is by penciller Frank Brunner, so the art matches the interiors, which I tend to like, but like a lot of comics covers, what happens on the cover doesn’t quite happen inside—first of all Turnip Man does not shoot rays out of his eyes, but from the center of his forehead. However, while the background cityscape and people seem like an afterthought, I love the expression on Howard’s face and I am a sucker for the old school use of word balloons on covers. The 2015 cover features a sour-looking Howard at the center of a Guardians of the Galaxy selfie—all of them doing duck faces. Cute, but it also reflects the feeling of the GotG presence in this issue—all about surface appearance. Also, Gamora’s boob armor is ridiculous.
Reading these two comics together that stand (let’s call it) 40 years apart, I can’t help but wonder if somehow the version of Howard I saw in previous issues has somehow flipped across time and space to take each other’s place. The melancholic suicidal, but basically compassionate duck from the Gerber-penned 1976 Howard the Duck #1 shows up here in 2015, and the acerbic, entitled jerkwad of a duck has Gerald Ford for a president.
Issue #2 of the original series doesn’t actually have that much of a focus on Howard. It opens with a dream sequence that puts Howard into the science fantasy post-apocalyptic setting of Killmallard (a direct reference to Marvel’s Killraven), supposedly inspired by Howard’s reading of Beverly’s friend Arthur’s science fiction stories. The scene in the “real world” has Howard shacked up and looking very intimate with Beverly. They are clearly sleeping in the same bed, and he is naked, while she wears a tiny negligee. There is even a scene where she lights a cigar for him and puts it in his bill suggestively. Meanwhile, Arthur is working as a rent-a-cop as his “day job.” He comes across a large glowing sentient and telepathic space turnip. Yes, you read that right, space turnip. It gives him cosmic awareness in a panel clearly meant to riff on Captain Marvel, or maybe Adam Warlock, and bonds with the alien entity, fulfilling his wish to become a superhero—Turnip Man.
Howard’s story in this issue is dominated by his conflict on the bus with a clearly disturbed woman in a house dress and hospital mask, wth a face like a member of the Wrecking Crew. She objects to his smoking on the bus and squashes it, so he starts to strangle her, leading to the near bus crash that summons Turnip Man to save them.
The focus of the story is the conflict between the consciousnesses of the cosmic turnip and Beverly’s friend Arthur. Essentially, the latter wants to be a superhero, but it turns out that the turnip wants a human form so he could rape women. It is played as a joke, but I’m not kidding. Controlled by the cosmic turnip, Arthur in his role of Turnip Man abducts Beverly because he must touch “the meat-female” in order to experience “the making of whoopee.” There is even a suggestion that maybe they do have sex. After the turnip claims that it will “reap the benefits” of Arthur now being in the position to “experience a real sensation” as he is depicted in a way that suggests he is laying her down with his body positioned over Beverly, there is an ambiguous panel marked by a caption that reads “Exactly 54 minutes later,” in which Beverly says “Y-you sure can sustain a level of arousal, Arthur…!” There is a heart shape in the background of the panel, and for a second it almost seems she is impressed by his super turnip prowess. She rejects Arthur, however, when he makes a stupid suggestive joke, so the whole situation remains unclear, but that very lack of clarity gives me the creeps.
All of this rapey stuff serves as backdrop for the philosophical debate that Arthur and the turnip have as Arthur tries to fight its influence. Through the sexual assault turnip (which sounds like a Cards Against Humanity card), Gerber seems to be exploring and critiquing some of the assumptions of the superhero genre. The turnip mocks Arthur’s dream of heroism, using it cosmic power to manifest the swelling background theme music Arthur dreamed of as part of his heroic fantasy. Meanwhile his body is being used to try to force Beverly into sex, and claiming “There are no heroes, Arthur-Meat — nor villains either. Merely various entities with various desires…when society approves of these desires the entity is deemed good…” It goes on to adopt the Adorno and Horkheimer Frankfurt school attitude towards popular representations of revolution and resistance: “Escapist claptrap…a safety valve for the frustrations of the masses, allowing them to vent their hostilities vicariously.” And then makes his most direct accusation against superhero comics and their readers through the figure of Arthur, “That’s what you’ve been doing, Arthur — living your life through others’ fantasies…”
Howard arrives to save the day, figuring out that the green part of the turnip, not the bulb, is where the sentience resides and tears it off, guiding its flight into a burning factory smokestack with a joke about duck evolution thrown in. The issue ends with Arthur finally accepting the sharp difference between reality and the world of spandex heroes he admires, despite the fact that all these characters exist within the world of spandex heroes. He claims that the universe is “a vast panorama of banal humanity,” but Howard admonishes him with the final word. Since Arthur too is a comic book character bound by the narrative traditions of comic book form, Howard tells him to leave at the fact that he’s “just not qualified to give advice on the subject, huh?” adding a sense of undermining irony to the whole issue.
