Welcome to If It WAUGHs Like a Duck #7, the series where we examine both the original volume of Marvel Howard the Duck, and the newest series now in its second volume (6th volume overall) – a pair of issues at a time.
Howard the Duck Vol. 6, #2
Cover Date: February 2016
Release Date: December 2, 2015.
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Penciller: Veronica Fish
Inks: Veronica Fish
Colorists: Veronica Fish
Letterer: Travis Lanham
I don’t even know where to begin in this seventh installment of If It WAUGHs Like a Duck, because for once I loved both issues. Well, maybe I didn’t love Howard the Duck volume 1, #7, but I do feel like I finally got a glimpse of what I imagined Howard the Duck to be like before I had read any, and a sense that from here on out there is going to a story deeply embedded in the political moment of an election year—1976—as the plot of the comic falls in line with the chicanery of the letters page where Steve Gerber has been selling buttons and other paraphernalia branded with Howard’s presidential run against Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. In fact, the whole letters page—“Wise Quacks”—is dedicated to “news reports” on Howard’s positions on nuclear power and unemployment.
Before getting Howard and Beverly to New York City via the help of a country-western star in a monogrammed Cadillac, Gerber quickly dispenses of the remains of the previous issue’s story. The gingerbread Frankenstein comes to life and is hell-bent on killing everyone—though there is no evidence for this save for Beverly’s claims in regards to the look in its eyes. The comic becomes delightfully weird for a moment, as Howard eats off the cookie monster’s foot, causing it to crash into the scientific instruments that brought it to life, starting a fire and causing an eventual explosion. Only Howard and Beverly escape, everyone else is apparently killed, and just like that Gerber is free of his Victorian pastiche and the Reverend Joon Soon Yuc and his Yucchies.
In New York, Bev and Howard get jobs at the political convention for the “All-Night Party,” where strange delegates are trying to choose a candidate to nominate. The choice comes down to two guys named Wauldrop and Wauldrap—a not terribly opaque commentary on the interchangeability of political candidates. Anyway, after showing himself “pragmatic” and decisive, and saving the delegates from a bomb planted on the convention floor, Howard is chosen as the nominee from the “All-Night Party.” Yes. In 1976, an election year in America, Marvel Comics had their most cynical character running for president, and directly commenting (if somewhat broadly) on American politics. Finally, something socially and historically relevant is potentially happening in this comic!
Sure, the characterization of politics is a broad kind of cynicism that betrays the kind of self-satisfaction I tend to associate with people who self-identify as “moderates.” It just stinks of a middle-ground reasonableness that is as self-righteous as it is lacking in imagination. So a delegate describes two others arguing about a plank in the party platform as demonstrating “animalistic conservatism” and “jellyfish liberalism” that “both fail to address the real issue.” Thus, Howard’s generic advice to just tell the truth and do serious research on a topic before making a decision is taken as “revolutionary.” Still, despite that milquetoast radicalism, at least the legendary comic has finally, in its seventh issue, shown some of the historically-situated cultural pluck I have long associated with Gerber’s Howard the Duck.
On the letters page, Gerber voices a Howard who replies to the questions of high unemployment by calling the unemployed “lazy,” but then going on to express admiration for their “resist[ing] the societal pressure to entrap oneself in a meaningless, boring, socially unproductive, nine-to-five, automaton existence.” I can’t imagine a contemporary Marvel Comic risking upsetting the unemployed segment of their readers. Heck, they might stop leaving their basement to ask their parents for the money to buy their weekly comics! So, I admire the genuineness that contemporary editorial control and marketing influence would not allow for. All that side business was pretty unregulated. The “Howard for President” buttons and the other stuff Gerber was selling were allowed through a licensing contract with Marvel, but only because Marvel didn’t think there was a market for Howard merchandise. The licensing agreement Gerber signed would end up becoming an important point of fact in the lawsuits between Gerber and Marvel later on. (Once again, I point you towards Robert Stanley Martin’s excellent article, “All Quacked Up: Steve Gerber, Marvel Comics, and Howard the Duck“).
Suddenly, I am genuinely excited about reading the next issue of the 1976 volume of Howard the Duck.
In 2015, Chip Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck took a detour away from its main story to give us the origins of the female anthropomorphic duck and raccoon that showed up at the end of the first issue. To this end, there is a guest artist, Veronica Fish, who does a great job capturing Joe Quinones style, but also adding her own touches to the expressiveness of characters, to give the aside its own flavor that perfectly fits the pathos of these new characters’ backstory. Linda the Duck and Shocket Raccoon are clones of their respective male counterparts, made by The Collector (see Howard the Duck vol 5, #2) to be mates for Howard and Rocket and continue the line of their species. Let that sink in for a minute. These characters owe their existence to a plan based on enforced breeding with popular Marvel characters. Yucky! But also makes the alienation they feel in their life story palpable, since they are both yearning for some form of belonging, and not aware of the actual reason for their existence, just knowing that the Collector wants them re-collected, and bonding with each other. I must admit I am a sucker for that kind of constructed family sentiment (even though, if you think about it, all families are constructed). If you can ignore the fact that a cosmic entity’s henchman would be a white-dude holding idealized “family” values he is willing to betray said cosmic being in order to uphold then the story isn’t schmaltzy. It expertly does what comics can do, make use of reader-provided closure to make the crucial moments in the life of Linda and Shocket leading up to the final panel in Howard the Duck vol. 6, #1 cohere.
I loved the issue so much I even wrote a letter to Marvel praising it. As I said in the letter, I am not sure if this issue is an example of a good Howard the Duck story (or what exactly that is supposed to be), but it is an example of a strong and well-told story in the context of a serial. Seriously, it is as if one issue of Howard the Duck was some kind of anthropomorphic animal version of Saga (but since Saga also has anthropomorphic animals I am not sure if analogy that works)—in other words, really really good.
Meanwhile, in the multi-part back-up story featuring the ridiculous Gwenpool, we discover that this version of Gwen Stacy is some kind of artifact of the fall out to Secret Wars or something. She is a leftover version from a universe where the Marvel Universe events are published in comic form, thus she has no concerns about killing or dying, because she manipulates the meta-text, the conventions of the comic form and this particular genre to keep herself from dying. Her theft from Felicia Hardy was just another of her pranks, made to force a crisis in the comic world by selling what she’d stolen (an unstoppable humanity destroying virus) to Hydra, allowing her to be part of the ensuing hi-jinx. What I love about this story—by Chris Hastings, with Danillo Beyruth and Tamra Bonvillain—is that Gwenpool has learned her idea of what it means to be superhero by reading comics, and thus has this skewed and reckless approach to heroic mayhem. It is fun stuff.
Tallying the Bill
Okay. For the first time I am going to say unequivocally, you should be reading the new Howard the Duck. This story has given me hope that Zdarsky has some definite interesting and long-term plans in mind, and I can’t wait to read more. Similarly, I will say that for the first time I also have hope for the original Howard the Duck series, because it was the first real nod towards what I imagined Howard the Duck to be before I had actually read much, if any, of it. I am not saying that the humor will get any better or that the banal cynicism that passes for pragmatism and reason will fade away, but I do think with issue #7 the title is pointed in the right direction to be the perfect comic book representation of its time.