[NB: this bit of buffoonery was originally published to my now-defunct blog in August of 2005.]
I recently read Steve Gerber's Howard the Duck (in graphic novel form, volume 2, issues 1-6, published by Marvels' MAX line, from 2002). Okay, so I'm behind the times. Also, yes, Mike Sterling has had Howard-related posts three days running, including today. But I swear, I've been planning this post since before I saw Mike's. I don't copy him on purpose. It's not my fault he's genetically engineered to think three steps ahead of all the other geeks.
Okay, anyway, the graphic novel. As with highly-hyped books like 100 Bullets, I liked it, but I didn't quite understand the Sheer Adulation. I'm not kidding. One Amazon reviewer titled his review "As good as or better than Shakespeare... I'm serious." Hi, serious, I'm speechless. I would venture to say that this reviewer has not actually read any Shakespeare. But, soft! methinks I do digress too much, as Lucius says in Titus Andronicus (Act V, scene iii).
That's not saying HTD Mark MAX is bad, at all. This book was witty and fun to read, all right, but not by any stretch one of the best comics I've ever read, or even one of the best parodies. As a kid, I read Gerber's original Howard work, and remember not thinking much of it one way or another. In fact, all I really remember is Howard meeting Man-Thing and sweating profusely as the latter slowly reaches out to touch the tip of Howard's bill, and Howard muttering, "No fear... not even a smidgen..." or something like that. It's been decades. Now that I'm all grown up, sort of, and have a broader understanding of the world, I think I can identify with Gerber's take on the modern world.
Some spoilers may follow. The book starts off with a bang, with a great and possibly original riff on boy bands, as Howard and his girl Bev meet up with their old enemy Dr. Bong. The boys are grown in vats, the songs and names prepackaged to appeal to gay men and teen girls --- but Gerber doesn't just scoff at the Backstreet Boys. That would be Mad Magazine material. Instead, he presents the vat-grown band members as victims, and suggests that their fans are, too. It's the promoters who are programming young consumers to lap up this kind of prefabricated pop so they will later lap up prefabricated politics --- an interesting take, you'll admit.
It's too bad, then, that Gerber drops that social criticism as Howard and Bev flee for their lives, only to encounter a parody of Witchblade (which I'm only vaguely familiar with) and end up at a flop house that is home to parodies of a raft of DC's Vertigo characters. Gerber's writing remains witty, but his point is missing. So what if Neil Gaiman's Endless show up with Seven Dwarf-type names, or if our heroes meet all but undisguised versions of DC's mature line (see if you can guess who they are by the hilarious names: Hellboozer, Anthrax Mystery Theater, Splatter Gomorrah --- oh, such cutting wit)? Now this really is Mad Magazine material. Oh yeah, and Howard is a mouse for most of it, for some reason. If there's a point to his new shape, I missed it. Gerber doesn't use the transformation to any effect, choosing instead to ignore it.
It's fortunate, then, that Gerber puts things back together at the end, with a parody of Oprah and Dr. Phil (with a guest shot by a Preacher parody) that is, once again, a rather more weighty commentary on how we live our lives. And the capper, in which Howard has a nice conversation with God about creation, sin, religion and responsibility, is as good a bit of philosophizing as I've seen in a comic book, outside of maybe Gaiman and Mike Carey. Oh, and check out the two-page splash panel immediately following the "Creator's Rights" title page, where Howard finds himself in Hell --- there in the background, two devil-Rastas are sodomizing a devil-cop (obviously a vengeful nod to the Abner Louima abuse case), but the stick has clearly been erased. I guess Gerber's too MAX for Marvel's MAX line. Has anyone else noticed this? Knowing me, everyone already has.
So, yes, I found this graphic novel a hit or miss affair --- witty writing with some interesting things to say about religion and politics --- but with some slow stretches that don't live up to the hype. A recommended read, I guess, but I'm glad I got it at a discount.