What can a Howard the Duck comic be in 2015, a few decades removed from the character’s first residence at Marvel? The answer depends on certain possible attitudes:
- A reader’s conviction that the Howard character can lead a convincing underdog story or an effective work of satire while also representing a massive corporation’s push to better utilize its intellectual property.
- A reader’s conviction that the Howard character can be enjoyed outside the context of its troubled history. Or the conviction that Howard can be sufficiently divorced from the work of original writer Steve Gerber so that a present-day story can succeed on its own terms.
- A reader’s conviction that his or her initial engagement will be rewarded—or at least not thwarted. Marvel’s marketing push for the title highlighted the pairing of writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Joe Quinones, but the publisher has a pattern of promoting writer-artist teams that dissolve within a few months, their runs held together by fill-in artists. In other words, these are weird and difficult conditions for creating a cohesive work.
Marvel readers have met the new Howard series with good will and general optimism on social media—with healthy conviction, basically. If the relaunch succeeds, it won’t be as the beneficiary of low expectations. But the first issue raises further questions about the project’s long-term viability.
Several years ago, Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals collaborator Matt Fraction scripted a brief, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead-style run on Punisher War Journal in which the lead character prowled the fringes of whatever “event” storyline was taking place. A few years later, Jeff Parker and Kev Walker took a similar approach with Marvel’s Thunderbolts series, dispatching a band of super-convicts to fight the minor battles of recent major events. Howard 2015 suggests the limitations of this storytelling style. Howard’s as suited to it as any other Marvel character, but the new series arrives at a time when Marvel’s properties—always the contents of a shared universe—have been so thoroughly integrated as to contain Iron Man, Spider-Man, and a few thousand Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns. The first issue’s tagline reads, “Trapped in a world he’s grown accustomed to,” but this world has also grown accustomed to a figure like Howard. His role as a witness to costumed absurdity has become increasingly common.
Zdarsky and Quinones’s solution is neat if not novel: giving Howard the job of private detective, which at least has the duck walking the Marvel Universe with purpose. But issue one undermines its own premise, as an otherworldly figure stops Howard’s investigation of Spider-Man paramour the Black Cat to send Howard on a cosmic detour that (solicitations promise) will explain why Howard appeared in the post-credits teaser of the Guardians of the Galaxy film. What passes for a self-contained story is halted by the forces of cross-platform synergy—a move that would read as subversive in the Gerber tradition if it didn’t stink of editorial mandate.
Zdarsky’s jokes hit and miss throughout this first issue. Howard 2015 begins with the truly terrible—a reference to rock group the Quacking Pumpkins, maybe the worst duck-related gag since Howard browsed Playduck magazine in the 1986 film adaptation—and features a series of solidly funny moments thereafter. The best, and one that’s striking, given the eventual surrender to cross-promotion: Zdarsky’s depiction of a Spider-Man who collapses, sobbing about Uncle Ben, the second things start to go wrong. Another scene reveals that Howard has propped up an office “receptionist” made of newspaper and rags, a throwaway joke that reads as if transplanted from a darker, stranger comic.
Quinones is the more consistent of the two—unflashy, even utilitarian, but right for the book. Though few scenes derive humor solely from Quinones’s compositions, his straightforward staging ensures that the story’s humor doesn’t get lost either. The cartooning, while not as distinct as that of comparable artists like Annie Wu or Javier Pulido, serves the story beat by beat. Quinones is also versatile enough—yet steady enough—that Howard’s journey from a seedy office to a deep-space holding cell reads about as cohesively as it could.
Bear in mind that a summary of what Zdarsky and Quinones do well is not the same as a summary of what their comic amounts to or what it can be. Which, in this case, may be less than the sum of those strengths. Despite Howard 2015’s winning qualities, the book’s first issue still reads like another document of what oddball creators can and can’t accomplish on a Marvel title. The work is fitfully fun but also busy and confused, as if trapped in ... you get the joke. By now, it’s very familiar.
1 Following Gerber’s removal from the original Howard the Duck series, the writer filed a lawsuit against Marvel, which was settled out of court. Though Gerber and the publisher engaged in a series of détentes after that settlement (which did not grant Gerber control of the character), early statements following his removal make Gerber’s proprietary feelings clear. Per Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story: “Once I was gone,” [Gerber] told the Village Voice, “Howard was lobotomized, devoid of substance, and turned into a simple-minded parody.”
Gerber’s estrangement from his creation, Marvel’s ownership of a property that owes its continued appeal to the work of a singular talent ... this situation is not unique to Howard the Duck. But reuse of Howard invites a distinct kind of scrutiny, with cynicism and alienation being the substance of these stories from the start.
2 In contemporary Big Two comics, everything is at once valuable and disposable. Marvel publishes its IP in constant recombinations, keeping properties in use but often with a not-too-distant endpoint.