Welcome to If It WAUGHs Like a Duck #8, the series where we examine both the original volume of Marvel’s 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, #3
Cover Date: March 2016
Release Date: December 30, 2015.
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Penciller: Joe Quinones
Inks: Joe Rivera
Colorists: Joe Quinones
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Looking at these two comics side by side before reading what’s within them—as I do for a long moment before I begin the process of drafting each one of these entries—it struck me that their juxtaposition demonstrates how different the modern day version of Howard is from his original titular series. It caused to rise in my mind the thought that the current duck is not meant to be the same being as Gerber’s version, but a riff on him—in that way that any version of post-Crisis Superman is really just a riff on Superman. The 1976 cover (the issue is dated January 1977, but comic book distribution being weird, it was released just a couple of weeks before the November 1976 presidential election) is a classic Howard image, fist up and out as he smashes through the front page of the Daily Bugle announcing his candidacy, and other small black and white articles. One has an image of Jimmy Carter and the headline “Carter Yells Fowl,” and another about a would-be assassin who claims he thought ducks were in season. Howard’s defiant posture and expression—his beak open as if exclaiming an angry “WAUGH!”, his stogie burning in the corner of his mouth nonetheless—captures the abrasive character perfectly, and the way his figure appears to be coming out of the comic book cover calls to a blurring of the historical moment of the magazine itself (engrossed in the misery of a presidential season) and the reality inhabited by Howard. Howard is the manifestation of the absurd in the superhero comic universe made all the stranger by means of his all-too-human demeanor. It’s a great cover. It might be my one of my all-time favorite comic book covers. The cover to 2016’s Howard the Duck is bland by comparison. Sure it has the advantage of superior color printing methods, so the soft gloss and oranges and browns of the palette makes the silvered version of Howard pop from the mass of the Collector’s lackeys trying to grab him, as the Surfer’s board pulls him out of reach. It’s nice, but it isn’t “in your face and fuck you!” which is something maybe a Howard the Duck comic needs to be—for better or worse. It is more of a “I’m barely hanging on here” type feeling, which come to think of it, might also be a defining feature for both Howard and our current cultural moment. I don’t know. All I do know is that while Howard the Duck vol. 6, #3 offered me an existential space adventure, Howard the Duck vol. 1, #8 offered political paranoia and “plain talk” as a critique of American electoral politics, and I’m not sure that I preferred either in these incarnations.
Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck is uneven. The writing, I mean. I think the art and the paneling—plotting and layout—have been amazing, as have been the colors. Really stellar book in the art and visual story-telling department. When story gets a little too “Pew! Pew!”, however, the comic becomes the thing it is parodying. It is a book that feels like it is swimming in and out of editorial attention. I appreciate its digs at the crossover events and editorially mandated reboots and the difficulty of clearly referencing events amid the ceaseless convolution of both narrative and the re-numbering of physical issues. But, while it pokes fun at Marvel, Howard the Duck remains well within the realm of safe targets. Furthermore, it cannot remain free of the demands that emerge from its existence as a corporate product. The most recent form is another guest appearance by the Guardians of the Galaxy (who currently have The Thing and Kitty Pryde as members— which is kind of weird). It isn’t that this series isn’t fun and I wouldn’t keep reading it even if it wasn’t Howard the Duck, but that also part of the point. It doesn’t much feel like Howard the Duck a lot of the time. It hasn’t even quite gotten to be the Howard the Duck that Chip Zdarsky described it as trying to be, riffing on the Marvel Universe itself as a form of social commentary.
The best part of Howard the Duck vol. 6, #3, is the en media res opening with Howard as a duck version of the Silver Surfer—the entirety of the universe chasing him down in spaceships, seeking his destruction. Caption box narration echoes the comments Howard made in the first issue of this newest volume—as he streaks through space with cosmic power—that he feels as if the universe is out to get him, like he literally doesn’t belong. This scene turns out to be a flash-forward one week, which is not returned to in the issue, but I do look forward to see how the series of events depicted lead to that scenario. Of course, because of the fantastic second issue I am now emotionally invested in the fate of Linda the Duck and Shocket Raccoon, so I am not trying to put the comic down in terms of compelling adventure story with pathos, just in terms of doing something remotely in the tradition that defines the duck.
