Welcome to the final installment of If It WAUGHs Like a Duck, the series where we examined each new issue of Howard the Duck in conversation with the first volume of the book from the 1970s. The final issue of the comic’s sixth volume has been released and there are no firm details on Howard’s return in his own book. Doom has arrived.
Howard the Duck Vol. 1, #16
Cover Date: September 1977
Release Date: June 21, 1977
Writer/Editor: Steve Gerber
Colorist: Doc Martin
Letterer: Terry Austin and Irving Wantanabe
Howard the Duck Vol. 6, #11
Cover Date: December 2016
Release Date: October 12, 2016.
Writer: Chip Zdarsky
Penciler: Joe Quinones
Inks: Joe Rivera, Marc Deering, w/Joe Quinones
Colorist: Jordan Gibson w/Joe Quinones
Letterer: Travis Lanham
And so here we are at the inevitably disappointing conclusion. A couple of issues about 40 years apart that amount to all the excitement of a squeaked out fart.
It somehow seems fitting that the final issue of the original run of Howard the Duck that we’ll get to in this series is the infamous “Deadline Doom” issue. An issue that replaced actual sequential art with several two-page spreads of text by Gerber accompanied by a range of hastily-drawn to actually quite lovely scenes rendered by a bunch of different artists. The text lists Gerber’s excuses for being late with his comic script (scripting issue #15, the annual, and several weeks of the Howard the Duck comic strip, writing and editing the 64-page KISS mag Marvel put out, while simultaneously moving from Hell’s Kitchen to Las Vegas), followed by his typical ruminations on…well, who the hell knows? Presented in a seven-part structure (well, there are eight, but two sections are numbered six), he calls the whole thing “Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing,” but there isn’t anything particularly “zen” about. It’s a good thing Gerber stuck to comics. This stuff has the philosophical bent of a college sophomore burnout. “Writers are like plants, and plants are like people. Thus, writers are like people.” Ha ha? The most compelling part as far as I’m concerned is that I feel like it vindicates me in my repeated failure to keep from conflating Steve Gerber with his duck. If you’ve read this series then you know from the very beginning I resisted the urge, but could not help but see it. Here he basically admits it, wondering how much his readers really want to read “lots of words, all about the relationship between a boy and his duck,” and then basically using Howard as the voice of his conscience to verbalize his internal admissions of self-doubt, which don’t actually sound all that different from my criticism of the book. He writes (in Howard’s voice), “Deep down, I‘ve always suspected you don’t know as much as your stories would infer…a semblance of profundity.” I think he meant “imply,” not “infer” but if he didn’t have time to write an actual comics script, how can we expect him to have time to edit (and yes, he was his own editor at this time).
I want to like this. I want the results of a quick turnaround idea to avoid reprinting an older story to be the kind of happy accident that actually pushes the comics form forward and challenges its readers. Unfortunately, I think I might have preferred a reprint, maybe of Howard’s first appearance in Adventure into Fear #19, except of course I do like this as a kind a historical curiosity, an artifact of a Marvel Bullpen culture that is long gone. Gerber seems to know how indulgent the thing is, and tries to use the lack of a reprint as a selling point, but ultimately he admits “a fill-in issue is a fill-in issue is a fill-in issue.” There is a toothless meditation on comic book violence and another about the insignificance of man. We get some male escapist BS short story whose highpoint is the playful little sentence: “‘Toh,’ she tched.” And it’s followed by Howard as college professor, “analyzing” the story and saying things like, “The woman is a stereotypic pre-Liberation woman toward whom the author harbors hostilities.” Sure, maybe Gerber’s just making fun of that weak sauce form of psychological literary criticism, but so what if he is? All the self-awareness in the world is for naught if you use it to just recapitulate musty ideas.
He ends with a critical fan letter from himself. It sits across from a splash by Michael Nasser and Terry Austin that depicts “outraged Marvelites” putting Gerber’s head into some kind of wringer from which emerges a line of baby food bottles labeled “Gerber Strained Brains.” Howard the Duck is held by each wing by other angry fans about to be put him in next. The caption below reads, “This’ll teach you to feed us pablum!” I guess, at best, the self-referentiality is supposed to make the pablum palatable; at worst it is false humility.
