Howard the Duck, v. 1: Duck Hunt
Collects: Howard the Duck #1-6, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #6 (2016)
Released: May 2016 (Marvel)
Format: 160 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785199380
What is this?: Howard looks for a way home but becomes a Living Nexus instead, with the entire cosmic pantheon searching for him; Howard and Squirrel Girl team up to defeat an insane cosplayer.
The culprits: Writer Chip Zdarsky, with help from Ryan North on both #6s, and penciler Joe Quinones, with help from Veronica Fish (#2) and Erica Henderson (Squirrel Girl #6)
Whenever I saw Howard the Duck was going to be revived, I had to remind myself that Steve Gerber’s not walking through that writing-room door. (Mostly because the creator of Howard the Duck has been dead since 2008.) Given that Howard has had received mixed reviews when not written by Gerber, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this new series.
It’s a relief to say that Howard the Duck, v. 1: Duck Hunt is very funny and well worth a read. It isn’t Gerber-esque — little is — but it’s still funny.
(The first Howard the Duck collection from this run, the confusingly numbered Howard the Duck, v. 0: What the Duck, is also funny, but I didn’t get around to reviewing it; in any event, I think Duck Hunt is superior.)
While this Howard lacks the satiric edge of Gerber’s writing, writer Chip Zdarsky’s work is still very funny, mixing Marvel jokes, pop culture references, and outstanding comic timing. Duck Hunt does follow the Gerber template of putting Howard into absurd situations and letting him react to them. In Duck Hunt, for instance, Howard just wants to return to Duckworld but has to deal with female clones of himself and Rocket Raccoon, all the people who try to capture him after he becomes a Living Nexus, a wannabe herald of Galactus, a woman who decides to hunt anthropomorphic animals because she wants to hunt the most dangerous game, and anthropomorphic animals are a legal gray area …
Howard handles all of it with his trademark puzzlement, disdain, and fear. His tattoo artist sidekick, Tara Tam, provides a layman’s view of his adventures, which — when it comes down to it — isn’t all that different from Howard’s point of view, but she is allowed to be confused in situations Howard finds tediously complicated.
Duck Hunt ranges through the Marvel Universe, from its cosmic bourns to the swamps around Citrusville, Fla., and New York. Zdarsky pulls in numerous characters, and I find it interesting which ones mesh with Howard’s comic ethos: the cosmic entities, strangely, as well as Dr. Strange (an old Defenders friend), Squirrel Girl, and the Wizard and Titania. The contrast between the most powerful of Marvel’s pantheon of villains and heroes (Galactus, Silver Surfer, and the Collector) and a tired duck never fails to be absurd, and Howard always works best as a character fighting against villains who aren’t the strongest adversaries, like the Wizard. (Usually, though, Howard villains are the seriously incompetent, like Dr. Bong.)
Not everyone Zdarsky puts into Duck Hunt works, though. I didn’t care for the appearance of the Guardians of the Galaxy, who seem shoehorned into the plot; they aren’t very funny, and I’m not sold on their lineup (Thing, Shadowcat, and Flash Thompson-Venom on the same team?). Aunt May’s continued presence feels like a continuity error, but I’m willing to overlook it.
The two-part Squirrel Girl / Howard story that ends the book is a natural crossover. Squirrel Girl writer Ryan North and Zdarsky work flawlessly together, even to the point of writing dialogues in Squirrel Girl’s trademark page-bottom asides. The two issues are hilarious, with Squirrel Girl’s optimism and hypercompetence complementing Howard’s pessimism and … well, not quite competence. The villain’s concept — a cosplaying villain who has decided hunting sentient anthropomorphic characters, like Rocket Raccoon, Howard, and Beast, is her life’s goal — is terrific, although I question the wisdom of making her a southern belle named Shannon Sugarbaker. (I don’t need implied crossovers between the Marvel Universe and Designing Women.) I also have trouble with Kraven’s characterization in the crossover; Kraven is easily cowed by Shannon in the story, and even though he regains some of his élan in the final issue, it still feels weird.
On the other hand, the crossover features Kraven’s airbrushed Kra-Van, and its presence forgives a lot of sins.
Artist Joe Quinones didn’t create the Kra-Van — that was Squirrel Girl artist Erica Henderson — but he is a solid complement for Zdarsky’s writing. Drawing Howard the Duck calls for a wide range; the book has both action and humor, and Howard himself needs a lot of subtlety of expression, which isn’t easy on a duck’s face. Quinones succeeds admirably, though. He has a tight line and he doesn’t exaggerate much, which I think is to the title’s advantage: the situations Howard gets into are absurd enough without the need for cartoon-y elements trying to ratchet up the silliness. Howard always has to be able to have a claim to keeping his dignity, and putting him in a story that turns him into a caricature robs him of that. The relatively realistic art makes Quinones sort of the book’s straight man, a role that is often underappreciated. Still, Quinones slips his own in-jokes into the story; for instance, Quinones places Soos from Gravity Falls into the book as an ignorant yokel. (Quinones changes the question mark on Soos’s shirt to an exclamation mark, but it’s definitely him.)
That being said, Duck Hunt is not all wacky adventures and jokes — and I mean that in a good way. I was genuinely moved by issue #2, drawn by guest artist Veronica Fish, which tells the life story of Linda (Howard’s female clone) and Shocket (Rocket’s female clone). It’s a tribute to Fish’s and Zdarsky’s skills that they could make me care about the distaff knockoffs of two second-tier characters within the space of a single issue, but it happens, and it doesn’t feel cheap. I never need to see the two again, but they work in this story.
As a side note, Duck Hunt does not have the three back-up Howard / Gwenpool stories that originally ran in Howard the Duck #1-3. As much as I might have appreciated the entirety of #1-3 being reprinted, I understand the space crunch the book was under: the book is seven issues long, and the Gwenpool stories would have added another issue’s worth of pages. But if they reduced the number of issues included, they would have had to remove the entire Howard / Squirrel Girl crossover. The lead Howard stories were full-length, anyway, so it’s not like readers are getting cheated.
On the other hand, cutting the book short after #5 would have left a heck of a cliffhanger … although one that wouldn’t be picked up again until the fourth story of the next trade. I suppose sometimes perfect choices are impossible.
Anyway, I wholeheartedly recommend Howard the Duck to everyone, even those who don’t like the character. This Howard, although funny, is nothing like Gerber’s acerbic takes on ‘70s culture; this book is just trying to be funny — and succeeding.
Rating: (4.5 of 5)