Stewart the Rat (November 1980)

Stewart the ratStewart the Rat is a depressing book to think about. Writer Steve Gerber had just been fired by Marvel from his masterpiece Howard the Duck, and his career was in a time of transition. Fans of the duck could look to this book as a supplemental substitution, though they would have had to know about it specifically to place a special order with their direct market comics shop – neither this nor anything else by independent publisher Eclipse Enterprises would be showing up on the newsstand next to the latest Rom the Space Knight or Master of Kung Fu. Non-fans of the duck were still forewarned by the front cover, in horror film red-on-black Courier font, that this was “By the creator of HOWARD THE DUCK.” Even if you’d never heard of Howard, you’d know this book was something off-brand. Something that should not be. An aberration from a proven success, born either out of necessity or sheer desperation.

Eclipse Enterprises was, at least according to Wikipedia, the first publisher of graphic novels although that term hadn’t yet been coined. Stewart the Rat is only 44 pages but with its magazine-sized European “comic album” dimensions and stiffer, heavier paper stock it feels a little more important, but still takes no longer to read than an issue-and-a-half of classic Howard. The higher quality paper is actually a nuisance. The pages don’t turn as easily as a normal comic and feel as though they could be bent irreparably if you held them too carelessly. The spine cracks like gingerbread every time you open it. The prestige format makes you feel burdened if all you want is some more Howard the Duck adventures by your pals Steve Gerber and Gene Colan.

Gene Colan’s art, with assistance by Tom Palmer, is typically masterful but suffers from being in black and white compared to the lush coloring his work was receiving at Marvel, except for the de-evolution of Howard into a black and white magazine after Gerber’s firing – but that magazine’s art had better rendering as well as more pages per issue than Stewart.

The most exciting experimentation Gerber uses with the larger, more ostentatious format is getting textual as well as meta-textual, by opening with a lengthy prologue explaining Stewart’s origin story from the perspective of Stewart himself. This part is so well written it actually overshadows the rest of the experience, leaving you wondering what a full length novel by could have been. Echoing the mutation of Gerber’s funny animal id from duck to rat, Stewart begins his existence as Stewart Dropp, a human being (and dead ringer for the author) who unexpectedly dies a grim death (the text is his murder-suicide note) and leaves behind a giant rat who can walk and talk thanks to an infusion of the human Stewart’s own genetic material. In a strange way this prefigures Alan Moore’s reinvention of Swamp Thing as a pure swamp-creature born of human influence, rather than of human origin. Disappointingly, the details of Stewart the Rat’s creation never come back to play any role in the overall story, its just Gerber flexing other creative muscles to set the narrative in motion. Stewart may as well have stayed Of Unknown Origin.

The titular rat’s adventure is, unsurprisingly, a Howard the Duck type of adventure. He winds up in Los Angeles, rather than Howard’s usual Marvel Comics haunt of New York, where he meets a Beverly Switzler surrogate, Sonja Lake, being menaced by a Doctor Bong surrogate named Wayne Fossick. Gerber himself had gone Hollywood irl, working on Thundarr the Barbarian for television, and makes many informed jibes at Los Angeleno culture. The villain Fossick is the best part of the book, possibly the best villain Gerber ever wrote – the ultimate purveyor of New Age claptrap, L. Ron Hubbard by way of Charles Manson. His made up self-help jargon and speeches are both hilarious in their parodies of Werner Erhard platitudes, and dizzying in their hip, banal nihilism. It could have been a great arc for a couple issues of the duck; Beverly goes to LA and Howard has to save her from this megalomaniac. Instead we have these surrogates who barely have enough pages to be characterized before the action starts. In emulating but not distinguishing this creation from his similar, previous comic hero, Stewart can’t help but constantly remind the reader of Howard, especially with the Colan art. There are swears, and tiddies, but Howard the Duck never needed either to be great and Stewart doesn’t gain anything from them either.

Gerber would embrace the absence of Howard and comment on it directly a couple years after Stewart with Destroyer Duck, before sneaking Howard into his run on Sensational She-Hulk some years later and eventually getting to make the denouement on his creation with a Howard the Duck MAX mini-series in 2002 – where he was, incidentally, transformed into a mouse as a commentary on Disney’s lawsuit against Marvel claiming that Howard’s design copied Donald. Ironically, this scandal preceded Stewart. It’s not polite to speak for the dead but I’d like to think if Gerber ever saw what Chip Zdarsky has done with the character recently, he’d kick his smug hipster teeth in.