Or maybe that is just my imagined notion of what a Howard the Duck comic is supposed to be clouding my judgement? Again? It could be. This might be a good time to turn to our example from the first volume in more detail. What is within its covers is a much rawer and uneven serial. Sure, the comic shows moments of brilliance, or at least the possibility of it, but eight issues in the original Howard the Duck still doesn’t seem to have quite found its legs.
The issue starts off with Howard and Bev leaving Doctor Strange’s Greenwich Village Sanctum Sanctorum, with an editorial note referring us back to the Marvel Treasury Edition #12 (which took place between issues #7 and #8). I did not acquire said Treasury Edition as part of getting my Howard the Duck comics (I assumed it was all re-prints. I assumed wrong), and as such am forced to skip it as part of the If it WAUGHs Like a Duck series. Regardless, it doesn’t seem like it had much of an effect on the plot of Howard’s on-going title. According to the Marvel.wikia database, it involves a presidential assassination attempt (there are plenty of those in issue #8, as well), and a team up with the Defenders—Hm, I may need to get that.
In issue #8, despite being a presidential candidate, the duck (and Beverly) are still down on their luck without a buck, and now there are so many assassins out to get Howard that they fight and kill each other to be the one to get the million-dollar bounty on his head. The assassination attempts frame several pages sending up the notion of public relations firms running elections and determining policy for maximum electability. We’re talking Century of Self stuff. I guess back in 1976 this perspective on media manipulation might have been fringe thinking, and thus novel. I’m not sure, but it seems that today this kind of idea has evolved from the height of post-Watergate political cynicism to a simple fact of campaigns. With that in mind perhaps 2016 is not the place from which to judge how tired the scene of Howard’s makeover feels. He is redone with red smoking jacket, pipe and false teeth. He is given a script with bromides that downplay any kind of government corruption or inefficiency in place of policy. Howard, of course, refuses to abandon his beliefs, and signs on with a new PR firm instead. This makes for a little meta moment, since the firm he hires, Mad Genius Associates, is the name of the real-life firm Gerber put together to sell licensed Howard for President stuff. Each month (this issue included), Gerber practically begs readers to buy his buttons and to make the checks payable directly to him.
I get it. Writing comics for Marvel in the 1970s wasn’t exactly a golden ticket. (You can still find the merchandise—buttons, letters—on eBay. I’ve considered bidding on some).
Anyway, Howard ends up becoming the talked up third party candidate with a grasp on the attention of the independents and undecideds. Walter Klondike (get it? get it?) gives a report on Howard during the nightly news. TV screen panels (a version of what Frank Miller does in miniature in Dark Knight Returns) depict the news segment, and are a great way to tell the story and provide examples of the key planks in Howard’s platform by emulating the form in which we are most used to learn about national politics. The segment provides a few examples of Howard’s plainspoken solutions for our national problems, that honestly, in the current historical moment, make Howard the Duck seem like Donald Trump. Like the Donald, Howard is the kind of person—I mean…duck—that believes anything that comes out of his mouth must be true by virtue of his saying it. His rhetoric echoes the vacuous populist approach of “common sense” ideas that have no time for actual policy experience and critical analysis. Need to keep people out? Build a wall! Don’t want to pay for it? Get them to pay for it! Can’t figure out which members of an ethnic minority are trustworthy? Round them all up! Except, I guess, Howard is the left’s equivalent of a Trump figure, what with his ideas to force parents to ride the bus with bussed kids, and letting the armed forces keep their weapons budgets but withdrawing funds for housing, making them live in caves. Is that Gerber’s way to suggest that war is primitive? Meh. Maybe. The comic is most successful when it blends in the images of the then candidates Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Their attitudes to Duck-mania succeed in satirizing the candidates themselves. If I were to guess the two men’s reputations based on how they are depicted here, then Carter was an overly thoughtful speaker, too eloquent to be relatable to the everyday Joe, and Ford was a frightened boob with a dirty mind and a limited imagination. One panel for each is all Gerber and Colan needed to establish that. That kind of compactness is something this comic needs more of.
