Welcome to the fourth 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. Be sure to follow the links at the bottom of the post back to the earlier installments if you’ve missed them.
Howard the Duck Vol. 5, #4
Cover Date: August 2015
Release Date: June 24, 2015.
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Penciller and Inks: Joe Quinones
Additional Inks: Joe Rivera
Colorists: Rico Renzi and Rachelle Rosenberg
Letterer: Travis Lanham
When I was a kid I frequently complained that what the cover of superhero comic depicted was rarely an accurate depiction of the contents. Nowadays it feels to me like a funny tradition that I appreciate, though with over-abundance of variant covers we have these days many covers feature characters and scenes that have absolutely nothing to do with the comics’ contents, which is less endearing. A perfect example are the “What the Duck?!” Howard the Duck themed variants that came out for various titles in April—but at least variant covers mean more artists are getting work.
The covers of the two issues of Howard the Duck I am looking at here are great in their own way, but both take liberties. In the 2015 version (by Joe Quinones), we see a levitating Howard surrounded by burning candles talking to Dr. Strange as if the master of mystic arts were a shrink. He’s not that kind of doctor… Howard’s replacement for Beverly, Tara the tattoo artist looks on through the window (in the story we find out that she finds magicians to be creepy and prefers to wait outside when Howard seeks out Stephen Strange for help). Of course, the scene depicted on this cover never happens, but it’s funny and it gives a general sense of the issue—Howard the Duck seeks help from Doctor Strange. But my favorite part of the cover are three small logos in the top right corner explaining this issue’s connection (or lack thereof) to crossover event comics (it seems that this issue can’t wait to start poking fun at contemporary comics). The top logo indicates that the issues is a tie-in with Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars (which is most frequently simply referred to as Secret Wars, at least since it first appeared in 1984, but now this might be confusing since the current Marvel event is simply called Secret Wars, thus requiring the cumbersome full name). The next logo claims the issue is also a tie-in to Deadpool’s Secret Secret Wars, though it only is in sense that in an original Secret Wars flashback you see Deadpool in the background, referencing that current terrible terrible series (I review it here, but short version: unfunny horseshit). And finally, the cover tells us that the current Howard the Duck #4 is not part of the current Secret Wars event (thank god). All this goes to show what I have claimed about the new Howard the Duck series, rather than seeking to critique contemporary culture, it is critiquing the comic world it exists in (more about this later).
The cover of the 1976 version of Howard the Duck #4 (by Gene Colon) is busy and bold, depicting a giant man in nightshirt and sleeping cap, holding a lit candle and wearing a bandanna over the lower half of his face like western outlaw. He is crushing a car and smashing cement and sending an alarmed Howard flying. The caption reads “Panic grips the heart of a fearful city…WHEN THE SLEEPER AWAKES!” It sounds menacing and maybe mystical and occult, but what’s inside reveals this warning to be a reference to Gerber’s turgid social critique. Still, Colan’s cover is compelling.
Gerber’s Howard the Duck #4 is yet another take on the role of the artist and his tortured existence. Another Beverly and Howard bedroom scene leads to their discovering that their noisy upstairs neighbor, Paul, is something of a sleepwalker and frustrated artist, who cannot finish his work due to the pent up frustrations that only his sleeping self has any chance of exorcising. Howard doesn’t express a lot sympathy for Paul even after Beverly insists on letting him tell a bit of his life story, which goes on for several pages, and is essentially the cliché story of the sleepy-headed underachieving sensitive young artist, whose talent and creativity was squashed by school and the expectations of society. Yawn. The strange thing however, is this story echoes the introduction of the comic on the first page (those yellow captions that used to frequently be at the top or bottom of a comics opening page in the Bronze Age). In other words, Paul and Howard seem to have a lot in common. Howard’s guilt about how he treated Paul after their first encounter and his increased sympathy for him suggests that this echo is intentional. Furthermore, as far as I’m concerned this also creates a resonance between Paul as artist and Gerber himself.
Unable to stop thinking about the great injustices for sensitive artist types who don’t fit the molds provided by school and work, and unable to sleep, Howard decides to go for a walk and thus ends up in a bar, where Colan’s figures and Gerber’s dialog provide a rather dim view of the everyday clod—puffy-faced drunks who spit when they talk and fight over whether football or squash is a better analogy for life. Paul arrives during the bar brawl that proceeds, but now dressed in the guise of Winky-Man—a kind of vigilante superhero dressed in a nightshirt, with cap and bandana, holding a roman candle. It seems his sleepwalking has led him to direct his frustrations violently at what he deems society’s shortcomings, and that includes the aggressive tendencies of drunks.
Howard recognizes Paul immediately and gets him out of there before he gets hurt, but in the following weeks Winky-Man’s attacks becomes notorious in the local media while Paul’s art seems to prosper in waking life—all the violent urges that once played out in his dreams manifesting through Winky-Man and not blocking his muse—leading to a one-man show where a famous critic will be present.
The critic is the stereotypical ascot-wearing pretentious and effete bore—a straw man to prop up Gerber’s ongoing cynic pose, wanting to seem smart, but showing a fear of smart people through misrepresentations. The critic tears Paul’s work apart, and not being able to take it, Paul collapses into a sleep and re-awakens as Winky-Man, assaulting the critic. Howard is able to stop him by snatching the roman candle and haplessly setting off the sprinklers which awakens Paul. Realizing the truth about himself, Paul, with Howard’s goading, decides he need to tell off the critic himself if he is ever going to face whatever leading to his somnambulistic violence. He calls the man a phony and yanks off his toupee. Embarrassed and noticing how the crowd at the show seems delighted at his being torn down himself, the critic puts his arm around Paul and plays it off like they had planned the whole encounter as a kind of performance art.