Stewart the Rat is easily recommendable to any dedicated Steve Gerber fan, but Howard fans may find the experience slightly melancholy. The world conjured up for this relatively slim volume is a hollow one, existing only under because of the author’s frustration over not being able to tell the story using his preferred cast of characters. Stewart was ignominiously born, briefly lived, and quickly abandoned by his creator, who always preferred the company of waterfowl to rodents.

CREDITS

Stewart the Rat; writer, Steve Gerber; artists, Gene Colan and Tom Palmer; letterer, Tom Orzechowski; publisher, Eclipse Enterprises.

Howard the Duck 24 (May 1978)

Howard the Duck #24

I have a lot of fundamental problems with this issue of Howard the Duck. I don’t mind it being great, but I don’t like how Gerber’s not just able to get away with finally addressing the Bev situation he’s also able to get sympathy from it. The effectiveness of Howard walking the streets sad is incredible. It’s an introspective look at how the character works. Gerber’s laying it all out for the reader to examine.

It’s amazing. It’s an amazing comic book. And I don’t like how Gerber’s able to get away with it. Just because he can get away with it doesn’t mean he should. It’s frustrating.

Howard the Duck–with its realistic Colan pencils (with Palmer inks, natch)–is all of a sudden Henry Miller the Duck and it’s awesome. Gerber sells it all. He even gets to a truly great soft cliffhanger.

Frustrating or not, it’s phenomenal.

CREDITS

Where Do You Go — What Do You Do — The Night after You Save the Universe?; writer and editor, Steve Gerber; penciller, Gene Colan; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Janice Cohen; letterer, Joe Rosen; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Howard the Duck 16 (September 1977)

Howard the Duck #16

I don’t want to call this comic book strange. Instead of a regular, strange issue of Howard the Duck, it turns out Gerber was just too busy to break out an actual plot for Gene Colan so instead he did an issue in prose.

Howard the Duck #16. It’s Gerber making fun of himself well, which makes one think about how the comic is the same thing. It’s Gerber making fun of a comic book called Howard the Duck well. And how does one accomplish that task well? By being sincere. By going through the artifice of the series to the point of sincerity.

“Howard” even co-narrates, Gerber telling the reader’s Howard’s a voice in his head. True or not, it’s a direct communication between Gerber and the reader without illusion. Gerber still spins a good yarn to go with it. Because it’s how Howard works. Through narrative disruption.

CREDITS

Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing: A Communique from Colorado; writer and editor, Steve Gerber; pencillers, Gene Colan, Alan Weiss, Ed Hannigan, Marie Severin, Dave Cockrum, Tom Palmer, Al Milgrom, John Buscema, Dick Giordano and Michael Netzer; inkers, Klaus Janson, Weiss, Hannigan, Severin, Cockrum, Palmer, Milgrom, Buscema, Giordano and Terry Austin; colorists, Janson and Doc Martin; letterers, Austin and Irving Watanabe; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Star Trek 13 (April 1981)

Star Trek #13

It's another high concept issue from Pasko. He's got McCoy meeting his estranged daughter for the first time in years–she's marrying a Vulcan (a much, much older one), he's got the Enterprise landing on The Planet of the Apes and how it plays out when the Klingons get there. Pasko plays a lot with the Apes thing, working in all sorts of genre stuff from outside. For a few pages, it all feels like a mystery, and for the last few pages, Pasko goes for difficult character work.

In the meantime, there are also Klingons around causing trouble. These are post-The Motion Picture Klingons having a very television series encounter with the Enterprise crew. Pasko hits all the right notes.

Unfortunately, Joe Brozowski, Tom Palmer and Marie Severin don't exactly knock it out of the park on the art. There's some detail, but it's more consistently messy than anything else.

B+ 

CREDITS

All the Infinite Ways; writer, Martin Pasko; pencillers, Joe Brozowski, Tom Palmer and Diverse Hands; inkers, Palmer and Marie Severin; colorist, Carl Gafford; letterer, Joe Rosen; editor, Louise Jones; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Star Trek 12 (March 1981)

Star Trek #12

Penciller Luke McDonnell–along with Tom Palmer on inks–does a lot of photo referencing this issue. But he’s only partially successful. Kirk looks spot-on, but Spock doesn’t. And Janice Rand returns this issue; she’s not spot on either. At least she’s not problematic. The work on Spock is downright bad.

The issue references the first episode of the television show, the disappearance of Rand in the first season and then a lot from the movie. There are a few visual cues straight from The Motion Picture.