It’ll be interesting to read the letters in response to this issue (I’d skip ahead and tell you, but why change the formula now? Like Donald Trump said, “I’ll keep you in suspense.”). Maybe the diehard fans loved this stuff? Maybe they appreciated this insight into Gerber’s insecurities—the letter reading like a pep talk to himself, with just enough criticism to not quite escape the very self-effacement the letter tries to convince him not to indulge in. Maybe I am jaded by living in an era where I sometime wish I could see less of comic book writers’ thoughts and worries and private life bullshit. Maybe I’ve just learned to hate the flattened little simulacra of comics people I see online, and this issue is the 1977 version of Peter David’s blog, but with less liberal racism. I can only judge based on what I read. My guess is the fans were split on this. Heck, even the letters page in this issue is curated to include letters paired by their opposite takes on various elements of the book: “Howard the Duck remains as good as it has ever been” vs. “I hope it gets back to being as good as the first 10 issues”; “No more social commentary” vs. “Keep the social commentary coming”; “KISS sucks!” vs. “I only bought issue #13 because KISS was in it.” I guess it’s not hard to imagine why Howard the Duck would be so divisive of Marvel fans.
The art itself? Well… the awful story I mentioned above is accompanied the unsurprisingly fantastic art of John Buscema. The opening spread by Alan Weiss, featuring Howard floating over the road, Gerber’s custom van on the highway to Las Vegas, is also great. But it isn’t all great; Bob Wiacek’s giant daisies with the faces of various members of Howard’s cast and other Gerber characters pasted in as the buds looks hasty. Dave Cockrum’s bizarre landscape inside a giant mouth, portraying the crossroads at “Doom” and “Despair” is a mess. There is other decent art, or at least parts of the two-page spread that are rendered well (like Dick Giodano’s Gerber as college student), but in some places the inking seems to save the day. Everything has a nice thick well-defined line. The Marvel wikia lists 10 different inkers, so I’m not sure how the work was distributed. I do know that “Doc Martin” did the coloring, which is comics biz shorthand for “many contributors,” but could find no source for who. All in all, however, the time crunch probably didn’t let the artists be all that experimental, so there is nothing here that really blows your mind.
In the 2016 Howard the Duck issue the art remains solid, though the final issue doesn’t really include any stand-out panels or splashes like many of the previous issues of the Zdarksy/Quinones run.
As for the plot, the self-inserting meta-fest continues to the bitter end. Howard is dead; stabbed by Zdarsky’s alien “Sparkitect” surrogate, Chipp. Tara explodes in anger, transforming into a duck-billed G-Force-looking mecha warrior that manages to slap cuffs on Mojo and arrest him Mojo’s servant Major Domo doesn’t try to save him explaining that “prison shows are hot right now.” Thus, it looks like Mojo’s love of ratings may outweigh whatever love of freedom he might have, and the Mojoverse will soon be entertained by Mojo is the New Black or something like it. Aunt May is beside herself with grief over Howard’s death and blaming herself—mirroring countless scenes in the 50-year history of Spider-Man comics, where Peter Parker wonders about his responsibility for all the death and suffering around him. I guess it runs in the family. Spider-Man himself is busy fighting Iron Punisher (the rogue sentinel), but eventually Biggs the cyborg-cat saves the day by just being cute. (Have I ever even mentioned this rascal cat in any previous installment? I don’t think I have. Too long a story to explain what is ultimately not that interesting). The sentinel falls in love with the cat and declares, “This is delightful. Why are any of us spending precious time fighting when such beauty exists in the world and needs belly rubs?”
Meanwhile, Jho (the Joe Quinones alien surrogate) is trying to make things right while on the run from Ax-L, the alien surrogate for Marvel Editor-in-Chief, Axel Alonso, who is their boss in both incarnations. Jho incites the rest of the Marvel Bullpen…I mean, Sparkitects, to rise up and demand “Creators’ Rights,” in order to delay Ax-L long enough to find a work around to bring Howard back to life.
There are some clever bits, but mostly it has the hurried feel of a final issue. Scout the not-quite herald to Galactus from issue #4 returns to save the day when Chipp ends up with a bit of the Power Cosmic she’d given Howard in issue #8. Oh, and serendipitously, Dr. Strange happened to see Howard’s spirit leaving his body, and is able to magic it back. I guess that was the “fix” Jho managed before his capture. Just before returning to life there is a scene of Howard going towards the light, a godly voice letting him know that he may come back (as part of his cycle—and the “cycle” of basically all Marvel characters who die and return). The joke being that he doesn’t even get a whole issue before he’s brought back. Echoing this, near the end, despite Ax-L’s promise to never assign any more Sparkitects to shape Howard’s life story, he tells a crony that there will be a “relaunch in a couple of months.” In reality, I hope not. I can only imagine that whoever follows Zdarsky and Quinones on a Howard the Duck series will be a huge step down from what is already an uneven book. I also imagine that my hopes (like all hopes) will be in vain.