Howard is disgusted, suggesting that critics are pretentious blowhards, who only praise things they can co-opt for their own benefit. Beverly doesn’t disagree, but argues that people can see through that kind of deceit,. Howard insists that they don’t. If the scene in the bar is any indication, it is not hard to determine what Gerber might think about how savvy the public isn’t. The ungenerous perspective on critics suggests that they are only granted authority because of a dull and dim-witted society that is being gulled.
While this issue is better than the previous one just by virtue of the figure of the Winky-Man, who is more interesting than the sex-turnip, Count Macho, or even the sorcerous accountant from the first issue, this theme of the artist stuff is dull. It doesn’t even have the earnestness of an adolescent perspective to give this “special snowflake” angle some charm.
By far the most notable thing about the 1976 Howard the Duck #4 is that on the letters page alongside a letter praising the sex turnip is an ad for Marvel’s endorsement of Howard the Duck for president. Nineteen seventy-six was an election year, and the United States was mired in a serious political and cultural malaise, it makes sense that as a comic meant to comment on social and philosophical ideas (even if in what is turning out to be a very facile and pretentious way) that Howard the Duck would be the place for political satire of the time. Clearly written in the same vein as Gerber’s dialog, the ad calls 1976 an “impossible era when tumult and social trauma have given way to the mire of mediocrity and monotony…” (would it be mean of me to say that that sounds like a decent description of this comic book?). Back then, a buck twenty-five sent to Steve Gerber (seriously, it instructs you to make the check out to Gerber himself!) would get you a “Get Down, America! Vote Howard the Duck in 76” button. Today here is no way Marvel would let a writer setup a little side business with one of their properties, so good on him for getting his buck off the Man where he could.
I’ve written a lot more about the Gerber-penned version than I’d planned to…so much for these “If it WAUGHS Like a Duck” posts being on the short side…
In 2015, Howard is having superheroic adventures of the comedic type. There is nothing here that is contemplating anything remotely intellectual or philosophical, instead we get to see the Human Torch as the total douche we might imagine he’d be in real life, and laugh. Turns out the necklace Howard has gone across the galaxy and back to get is really one of the “Abundant Gems.” All five of them together form the Abundant Glove—an ineffectual version of the Infinity Gauntlet that may or may not have the power to destroy the world, and now Talos the (Un)Tamed, a mutant Skrull who is really strong but can’t shape change (don’t ask me, ask Marvel.Wikia, that’s how I know) bent on proving himself to his people has it. In fact, he has four of the five!
With Dr. Strange’s help, Howard and Tara discover the remaining gem’s connection to Johnny Storm the Human Torch. It turns out it is something he picked up in the original Secret Wars, and is now buried in the foundation of the apartment building that went up where the Fantastic Four’s post-Heroes Reborn era’s Pier 4 was located—in one of the several short-lived eras where they did not inhabit the Baxter Building.
Zdarsky is pulling out all the obscure continuity stuff in this issue, and the look back at Secret Wars is funny (though I could have done without the Deadpool sight gag). While the pace and the comedic sense of the writing is not as sharp as the previous issue, it reminds me of Dan Slott’s uneven, but ultimately excellent, Spider-Man/Human Torch mini-series from 2005. It is a little less reverent, but the useof details show genuine familiarity with Marvel Universe history. Still, things like the obsequious Wong manservant of Dr. Strange have got to go. Trying to make his doting on Strange into a joke about the Doctor finding his Asian servant annoying doesn’t work. Some aspects of Marvel tradition are unfixable and need to be jettisoned or totally revamped.
But the art is fantastic! Quinones knocks it out of the park with some especially dark and sharp inking in a style that works for the frenetic pages he constructs with off-kilter and inset paneling. Renzi and Rosenberg’s colors are on point as well. I love the art in this book.
And yet, I want more.
Sure, the popularity of the Marvel Universe is at an all-time high, and this comic book continuity mish-mash has born a film franchise and brand that is recognizable the world over. In that way taking it down a peg by stewing in its absurdities is a form of social commentary, but if it were really smart it’d be able to provide something a little more like what I imagine Gerber thought his book was trying to be: smart.
The back-up story in the Zdarsky issue is some weird cute-animal-Alice in Wonderland riff that falls on its face, despite taking a chance with a balloony kiddie-cartoon-like art and featuring Ant-Man.
Tallying the Bill
Despite getting down on the original Howard the Duck series I still find myself eager to read on and see how it develops. It can be hard to have a sense of a long-running series from just 3 or 4 issues (it is for this reason that I wish more Marvel titles lasted longer before rebooting), so I am still optimistic about what strangeness is to come. The 2015 series is a fun read, but I can’t help but feel like it is taking the easy route. I may end up declaring Gerber’s Howard the Duck a failure, but at least he was trying to do something with some weight to it (just a little too much, I think).
The art in both series despite being so different remains delightful. My copies of the 1976 series are essentially 40 years old, so the colors a bit faded and smudged, and the pages are yellowed some, but Colan has an expressive style that makes paging through this classic series a treat.
Final Note: It looks like Howard the Duck, much like all other Marvel titles these days is being rebooted with a new #1 some time later this year (I haven’t been able to find a definite date) as a consequence of Marvel’s “New 52ing” of the Marvel Universe. As such, I am not sure what that is going to mean for “If it WAUGHs Like a Duck.” Perhaps it will just continue with no change aside from the fact that the numbering between the series will no longer match up, or perhaps I will just give up since that parallelism was the backbone of what I am doing here. I look to readers for their suggestions, but in the meantime let me belt out a very sincere and heartfelt WAUGH!