If it WAUGHs Like a Duck #3: Quack-Phooey

Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #3 HtD3-covers
Cover Date: May 1976
Release Date: February 24, 1976
Writer: Steve Gerber
Penciller: John Buscema
Colorist: Michele Wolfman
Inker: Steve Leialoha
Letterer: Annette Kawecki

Howard the Duck Vol. 5, #3
Cover Date: July 2015
Release Date: May 13, 2015.
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Penciller and Inks: Joe Quinones
Colorist: Rico Renzi
Additional Inks: Joe Rivera
Letterer: Travis Lanham

The Covers

Both of these covers are great in their own very different ways. The Buckler and Leialoha cover for 1976 version of Howard the Duck #3 has got great classic Bronze Age action in its favor. Howard looks great in his kung-fu gi get-up, doing a double flying roundhouse kick with a cigar in his bill, and a scroll caption declaring him the Master of Quack Fu! The old Asian master caricature in the background, with arm outreached is also classic-looking, even if the stereotype is cringe-worthy.

The more recent version of Howard the Duck #3 has lovely colors, but the reversal in the image of a bird clocked on the head with a cane and seeing humans (instead of the old cartoon stand-by of seeing birds) is great, especially since those humans are elderly folks, some with canes and walkers, and perfectly capturing the essence of the story inside.

The Issues

My instinct tells me that this will go back and forth several times before I am done with these series, but with issue #3 I went from ambivalence about both titles with a slight preference for the 1976 version, if only for its historicity, to preferring Zdarsky’s sharp and clever deeply MU-entrenched stories to Gerber’s sloppy satire and commentary. We’ll see how long it lasts, but for now let’s get the 1976 issue out of the way so we can get to the better one.

HtD3-kung-fu

Howard’s penchant to call humans “hairless apes” is rankling when the subject of his barb is African-American (Howard the Duck #3, 1976).

Essentially, Howard the Duck #3 was Gerber’s way to critique the popularity of martial arts films and related paraphernalia that boomed in the 1970s. Or is it? It is hard to say for sure, and this could be a result of my conflating Howard with Gerber, but it is hard to take the duck’s self-righteous diatribe seriously, and since the issue is solved by violence, I can’t help but think that Gerber did not really believe what he had the duck saying. But if that’s the case, what’s the point? It is not as if Howard is posing the question in any kind of new way that gets us to really think about the sanitization of violence and the influence of its portrayal as a form of entertainment on viewers, especially the young. Maybe this was a new way to think about mass culture in 1976, at least in comics, but the ironic echoes of Frederic Wertham in those complaints undermines that theory as well. Instead, I will chalk up this issue to Gerber wanting to rail against something popular, but not really thinking through a new way to overcome conflict in a narrative.

HtD3-intellectual

It’s hard not to think of Howard as Steve Gerber’s mouthpiece in panels like this.

“Four Feathers of Death! Or: Enter the Duck!” begins with Howard and Beverly exiting a movie theater amid a gaggle of young men who—having just seen the same kung-fu flick—are throwing around fake kicks and chops and leaping about yelling “HAI-EEE-TSA!” As kids will do… Howard the Duck is back in cantankerous form, chiding the kids for their games and complaining, “You misrepresent an ancient philosophy, package it as a violent entertainment—and sell it to your young to emulate!” At a diner, Howard continues his rant about portrayals of violence, when kung-fu thugs—led by a guy named Count Macho—throw one of the kids Howard admonished earlier through the window. In the brawl that ensues the kid is stabbed (Gerber seems to suggest that fooling around play-fighting will always lead to serious injury or death) and Howard switches from complainer to reluctant avenger. He seeks out a book on martial arts at a store and the next thing you know he finds an ad, finds a master—of course, the master fits the most retrograde old Chinese man yellow peril stereotype—and Howard’s training montage begins. The big joke in the panel after the montage is that all of that training happened in “three hours and seventeen minutes.” I guess this is supposed to be making fun of how the training montage trope in films actually saps any sense of actually performing hard work over time to achieve a goal. But like a lot of Gerber’s “jokes,” it falls flat.

