By Jarrod Jones. It’s been a long forty-two years since Marvel’s Main Mallard waddled onto the pages of Adventure Into Fear #19 back in 1973. Created by Steve Gerber as a vessel through which all of us could perceive the inanity of modern life, Howard persevered through the likes of Watergate and a catastrophic oil embargo with an antagonistic pluck that suited the times, turning this anthropomorphic duck into a cultural icon that shamed those who came before. (Sorry, Donald.) Howard’s gift for unsolicited socio-political commentary provided the human race invaluable insight into how insipid our convoluted rat-race could be. We needed him much more than he ever needed us.
In the time that’s passed since those halcyon days, the world has changed dramatically before our stalwart duck’s weary eyes. The world has been linked together in a social arena for the purposes of engaging in indignant outrage (and cat videos) while the world continues to spin out of control. We’ve become sedate with our smartphones and tablets, cherry-picking only the choicest ills to fruitlessly gripe about on our Facebook timelines. The last thing we need is some smart-mouthed duck shaking us by our lapels in hopes to tell us what’s up. We’ve got our own moral exasperation on lock, thank you very much.
So the Howard the Duck of 2015 has mellowed somewhat compared to his ’73 forebear. Even the tagline to his newest book sports the appropriately sardonic tagline, “Trapped in a World He’s Grown Accustomed To“, which is a far cry from the otherworldly zing of “Trapped in a World He Never Made!”
Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones attempt to re-acquaint us with the Howard we once knew, but the Howard they have in store is one that’s been beaten down by the excruciating minutiae of planet Earth. (And just inches above his magnificent bill lies the embedded lines of consternation to prove it.) Instead of fighting against the social paradigm, this Howard works with it, as a private investigator who cleans up the messes of the few broken souls who dare darken his doorway. (“It’s mostly been insurance fraud and cheating spouses. Real uplifting, exciting stuff…” Howard quacks nonchalantly.)
And it doesn’t seem like he’s entirely against the idea. In nearly half a century, Howard has displayed an alarming lack of initiative to get off this mudheap: With S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Avengers, and X-Men boldly going to distant galaxies like they were hopping on a train, Howard doesn’t have much in the way of an excuse as to why his tail-feathers are still nestled in a crappier part of Manhattan. It’s possible that Howard might — just might — actually like it here. ‘Sides, these days he shares office space with Jennifer Walters (that’s She-Hulk to you) and meets excitable new partners while cooling his webbed feet in jail (Tara Tam, pinch-hitting for Beverly Switzler), all while keeping his bill above water these days, which has to be worth something, right? Right.
Chip Zdarsky is more than capable of guiding our feathered friend along the precarious avenues offered by this American life, though it seems that his satire casts a far wider net than Gerber’s acerbic, laser-sighted wit. While it wouldn’t be completely fair to compare Zdarsky’s first Marvel writing gig to Gerber’s well-established career, it seems that this iteration of Howard the Duck is taking it far easier than the former series would ever dare to. Zdarsky’s jokes land more often than they don’t (one line from a jailbird, “[on feathers] they tickle my nose and also I didn’t kill that guy!“), but he jettisons subtext for absurdity: The closest we come to nuance is a quiet panel that implies Howard’s been through some shit in the years he’s been away from our public consciousness. The rest of the time, Howard is seen yukkin’ it up with Spider-Man or throwing pizza at guard cats.
Joe Quinones’ consistently expressive artwork is cleaner and sharper than the grungier linework offered by Howard’s former artist, Gene Colan. His Howard has the air of a man worn down by the passage of time, especially when he’s sporting a upturned fedora. (Seeing the despondent duck amble down a lamp-lit street is eerily reminiscent of Frank Sinatra’s melancholy “In the Wee Small Hours” phase.) Once the rambunctious, Disney-approved antics ensue, Quinones gets to play in Marvel’s sandbox, giving us his takes on Spider-Man (whose appearance echoes the nonsense found in 1973’s Howard the Duck #1) and the Black Cat, who is tasked with the odious role of this issue’s heavy. Quinones draws one handsome lookin’ duck, even if he is being used for reverence more than relevance.
Maybe that was unavoidable. The days when Howard was a constant liability for Marvel are long, long gone, especially now that Disney — the company that once tried to sue Marvel over Howard’s apparent copyright infringement — ironically owns the duck they once successfully censored. (Which is why Howard’s adorable tail is hidden beneath rumpled slacks.) The bite has been taken out of the duck, but fortunately his snark remains. And though he’s as much the sourpuss as he was in his glory days, Howard’s somehow become the mascot Steve Gerber never intended him to be. Sadly, he’s trapped in a world that no longer cares.
Written by Chip Zdarsky.
Art by Joe Quinones.
Colored by Rico Renzi.
8 out of 10