Welcome to the penultimate installment of If It WAUGHs Like a Duck, the soon to be ending series where we examine each new issue of Howard the Duck in conversation with the first volume of the book from the 1970s. The current volume is one issue away from the end, and thus so are we…
Howard the Duck Vol. 6, #10
Cover Date: October 2016
Release Date: August 31, 2016
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Penciler: Joe Quinones
Inks: Paolo Rivera, Marc Deering, and Joe Quinones
Colorist: Joe Quinones w/Jordan Gibson
Letterer: Travis Lanham
This month I read the 2016 Howard the Duck issue before reading the issue from volume one—a flip of my usual approach. Volume 6, #10 was a continuation of the previous issue, while I knew volume 1, #15 would be the start of a new arc taking off from the shitty sexist racist annual #1, so it made more sense to me to read the newer one first while the story was fresher in my mind. Despite that, however, I am going to start my review and analysis with the 1977 issue because it shouldn’t take too long.
Howard the Duck volume 1, #15 is not a good comic. It feels like a throwaway. The first four-fifths are a pointless exercise in filling pages to lead to the final page reveal of Dr. Bong, who we see on the cover anyway. There is nothing suspenseful here, no sense of a stunning reveal, just the feeling that Steve Gerber was just making stuff up for Colan to draw in order to push back the actual Dr. Bong story to issue #16. There is even a weak joke with Howard saying, “After awhile it’s all ya can do to fake the expected gasps an’ moans of…” and Dr. Bong crying out “Surprise!” as he appears.
The issue finds Howard, Bev, Winda and Paul sailing on a luxury ship back to the States from the country of Bag-Mom where the annual issue took place (get it? Bag-Mom? Bagdad? Sigh). On the ship old men cat-call a bikini-clad Bev, who claims to enjoy the flattering attention, and tells Howard to not be jealous. She even says that she and Howard are now “an item.” An interesting development mentioned in a low-key way. As they talk at the rail, Howard is hit on the head by shuffleboard puck and falls overboard, and during the attempted rescue a sea serpent with a top hat attacks! From his vantage in the water Howard (who can’t swim despite being a duck), can see a button on the creature labeled “To give serpent pleasure press here.” He does this, and now smiling, the monster swims off. Hailed a hero, Howard and his companions are invited to dine at the captain’s table, but the main course is duck à l’orange, and feeling sick he makes his way outside where suddenly rocks start falling out of the sky and smashing the ship. When a concrete swan hatches from one of the stones as if from an egg, it flies off with Bev and Howard attached plopping them down on a nearby island, but in a pit of quicksand. They are saved from suffocation by animal-men, giving the place an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, and the fact that one of the rescuers is a duck-man allows for the reversal of the typical exchange Howard has in this world he never made. “You’re a duck!” he exclaims, stating the obvious. And then Dr. Bong appears, complete with a literal bell head, seemingly acquainted with who they are. The end.
Hmm… Re-reading the summary above I fear that I made this issue sound more dream-like and compelling than it actually was to read. The experience of reading it, however, was dull. It reads like filler, like Gerber going “And then…and then…and then…” If Dr. Bong’s name is a reference to 70s drug culture (and I don’t know that it is), then this issue is testament to advice to creative types: write when high, but edit when sober. The story meanders like a stoner’s anecdote. But then again, perhaps a lack of reflection is what some readers back in the 70s wanted. In an unsigned letter published in the issue, a reader complains about the direction of the series and the character. The unnamed letter writer informs Gerber that Howard the Duck “in [his] opinion, and in that of many comics collectors, STINKS!” (emphasis theirs). The writer claims that most of the initial Howard the Duck run is “garbage that doesn’t even make sense,” only enjoying issues #3 and #5 (to a limited degree). You’ll note that these issues were one-off pastiche stories involving kung-fu and wrestling, different from the weird meditations on heroism and doing what’s expected of you in the last few issues. The most interesting aspect of the letter to me, however, is when they write “Look, if you want to please the underground comics crowd, why don’t you go work an underground comics company?” This comparison highlights a fissure between comics fans who prefer the mainstream take and those that appreciate comics that veer from the typical cape-and-cowl books (or even some of the horror and war-themed books still being printed at the time). I may not like the Howard the Duck series all that much, but I do appreciate the creative looseness it represents in relation to the corporate-mandated interlocking narratives of the current Big Two. If that is the influence of underground comics, then I am all for it. Gerber (who serves as his own editor on the book) also prints a gushing letter immediately following the negative one, but doesn’t really respond to either. Instead, he calls on fans to write in and debate the comic’s “controversy,” writing, “We’ll open the floor for comments, diatribes, polemics, etc., and wait and see what erupts,” before going on to encourage fans to write their local newspapers asking for them to carry the Howard the Duck comic strip, and shilling the upcoming KISS comic.
You can tell when I don’t like an issue because I spend more time writing about the letter column than the actual story.
Here in 2016 something much more complex (but perhaps no better) is going on.
The big reveal of the previous issue was that all the weirdness and non-stop adventure of Howard’s life was a result of aliens working for Mojo who manipulated things to keep him in the realm of non-stop craziness. These aliens are called Chipp and Jho. Yes, they are purple-skinned pointy-eared versions of the comic’s actual creators Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones. As I mentioned in If It WAUGHs #14, I find this self-reflexive trope in comics a bit tired, but I do appreciate how Zdarsky seems to be tackling the anxiety of influence. In other words, no matter who writes Howard the Duck, the inevitable comparison to Gerber’s work will follow and influence that work.