Ultimately, Howard the Duck seeks out Count Macho (who has kidnapped Beverly—this is her third kidnapping in three issues, seriously) and defeats him and his cronies. In the end, violence solves everything, just like all good superhero-ish comics would have us believe. I know I must sound like I am being extra harsh on Gerber, but this comic made me think that maybe Jim Shooter was right to send up Gerber in the now infamous Secret Wars II #1, because there seems to be a severe lack of self-awareness in this comic, as if the sentiment were sufficient to carry the critique.

HtD3-fight

The waitress behind the counter doesn’t seem happy with Howard’s diatribe about violence in the media. I wonder if that was in the script, or if Buscema is telling us something through her.

All that said, the art in this issue is by John Buscema, if not at his best, then a workmanlike level of excellence that few other pencillers ever accomplish. He’s got a great sense of movement, and even something like Howard the Duck benefits from his physically expressive style. Ironically, Buscema also drew Master of Kung-Fu, so he benefited a great deal from the very genre Gerber complains about.

Jump ahead nearly 40 years and Chip Zdarsky isn’t even remotely trying to tackle something as messy as mass media depictions of violence as a form of entertainment. You can maybe blame him for not being as ambitious as Gerber, but his more focused approach of just making fun of the Marvel Universe succeeds. Last issue left off with the Aunt May–robbing-a-tattoo-shop cliffhanger. It turns out it really is her, and she clunks Howard on the head with the butt of her gun and makes off with the necklace he’s being hunting in the first two issues (the case he took on as a private investigator in issue #1). After some investigating it turns out the Ringmaster is using elderly people as his gravy train, using his mesmerizing hat to get them to rob people and bring him the money. Aunt May was just another patsy. The plot mocks a b-list villain Ringmaster, but while that is easy pickings in terms of a character to skewer, the issue really gets its timing and wit down. The humor pops: the recapitulation of the over-emotional Spider-Man joke when he thinks something has happened to Aunt May (she’s just gone to help Howard find the culprits), the writing of Aunt May in her 70s persona—kind of frail and confused all the time, the scene where Howard strips down and goes undercover as a duck in the park to scope out the elderly people who feed the birds, it all works and works well. Visually the issue is great, too. Quinones’ use of ring shaped panels on a page to make up for needed exposition and a flashback recall the Ringmaster’s hat and provides visual pleasure—evoking a mesmerizing form. Rico Renzi’s colors are vibrant and well-chosen. 2015’s Howard the Duck #3 is the best issue of the six I’ve read for this series so far.

HtD3-quackfu

Howard warns Aunt May that he knows Quack-Fu (from Howard the Duck vol. 5, #3)

The issue even makes a reference back to Howard the Duck volume 1, #3, when Howard warns a mesmerized Aunt May that he knows quack-fu and the editor provides a note. There is a later reference to Howard the Duck volume 1, #25, as (spoiler alert!) that was the first time Howard ran into Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime. In other words, all of a sudden it seems like Zdarsky is paying respect to the original series (or at least the editor is making sure the series does). Heck, the reveal on the final splash is someone so obscure the editor tells us to use Wikipedia to look it up. Talos the Untamed. He looks familiar, but I haven’t looked it up yet. Maybe he has something to do with the original series, or some other obscure cranny of the Marvel Universe, I am not sure, but I like that the comic can also make fun of its own insularity. The point is this: I laughed and smiled as I read this issue. I can’t say the same for #3 of the original series.

The back-up story in the 2015 #3 is great, too. I love back-up stories as a feature of comics, and I wish more monthly issues had them, so the inclusion of two back-up stories in the 2015 Howard the Duck series so far does help lend it the sense of a throwback. In this story, Howard is hired in his capacity as a private detective by a superhero impersonator to find out what happened to Wolverine. Since his disappearance (uh, spoilers…he’s dead) he has not been in the spotlight and will soon be forgotten, thus calls for an impersonator have dried up. The poor Wolverine impersonator may have to lower himself to playing Alpha Flight’s Puck. It’s funny.