The meta aspect of the “Sparkitect” plot that I liked the most in this issue was the portrayal of Axel Alonso as a disingenuous dick. I obviously don’t know the guy in real life, but no interview I’ve ever heard or read with him has ever endeared me to Mister “I’m half-Mexican so I can’t be racist.” When he claims that his people (Sparkitects, not Mexicans) “swore an oath never to profit personally from [their] jobs,” suddenly that “creators’ rights” uprising resonates a bit more strikingly, because his words resound with management BS about work ethics. Managers exist to literally manage workers’ ability to profit someone other than those workers, and part of that work is impugning those who look out for their own best interests both individually, but especially collectively, when it comes to avoiding the exploitation of their labor.
Whew! I got a little Marx-y there for a moment.
In the end, Ax-L offers Howard the Duck compensation for his shitty time in the form of a wish: “Untold riches, true love, running the Avengers, you name it…” and we see in the epilogue that what Howard wished for was for Beverly Switzer to have the life she claimed she always wanted back in this volume’s issue #8—her very own veterinary practice in Maine that she was able to open after a mystery inheritance. It’s nice that the series ends on that note, even though I know some fans probably (rightly) fear that this might mean that Bev is permanently written off. Yes, chances are she will eventually re-appear at some point or another, but the fact that in the final panel before the epilogue Howard is walking off hand in hand with Tara, all his supporting characters from this series around them—Spider-Man, Human Torch, Biggs, Aunt May, Scout, Doctor Strange—and saying, “I got everything I need right here,” suggests that his deep immersion in the Marvel Universe is going to remain as the focus for the character, rather than his life with some chick he met in Cleveland. And from a marketing standpoint I guess this makes sense. If the point is to have cross-title synergy, why would you print a book that mostly avoids appearances by popular characters? What does it matter if Howard loses his bite because of it?
Tallying the Bill
So this is it! The end. Fino. Fin. Kaput.
In this space I usually wrap up the two issues and put them into a more direct conversation, but I don’t have much in the way of thoughts about them together, except that in both issues Howard is mostly absent. Howard the Duck volume 1 feels like it is still finding its voice, while volume 6 ends with the same snarking riff of a voice it started with and its typical mixed results. As for If It WAUGHs Like a Duck, only readers can really say if it ever found its voice.
I wish I could say that doing this series was more fun or compelling than I think it turned out to be. I am not saying that it was no fun at all, but sometimes the material itself made the obligation of keeping up a series seem like exactly that, an obligation. It arose from a joke I made on Twitter, so I didn’t have a real notion of what I was trying to accomplish, except to have a reason to write at least one post a month that did not require the time and research most of my posts on The Middle Spaces require. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the first volume of Howard the Duck at a quicker pace. Maybe I’ll even come back next year some time with an epilogue installment about the rest of the Gerber-penned run, but no promises.
But what happens if Marvel does decide to start up a Howard the Duck volume 7? There are already rumblings about a mash-up Howard/Deadpool mini-series!
Yeah, well…That last bit of news is evidence that now is the time to stop.
This is not to say that I am not glad I did this and that I would not start another series of themed posts. I’m still considering one about ROM, and want to do a series of interviews with comics scholars about their comics reading and collecting practices. I am just happy this one happens to be ending now.
In his good bye letter to the readers at the end of Howard the Duck vol. 6, #16, Chip Zdarsky writes that his only real plan for the series was to be fired after issue #1. You can’t take anything that guys says seriously, but it does speak to the anxiety of taking on a potentially open-ended project, whether as simple as a series of articles comparing comic book titles about the same character 40 years apart, or the much more complex and grueling work of actually making one of those series. In other words, it will be nice to take a break from the feeling of “It must get done.” A feeling that, no doubt, fueled Gerber’s need to try his prose experiment, for good or ill, and a feeling that presumably neither Zdarsky, nor Quinones, wanted to develop about their own series.
If I have no profound final thoughts about these comics, then consider it a result of the arbitrariness of the project. Or maybe this installment itself is evidence of the inevitable weakness of endings.
Until we WAUGH! again. . .