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.
Before proceeding with the installment per usual, I feel like I need to address the duck in the room, or rather the duck that is leaving the room by way of the cancellation of the latest volume of Howard the Duck after issue #11. (Well, according to Young Avengers and the Wicked + Divine artist, Jamie McKelvie, it hasn’t been cancelled, rather Zdarksy and Quinones are “ending [it] exactly where Chip and Joe wanted it to.” Same difference). So it looks like after September there will be no new Howard the Duck issues, and as far as I know there is no intent to revive it any time soon (though my ignorance doesn’t mean it won’t happen), but even if it did, my guess is that it’d be with a new creative team and not for some time. So what happens to If It WAUGHs Like a Duck? I’m not sure.
I will definitely finish up covering the Zdarsky-penned sixth volume, but after September I don’t think there is much point in going on with the series when the very conceit (an issue-by-issue comparison) becomes impossible (after already having been strained by the rebooting of numbers after issue #5 of volume 5). So, unless someone wants to chime in with a strong suggestion of how to move forward (I am open to ideas), this series of posts will likely also be ending in September (maybe October, depending on how late in the month the final issue comes out).
This does not mean I am done writing about Howard the Duck. I plan to finish reading Gerber’s run (at a faster pace since I won’t have to wait for a currently monthly comic to do so) and so there is a good chance there will be one or more future blog posts about it.
Anyway, on with the show…
Howard the Duck Vol. 6, #8
Cover Date: August 2016
Release Date: June 8, 2016.
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Penciler: Joe Quinones
Inks: Joe Rivera w/Quinones
Colorist: Joe Quinones w/Jordan Gibson
Letterer: Travis Lanham
And now it feels like these two volumes have begun to converge. The feeling may just be a result of my reading these issues back-to-back, but between both issues featuring appearances by real-life celebrities, the 1977 Gerber-penned issue finally arriving at where I always imagined Howard the Duck existing (a jam-packed and tonally strange comic), and the 2016 Zdarksky-penned one spending most of its time reflecting back on the original run, it is hard not to see the overlap. It also helps that Howard seems more like his old self in the current issue.
It has been a while since we’ve returned to the ongoing plot of Howard the Duck volume 6. If you remember, at the end of issue #5, Howard uses the power of the Nexus of All-Realities to go “home” and arrives at a New England home (turns out to be Maine) occupied by his old partner-in-crime (and maybe paramour?), Beverly Switzer. The return of Bev is what inspires the look back at old Howard tales, and I think it is the dialog with her that makes Howard seem like his old curmudgeony self, going off on self-absorbed rants and not really listening to what Beverly is telling him. Could it be that Bev is the necessary sounding board and foil for Howard to make his series work and his voice to be resounding and clear? Perhaps, though in the 1977 issue (#13) Beverly is not around, and the comic keeps getting better…weirder. It even moves in a direction that makes me think that my critique of the current volume might have been a little off-base.
Most of Howard the Duck vol.6 #8 is an extended conversation with some flashbacks interrupted only by the attack of a rogue Sentinel—the Iron Punisher, basically a Sentinel with Punisher’s back story—reinforcing Bev’s complaint about life with Howard (they were both always in danger). It is capped off by Howard’s return to NYC, where he takes on a job which I think will cover the three remaining issues. You might have read about it because of the celebrity guest star, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
What is riveting to me about the conversation between Howard and Bev is two things: First, its tension, the way it evokes the awkwardness, bitterness, and caution of reuniting with an estranged lover or friend. Second, the way Zdarsky flips the script a little bit on the classic Howard stuff Quinones is referencing visually. On the opening page we see four classic Howard the Duck scenes—or at least panels that pass for what could be such a scene. The only one I directly recognize is a pastiche of Howard and Bev against Pro-Rata the Wizard in Howard the Duck volume 1, #1, so I assume the others are similarly designed to evoke previous adventures. In one Beverly struggles with Dr. Bong (a long-time nemesis of Howard’s that I know by name but have never actually seen in a comic), while Howard is chained to a wall. In another, Bev and Howard are sitting around bored. Lastly, Howard and Bev are battling some Man-Bull-looking villain, Bullmarket. (Who, as it turns out, makes his only appearance in this book). What appears to be a simple nostalgic look back, becomes an opportunity for critical nostalgia. The page of four panels is reproduced pages later, but now with word balloons. In three of them, Beverly is expressing a desire to go back to school and study to be a veterinarian. Cleverly, Zdarsky and Quinones establish a division between how Howard reflects on their past and how Beverly does, because in Bev’s recollection she was always trying to move on to accomplish something more than their absurd adventures, but Howard never heard her. He never listened. And even in his insistence that his life as a trouble-magnet is not his fault, he is failing to listen to her and to even try to understand her experience. He is failing to consider her perspective on what they have gone through and the emotional trauma of being constantly in peril.
I went back and looked at Howard the Duck volume 1, #1 to check on Bev’s veterinary claim, but could not find it. Nor could I find it in any of the issues featuring Bev that I’ve read so far. It looks like Zdarsky made up the fact that Bev was thinking of going back to school all along, but this retcon works perfectly. It changes no actual events, but puts a new perspective on their relationship. It was such a convincing claim that I had to go back and check and ask people I know familiar with the book to make sure that it hadn’t been mentioned before. As a comment on Bev as I’ve seen her portrayed in Gerber’s run so far, the ret-con works, since she has not yet gone beyond being a sexy sidekick or shrewish companion.