Tallying the Bill

At this point I am feeling a lot more anticipation for the next issue of Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck then getting around to the original #4 (which I already own). The contemporary series seems to be gathering momentum, while so far the original series plods along tackling a topic at a time in a way that gestures towards relevance (and I don’t mean relevance to its time or ours, but a general social and cultural relevance), but doesn’t give us any new questions to ask, let alone provide a well-thought out position on the subject. I wonder how this might change (or not) as the 1976 election approaches.

HtD-undercover

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15 thoughts on “If it WAUGHs Like a Duck #3: Quack-Phooey

  1. Hey Dr. Oyola,

    I followed you over from Bronze Age Babies. I’ve plowed through a few of the “heavier” posts on your blog, and they’re both eye-opening and interesting.

    On to important matters: Talos the Tamed is a super-strong Skrull who can’t shapeshift. He first showed up in Incredible Hulk 419. I think he popped up in the background in Annihilation, but he hasn’t made many appearances.

    In my opinion, the original Howard the Duck series really picks up starting next issue. Gene Colan comes aboard, and Gerber puts the title character in (mostly) smarter, more personal stories. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

    • Yes. I have Googled Talos since writing this, but wanted what I wrote to be the immediate reaction the issues, w/o looking up an obscure character (and if I don’t know it, it must either be from the 90s or REALLY obscure. . . but like I said, he looked familiar.

      I look forward to seeing how these go once Colan joins Team Duck.

      Thanks for following over and commenting.

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  3. Hi, Osvaldo Oyola, enjoyed your post. As always, well written and informative. I have the old HtD’s but have not bought the new ones (just out of my budget tho’ I’d like to).

    3 comments about old HtD: [Have to admit when I 1st got these issues, I just read them because they were farce, pseudo-philosophical ramblings, and self-mockery, like “Not Brand Echh”, but more pointed. Today, and with your article as a guide, I put on my lit-crit glasses.]

    First, the splash page keyed me to the underpinning philosophy (imho): Bev says, “Jeez, it’s only a movie, Howard.” Tho’ the comic is mocking the Shang Chi book and its violent fantasy, it becomes bedazzled by/falls prey to its boyish (sophomoric? puerile?) charm: underdog beats Mr Macho; it’s David vs Goliath. I would’ve loved to have seen a truly non-violent solution, but it goes against the grain of the genre. It could happen, perhaps should happen, but not likely in the parody of a superhero genre. The best we got was Macho destroying himself (unrealistically and perhaps a lazy device on the part of the writer), in essence evil causing its own destruction rather than Howard actively killing him. Neat little aside, the artist put a stylized Chinese character for love “ai” at the end of the story. There have been enough studies to show that violent stories in print, film, or games do not create violent people. Having said that, I myself was a practitioner of various martial arts for many years. The personality stereotypes and generalizations depicted do exist (sans murder). Young boys learn karate etc and want to try it out. Some guys are talented gifted athletes but absolutely horrible people and misuse the “art”. Around the world, most “masters” are regular people, neither good nor evil, in fact mostly good. I’d say there’s better than even chance, however, for someone trained in martial arts to resort to it as solution of a problem rather than using their words as mothers often chasten us to do.

    Second, I don’t conflate the author and main character. Overlap? Most likely (because of the type of comic it is), but I think we have to give Bev’s comments weight, too, if we are talking author’s intention. At least in this book, she often speaks reason (although I agree, her getting kidnapped is uninspired comic book boilerplate).

    Finally, I understood why you described Howard’s “hairless ape” comment as insensitive, but I’m afraid I cannot totally agree. Howard has been referring to all humans as hairless apes and I don’t see him being racist in that normal heinous sense. He might be instead a species-ist! But he is fond of Bev and does go out of his way to avenge the weak and bullied. I know that race is a sensitive issue, but I thought Gerber here was not trying to be racist; it was more coincidental that one of the boys was black among a diverse group of young boisterous men.