Pasko’s script moves fast and doesn’t stop for the absurdity speed bumps. There’s a big crisis and the entire thing should have been avoided. Pasko seems to realize it and skips even trying.

He also does a feeble characterization of Rand. She’s an entirely new character from her time on the show; Pasko can’t connect to her.

It’s a well-intentioned misfire.

C 

CREDITS

Eclipse of Reason; writers, Alan Brennert and Martin Pasko; pencillers, Luke McDonnell and Tom Palmer; inker, Palmer; colorist, Carl Gafford; letterer, Joe Rosen; editor, Louise Jones; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Star Trek 11 (February 1981)

Star Trek #11

This issue’s art, from Joe Brozowski and Tom Palmer, is better than the usual for the comic. A lot of emphasis on the faces, lots of photo reference, but also a decent level of general competency. If a little static.

Pasko’s script regurgitates some of the old “Star Trek” episodes without offering anything new. He relies on bringing in a guest star from a character’s past, which hurries along the setup because Pasko can use expository conversation. It’s just not very useful in terms of furthering the characters. Everyone is stuck; it’s unfortunate the series doesn’t take the time to develop any character subplots. Maybe the license forbids it.

It’s a perfectly fine licensed property comic. Pasko’s clearly a “Trek” enthusiast and he does fine remixing a bunch of old episodes into this story. It’s a shame Marvel isn’t doing anything more with the comic, but it’s to be expected.

C 

CREDITS

“…Like a Woman Scorned!”; writer, Martin Pasko; pencillers, Joe Brozowski and Tom Palmer; inker, Palmer; colorist, Carl Gafford; letterers, Joe Rosen and Rick Parker; editor, Louise Jones; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 75 (October 2004)

The Incredible Hulk #75

Here I thought Darick Robertson and Tom Palmer on the art would help….

It does help for a while. But the issue’s double-sized and once Doc Samson shows up, maybe a quarter of the way in, the art starts sliding.

Jones reveals the mastermind behind all of Bruce Banner’s troubles. It gets sillier when the villain explains all of it; the ludicrousness of Jones’s conspiracy doesn’t hold up well under examination.

There’s a slightly interesting gimmick, which Jones shuts down so he can bring back the supporting cast. I’m not sure how Nadia–just a regular small business owner in Nevada or somewhere–can get to L.A. in a matter of hours to help save the day. Worse, Tony Stark is around to hang out with Doc Samson. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Tony to help as Iron Man? Or maybe call the Avengers.

It’s a lousy comic.

D- 

CREDITS

Wake To Nightmare; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, Darick Robertson; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Raul Trevino; letterer, Randy Gentile; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Daredevil 1.50 (June 2014)

Daredevil #1.50

I'm really glad Mark Waid cares so much about Daredevil to craft the comic, and Matt Murdock, such a sweet story for the fiftieth anniversary of the character. It's a nice story. It's also completely pointless.

Waid tells a future story with Matt Murdock as former mayor of San Francisco (or something) and gives him a crisis to resolve–some mystery villain has made most of the city blind, including little Jack Murdock. Mom is a mystery but Foggy's around. He's probably supposed to be fifty too. He looks like a thirty year-old.

The story is slight and saccharine. Javier Rodriguez and Alvaro Lopez's art's decent, never anything more.

Then, to amplify the self-indulgence, Brian Michael Bendis does a text piece with Alex Maleev art. Comic book text pieces are real bad. Every time.

Finally, Karl Kesel and Tom Palmer do something goofy. It's bad, but they appear to enjoy themselves.

C 

CREDITS

The King in Red; writer, Mark Waid; penciller and colorist, Javier Rodriguez; inker, Alvaro Lopez. My name is Stana Morgan…; writer, Brian Michael Bendis; artist, Alex Maleev; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth. The Last Will and Testament of Mike Murdock; writer and penciller, Karl Kesel; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Grace Allison. Letterer, Joe Caramagna, editor, Ellie Pyle; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 43 (September 2002)

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Some people want to make a Hulk comic, some people want to talk about eighteenth century English poets. Some people want to do both. Jones is in the latter category. There’s a whole thing in this issue about Coleridge and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Why? Because Jones thinks it’s appropriate. Is he right… sort of.

It works for the story he’s telling. But it doesn’t work for the characters. There’s no reason Bruce Banner should be a poetry expert. Throw in a line about him loving Coleridge in college. There’s no reason the cop lady should be a Coleridge expert either. Maybe if her mom had been one….

