Writer: Steve Gerber
Quality: 3.8 out of 5
Importance: 0 out of 5
Recommended Reading For: Fans of experimental comics. Lovers of parody and possibly James Joyce. Anyone who has seen only the awful, awful movie.
Before someone stumbles across this review of The Essential Howard the Duck and decides to raze my blog in the name of blasphemy, I’d like to clarify that my “Importance” ranking refers to the relevance this title has to the current Marvel universe and my suggested reading order. In the case of Howard the Duck, his character has absolutely no connection to the current state of Marvel (at least that I’m aware of). As you will see, though, this does not mean I think this run of comics is without relevance itself. Now, if you instead take issue with my quality rating, that I can justify without as much of a side-step…
Howard the Duck has long been a running joke in my family. My pops, a staunch original-comics-only purist, refers to Howard as “a low point in Marvel’s history.” Through the blessed bliss of ignorance, this claim doesn’t seem like all that much of a stretch. I mean, Marvel has some pretty cool, strong, traditional superheroes. Captain America, Spider-Man, Thor: all strong, tough embodiments of morals and courage in the face of adversity. A talking duck named Howard? You’re kidding, right?
Of course, that’s kind of the point. Anyone who doesn’t head into Howard knowing that – or at least anyone who can’t figure it out pretty quickly – is going to hate The Essential Howard the Duck. What makes Howard the Duck such a beloved cult classic is that throughout the series, writer Steve Gerber creates a world of almost pure parody. At times the parody is scathing, at times it is humorous, and more often that not it is both; but regardless of the intent The Essential Howard the Duck is just about always poking fun at something. You’re not meant to read it like other comic books.
I’m not a comic book historian by any means, but it seems that Gerber was one of the first writers really willing to exploit he inherent silliness of the comic book genre. In my book, this sort of ambition is to be commended. We see it used brilliantly in comic books like Deadpool and Warren Ellis’ Nextwave, so it’s hard not to thank the forefathers.
As a writer, Gerber is able to do some very interesting things with language that I’ve rarely seen matched in other comics. For example, during Howard’s descent into madness (seemingly), Gerber experiments with near-Joycean style stream-of-consciousness. He assaults the reader with a slew of crazy, bewildering, disconnected-yet-attached thoughts. Given that many literary professors might instinctively reduce comic books to the lowest form of art, this is quite a feat on Gerber’s part.
Even more impressively, Gerber devotes an entire issue of The Essential Howard the Duck to a self-referential writer’s manifesto titled the “Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing.” This issue is a stone-cold classic for anyone interested in either innovative comic book techniques, or just the process of comic book creation itself. That single piece of work is easily one of my five favorite single, stand-alone issues.
For those of you unfamiliar with Howard, though, all of this might seem a bit moot. Eventually we have to answer the question: Is the talking duck interesting?
It’s here that I waiver a bit. As a concept, a displaced Howard, trapped in an alternate dimension of hairless apes (“a world he never made!”) is ripe with all sorts of social commentary. My problem with Howard is simply that the storyline he’s involved in aren’t always that interesting. Gerber has his moments, but even parody and social commentary has to be able to fall back on the basics of an entertaining plotline. And Howard rarely, if ever, manages a story that really demands your attention.
In the end, this is really all you need to know about Howard. Gerber’s writing and humor can be very entertaining, but it’s also unfortunately disposable. The Essential Howard the Duck is a fun, worthwhile read, but it’s one you can essentially pick up at any time and not feel the urge to continue reading more of Howard for a while. In short, it’s bubble gum parody: the laughs aren’t huge, the stories aren’t gripping, and Howard himself just isn’t that interesting. Gerber’s triumph, though, is that he comes very, very close. With a talking Duck as your protagonist, you could do a lot worse.