Welcome to the fifth 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, #5
Cover Date: October 2015
Release Date: August 12, 2015.
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Penciller: Joe Quinones
Inks: Joe Rivera, w/ Paolo Rivera
Colorists: Rico Renzi
Letterer: Travis Lanham
I don’t have much to write about the actual plots of these two issues, which ultimately are fairly disappointing and not all that interesting. Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones’s Howard the Duck #5 (2015) continues to look great, in particular because of the great panel layouts and the vibrant colors, and there was at least one moment that made me laugh out loud suddenly enough that my wife looked over at me to make sure I wasn’t having an aneurism. Gerber and Colan’s Howard the Duck #5 (1976) does have a great scene showing Howard reading a Daffy Duck-like comic in a drug store and objecting to its depiction of ducks, but ultimately Howard’s objections come off as a satire at the expense of people (admittedly, people like me) who might take issue with the racist/sexist depictions of minorities and women in comics and other forms of popular culture. When he calls up a talk radio station to make his claim that “comic books are…promulgating racist myths and perpetuating prejudice” the radio host is willing to take on something “controversial,” but then rejects Howard as serious because he’s unwilling to accept that the caller is an actual talking duck. This is certainly some clever play with the possibilities of a funny book talking duck being taken seriously (and the follow up scene when Howard is taken for the animal sidekick to a TV kids’ show clown reinforces this), but there isn’t much there if you push past the surface. And, you only need to look at the letters page of this issue to see the potential problem with this kind of analogy for real world concerns. And it is two letters, one from each volume of Howard the Duck #5 examined here that I find most interesting about these issues.
The long letter by Gregory R. Suriano in the 1976 issue is difficult to read because the 40-year old comic is quite faded, or else I’d post it here. I did scan it if you want to read the whole thing, but it won’t be easy. It is also difficult to read because of the reactionary content. Let me be clear, the letter praises the comic (issue #3 in particular, which you can read about here) and Gerber profusely (a little too profusely, actually. It makes me wonder if it is a case of a planted letter, a not uncommon practice in those days, where writers and editors would pen letter from “fans” both praising and criticizing their work, the latter to create a strawman). Mr. Suriano writes, “It is a revelation and a pleasure to see a company—which in all practicality must appeal to somewhat baser tastes to sell magazines—publish a magazine which directly confronts popular tastes and expose them for what they are.” And what does this reader of Howard the Duck think they are? Well, he is never exactly clear but he does equate liking martial arts movies and comics to “street culture” and mass entertainment as a form of “appeasement.” This kind of coded language gives me pause since the use of terms like “street” when referring to culture has a racial overtone, especially since later in the letter he refers to the people who might enjoy that “street culture” as “urban dwellers,” but since the letter is from 1976, I am not ready to declare these particular words to have the same racial inflection as they would today, even if urban blight and white flight had reached a zenith in the 70s. Regardless, the pseudo-elitism of someone writing to simply sound superior and cultured when they are writing to what is essentially an up-jumped funny animal book is beyond ironic.
The letter writer continues, “And the beauty of [the comic’s message] is you free yourselves from any attitude of preaching or pedantry by the brilliance of the character. Howard represents no minority, speaks for no one but himself.” Mr. Suriano explains that Marvel has shown through this story that comics can have “social—as well as artistic—importance” and that they “realistically and so directly condemn…commercial garbage.” This kind of letter (and editor’s description of Gerber’s positive response to the condemnation of “street culture”) passes off cranky old man grumbling for taste, and ahistorical broad generalization for criticism and progressive thought, which is exactly the problem with Howard the Duck itself. In fact, the tone is such that I would not be surprised to learn that Gerber penned this letter himself, since it is so thick with the vocabulary of self-importance. (Though a little googling led me to find that a “Gregory R. Suriano” of Newark, New Jersey also wrote to Creepy and Fantastic Four).
The letter in the 2015 version of Howard the Duck #5 is also a positive response to the series, but unlike the 1976 letter, this letter by Rick Poss, is not so much concerned with the social or artistic relevance of the comic, but with continuity. He explains that while he favors the original series, he has followed Howard the Duck in all his volumes and thinks “the mallard is malleable enough to withstand different authors’ incarnations.” Despite this open-mindedness, Mr. Poss wants to know how Chip Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck lines up with all the other Howard series that have popped up in the last 40 years, including Gerber’s own 2002 Marvel MAX series. He wants to know why Howard is still in New York City and not back in Cleveland (a timely question for my own reading since at the end of volume one #5 Howard and Beverly are leaving Cleveland for New York) and most importantly he wants to know where Beverly is! He writes, “Howard just isn’t the same without that voluptuous redhead by his side. And think about it: if Howard’s a private investigator now, Bev would be the perfect Velda to Howard’s Mike Hammer. Nothing against Tattooed Tara, but I prefer Busty Bev,” which does not give me a lot of hope for the development of Beverly in the original series, if her depiction as a sex object is her defining quality.
Anyway, what stands out to me about these two letters in conversation is the stark difference in their concern and how they echo the difference in the series themselves. The older letter is concerned with comic content in terms of cultural commentary and its influence on society more broadly, echoing what appear to be Gerber’s concerns. The more recent letter is concerned with continuity, how things line up within the Marvel Universe, but this concern seemed a bit misplaced, since this is exactly the kind of thing Zdarsky seems to be making fun of. Even Howard the Duck vol.5, #5 includes joking editorial notes referring to a mix of real and imagined previous (and yet to be released) issues ranging from Spider-Man’s realization that rubble is his greatest foe in Amazing Spider-Man volume 1, #33 (the thing that made me laugh out loud) to that time Howard and the Falcon supposedly teamed up in 2004’s True Ornithology Romance #12. My favorite reference from the issue is The Inconsolable Spider-Man #8, which should totally actually be a comic title. I also I liked connecting Tara’s surprise Skrull-like abilities to the origin of the wacky-ass obscure-as-hell Morrison and Millar penned Skrull Kill Krew of the 1990s and to those Skrulls-made-cows way back in Fantastic Four vol. 1, #2.
Tallying Up the Bill
I am pretty ambivalent about both these issues. Something really fun and daring could have been done with Howard and the Daffy Duck comic bit in Gerber’s book, some intertextuality, something that echoed the energy of Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s amazing—and literally banned—book, Para Leer Al Pato Donald (How to Read Donald Duck), even if it’d be too much to ask for it to echo the actual content. The 2015 title was just a wrap up of the first arc and a weak lampoon of cosmic crossover events. It also marks the final issue of the volume, as Howard the Duck will be starting over with the rest of the Marvel Universe in November, though a note from the editor on the letters page suggests “a new direction,” though it is hard to know what to believe given the sarcastic tone of the book, and its willingness to make fun of the very mandate that it be re-started.
That said, I guess this series will also be going on hiatus, so look for If It WAUGHs Like a Duck #6 some time in late November or early December, when things get off kilter and I cover Howard the Duck volume 1, #6 and Howard the Duck volume 6, #1.