But Jones doesn’t waste any time with establishing backstory or character knowledge. He goes for the best thing in the moment and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Weeks doesn’t draw for that philosophy though.

It’s ludicrous, but good.

B- 

CREDITS

The Beast Within; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, Lee Weeks; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 42 (August 2002)

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I wonder if Jones had been putting off doing a Hulk rampage because he knew it would be boring under his watch. Bruce finally hulks out big time here–destroying much of the setting from the last two issues–and it’s really, really boring.

Maybe it’s because Weeks’s too realistic and his vision of destruction doesn’t get in Jones’s subtext. There’s no emotion to the destruction, not even forced stuff. It’s mind-numbing and it appears Jones is going to go out on this terrible action scene. It’s not like Weeks is composing the pages well either. He does big panels or full page spreads and it’s just pointless filler.

But Jones doesn’t end things with the destruction or the hard cliffhanger for Bruce. He goes further and shifts focus over to the lady cop, then back again to Bruce. For practically the first time. It’s an amazingly effective save.

B 

CREDITS

All Fall Down; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, Lee Weeks; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 41 (August 2002)

95486

Maybe two things happen this issue. Or three. Jones’s use of “decompressed” storytelling is somewhat interesting–not effective, but interesting–in how he plots the story around it. He’s being intentional here. There’s no way to do this story with any other pacing, it would miss the point.

And Jones gets pretty obvious with the point here. He’s got a couple moments of way too much exposition from the cast. It’d be hard to miss.

But the comic’s not bad at all. Weeks does a great job with the expressions and his pacing of the events is flawless. There just aren’t enough events for a filling read.

Jones remains unsure how to present Banner to the reader. Once again, he doesn’t let Bruce run the comic. Instead, Bruce reacts to everyone else. And when he finally does show enough agency, the issue ends.

It’s problematic to be sure, but serviceable.

B- 

CREDITS

Poker Face; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, Lee Weeks; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 40 (July 2002)

95485

Lee Weeks and Tom Palmer. Thank goodness. Even if Weeks isn’t great on the facial details–it’s a very intense talking heads issue (hostages and so on) but talking heads nonetheless–but his composition is strong and he gets the job done. Palmer’s inks seem a little harsh for the story Jones is telling but, again, the art’s not bad at all.

Jones juxtaposes Bruce Banner getting to a town and getting involved in a hostage situation with one page scenes of people contemplating or preparing to commit suicide. It doesn’t feel like “a very special episode” just because Jones presents everything so bluntly. It’s not particularly successful, just because you can’t really muse in a Hulk comic. The attempt is notable, however.

And, as an intense talking heads book, it works okay. It’s way too decompressed of course.

The Call of Duty backup is fine. Jones’s dialogue is good.

B- 

CREDITS

Boiling Point; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, Lee Weeks; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 39 (June 2002)

95484

I’m not sure how much more contrived Jones’s setup for the series could be… Maybe if he’d make the Hulk somebody’s dad. But he doesn’t. He makes someone else somebody’s dad.

Once again, Jones doesn’t let Bruce have the issue. One of the bad guys gets the issue and she gets to tell Bruce all about this strange situation he’s found himself in. Of course, if you’re Bruce Banner and you’ve been hulking out for years, strange situations shouldn’t seem strange. But Jones acts like he’s come up with sliced bread.

He hasn’t. He’s come up with a really contrived story and hasn’t taken any time in the issue to do anything else. It’s the last in the arc, the setup for the next one, so not doing anything else would usually be okay. But he hasn’t been doing anything else for issues.

This arc could’ve easily run two issues.

D 

CREDITS

Tag… You’re Dead!; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 38 (May 2002)

95483

So what have we got here? What are Jones and Romita serving this issue? Sorry, it takes place in a roadside cafe. I’m just in the spirit.

Jones has bad guys who can come back from the dead and there are apparently more of them than he previously told the reader about. He’s also got Doc Samson borrowing an outfit from the Village People. Romita has nothing. Terrible backgrounds. There’s an action scene but Jones cuts away so who knows how Romita would do with it.

Here’s the problem–there’s nothing with Bruce. Either the bad guys run the issue or Samson runs the issue. Bruce just sits around. Jones writes the character perfectly well–better this issue since he’s not moping about the kid he may or may not have killed–but doesn’t do anything with him. He reacts, never acts.

Everything’s way too convenient to get concerned about.