Soon after there is a page with a text transcript of Howard’s press conference, and a large panel inked and colored in a nearly sepia-tone look to evoke flash photograph taken by a news reporter. For a moment I thought it was an ad or a letters page, but instead it was a nice paratextual moment to showcase Gene Colan’s art and Leialoha’s inks. I wish more could be said about the transcript itself, but here Gerber just pens another scene of Howard giving “outrageous” responses to reporter questions on policy. It’s a lot of “Let the people decide” (about amnesty for Vietnam draft evaders) and “Don’t let society tell you who to be!” (because we live in an “emotionally and intellectually sterile culture”). It strikes me of a lot more of the speeches Gerber put in Howard’s beak back in issues two, three and four, and thus boring. I guess the return of the assassins is meant to evoke how ideas like Howard’s threaten the status quo, but they are a better example of the over-simplifications that pass for political discourse today, and thus reinforce the status quo: a trajectory towards complete and utter political bankruptcy, if we aren’t there already. Maybe in the form of a talking duck running for president the absurdity of the so-called populist talking points are meant to be cast as absurd too, but even a talking duck running for president in Marvel Universe is not nearly as absurd as real life characters like Ben Carson and Donald Trump running for president. Trump is America’s “Waldo Moment,” and a comic book duck can’t compete.
It may be that truth-is-stranger-than-fiction attitude (and not editorial) that is keeping the current Howard the Duck series from tackling the current presidential cycle, but if that’s true it’s a shame. Sure, I know that working a few months behind contemporary events can make it difficult for comics to be timely in their commentary, but it doesn’t have to be perfectly timely to work. Gerber kinda made it work in 1976, so Zdarsky should give it the college try. It is an opportunity to play with current events while doing a bit of an homage to the original run.
Anyway, Beverly and Howard manage to evade the return of assassins (each sent by a different industry: auto, oil, and munitions) only to find their campaign on the verge of collapse at their headquarters. The issue ends with the revelation that someone leaked a photo of Howard and Beverly in the bath together to the press. Only their heads are visible above the bubbles, but Bev has her head thrown back as if in ecstasy, while Howard has a determined expression. It is certainly suggestive, but Howard immediately declares it frame-up, claiming the photo is a phony. Given the pair’s intimacy in previous issues, the scene does not seem all that shocking to this reader, and makes the claim of “phoniness” less credible. Here Gerber prefigures Gary Hart’s 1987 Monkey Business boondoggle.
Back over in the current day Howard the Duck series, issue #3 contains the final installment of the Gwenpoole back-up story—but don’t worry, she’ll be appearing in her own book soon, her sharper edges smoothed down a bit by her adventure with Howard. I don’t think it will be a title I’d follow, but I think that if they want to use her meta-knowledge of the comic book universe as the hook, in order to be successful it needs to be a little more cleverly done, as to make fun of, critique, and act as homage to the narrative conceits and absurd events of the Marvel Universe as genre.
Tallying the Bill
There wasn’t much shared between these issues, save for Howard himself, which made my job of putting them in conversation more difficult than normal. When that happens it makes it that much harder to reconcile the two Howards. I will say that despite the 1976 issue’s focus on “common sense” approaches to political problems, it is in a moment in the 2016 issue that Howard seems most human (at least in that way when we use “human” as a compliment to mean thoughtful, compassionate, moral). It’s when he explains to Tara the guilt he feels for having gotten to escape the Collector (see Howard the Duck vol. 5, #2) while so many others remain in captivity. He feels a duty to try to help them, and to help Linda and Shocket who are the products of the Collector’s cosmic obsessions. Gerber’s Howard remains mostly irascible, and whatever sympathy he feels for others seems to come from a sense of superiority over all the “crazy hairless apes” he’s surrounded by.
I can’t say I enjoyed one issue more than the other. No, I take that back, I am pretty sure I enjoyed the recent issue more. It was fun and set up a ethically-framed set of circumstances that remained energetic and plot-driven. It was clever. The 1976 issue, however, offered an interesting example of political satire through a funny animal comic book character set in a superhero setting. Come to think of it, the fact that Howard’s political positions don’t even comment on superheroes puts him closer to our world than the world in which he is so firmly embedded in the missed Treasury Edition. I think considering the original series in terms of its relation to comics genres is what makes it most intriguing. In other words, I enjoy digging into the 1976 comic, but as an artifact, not because of the content.