HOWARD THE DUCK #1
Writer: Ty Templeton
Artist: Juan Bobillo
Inker: Marcelo Sosa
It’s 2007, Steve Gerber is not writing for Marvel and yet there is a new Howard the Duck mini-series coming out. Why? The character has never proven successful as anything beyond a means for Gerber to kick pop culture in the groin and nick its wallet. When he stopped writing the original series in 1978, after one of the earliest and most publicised creator-rights conflicts in comics, it staggered on without him like a headless chicken before collapsing a few issues later. Marvel’s attempt to reinvent the series as a bimonthly magazine in the ’80s lasted for just nine issues, though each of them was infinitely superior to the Lucasfilm movie version. The fact that, barring a few random guest spots here and there, nobody bothered with Howard until Gerber returned for the six-issue MAX mini-series in 2001 speaks volumes. By the way, those guest spots were just plain baffling. Who thought it would be a good idea to have Howard the Duck join Generation X to fight Black Tom Cassiday? He is not a superhero, he is a cipher through which the world can be deconstructed by a cynical observer. He is a Vertigo character in the Marvel Universe, trapped in a world he never made.
Never content to leave well enough alone, Marvel recently brought back Howard in the CIVIL WAR: CHOOSING SIDES one-shot. The publishers seem to be as keen to stick a ‘Civil War’ banner on everything they come across as Tony Stark is to label all superhumans under the Registration Act. Readers curious as to why anybody would feel the need to include an ill-fitting, meta-fictional, creator-loaned if not creator-owned character like Howard in a superhero smash-up event could perhaps relate to the Registration Act bureaucrats. They decided that Howard officially could not exist since they could not explain him, which was quite at odds with Marvel’s track record of failing to explore him without a Gerber-dictated policy. Oh, and even though the government didn’t want to know about Howard, they still banned him from smoking cigars. The other Marvel character to be denied his trademark cigars was Wolverine. If Marvel can’t figure out the difference between attempting to sanitise the ever-marketable Wolverine and trying to do the same with Howard the Duck, what hope could there be for this mini-series?
Enter Ty Templeton. Most well known for his collaborations with Dan Slott on the inspired SPIDER-MAN/HUMAN TORCH: I’M WITH STUPID mini-series and SHE-HULK, which actually featured Howard the Duck on the cover of one issue, Templeton has also written and drawn creator-owned comics that reflect Gerber’s weary absurdist style. One of them, Stig’s Inferno, is (legally) available for free in its entirety online. Templeton is an excellent choice of writer for Howard’s latest mini-series, particularly if the mini-series only exists because he had a Howard the Duck story to tell. He’s only writing this time around, with art duties passing to Juan Bobillo, another SHE-HULK alumnus, who brings a crisp and straightforward style to the comic. His redesign of Howard does away with the suit and bowler hat of old for a casual style that lands somewhere in between the Beak of Frank Quitely’s NEW X-MEN and, bizarrely, a fowl version of Shia LaBeouf. Panels flow by with at a cartoon’s pace, yet retain the rough sensibilities of an independent comic. Much like SHE-HULK, unsurprisingly enough. Unlike that title however, the laughs are replaced with slight sneers and the story is grounded almost to the point of becoming subterranean.
Stripped of any unbelievable compulsion to be a superhero, Howard is once again left with no particular purpose beyond making it to tomorrow. Well, that and his girlfriend, Beverly, who once again spends the entire issue in a miniscule outfit. Beverly is a human so it’s best to just leave the precise definition of ‘girlfriend’ to the imagination. She is an actress in as much as she has a body attractive enough to hold an audience’s attention. He is a taxi driver quite happy to sarcastically riposte talk radio shows rather than saving innocent pedestrians from muggers. The first issue chronicles a day in their lives, which for him means reassuring people that, yes, they are indeed talking to a duck and for her means revealing flesh. And that’s about it. There’s a sequence with a couple of would-be hunters chasing Howard, which is perhaps meant to be a satire on contemporary gun enthusiasts but lacks any real bite and just turns into slapstick. Meanwhile, with the assistance of A.I.M. goons, M.O.D.O.T. lurks around talking to himself until he can presumably get to encounter Howard next issue. No, not M.O.D.O.K. but M.O.D.O.T. After all, why would A.I.M. stop at making just one giant-headed guy? It’s a slow-and-steady pace, which is entirely wrong for a four-issue limited series headlined by Howard the Duck. Compare developments here to the first issue of Gerber’s MAX mini-series and appreciate the vast gulf of difference. Templeton does kick things off with a recurring dream sequence about Howard being haunted by various monsters from the Marvel pantheon, including Man-Thing, which hints at a wider arc that could hopefully pay off later. Based on the evidence of the first issue, however, that would very much be an optimistic notion.
This is not bad material by any means. Howard’s blithe, single-panel dismissal of CIVIL WAR is a brief glimpse of his former acerbic glories shining through. Bobillo’s art is always a charming sight, akin to the wide-eyed delirium of a cute puppy as it delights in taking a shit on your brand-new rug. Yet this puppy has no bite, nor even a bark. Gerber would have tore into constiutionally-protected lovers of guns and collateral damage like a horny young pup to the first available hairy leg. Hell, he has done, as with Howard’s encounter with the ultra-reactionary Captain Americana in the old series. Can’t be having anybody spinning over Captain America’s grave now though, can we? Can’t even give Howard a cigar anymore. Can’t do all that much except hope for the odd chuckle or two. In the end, as technically sound as it is, this comic is left as aimless as its protagonist, who in turn can’t even take aim at his antagonists.