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.

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Howard the Human (October 2015)

Howard the Human (2015) 001-000This one-shot, like so many, is a thought experiment. Howard’s creator Steve Gerber already did the titular gimmick back in Howard 19 of making him human for an entire issue, demonstrating it’s not the vessel, but the person inside who matters. He also turned Howard into a mouse during his 2001 Marvel Max mini-series official return to the character, just to prove this point after his own creation had been wrested away and humiliated by the likes of George Lucas and Disney. Given Chip Zdarsky’s utterly lackadaisical Howard reboot that Marvel squeezed out earlier this year, could another, better writer restore him to some kind of Steve Gerber-esque integrity?

Well, no. In Howard the Human, Marvel’s new “Howard” is stripped of the superficial resemblance to his avian self (and by corollary, stupid duck-related puns) and becomes solely what the company ultimately regards him as: a cipher for the Marvel Universe all-star parade of cameos by characters who’ve proven profitable in live-action. Skottie Young’s story isn’t even poorly constructed; he’s apparently a good writer as evinced by I Hate Fairyland, of which surely no coincidence is another stranger-in-a-strange land tale. The issue opens with some corporate diarrhea about this particular story’s connection to the new “Secret Wars” / “Battleworld” “event” which presumably explains why Howard is still a private detective but now a human being in a city full of talking animals (“New Quack City” – is Marvel’s target audience supposed to get a blaxploitation movie reference from 1991?) This world also hosts talking animal versions of the Black Cat, Daredevil and the Kingpin, and Howard is entangled in a blackmail/murder frame-up between them. Because what are you going to do, make a Howard story about Howard? If Zdarsky didn’t, why should Young?

I hadn’t even realized until reading this comic that Howard’s recent reboot doesn’t allow him to smoke his beloved cigars anymore. Because CHILDREN might be reading these things, and it would jeopardize all of Marvel’s anti-tobacco advertising dollars. Yet in the opening scene he’s pounding down shots in a bar. Zap! Pow! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!

Jim Mahfood, who presumably emerged out of the same cryogenic stasis capsule from the 90s that released Jhonen Vasquez, does his Jim Mahfood-y thing on the art and does it well. Justin Stewart’s coloring compliments him perfectly. They’re actually really good choices for the funky 70s vibe the story is aiming towards.

Still, waaagh.

CREDITS

Howard the Human; writer, Skottie Young; artist, Jim Mahfood; colorist, Justin Stewart; letterer, Travis Lanham; editor, Jon Moisan; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Howard the Duck 5 (October 2015)

howard5Oh 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?”

(Laugh track)

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.

CREDITS

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.

Howard the Duck 29 (January 1979)

Howard the Duck #29

Gerber writes the script from a Mark Evanier plot.

It starts with Howard in Cleveland again, though it doesn’t look like Howard. Will Meugniot and Ricardo Villamonte’s art is strange; Howard’s reality is gone. It’s a comic strip. Meugniot’s got fine enough composition, but zero detail.

The story doesn’t have much Cleveland–Howard almost immediately ends up in Las Vegas where he’s going on television because some idiot Vegas lounge act thinks Howard’s a kid with a strange disease. You know, a disease where he looks like a duck.

How did this one not get turned into the movie? Maybe it did. I don’t think I’ve ever finished the movie.

Anyway… it’s not exactly bad. The art’s not good. Gerber’s dialogue is funny but detached. And the satire is pretty tepid. There’s no great diatribes, no passion, just easy targets.

It feels like a pitch for a TV show.

CREDITS

Help Stamp Out Ducks!; writers, Mark Evanier and Steve Gerber; penciller, Will Meugniot; inker, Ricardo Villamonte; colorist, Michele Wolfman; letterer, Joe Rosen; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Howard the Duck 27 (September 1978)

Howard the Duck #27

Howard is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore. So what does he do? He stops the Circus of Crime. Why? See the first sentence. Is he mad at the Circus of Crime? Not so much. Is he worried about his friends being hospitalized? Not so much. Does Howard finally admit he’s got deep feelings for that hairless female ape Beverly? Sort of.