    Hope this comment was not too long. I really am enjoying your series (and all your posts have been excellent, love them and your guest writers’ posts too) and if the new HtD picks up in quality, continues in quality, I may very well pick it up too. Peace….

    • First of all, all comments made in good faith are welcome here, however long they might be. So thanks!

      Secondly, you are right that we have to give Bev’s comments weight as well. When I wrote this installment I tried to make it clear that while I may be conflating the character and author, I understand how that can be problematic – so wanted to make clear that I was not using this point of criticism without reservation. I am probably influenced by the other things about Gerber I have read on that account. You are right that violent media does not make people violent, but there is a wide gap between that and Bev’s claim that it is “only a movie.” I mean, there is a recursive relationship between how art influences and reflects culture. Sure, a violent movie isn’t likely to make people violent, but it could de-sensitize us to violence or condone violence against certain groups, or reflect a violent attitude already present in the culture. . . etc. . .

      Thirdly, of course Gerber wasn’t trying to be racist! :) All I was pointing out in that panel was that in that context Howard’s phrase for humans takes on a negative suggestion. Words and ideas have histories and connotations we can’t just ignore, not because we are trying to indict the author, but because we have to think about them and remain sensitive to them.

      I am excited to read the next issues for both series. .. I don’t think the Zdarsky HtD comes out until the end of June, which means there won’t be another “If it WAUGHs. . .” until early July.

    • To be honest, …I think you’re right! When I re-read HtD after your review/critique, that was my knee-jerk reaction. It’s a bit like Monday- Tuesday. Ask me on Monday, I feel that violence in media (in film particularly) is dangerous; on Tuesday I do an about face. I have 2 long sad personal stories about my experience with violent film and its effects (that I won’t go into here), so yes, I tend to agree with that. But I also wonder how much of it is symptomatic of violence in that particular society/culture. As if ‘Dexter’ could cause certain cultures to imitate the violence, but in another culture it’s innocuous. Chicken-egg essentially. In any event, eagerly await your next installment to arrive into my feathered fingers (sorry, couldn’t help myself). Cheers!

  4. “…the master fits the most retrograde old Chinese man yellow peril stereotype…”
    Moonlighting from his regular gig in the KUNG FU tv series (which is why he calls HTD “pondhopper”).
    The master’s butterfly returns, after a fashion, in #13.

  5. Yeah, I think the master is intended as a satire, but apart from that your criticisms of the ’76 issue were spot on, Osvaldo.

    Only… I’m a bit surprised you didn’t have anything to say about the final panel, because that’s where Gerber seems to cross over from the thoughtless jaded liberalism of the first two issues to something altogether more unpleasant. The observation that Macho (a very two dimensional character – its always easy to sound authoritative on violence if you can identify specifically evil people) deserved to die, or “worse” (tortured?) is truly appalling. Much worse than the standard Marvel “violence solves everything” approach – I mean, back then, the Punisher was still a villain, right?
    Put together with the sentimentality of Howard’s caterpillar and butterfly comment and you pretty much have the far right politics of the prison/industrial complex.

    Maybe I’m reading too much into one panel…. but it seemed striking. And not in a good way.

    • Not sure how you are getting prison industrial complex out of the butterfly comment, but I went back and took another look because I had forgotten it, and you are right that it is a shitty panel. The comment is weird and jarring in relation to the rest of the comic, like written by someone who wants to seem liberal, but be “tough” or vice versa.

      Thanks for commenting!

  6. Yes, that last bit was phrased badly (the perils of editing down just before posting). I was thinking of how reactionary ideas often seem to be served up with a large dose of sentimentality – you know, the way shifts to the right are fronted by the “folksy charm” of characters like Ronald Reagan or George W, that kind of thing.
    Gerber’s sentimentality is a bit more new agey of course, but its still there to dress up the “deaths too good for ’em” moralism.

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