Marvel has taken the last couple years to do high-profile first issues, and a lot of them. This mainly comes from rebooting series every couple years, but also because of the heightened popularity of Marvel Studios movies and television shows. What we have seen is the standard fair head in the direction of blockbuster events, while many titles are trying to carve out a niche for superheros and their fare for an audience who may not stay with them. We recently saw the inflated sales of Rocket Racoon doing much of this and promising an sophomoric take on a foul-mouthed Racoon, which many expected to be an all-ages book. Squirrel Girl came in to fill the all-ages void, and going after the young female demographic that DC has been nailing with books like Gotham Academy.
But this month Marvel went back to the well to give a slightly alt-hero with Howard the Duck, a “funny” character that has shown up with varying degrees of foul-mouthed goodness over the last forty years. The story behind Howard the Duck usually changes somewhat and does not matter particularly, but he is a transdimensional cosmic space galactic… he’s a duck. Anyway, he talks and smokes and in the 70s and 80s this played against type for many of the Disney duck characters and people found it really ironic and charming.
Today it actually makes sense to try and reinvent this character, possibly looking to bring him back to film(his previous incarnation from George Lucas is notoriously bad, which allows it to keep up appearances in a geek culture that exists purely to be ironic). Now that they have released the first issue and heavily publicized Chip Zdarsky’s involvement because of his success with a modern comic sex comedy with Sex Criminals, we all think that we are really in store for something.
The reality is that Howard the Duck is a humdrum failure at meeting any of these expectations. He is a private investigator, trying to draw on the Raymond Chandler type hard-boiled detectives of the noir era. People love when this is referenced in media, but the reality is that it has been done so many times in so many ways in the last twenty years that to see this done again doesn’t do much for us. Likewise, we have seen so many foul-mouthed, drunk animals in both comics and film over the years that this again feels tired. He begins to interact with Marvel characters in an effort to bring him into useful continuity and give him a forward character thrust, which was probably the right move since there is so little there with the character on his own, but this still feels forced and awkward. By the end, as he shifts to a transdimensional location, I don’t really care anymore about the how and what of the storyline.
The Marvel MAX reboot of Howard the Duck, though hit and miss, made a little more sense for the character. I am not fully convinced that the character has much more of a storytelling cache than being a campy throwback, but the expectation here was high. Chip Zdarsky’s involvement does add hope here, but with such tight constraints on content, he doesn’t have the ability to stretch at all.
I don’t want to be wholly negative here since it really is a capable book. The art is wonderful, it is as well written that can be expected, and there are a couple of structural jokes that play with the comics medium. This could easily go in a more teenage deadpool direction, or it could continue to be a little younger focused, just bringing fun and funny interacting with the expanding Marvel universe. There is nothing wrong with that, and it could just simply not click with my own personal tastes, but there is nothing particular unique or stand-out about it.
In a lot of ways, comics are way behind on what the trends and boundary-pushing of modern comedy. We have such a low number of options that books that if transferred to another medium would feel tired and stale are celebrated. Howard the Duck seems like another version of this, and we should expect more from “cutting edge” properties that this kind of recycled idea.