I know it has only been two issues, but Gerber’s meta-concerns seem clearly at the heart of this series. Gerber’s analysis of the actually liberatory value of popular stories and the notion that even our fantasies are dictated to us seem to be in conversation with the accountant sorcerer in Howard the Duck #1, who understands the economical framework of “magic.” I can’t help but wonder if everyone that appears in these issues is a reference to someone or something else. Even the crazed woman that Howard attacks on the bus who obsesses over the health of her kidneys seems to be a reference to some kind of health-nut type that Gerber wants to mock? I don’t know. But ultimately, by today’s standards, the scene just comes off as pointlessly insensitive. Throughout the issue, Howard is aggressive, cowardly, petty, entitled and jealous. None of the concerns with doing right that were present in the first issue are here, though he does go rescue Beverly, so that’s something.
Rather than being on the margins of the Marvel Universe—making fun of it, while in it, but not of it— Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck is firmly entrenched in the morass of Marvel crossover synergy. One of the regular readers over at Bronze Age Babies, Edo Bosnar, said it best when he described Howard the Duck as something like, funny animal comics entering superhero comics via horror comics. The juxtaposition of cigar-chompin’ Carl Barks reject—already absurd—with the assumed goodness of superhero ethics, makes for a space where I imagine interesting things happening, narratively and satirically. Howard the Duck #2 (2015) on the other hand continues to look inward.
The beginning of the issue is forgettable Rocket Raccoon hijinks—remember, they are captives of the Collector.
I have to stop here to admit I may be letting my dislike of Rocket Raccoon color my reaction to this comic to some degree. I didn’t like 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy film either (I found it rather lazy and boring). However, I will say it is against the backdrop of Rocket’s sharp edge and bloodthirsty attitude, like a cute Wolverine, that we get to see the sensitive Duck that makes Howard interesting to me. He takes no pleasure in fighting—complaining when Rocket hands him one of the prison guard’s weapons to use, “Can’t escape guns, man. Even on the other side of the universe. Sheesh”—except of course when he gets caught up in moment, and takes out his outrage at the Collector’s project of holding examples of one-of-a-kind species against their will, he gets a little heated, a little twisted even.
However, Howard’s pathos comes to the surface most obviously when he realizes that the Guardians of the Galaxy have rescued him, Rocket and some of the prisoners, but left behind a great number of them. He objects to Starlord, “You can’t leave them behind!” But has to accept that their escape required leaving before the Collector returned, forcing them to hurry.
Returned to Earth, he finds a drunken beardy Spider-Man still up on the roof surrounded by novena candles, distraught over Howard’s supposed death, but the Duck leaves him there and goes to find his friend—Tara—that he met in jail in the first issue, but entering her tattoo shop finds the place being held up by Aunt May with a gun!
I have to say, while I wasn’t into the first part of this issue, I do like the jokes at Spider-Man’s expense and the idea of Aunt May performing armed robbery (hmmm, maybe this does take place at the margins of the Marvel Universe). That said, it is looking like that is all I can count on this version to make fun of—comics stuff. The back-up story in the issue (written by Zdarsky, with art by Rob Guillory)) reinforces this with an over-the-top story of Luke Cage and Iron Fist suing Howard for violating their trademark in his private detective agency advertisements.
Well, there was one kind of meta moment when the action flashes to the Collector shopping at “Cosmo Con,” a cosmic pop culture convention, where there are celebrity signings and rare collectibles to be acquired, including a life-size “Admiral Trap” action figure (“with scared flailing motion!”), and lots of other jokes in the details. Beneath this 3/5s of a page panel, the silhouettes of Howard and the Guardians flee, as Howard comments “Sounds nerdy.” Meh.
Tallying the Bill
I can’t help but feel like I am measuring both these comics up against idealized version of an original series I never actually read, and am finding them both wanting. However interesting it might be to have superhero comics characters talk about their own existence in self-referential ways back in 1976—and my love of She-Hulk is proof that I am down for that kind of book—the way the Gerber story left unexamined the entitlement embedded in that space turnip’s fascination with male desire as to make dismissing concerns about consent a joke, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Furthermore, the dream sequence in the opening pages seemed a bit indulgent at best and hackneyed at worst. The 2015 issue continues to be filled with cheap jokes—Rocket’s “treasure trail” or Starlord being written like Andy Dwyer from Parks & Rec (or who knows, maybe they just write him like that now), 50 Shades of Gamma Ray—and its embeddedness in Marvel properties continues to make it feel a commercial for comics, when it should be written as a critique of comics. If the new Howard the Duck is going to reference Celestials and the Collector and Galactus, then let it be the raw voice from within that humorously tears that shit down, rather than simply provide a giggly gloss.