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. If you’ve been following along you know that I wait to read issues of the old series until the issue of the new series comes out, which is getting more difficult to do as the original series gets weirder and thus better. Let’s see where this month takes us. . .
Howard the Duck Vol. 6, #7
Cover Date: July 2016
Release Date: May 11, 2016.
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Penciler: Kevin Maguire
Inks: Kevin Maguire
Colorist: Joe Quinones w/ Jordan Gibson
Letterer: Travis Lanham
I love dinosaurs. I mean, who doesn’t really? In a way, both the Howard the Duck of 1977 and of 2016 feature dinosaurs. In Howard the Duck volume 6 #7, Howard and Tara team-up with a bunch of superheroes in a story set after the end of volume five, but before volume 6, #1. I am pretty sure that the comic makes a point of establishing a timeline for these stories through humorous footnotes to make fun of continuity nerds, because when it comes to Howard the Duck, who cares? Howard, along with She-Hulk, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and an aged Steve Rogers sans super-soldier formula, all fly down to the Savage Land to find adventure-seeking, now missing, millionaires. Howard and Tara (in their roles as private detectives) are helping She-Hulk locate one of her clients (in her role as attorney), and Daredevil has been sent in the stead of District Attorney (?) Matt Murdoch (when’d that happen?) to find the client, a supposed tax evader with mob ties, and bring him to justice. Spider-Man is helping out She-Hulk at the behest of his “boss” Peter Parker, CEO of Parker Industries (yes, for those not following current Spider-Man continuity, Peter Parker is a millionaire industrialist and “Spider-Man” is his bodyguard, and if that sounds familiar that’s because it was essentially the deal with Iron Man/Tony Stark until he dropped his secret identity in 2002). Steve Rogers is there because they use his quinjet to get to the Savage Land and they needed a pilot. So yeah, Savage Land, thus dinosaurs.
If it seems like I haven’t mentioned Howard very much that’s because much like the Squirrel Girl crossover, this story hardly feels like it is really about him. He is just part of a weirdo ensemble in his own book. The standout part of the book is Zdarsky’s pitch perfect depiction of Spider-Man as a kind of loser weirdo that no one else in the superhero community seems to like very much. It actually does a lot to build sympathy for his character in a way I have not felt for him since some time in the 80s reading his stories from the 60s and early 70s. I really want Zdarksy to write a comic entitled “No One Likes Spider-Man” (or maybe The Intolerable Spider-Man), and I want Joe Quinones to draw it. See? We’re still not talking about Howard.
Oh, and speaking of Joe Quinones, he took a break on this issue and Kevin Maguire stepped into the penciling shoes. He does a great job. His Howard is a little off-brand, but still looks good and his Tara looks great. Most importantly, his dinosaurs are amazing! Good choice for this one shot. Quinones may not have drawn the figures, but he was part of the coloring team as usual, and the rich coloring really helps give a sense of visual continuity.
Okay, so Howard. The plot hinges on a couple who invented dinosaur-controlling helmets luring millionaires to the Savage Land under the ruse of a dinosaur adventure, but then holding them hostage for their wealth. Since dinosaurs are evolved from birds, it turns out Howard, as a duck, is able to exert a stronger control over the beasts using one of the helmets than the villain can because he has similar brainwaves as dinosaurs or something. It’s actually a great story. It is a lot of fun, and as usual I appreciate Zdarsky poking fun at superhero-world absurdities, like the rigmarole of keeping a secret identity when the same people know both identities and the identities are associated with each other. There’s a funny scene where Tara uses her shape-changing powers to take the form of Steve Rogers and bark out orders that She-Hulk and Daredevil immediately obey, leading her to comment, “Man, everyone listens to old white men.” The issue even ends on an upbeat note, the heroes taking a chance to relax and playfully ride on controlled dinosaurs and enjoy the scenery. It is the kind of joyful moment that is not common enough in cape books for my taste. There is only one problem. Still doesn’t feel much a Howard the Duck book, because I can’t imagine a Howard the Duck story from the first volume that’d end on such a note.
The 1970s issues of Howard the Duck are as weird and downbeat as you’d expect, caught in the crosshairs of existential dread exacerbated by interactions with social institutions and the pressures of developing a brand identity in a challenging market that demands cross-platform synergies. If the previous sentence seems to deflate into a dying fart of marketing buzzwords, then good, because that is the effect I want you to imagine as the sound of the figures of KISS emerging from the head of an unconscious Winda in the final panel of Howard the Duck, volume 1, #12. (I think it is supposed to be “Linda” with a speech impediment, but since everyone calls her “Winda” I’ll stick with that.) In case it isn’t clear, KISS are the dinosaurs I am talking about in the Gerber-penned issue, though of course they weren’t dinosaurs yet in 1977.
