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. Before we begin the latest installment I want to direct your attention to R.S. Martin’s fantastic overview of the history of the editorial and business relationship between Marvel Comics and Steve Gerber. The overview’s focus is their dealings over Howard the Duck. Way back in WAUGHs #1 I linked to a version of this that existed on the Hooded Utilitarian, but this one on Martin’s own site is expanded and revised. Enjoy!Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #11
Cover Date: April 1977
Release Date: January 25, 1977
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Penciler: Gene Colan
Colorist: Jan Gohen
Inker: Steve Leialoha
Letterer: Jim Novak
Howard the Duck Vol. 6, #6
Cover Date: June 2016
Release Date: April 20, 2016
Writer: Chip Zdarsky w/ Ryan North
Penciler: Joe Quinones
Inks: Joe Rivera, Marc Deering and Joe Quinones
Colorist: Joe Quinones w/ Jordan Gibson
Letterer: Travis Lanham
In the letters page of Howard the Duck vol. 1 #11, a reader named Howard, who is also from Cleveland, writes in to laud the comic as the kind of thing people will be writing their master’s thesis about, which may be true, but people also write theses about public school lunches in the 1950s, Bazooka Joe comics (you know the kind that comes with the gum), and the history of stadium grounds crews trying to give their home team an advantage. I don’t write this to disparage those projects, but rather to give a sense of the range of cultural features and practices that are open to critical examination and scholarly interest. In other words, being the subject of scholarly criticism is no indicator of quality. In the letter that follows, a reader from Perkasie, PA calls Howard the Duck “what underground comics should have been.” By this I guess he doesn’t mean “not racist,” but simply “funny,” since he goes on to rave about how funny the Howard the Duck Treasury Edition issue was, saying it was “a beautiful parody of the superhero genre.” His letter actually makes me want to seek out the issue, but I worry it is out of my price-range.
I may not have seen what these readers saw in those first eight or nine issues of Howard the Duck, but I will say this issue—despite some of my usual qualms about Gerber’s annoying affectations—may be the best yet,
Oh, and one last thing about the letters in issue #11, one of them sent in by “The Phantom of the Turntable,” suggests that Howard “lift a wing to help the most valid of all causes…rock n’ roll,” He goes on to declare, “Death to Disco” and that Howard needs to do battle with Disco Duck! Now for those unfamiliar, “Disco Duck” was a 1976 novelty song by Memphis DJ Rick Dees, who transformed its unprecedented success into a series of appearances on TV shows like Diagnosis: Murder and hosting Solid Gold (replacing Marilyn McCoo) for part a season of the syndicated Top 40 show. Anyway, the fact that “Disco Duck” is a disco craze cheap cash-in (and one of my favorite songs at age 5) aside, the “death to disco” movement has its origins in racist appropriation of black music into “white” rock. I hate that shit.
Howard the Duck vol. 6, #6 does not include a letters page. Instead every page not dedicated to an ad is dedicated to the second part of a crossover story named “Animal House” that began in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol. 2, #5. I bought and read the Squirrel Girl issue, but it doesn’t feel necessary to give any exposition (especially given the opening panel’s exposition heavy balloon). In fact, I think HtD #6 could have opened en media res without the previous issue and still made about just the same amount of sense. I am not saying it is nonsensical, just silly, and makes frequent use of that meta-Marvel universe humor common to both books to make fun of the Beast and a sad sack Kraven the Hunter who repents his hunter’s ways. Oh, and there is an anthropomorphic squirrel with little retractable claws called Weapon II (get it? Eight down from Weapon X?) Howard and Squirrel Girl seem like a natural team-up given their silly conceits, but not sure Zdarsky and his co-writer Ryan North (who writes the Squirrel Girl book) do very much of interest with them. Even their polar opposite attitudes about the world—Doreen Green is the ever-optimist, who wins over foes with her unrelenting enthusiasm and goofy charm—are not used to create the kind of tension that could have made the story pop. I imagine that 1977 Howard would hate Squirrel Girl and have a lot of unpleasant things to say about cosplay (which gets a light ribbing here). I am not saying I’d like that version of Howard in the modern book. Heh. I honestly don’t know what I’m saying, except I didn’t like it much.
The story mostly focuses on Squirrel Girl throughout, so there is hardly any reason to include much art or much about the issue at all in this installment. Furthermore, looking back at the issue of Squirrel Girl, in which the story starts, it is a better issue because it feels like a Squirrel Girl story. Howard just happens to be in it.
