Howard the Duck vol. 2 TPB (Marvel MAX) – Steve Gerber

2 out of 5

I rediscovered comics sometime nearbouts 2001, and moved to collecting – that is, not just buying books off the new rack, but seeking out back issues – probably sometime in 2002.  I think Nevada was my first Steve Gerber book, drawn in by the Phil Winslade art, and then was intrigued enough to be further intrigued by the factoid that this was the dude who created Howard the Duck, which I think was more interesting to me as having been a Marvel comic book in the 70s, when I only knew it as an 80s movie.  Finding most of the run in single issues for cheap, I was in awe of how intact the absurdities and juxtaposingly optimistic cynicism I found appealing in Nevada were in HTD, and a Steve Gerber fan was born.

I do think I’d seen Howard the Duck redux – that is, volume 2, the Marvel MAX version – on the racks during my regular shopping era, and when I’d gotten the Gerber bug, it still wasn’t hard to track down.  I certainly hadn’t read all of the originals by that point, or even a significant amount of Steve’s stuff, but I read volume 2 and was… disappointed.  It seemed to take on rather obvious parody targets – boy bands; big-boobed comic heroines; shock value comics; Oprah – and then play up to the “adult” implications of the MAX publication, in none too clever ways.  But I kinda sheepishly feigned appreciation of the book, because Gerber was my new boy and I wasn’t going to let this deter that building fervor.

Some years later, after having caught up on most the Howard Gerber lifecycle, from the character’s first run and then subsequent Steve-penned appearances in She-Hulk and the like, I checked back in with HTD vol. 2 and was… disappointed, with much the same overall opinion.

Some time after that, having collected and read almost all of the Steve’s major runs on various books, I did another check.  Same result.

More time brings us to now.  I own, and have read, almost every single bit of published comic work of Steve’s, excepting some newspaper strips, UK editions of things, and some random indie comix bits and bobs, and obviously whatever I’m not aware of that’s not clearly documented somewheres.  I’ve recently reread HTD from start to finish.  It’s time again.

I’m disappointed again.  But: I have the benefit of a whole bunch more comic reading experience from across the years, plus all that targeted Steve-reading experience, to somewhat temper that disappointment.

HTD volume 2 is, essentially, what I summarized above: it’s a six issues series of parodies of easy targets, filtered through their interactions with Howard and, still by his side, Beverly.  (And their dog.)  The duo, as ever, are living on the fringes: free “room and board” at the dump at which Howard works, while Bev tries to find random jobs.  Things properly kick off when Bev lands one such job, at a firm that turns out to be not only literally manufacturing boy bands (crafting design-by-committee boy band templates from spare protein), but also is run by a certain Dr. Bong, still lusting after Bev after all these years; still hating Howard.  This opening issue is actually quite a bit of fun, despite the obvious and already, at that point, semi-dated focus: this modern version of the duck and the chick advance on the relationship they’d had way back when in the sense that they’re more resigned to each other – which has turned in to an odd friendship of acceptance – versus being any form of a typical relationship, and bringing back in Dr. Bong suggests a true continuation of a story.  Steve also twists and turns on the boy band thing, mocking more the business behind it than the stars themselves.  The end of the issue also introduces something that’s rather divisive (personally) for the remainder of the series – Howard, via some science of Dr. Bong, is mutated into a mouse – but, like some other aspects of this series, I get what Steve was doing and I think it works from afar.

Alas, almost everything between here and the final issue doesn’t.  Issues 3 – 5 are just flat out potshots at different topics: Witchblade (‘Doucheblade’…), Preacher, a lot of Vertigo comics (‘Hellboozer,’ ‘Splatter Gomorrah’ as a riff on Spider Jerusalem…), Oprah (‘Iprah’)…  There’s some inspiration here and there, when Steve follows his random muses, but more often than not these are oft-traveled takes on the concepts, and come across rather old man ranty.  Plus, it seems like a missed opportunity to have not had guest artist Glenn Fabry illustrate the Preacher parody.

It’s only in the sixth issue that it becomes a bit clearer what Steve was aiming for.

Book six, titled – very amusingly – Creator’s Rights – has Howard meeting God, and getting the lowdown on the universe.  Is Howard’s crappy life predestined?  What’s the point of it all?  Steve brilliantly gets to offer up a take on these questions, which brings the tone of Howard to when it was at its best: wholly questioning, wholly combative, but allowing for promise as well.  The ping-ponging focus of the series can be said to be an overall reaction to commercialism over the years – something Howard has always been concerned with – and perhaps especially how it plays in to, y’know, creator’s rights as well, which was certainly an important topic for Steve the Writer.  Thus, even the joke of Howard being a mouse throughout the series is sort of indicative of the potential loss of identity in the media business (setting aside the possible jab at Disney, as well), and then there’s the irony of lambasting books for trying to be EXTREME while appearing under the Marvel MAX banner.

This is a lot to take on, and, frankly, the series doesn’t handle it well, even with this final issue allowing for a reread of the series’ intentions.  The first Howard series did obvious parodies also – and also in the name of larger commentaries – but they were more in league with the first issue here, in which character and story actually play a part, versus the latter ones.  I mean, sure, HTD volume 1 had those types of tales also, but not all smushed together like this.

Which, despite whatever overall commentary could be said to have been attempted, I do also think Steve was in a rush to jam as much “Howard” as he could into the book, which, on a surface level translates to a duck being negative and cracking wise on the day’s topics.  Without the humanistic grounding that really defined the title, though, it’s pretty empty stuff.  And ultimately disappointing.

The TPB collection includes no extras, but is priced appropriately.