You better believe we’re going to spoiler it up in here, so consider yourself warned.
When I heard that Marvel was going to bring back Howard The Duck, I thought it was exactly what was needed for the times. In its initial run, and still its best, the series was weird, it was grimy and grungy, it wasn’t afraid to be any of those, and was the perfect antidote for the times. I liken Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik’s work, and shortly thereafter Gene Colan’s, to be as close as the mainstream got to underground comix without thoroughly firing up the Comics Code Authority. It satirized/humiliated everything from politics to pop culture, to sexual morays, to the Marvel Universe itself, and all the above were better off for it.
Sadly, Howard The Duck #1 in 2015 doesn’t come close. It shouldn’t be for lack of targets either. Polarized politics with a Congress that gets paid the very most for doing the very least. A movie industry that has become so entrenched in it’s own Alzheimer’s that it repeats itself shamelessly every five years. Famous people who are famous only for being famous, for heaven’s sake! There are rich swamps of material out there, but what we get is a ready-for-prime-time Howard who has become a private investigator and has become rather comfortable with the foibles of these hairless apes.
We also get lots and lots and lots and lots (did I say lots?) of reminders that this is the Marvel Comics Universe. She-Hulk on page 5, the Black Cat on page 8, Spider-man on page 10, and before the issue is over, Howard’s been zapped into space. Oh, hello, Rocket Raccoon! You say issue two is going to be a big Guardians of the Galaxy crossover? There’s not a whiff of subtlety about the level of product management going on here, with all these “Special Guest Stars!” stumbling across the panels. The book is so larded with MCU fan service, the pages stain themselves for you.
Oddly, I don’t blame the writer-artist team on the book for it. Joe Quinones’ work on this is clean and really pops in almost a 2D animation style and is thoroughly mismatched for what we had come to know as this character. The panels squeak where they should be caked with scuzz, because part of the charm of Howard was that he wasn’t a human. He could see the absurdity, obnoxiousness, and filth of the world he was in without being entranced by it. But Quinones draws much like Michael Allred, and where Allred’s dazzling Colorforms style works neatly with the Silver Surfer’s ethic, something about Howard’s world being so sanitary feels…off. Suffering far worse is writer Chip Zdarsky who, from points dotted around the book, is ready to let rip and, if not go the Full-Gerber, then perhaps the Full-Kyle Baker on this new duck saga. He gets the need for anarchy and seems to strain toward it, even as the Marvel machine swats him away with the nightmare brief of “asset management.”
Need an example? Toward the end of this issue, Howard is zapped into space, but everyone on Earth who witnessed it thinks he’s been zapped into oblivion, including Spider-man. Upon the sight of the smoldering spot where Howard once stood, Spidey slips into a flashback of the death of Uncle Ben. It’s a shocking panel, and may not be considered the best of taste, but that’s Howard The Duck. This is a character that did more than merely suggest storylines of beastial relationships. Once graduated to the restriction-free realm of the black and white magazine series, Howard and Beverly Switzler (who is not a part of the new series) were going to bed together. That was not considered the best of taste either, but was altogether appropriate for the framework that had been established.
Observers will also notice that the Howard pictured here keys off of the Lucasfilm movie design, not of the Disney-gone-rogue original design. You’d think that Marvel was still afraid of Disney after all these years. Oh wait, Disney owns Marvel. Oh wait, Disney owns Lucasfilm too. I guess that explains it.
The real offense of Howard The Duck #1 is how badly it wants to be liked, to be inoffensive, and to be gussied up for new levels of marketing. I think that Zdarsky has it in him to get where this needs to be, provided he can get the Synergy Gurus off his back so he can just tear stuff up. Quinones can get there too, if he can make Howard’s world more earth-bound and lived-in, and less tightly drafted. The team is not the problem. The intentions Corporate HQ seems to have for them, on the other hand, are. If they don’t let Zdarsky and Quinones get on with it, Howard will once again wind up a dead…well, you know.