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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.