Did Marvel just not let Gerber get crazy with Howard’s affections for Beverly? There’s got to be an explanation. Because this issue isn’t just strange–it’s an action comic, one with good art and good dialogue, but an unambitious action comic. And Gerber is usually all about the ambition for what an issue can do.

So when this one doesn’t do much, the mind has time to wonder what else is going on with the comic. Hence my questions.

Though troubled, it’s solid.

CREDITS

Circus Maximus; writer and editor, Steve Gerber; penciller, Gene Colan; inker, Klaus Janson; colorist, Phil Rachelson; letterer, Gaspar Saladino; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Howard the Duck 26 (July 1978)

Howard the Duck #26

Well… last things first. Winda gets assaulted and Gerber shucks it off page. After her startling–and entirely unnecessary–attack, Gerber just mentions her in Howard’s summing up of the issue’s misadventures.

Most of the comic involves him running around with the Circus of Crime and how he gets away from them. Gerber, Colan and Janson do a rather good human drama subplot too, which one of the Circus’s victims drunkenly reacting.

But then Gerber ties it all together and there’s not enough room to do it in scale so Colan is left to rush through it. And if anyone is going to do reaction shots instead of action shots, Colan should be the one to do them; he gets a lot of energy in them. It still feels like an unsteady issue. Gerber has enough story for two issues or at least one and a half.

It’s mostly good.

CREDITS

Repercussions…!; writer, Steve Gerber; penciller, Gene Colan; inker, Klaus Janson; colorist, Janice Cohen; letterer, Irving Watanabe; editors, Jim Shooter and Gerber; publisher, Marvel Comics.

Howard the Duck 25 (June 1978)

Howard the Duck #25

Well, Bev’s back this issue and… Gerber has her and her new husband getting it on. He plays it for laughs, starting with Bev complaining about being stuck in a square marriage like her mother’s and ending with the creatures of Bong’s island peeping on them.

So it’s kind of like if Sue married Doom to save Reed and then was happy about it. It’s weird.

Meanwhile, Howard’s other pals are back (after ten issues, which is way too long), and they’re hanging out in New York society.

The issue’s okay enough. Howard’s no longer the lead in his own book–not sure why Gerber thought Paul Same, failed artist, was better than Howard the Duck for a story protagonist; not much of Gerber’s moves this issue make sense.

With the Colan and Janson art, however it’s hard to get too upset. Like I said, it’s okay enough, just not special.

CREDITS

Getting Smooth!; writer and editor, Steve Gerber; penciller, Gene Colan; inker, Klaus Janson; colorist, Janice Cohen; letterer, Irving Watanabe; publisher, Marvel Comics.

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 23 (April 1978)

Howard the Duck #23

Leave it to Steve Gerber to do the impossible here. Wow. He takes this peculiar story arc (which ties back to Howard’s first appearance and ignores everything else in the series so far) and throws in these (intentionally) painfully obvious Star Wars references and then goes loose with it all.

The result is a good Spaceballs. The result is the perfect mix of subversive material, mainstream gags and storytelling intelligence. The comic’s called Howard the Duck and the duck’s been paddling around in a circle. Why’s Gerber do it? To make the return to him here work. It’s a strange thing–this issue is so tied to the previous one, it might have worked better as a single issue. Maybe double-size.

Because this comic–with gorgeous Mayerik art (wonderful depth)–is amazing. It’s “space humor” done better than anyone’s done it since or before. Even Dark Star.

It’s magnificent.

CREDITS

Star Waaugh; writer and editor, Steve Gerber; artist, Val Mayerik; colorist, Janice Cohen; letterer, Irving Watanabe; publisher, Marvel Comics.

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