The most interesting result of the crossover is that the “alt-text” North includes at the bottom of the pages of Squirrel Girl is used in this issue of Howard the Duck as well. The tiny text here, rather than being by just one of the writers, is a dialogue between the two of them. They comment on the silly tropes of comics speech—like “ESL characters [who] only use the simplest word in their native language…almost as if those are the only foreign words the writer knows”—but also put their ridiculous claims into “Marvel canon.” Some of the notes are funnier than others, but essentially this stuff makes the editorial notes which make the same jokes about Marvel’s mess of continuity and “events” in just about every issue, including this one, redundant.
Still, I still love Joe Quinones’s art, even if he doesn’t seem to know how to draw the Beast, who is colored like an artificial blueberry.
Back in 1977, the art is amazing. Sure, time has faded the colors and made the whites into sickly splotchy yellow, but Gene Colan seems set free by the weirdness of the dream-like narrative that continues from issue #10. Also, Steve Leialoha’s inks seem heavier and the results make a marked improvement over the already strong art in this series.
Continuing from the previous issue’s nightmare landscape and conclusion in what the opening splash tells us are the “Pits of Heck,” we quickly learn that Howard’s been unconscious for days, collapsed into some kind of coma-like sleep, except for the fact that he occasionally tosses and screams! Bev and the handsome young doctor she’s called to their motel room (we find out the collapse happened immediately after the events of issue #9) leave to get some food, and it is then that Howard regains consciousness. Now we get a glimpse at a second voice in Howard’s head that only he can hear, stoking his doubt, suspicion and loneliness. Driven to find Bev, he sees her and the doctor enjoying some coffee together. Much like the end of issue #9, we are once again led to believe that Howard is jealous, though this time much more explicitly, complaining that “[Bev] is having a good time – with some hairless ape!” Above his head a strange fissure between panels depicts an axe splitting a heart in half. He grabs the first bus out of town not realizing that its final destination is—dun, dun dun!—Cleveland!
I like the books turn toward a more existential theme, and the bizarre tensions between Howard’s desire for Bev and his duckhood. I enjoy the sense of futility—Sartre with a duck, and the salon of Hell being a bus to Cleveland. Yes, on the bus he meets some strange exaggerated characters, the Scientology evangelist (or should I say, “Ghosticology”), seeking to audit Howard’s emotions with a survey, the Jesus freak (Jesus remains unnamed, of course), and a “Hare Krishnu.” He also befriend Linda, who because of a severe lisp can only call herself “Winda.” On her way to be exorcised of the devil, she nevertheless guides Howard through some “making funny faces” therapy to get over his agitation. And it works until it turns out the Kidney Lady (first appearing in issue #2) is on the bus as well leading to a scrum. Here Colan’s art is at its best, complemented by Steve Leialoha’s wonderful job inking. Howard’s fight with the Kidney Lady may not be that interesting, but I want to scan whole pages of it nevertheless, because it looks great!
The issue ends with the bus crashing and an injured Kidney Lady being taken off in ambulance, with a black-eye sporting Linda. Howard the Duck is being carted away, too—in a straitjacket, yelling “WAUGH!”
Tallying the Bill
I definitely prefer the Gerber-penned issue in this instance. The art alone makes it superior, but I also appreciate the weirdness of 1977 Howard in comparison to the very manufactured quality of the Howard/Squirrel Girl crossover. Maybe that is not the fault of the writers and artists—all crossovers feel that way to varying degrees—but it doesn’t change the result. It could also be that—as I mentioned above—this doesn’t feel like Howard’s story at all, so the book’s momentum stutters.
The lack of satisfaction with the story may also emerge from what seems to rob contemporary comics of their mystique, the marketing and promotion around them. Thanks to the internet I knew for months this crossover was coming. The build-up leads to a kind of crossover exhaustion that is compounded by the ceaseless “event” comics and crossovers too common in the Big Two yearly cycle. On the letters page of the 1977 issue of Howard the Duck, Gerber references a surprise guest in issue #13, which—spoiler alert!—will turn out to be everybody’s favorite shitty rock band, KISS! These days we would have known the details months before and there would be five different variant covers, each one with a different portrait of each of the band members, and interviews with the band about it on CBR. I am not trying to sound like a curmudgeon—me? Never!—but, I do think the resources of a modern Marvel Comics are misused when it comes to marketing and promotion, focusing on maintaining a sense of anticipation, rather than a sense of delight with the final product.
Basically, I am more excited to read more of the first volume’s issues than I am of the newest volume (despite some high points). Right now I think of the Zdarsky series as an obstacle. Its monthly schedule slows down my reading of the original series. Still, my feelings about the two series have flipped before. It is totally possible they will flip again.