But I don’t want to talk about KISS. My guess is they are going to be central to issue #13, so I will get my chance to write about them in the next installment. Instead, what makes this issue part of the general arc of issues moving from an annoyingly pretentious anti-intellectual intellectualism to a distinctly weird comic story suffused with anxiety and dissent as its default attitude, are Howard’s tumbling fortunes in a world where arbitrary assertions of power and strategic performances of identity lead to fragmentary and frequently incoherent existence. When the duck is at his best, he reminds us the degree to which we live in a comic book, and (as his catchphrase tells us) trapped in a world we never made.
The issue opens with Howard in jail, bumming a foul cigarette from a cellmate (gotta love comics in the 70s) and ending up in front a judge with both Winda and Kidney Lady for their disturbing the peace by starting the fight that led to the bus crash in the previous issue. The court scene goes poorly for Howard. First, Winda explains to the judge about her demonic possession setting a poor tone for the proceedings, and when Kidney Lady arrives she is transformed—from her former bag-lady look with stained house dress, torn stocking and kerchief-covered curlers to what she calls her “Mamie Eisenhower look,” the very image of respectability. The comic narrative flashes back to her “origin story” as she tells it to the judge. In it she explains how she was abandoned by her husband, a book salesman who took her from her home, after selling her a book to pay for their bus fare out of town. The scene where teenaged Kidney Lady is “seduced” is gross. The salesman asks her if her daddy’s home, and when she says “No” he grabs hold of her and starts kissing her neck. She objects at first, but quickly acquiesces to his rough charm, in a depiction of the rapey ideal of the straight male fantasy. The book he sold her, the only thing that she still has that belonged to him, is entitled The Human Kidney: Seat of the Human Soul. I guess this explains her obsession with “kidney thieves” (and this at least two decades before the stolen kidney urban legend).
Howard, of course, goes ballistic when the judge not only dismisses the charges against her, but comes around the bench and apologizes to her. The judge declares him “dangerously unbalanced,” not only because of his outburst, but because they all believe him to a maddened little man in a duck suit that won’t come off! As a result, he ends up at the same place they send Winda, a mental asylum.
And maybe that’s where Howard belongs, because all along he is beset by that voice in his head that began in the previous issue, but seem to be an extension of his nightmare in issue #10. The voice is represented by tailless word balloons floating around him, each with a seeming non-sequitur: fortune, reek, Stalinist, cumbersome, and on and on. And yet, the Saverbraten County Mental Facility does not seem to be a place where anyone is taken care of. Instead, in a riff off Ken Kesey, the facility betrays the banality of abuse by workers more concerned with efficiency, convenience and exercising authority than the welfare of their patients. Howard is put in solitary to await his interview with the doctor, and goes bonkers with that persistent voice and its strange words. It’d be four years before Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams would come out, but the absurdity of Howard in a padded room reminds me of Cheech in that movie. The poor bastard.
The orderly who puts Howard in that room manipulates the torture of solitary confinement to get Howard to take his medicine, which makes him a space cadet for his interview when he finally gets it. However, the interview does not get very far because out in the hall Windy collapses, soon after being convinced that the doctor will help her with her possession. From her head emerges KISS, Gene Simmons, “the Demon,” leading the way with protruding tongue.
Tallying the Bill
I revel in the absurdity of superhero comics and in the absurdity of funny animal comic books, and the arrival of KISS, despite being the kind of crass cross-marketing promotion I’d normally hate, is just the kind of weirdness that comics today don’t seem to have as much. I think part of that is because comics these days are very much focused on the insularity of their genre, riffing on its own history and conventions without risking finding new ways to be weird. There are exceptions of course, but I think Zdarksy’s Howard the Duck needs to be more of an exception. Heck, issue #7 of the current volume gazes with too much affection at the too recent past, carefully placing the aged version of Steve Rogers into the proper context of Marvel Universe events since he is just recently once again sprightly and young and ready to take up the mantle of Captain America.
I am really looking forward to reading Howard the Duck #13 even though anyone who knows me (and anyone who will read the next installment of this series is sure to learn) I fucking hate KISS. I enjoy not being sure what will happen next, what weirdness awaits. Yes, we do have the current era’s story to get back to in issue #8, the reunion with Beverly revealed at the end of issue #5. I am curious what will happen, and if the excellent tone of issue #2 is any sign, the emotionality of the story will be profound, but it won’t be weird. The comic book duck should be weird. Save emotionality for Spider-Man.