Welcome to If It WAUGHs Like a Duck, 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; I know, confusing) – a pair of issues at a time.
Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #10
Cover Date: March 1977
Release Date: December 21, 1976
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Gene Colan
Colorist: Jan Gohen
Inker: Steve Leialoha
Letterer: Jim Novak
Howard the Duck Vol. 6, #5
Cover Date: May 2016
Release Date: March 9, 2016.
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Penciler: Joe Quinones
Inks: Joe Rivera and Goran Sudzuka
Colorist: Joe Quinones w/ Jordan Gibson
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Howard the Duck #10 from 1977 and Howard the Duck #5 from 2016 are about as different from each other as any two issues I have looked at in this series—except that of course they are both about a duck named Howard and both feature appearances by both well-known Marvel superheroes and minor characters introduced earlier in the same series. Oh, and I guess they both deal with the theme of going home and its impossibility, though the more recent one is a lot more literal about it.
Howard the Duck vol. 6, #5 wraps up the story of Howard’s interactions with the Collector, his temporary imbuement with the Power Cosmic, and his team-up with the Guardians of the Galaxy, his own clone, and that of Rocket Raccoon. Howard is able to defeat a very angry Collector using his Living Nexus of All-Realities powers to send the strange being “away” (where that might be is unknown, but my guess is, given enough time Howard will see him again someday). He also uses this power to send all of the Collector’s living specimens back to where they belong (or wherever else they might want to go). This includes Linda the Duck and Shocket Raccoon, who finally do not have to worry about the Collector’s followers coming after them. Finally, Howard sends Tara back to Earth, and she ends up in George Clooney’s house (because that is what she imagined when she makes contact with her duck companion). Howard promises he’ll see her again. After the Silver Surfer fails to extract the Nexus of All-Realities from Howard to keep him from remaining the most prized duck in the universe, Howard decides to use the power to return to his own home dimension. Where he appears however is some Cape Cod home near a lighthouse. When he approaches the house hoping to see someone “that looks like [him],” what he finds instead is Beverly Switzer! Cliffhanger!
The issue’s events feel pretty perfunctory, which I think is the inevitable result of plot-driven stories that don’t waste too much time with character development or a sense of emotional stakes. This is what made issue #2 of this volume work despite Howard not even appearing in it. It took an entire issue just to explore the stories of Linda and Shocket. The stakes were clear and the emotional beats were hit in perfect rhythm. I am not one for the kind of decompression that was overly popular in superhero books for a while thanks to the influence of people like Brian Michael Bendis, but a book can’t be popping all the time. It needs a rhythm, both within issues and among issues. Chip Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck could go from a book that ranges from decent to good, to a book that ranges from good to great, if he can work that out. Case in point, despite the guest appearance of the Guardians of the Galaxy very few of them speak, nor do we get any real sense of their relationship with Howard or their motives (aside from being “good guys,” I guess). All we get are some jokes about how played out The Thing’s catchphrases are.
As for Beverly…well, it is going to be a while before we get to see the resolution of this reunion (and maybe find out what happened since they last appeared together), as the “Next Issue” caption box explains that issue #6 is going to be the second part of a crossover with Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (a comic I appreciated, but ultimately decided wasn’t for me) and #7 will have a guest artist and be some Savage Land-focused story. So unless the caption boxes are lying (and they could be, we already know the editorial notes are prone to hyperbole if not outright fabrication), we won’t be seeing the continuation of this story until June sometime.
Anyway, the thing that stuck out to me about Bev is that she is drawn fresh and youthful. She is barefoot in a flowered sundress that ruffles in the wind, her hands folded across her chest as if to ward off the cold, but her body language is of someone on the defensive, closed off, but signaling vulnerability. In Gerber’s Howard the Duck, Gene Colan draws Bev as sultry and worldly, a bit of edge honed by a shitty life that could not be made any worse by hitching her wagon to an angry little duck man. I am eager to see Zdarsky’s characterization of her, because I dislike Gerber’s so much, despite Colan’s evocative art. I want to know what about their relationship makes wherever she is “home” for Howard, instead of Duckworld, or somewhere else.
Back in 1977 the story of Howard takes a sharp twist, as we as readers and Howard as protagonist are thrown into a nightmarish existential dreamscape, an abstract and dark world of anxiety made manifest by the characters we’ve met so far—Winky Man, the murderous bell hop, the Turnip Man, the gingerbread Frankenstein, Pro Rata the financial wizard, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and more—but detached from any sense of continued narrative. Even Howard himself cannot remember how he got there, the last thing he remembers is fleeing from the tightrope tied above Niagara Falls, leaving Le Beaver to fall to his death as the competitor for Bev’s affections, a Canadian Mountie, save the woman from the tree where she is beset by evil beavers. The opening narration written in first person describes the harrowing experience of birth from the perspective of the born as the art depicts Howard emerging from a giant egg. The narration describes the womb (or in this case, the egg) as “a tranquility that nature declared was not enough.” No. The subject must hatch from his cozy beginnings into “a bigger, even more tepid blackness.” Later, after the strange events and related philosophical musings of moving through the dreamscape, Howard tries to return to his egg and of course fails, reinforcing his Thomas Wolfe-echoing claim, “You can’t go home again.”