But before we get there the story indulges in the embarrassing possibilities of self-insertion. Chipp slaps Jho. Jho obsesses over his cat. Both get to parody their own jealousy for the attention Ta-nehisi Coates gets for Black Panther by having an alien version of their editor introduce them to the “new guy” Ta-Nehi-C. They even include alien Erica Henderson and Ryan North who work on Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, taking the time for playful mocking of their friends.
The plot? Oh yeah, so Chipp and Jho have to take desperate measures to keep from being the target of Mojo’s wrath since he is bound to find out that the two of them manipulated things so Howard would discover Mojo’s role in sponsoring the wildness of his life. Chipp’s master plan for escaping Mojo’s hold over him and Jho involves Howard’s intervention. Something about their bosses finding out and maybe double-blackmail…Or something. Whatever. What matters is that in the climax we have a big battle including my Howard the Duck favorites, Spider-Man and Aunt May (and a great joke about their phone calls when Peter’s fighting as Spider-Man), and a lampshaded callback to issue #8 with the arrival of the Iron Punisher (a sentinel that wants to kill all superhumans because of his tragic backstory). It is chaotic fun energized by Quinones’s great art and flare for visual pacing.
When Chipp and Howard have their final confrontation, the former explains how the people of his planet use its power to “take static, ignored characters like [Howard the Duck] and subtly – and sometimes not-so-subtly – push things to happen…” Howard objects to being called “a character” and attacks, ending up Chipp’s hostage against Mojo who does not want his star duck killed off. (Remember, Mojo is all about producing TV that keeps the enslaved denizens of the mojoverse docile and content). The joke here is, of course, that in the eyes of some fans the real Chip Zdarsky also holds Howard as a kind of hostage, controlling his fate both in terms of the events of his life and in terms of writing stories that sell enough comic books to keep Howard a profitable venture for Marvel Comics.
In the tumult that follows Howard gets free while Chip…uh, I mean, Chipp…embodies what I imagine some of those fans of Howard probably accuse him of being: a narcissist who does not respect the history of the character he’s working on. It is clearly a goof. (Does Chip Zdarsky say anything that isn’t a goof? Follow him on Twitter and see what I mean.) When Howard finds out that Chipp was not the first of “his kind” to narrate and influence this duck’s life he delivers a low blow. Howards snarks that whoever controlled his life immediately after he first arrived on Earth (i.e. Steve Gerber) was “clearly better” than Zdarsky…uh, I mean Chipp. But Howard doesn’t get to finish stating the obvious, or what at least seems obvious to any die-hard Howard fan, because Chipp stabs him. In the penultimate page, Howard stumbles towards Tara clutching his bloody wound. The caption boxes narrate his pain by re-iterating part of Chipp’s earlier speech. “The thing that makes a universe survive is interest. Things need to move, evolve! Stagnation inherently dissolves everything. Characters need to live…” And on the final page turn we see the duck collapsed in Tara’s arms, his eyes glazed and lifeless, his companion’s head thrown back in grief, the splash page visually echoing Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man’s arms atop the George Washington Bridge. The final caption box reads, “They [characters] need to die…” Chip Zdarsky (and his fictional alien counterpart) has directly done what fans were worried he’d do indirectly, kill Howard the Duck!
I have to admit, despite my criticism of the self-insertion of the comics’ creators, I enjoyed the over-the-top moment that somehow manages to make light of one the most powerfully tragic moments in the history of the Marvel universe (when death meant something) while evoking its pathos, and simultaneously addressing the anxiety of influence through a clear swiping of an iconic moment. And, I think, giving voice to the way fan opinion reinforces that anxiety. Good stuff.
It is easy to read this turn in Howard’s story as a result of the cancellation, despite Marvel and the creators’ claims that the series is ending where they want it to, not due to low sales. A shallow reading of this ending story would ascribe bitterness and petty disdain to Zdarsky, but I see it more as a playfulness and urge to mischief that is more in-line with his other work, and with the poke-in-the-eye spirit of Gerber’s run. Anyway, ascribing psychological motives to an author is the weakest criticism there is. I take back what I said earlier about this issue perhaps being just as bad as Howard the Duck vol. 1, #15. This issue is miles better.
Tallying the Bill
As has happened throughout the If It WAUGHs Like a Duck series my opinions of these books has flip-flopped. In this case, however, I think the flip is likely as a result of a weak issue in the second year of a title that ran nearly three years with the same creative team (Gerber/Colan) versus a book benefiting from the momentum of reaching the end. In fact, I don’t hold up high hopes for Howard the Duck vol. 6, #11 because endings are overrated and invariable disappointing, ranging from Return of the Jedi to Lost to The Office. I do have a prediction, however, which is that Howard’s death is a fake that allows him to return to a quiet life with Bev in Maine free of rogue Sentinels, the Collector, Dr. Bong and whoever else. But maybe not. Maybe that’d be just a typical milquetoast resolution when Howard the Duck calls for something piquant. Maybe Zdarsky and Quinones have something more radical in mind. Eh, who am I kidding? The current run of Howard the Duck has been intermittently fun, but never radical. We’ll see soon enough, and then Howard will go back into mothballs until Marvel decides to fish him out again.