Oh look, Chip Zdarsky crapped out enough Howard issues for the first trade. Andrew did a good job taking the relaunch’s debut to task even before reading the original Steve Gerber series, and I would like to add my two cents now as someone who grew up on them and holds Howard very close to my heart.
What Marvel has let happen to Howard hurts, bad. Howard isn’t Spider-Man or the X-Men. He’s not yet another beefcake in colored underwear who’s fought dozens of other pro wrestlers under the auspices of hundreds of writers and artists since 1963, standing in line to be played in live action by a Hollywood prettyboy as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thousand-year reich. He’s a unique icon with a very short history. And half that history has been a disgrace because Marvel doesn’t know or care what to do with him. Also sprach Zdarathustry.
I’m not opposed on principle to the series being written by someone other than Gerber. I don’t doubt it could be done competently. However, Andrew’s descriptions from the first issue of the comic as “soulless” and “mercenary” and that “(Zdarsky) doesn’t care” all fit the bill pretty well. “Fit the bill,” by the way, is exactly the level of humor Zdarsky aims for, just so he can acknowledge his own ironically unfunny duck puns. The scripting really does tap into the same vein as the movie, of which Zdarsky has admitted some fondness towards in interviews.
All that a post-Gerber Howard would require to succeed is very simple: a point of view. A writer with an opinion on the world who could use the absurdity inherent in a cartoon duck living amongst us as the ultimate outsider – a minority of one, to quote Gerber’s second issue – and thereby as a mouthpiece for commentary on our own “world he never made.” The big problem with that is that every Marvel property, especially since Disney’s acquisition of them in 2009, is now having every rough edge shaved down in the name of family entertainment. With a few rare exceptions like Deadpool – who has never had a family friendly image – or Guardians of the Galaxy – who were too obscure for close corporate scrutiny – no Marvel movie is going to be about anything except CGI fight scenes punctuated by formulaic melodrama.
The Disney factor is an especially cruel irony for Howard, who was forced in the early 80s to start wearing pants forevermore when the company threatened lawsuit against Marvel for his alleged similarity to Donald Duck. It sounds like a joke, but to quote Gerber just once more, “Life’s most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view.”
James Gunn included a quick Howard cameo in the Guardians of the Galaxy film because, presumably, he was a fan and Marvel didn’t object. Comic books are so marginal compared to movies that this one brief cameo relaunched a Howard comic, like a piece of bait thrown into the waters to perhaps catch some future movie buzz. Apparently Chip Zdarsky took the job solely for the opportunity to write jokes around other Marvel characters because there has literally not been a single issue so far that stars Howard, solo, in his own title. He’s a second banana in his own series to She-Hulk, Spider-Man, the Guardians, Doctor Strange, etc, etc. Just look at the cover. They’re not even pretending to be interested in the titular “star.” The fact Howard is a comedic character has been taken as license to reduce him to a harmless LOLrandomWTF mascot for Marvel, their preferred role for him. He’s cranky, but impotently so. No content, no opinions. He’s a stooge. A eunuch. A sitcom foil for a snarky sitcom version of Marvel Comics.
Chip Zdarsky is very much a talentless sitcom writer at the Big Bang Theory or Family Guy level of glib nerd-pandering pap. Every issue so far abandons whatever the last issue was about to shoehorn in more cameos and banter for short attention spans. Actual exchange from this issue: Mr. Fantastic – “Johnny! What’s the situation?” Johnny Storm – “I said ‘I got this!’ And then I didn’t get this, okay?”
I suppose Marvel told Zdarsky at some point early on that, understandably, they’d like to see another book similar to The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Squirrel Girl is funny in a way that’s simultaneously sincere and deconstructive of Marvel super hero tropes, incorporating Marvel’s big cast of characters and throwing plucky, carefree Squirrel Girl up against guys like Kraven the Hunter and Galactus. That works for two reasons that don’t apply to Howard: 1) she was created in the early 90s era of grimdark edginess as a deliberately lighthearted counterpoint to industry trends of the times, and 2) however goofy her squirrel powers may be, they are still superpowers. Zdarsky is totally hung up on Howard’s lack thereof, having his cape cameos take endless potshots at his powerlessness. The final insult of this “arc” is Howard’s discovery that his Beverly Switzler surrogate, a tattooed hipster named Tara, actually has superpowers too, and in light of this he happily declares himself her sidekick.
What the everloving duck? (Haha, see what I did there?) (Self-aware conversational parenthetical asides are funny, right Chip?)
Plus, writer Ryan North clearly cares about making Squirrel Girl’s alter-ego Doreen Green empathic. Howard, who is he who is, is too busy sharing page time with the rest of the Marvel universe to have anything resembling a fleshed-out personality.
Joe Quinones’ art, Rico Renzi’s colors and especially Joe & Paolo Rivera’s inks are all nice to look at, though Howard’s tiny-eyed, pseudo-photo-realistic redesign is merely one more indignity. At this point I’ve lost count.
Chip Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck is smug, shallow, lazy, unfunny and disrespectful to the original in every conceivable way. It does for Howard what Space Jam did for Bugs Bunny – makes you wish he could rest in peace rather than be whored out by cash-grabbing hacks.
Super Hero Battle for the Fate of New York and Possibly the World; writer, Chip Zdarsky; artist, Joe Quinones; colorist, Rico Renzi; inks, Joe Rivera with Paolo Rivera, letterer, Travis Lanham, editor, Wil Moss, assistant editor, Jon Moisan; publisher, Marvel Comics.