As Howard moves from confrontation to confrontation, the narration goes on about “socialization,” being sure to make clear that it does not mean “socialism,” but “a technique that every culture has mastered, almost by definition.” This indoctrination into a cultural ideology is reinforced on the comic page by a giant gorilla in a green suit and a bowtie called “Kong Lomerate” (get it? get it?), explaining that part of what makes him so powerful is that he “only exist[s] on paper,” the force of law giving him strength. If this comic were about the contemporary moment, I’d think this was an allusion to Citizens United and corporations being people. Instead, the great ape’s influence seems to be limited to comic book industry, because he threatens Howard with cancellation using a big rubber stamp.
Right after this Howard has a run-in with Omega the Unknown on a rowboat. Omega is from an eponymous book also penned by Steve Gerber. It barely lasted 10 issues. I have them all, but still haven’t read them all, even if I did read all of Jonathan Lethem’s redux of the story that came out in 2008. The original Omega the Unknown was halfway through its truncated run when Howard the Duck #10 came out, but maybe Gerber already had a sense that it wouldn’t last long. The fact that Howard tells Omega “we’re in the same boat” gives me the impression that Gerber was concerned about his creations and was painting the Powers That Be at Marvel as the villains in line with heartless authority’s demand for conformity.
Finally, in this story called “Swan Song of the Living Duck,” we have what I imagined Howard the Duck to be like. Yes, it may seem laden with Gerber’s sophomoric philosophical musings, it may—like my undergrad students have a tendency to do—talk about society as if it were some giant living in the hills that comes down and makes the townsfolk do things against their will and counter to their “true selves,” and he naively assumes that there is even a such thing as a self independent of the social forces he rejects, but at least he is exploring something interesting. He complains to Doctor Strange that he always ends up in the hero’s role despite his desire to be left out of things, and when the sorcerer supreme suggests the duck is obeying the dictates of his conscience, Howard swears, “Bull! I’ve obeyed the ‘dictates’ of my cultural conditioning!” And then goes on to claim that rather than be his brother’s keeper he’d prefer to be an only child.
Ultimately, Howard learns that his seemingly inescapable nightmare might be the result of his guilt over fleeing his fight with Le Beaver (and maybe fleeing the conflict over Bev?) as the expectations of what he calls “masculine stereotypes” demand he stay and fight and defend his “honor” even in the face of great pain or even death. Forced to relive this face off with the old Canadian super-patriot in a beaveric exoskeleton, Howard fights back, but nothing works, and this time he plummets to apparent death. Instead, the issue ends with Howard chained to a rock like a shade in Hades, the devil standing behind a gathering of the friends and foes he saw earlier—Turnip Man, Pro Rata, even Beverly.
I enjoyed the weirdness of this issue and compared to volume 6’s issue #5 I much prefer it. The art, despite seeming a bit rushed in places (and I wonder to what degree Gerber serving as his own editor might have led him to get a script to the artist late—something I know will be an issue later in the run), is great in this issue. All the panels are cut at strange angles making trapezoids and rhombi (and making them difficult to scan for this post). Howard moves in and out of dark scenes, now gigantic and squashing tiny humans, now coming upon his own sleeping form or a version of Bev whose face opens on a hinge, holding nothing within but a novelty squirting flower. Gerber gives Howard and some of the dream versions of characters a strange form of aphasia, slipping the word “piano” in for their own names; Howard says “pennies” for “aspirin” and “cloud juice” for “water.” All of this adds to a sense of disorientation and even despair, and I stick to my assertion that Howard works best as an existential comic figure, when navigating the expanse of despair between the unexamined life and suicidal ideation. We laugh because it’s a duck, and who wants to be caught crying over a duck?
I’m not sure what to expect in the next issue, since nothing was resolved in this one. Is it a psychological breakdown? A fever dream? A supervillain plot? I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks.
Tallying the Bill
As I said above, Howard the Duck vol. 1, #10 was a much more interesting comic to read than volume 6, #5. Hell, the ad for the 1976 King Kong remake—“The most exciting original motion picture event of all time”—in the older issue is more compelling that the contemporary duck issue. Like, how can a remake be “original?” (Speaking of Kong, you should read this excellent article about it in AV Club). Zdarksky needs to up his game and write a sharper and more politically and philosophically-minded Howard the Duck. If he wants to keep returning to space adventures then he needs a little more Star Trek weirdness and allegory, and less The Last Starfighter type fish-out-of-water-with-cosmic-power type stories. But then again, seeing Bev on that last page suggests to me we won’t be returning to space for a while. I’d be down with some time spent just exploring their relationship.
I want the Gerber-penned run to dig deeper into meta-text and let itself get even weirder, even if he needs to get even more strident and self-important—while demurring in order to maintain his claim of being just a common sense duck—in order to do so. Ooops! Am I conflating Gerber and Howard the Duck again? WAUGH!
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