Howard the Duck …and the Crippling Capitalist Corruption of Creative Clout

howard the duck logo

First, an apology: to Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones. In a few paragraphs from now, I’m going to be ripping on Howard the Duck pretty hard, and the current series is Chip and Joe’s project. I just want it to be known that this is nothing personal, and that I respect these guys as writers and artists, and I’m sorry for what Marvel Comics is asking them to produce.

Second, a SPOILER ALERT: I intend to make reference to final scenes in both Guardians of the Galaxy and A Christmas Story in this article, so I hope you’ve seen both of these already, or simply don’t care. Let’s begin.

I’m reminded of a scene in A Christmas Story: the Parker family is resigned to some hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner, and they are served a most un-festive blackened duck.  Disconcerted by the fact that the creature’s head is still attached to the body, Mr. Parker points it out to the attending waiter, who promptly cleaves off the duck’s head.  A shocking, yet all-too-appropriate ending to a Christmas gone horribly wrong.xmas story duck

I hate to say it, but this is what needs to happen to Howard the Duck.  This depresses me, truly. I wanted to like this comic; I really did.  I was amped when they first started advertising for it, and I paid for a monthly subscription in advance, sight unseen.  I believe I am among many whose first exposure to Howard the Duck was the 1986 film. Before that, and for many years after (since we all tried so hard to forget what we’d seen in that movie), I’d had no idea there was anything more to Howard the Duck. I knew of not a comic, not a lunchbox, not even a collective social memory—let alone had I any idea that this was, quote-unquote, a “MARVEL CHARACTER.”  Capital M; Capital C.  I knew none of this, until, quite without context, he appeared at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy.  Owing to my ignorance, you can imagine what a pure W-T-F moment that was for me. So then I did my homework and came to learn all about the history of this satirical character, and I thought, “Wow! What a great comic I missed!” Not long after, ads for Howard’s re-hatching started circulating in my Hulk comics, and I was elated. Then I thought, “Great! A second chance!” I looked forward to an opportunity to see the duck done right, and to get in on all the fresh and relevant satire from the first new issue.

We’re five issues in now—that’s five months in comic book reading time, and I’ve finally had to admit to myself that I’ve spent far too much energy scavenging for the jokes that actually make me laugh, while forcing out chuckles for all the rest.  Not only is it failing to restore the tradition of Steve Gerber‘s character, but the series isn’t even as funny as the movie that ruined that tradition in the first place.

Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck (pictured ca. 1979)

Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck (pictured ca. 1979)

The back third of every issue is some sort of bizarre non-sequitur that happens to feature Howard, but in strange artistic styles and dream-like situations by different writers and artists. Meanwhile, what presents itself as the central plot is hobbling along on the crutches of one cameo after another: we’ve seen She-Hulk, Black Cat, Spider-Man, Spider-Man’s Aunt May(!), Spider-Woman, all four Fantastic Four, all five Guardians of the Galaxy, RIngmaster, Talos the Untamed, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, the New Captain America, the New Thor, and I know I’ve probably missed a few on this list.  And oh, yeah, there’s this character called “Howard the Duck” in there somewhere, too. Not even Robin had so many guest-stars in his first five solo issues, and that guy is the veritable crown prince of secondary characters.

More importantly, there has been absolutely no satirical comedy or societal relevance whatsoever. This is not a Howard the Duck comic. This is a cheap vehicle for advertising other Marvel characters and products, and for auditioning unknown writers and artists without endangering the existing brands. I get it: Howard the Duck—for better or worse—is a character that now exists in the so-called Marvel Universe. You don’t need to beat us over the head with that. And I get it: Marvel sells more mags with recognizable characters. But when is it time to wean the title character off the teats of the others and let the comic stand (or fall) on its own? And how many lackluster puns about fictional, galactic conflicts do we have to suffer before we get some actual wit about the real world? Howard the Duck—as both a character and a comic magazine—was created with the express intent (by Gerber) to be an existentialist examination of human foibles, but so far, we’re getting deeper introspection from the Hulk—supposedly Marvel’s least intelligent character.

Okay, so some of that was a bit of a tirade. I’m sorry. Let me try to get something constructive out of all this. What’s happening with Howard the Duck is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather a symptom of this obsession in the geek arts and entertainment that I will call “expansionist mindset.”

sequels attack

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There’s no argument that Marvel Entertainment is the Tchaikovsky of that magnificent ballet we call “expanded universe.” They’ve made billions of dollars with the form, and rightly so. Shut up and take my money, right? But “expansionist mindset” includes more than just Marvel’s shining example. It manifests in a wider range of geek arts and entertainment, and it’s not always a good thing. Expansionist mindset is when we cross-pollinate comic book characters—not because it’s part of a fully enriched storyline, but because it will sell more comics. It’s when a movie has a sequel—not because there’s additional conflicts or character development that could be explored, but because the primary conflicts were intentionally left unresolved and the characters intentionally left underdeveloped for the express purpose of holding these things back for a sequel (and the commensurate ticket sales). It’s when we design and play a game with the “future expansion sets” in the forefront of our mind, instead of trying to make the game as fun and efficient as possible in its purest form. [Pro tips: it’s not a “future” expansion if you’re already thinking about it now. Not everything needs to be a “cross-over event.” Not everything needs a “sequel.” Even fewer things need a “prequel.” To Kill a Mockingbird certainly did not need Go Set a Watchman.]

In other words, please stop. This is the behavior we have to avoid: deliberate inefficiency and corruption of the art-form with the intention of “correcting” or “excusing” that corruption with profit.  It’s sadly reminiscent of the custody/creativity battles for which Marvel is already infamous, whether with Steve Gerber or Jack KirbyHoward the Duck could be great. I want it to be great. I hope it gets there. But right now, Marvel’s too busy patting itself on the back and showcasing its expanded universe to let Chip and Joe realize Howard’s full, satirical potential.  Until that actually happens, if you’re looking for good satirical comedy, you’re better off watching Duck Soup.

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