C 

CREDITS

Last Chance Cafe; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 37 (April 2002)

95482

This issue is definitely better, but only because Jones takes time to give Samson stuff to do. He hangs out with this bullied kid while Bruce goes hitchhiking and has an adventure. Of course, since things are very convenient, the assassins get caught up in the adventure too.

I just realized how much Bruce looks like Mister X, which sort of points out how lame Romita’s art is for this book. Mister X through the heartland might be cool. But with Romita? Every page is a bore, worse when he’s got to do action.

Jones is way too unfocused–the assassins, Samson, Bruce–and there’s no tension to the issue. There’s no suspense and he’s basically trying to do a suspense story, just one set during the day for whatever reason.

I’m also very confused about Bruce’s laptop and how come he doesn’t know it’s tracking him.

But it’s okay.

C+ 

CREDITS

You Must Remember This…; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 36 (March 2002)

95481

There’s not a lot of Bruce in this issue. Except when he’s freaking out about the kid dying–only, there’s always something suspect about Hulk casualties. It’s one of those things a writer can’t concentrate too hard on because the logic holes become too obvious. There’s no Hulk, expect on TV.

There’s also a lot of bad art from Romita. Jones introduces two assassins out to get Bruce and then Leonard Samson is on the case. He sticks with them for the majority of the issue, which is too bad. Romita draws all three poorly. At least his Bruce is… consistent.

But Jones hinges the issue on these assassins, on the hunt for Banner picking up, and it’s lame. Bruce’s self-loathing doesn’t work with the nonsense.

There’s some amusing stuff at the beginning with the female assassin. The rest of it isn’t visually dynamic enough to justify the pace.

C- 

CREDITS

The Gang’s All Here!; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 35 (February 2002)

95480

I both love and dislike this issue. It was one of Marvel’s “’Nuff Said” titles, which actually allows Jones to really concentrate on his pacing. He loves the choppy fast pace.

Sadly, he doesn’t have the artist for it. Romita does much better than I would have expected but the art is still the problem. Especially when the Hulk shows up. It’s supposed to be an awesome sequence but Romita doesn’t break out the action well.

The issue ends happily, abruptly. Given Jones has a lengthy quiet period at the opening, he could have structured it better.

There are threats this issue, but they’re all boring. Jones has a quick plot for no talking, but there’s no room for those threats.

The nicest part is how Jones has just the right amount of pressure on the “Bruce Banner as a nice guy” moments.

It’s successful in spite of the art.

B- 

CREDITS

Silent Running; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 34 (January 2002)

95479

And here we have Bruce Jones trying to do a very gritty, realistic story and the art just not servicing it. John Romita Jr. does handle a lot of Jones’s cinematic influences okay, but his page design is too simple and his world is way too soft. Romita always safely curves his lines at some point.

The story has Bruce Banner on the run, as usual, and living in a crappy motel in a bad part of town. There’s a little about how close the cops are to catching him, but mostly it’s this story about Banner and a local tough. The kid’s fallen in with a gang, Bruce is trying to convince him to reform.

It’s decent with the Romita art–the issue overall–but the right style would have helped a lot more. Jones tries to focus on the collateral damage but, unfortunately, Romita doesn’t try to agree.

C+ 

CREDITS

The Morning After; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, John Romita Jr.; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Studio F; letterers, Richard Starkings and Wes Abbott; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Winter Soldier 5 (July 2012)

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Tom Palmer is a very strange inker for Guice. Gaudiano shows up for a bit, at the beginning and end most noticeably, but Palmer handles the big action scene. It’s Bucky, Natasha and Doctor Doom versus the Super-Apes and some other bad guys. With the Palmer inks, it looks like something out of a seventies Marvel comic. It’s glorious action in the Marvel style. This issue makes up for the lackadaisical pacing in the last few and it’s not even Brubaker’s fault. It’s all Tom Palmer.

Even more, when he does the quiet scenes, he brings age and gravity to Bucky. I love Gaudiano, but with Palmer… Winter Soldier is a whole different book.

Brubaker writes some great Nick Fury and Doctor Doom banter–they need a team-up series, obviously–and maintains Bucky’s questionable morality.

It’s an excellent finish to a first arc. Fast and fun but fulfilling.

CREDITS

The Longest Winter, Part Five; writer, Ed Brubaker; penciller, Butch Guice; inkers, Stefano Gaudiano, Tom Palmer and Guice; colorist, Bettie Breitweiser; letterer, Joe Caramagna; editor, Lauren Sankovitch, John Denning and Tom Breevort; publisher, Marvel Comics.

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