Of course, it turns out that Bev’s desire to just be “normal” arises not only from the dangers of life with Howard, but because she appears to have some kind of powers, too—a result of some accident with radioactive waste (or some other glowing goop in barrels), that we see in the Bullmarket “flashback.” She doesn’t tell Howard this. Regardless, the way Howard and Bev end things is poignant, making me think that it will be some time before we see them together again. But who knows? I can also see the superpowers thing as a set up for the finale of the current series. It is hard to tell given the final splash, in which real-life actress Lea Thompson (who played Bev in the legendarily bad Howard the Duck film of 1986) shows up to ask Howard to help her find “herself?” I have no idea what that’s all about, but I’m eager to find out.
In 1977 Howard is still in the “psycho-ward.” The comics opens where it left off, KISS emerging from Winda’s head, but in case we needed evidence that their appearance was just a gimmick to cash in on the band’s popularity (and increase it among comics fans, I guess) they have few lines of dialog—Peter Criss imparts some pseudo-profundity to a spaced out Howard—and quickly return from whence they came. They aren’t even referred to as KISS, but by their alter-ego personas, The Demon, the Cat, the Star-Child and Space-Ace. But hey, I am not cracking on it because it is a gimmick, I LOVE IT because it is a gimmick that so perfectly situates Howard the Duck in a place and time in American popular culture.
Look, KISS is a shit band. The worst kind of spectacle nonsense with almost no musicianship or songwriting ability, and the kitschy charm of mercenary marketing. KISS is a joke, a novelty act, but something about their success and Gene Simmons’s self-importance makes them so much more absurd than all the other countless examples of shitty popular bands that it’s great! I love that they exist in the way that I love that Jaws: The Revenge exists, but I don’t want re-watch Jaws 4 and I don’t want to have to listen to KISS. I loved seeing them in the comic, though.
And I say I love that despite that the fact that there was so much else to love or wonder over in this issue. There’s the asylum director, Dr. Reich, his face ever in shadow, his voice a near-Claremontian Nazi Doctor accent. There’s the variation on the naughty nurse, Nurse Ratched in nylons, but with a nice butch Sandy Duncan haircut and oversized Velma glasses. Colan draws her well. There’s the return of the Yuccies from Howard the Duck volume 1, #6 and their leader Reverend Joon Moon Yuc (presumed dead in issue #7), with his yellow-tone skin and exaggerated Asian features (teaming with Dr. Reich). There are scenes of Howard’s life before coming to the world of hairless apes—when he was “an undistinguished academic,” folk singer, construction worker, among other things. And best of all, the arrival of none other than Damien Hellstrom! Yes, that’s right, my favorite 70s superhero SON OF SATAN! (Who’s more recent incarnations have been even weirder, from what I understand).
His presence in this story is what made me reconsider my view of the current series, since right here we have a plot that is very similar to things we’ve seen in Zdarksy’s run (when Howard gets some of Silver Surfer’s power cosmic). See, just when Hellstrom is about to summon his infernal power to deal with the conniving Reverend Yuc, the cult leader releases “the White Wind” (some occult thing), blowing away Damien’s call for power and accidentally sending it to transform Howard into some kind of DUCK OF SATAN! Maybe I was wrong to say the current volume spends too much time riffing on the Marvel Universe. Maybe this is a trend in the original Howard the Duck run that I simply had not encountered yet. We’ll see.
As for the art, Quinones’ss work is lovely as always, the expressions he gives Howard and Bev carry most of the pathos, but Colan puts on a master class in every issue, and I have to say that despite the alarming degree to which the color in this nearly 40-year-old comic has faded Jan Cohen’s coloring here is perfect, and Leialoha’s inking makes it all pop.
Another element I enjoyed about both issues were the letters pages. In 2016, people are writing in singing their praises in comedic ways, taking up the tenor of the book in their missives. One correspondent writes a structurally inventive letter using embedded parenthesis, brackets and guillemets. Another takes up the time-honored tradition of earning a No-Prize even if the explanation is so absurd that I doubt it’d pass muster in any other book. In 1977, there is letter from Matt Feazell of Carbondale, Illinois giving an interesting reading of the tensions in Howard the Duck itself, in terms of its penchant to be contemplative and satirical while also providing the “action” necessary to sell a comic book. He uses the quack-fu issue as his primary example. This is in service of praising how Gerber manages both commenting on and needing to fulfill funny book expectations. Oh! And this is the first issue where Gerber mentions his Howard the Duck newspaper comics strip. This would turn out to be a contentious print run. You can read more about it here (the whole article is worth reading, but use your browser search function to find “strip” and you’ll jump to the appropriate section), and in Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
Tallying the Bill
Both of these issues were great, though the Gerber-penned issue was more fun, wilder. As Howard the Duck volume 6 comes to a close, explicitly mining the rich history of Howard’s previous incarnations, my guess is that both volumes will feel more in line with each other. It’s too bad that it takes the current series ending for us to get there. WAUGH!