Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Graphic Novel Review: "Essential Howard the Duck"

The Essential Howard The Duck by Steve Gerber, art by Gene Colan, Frank Brunner, et al.

When Steve Gerber created the character of Howard the Duck in the seventies, it was as a throw-away character in a horror comic he was writing at the time. But Howard--a walking, talking, cigar-smoking, sarcastic duck, ripped from his own dimension and transplanted to an Earth full of "hairless apes" instead of his native fowl--proved to be so popular that he graduated to his own series, most of which is reprinted in this collection. (Much later, Howard made an ill-conceived jump to film, in one of the biggest box-office bombs in history.)

While Howard's first appearances had him fighting characters like a vampire cow and a turnip from outer space, the comic quickly became a venue for Gerber's acerbic commentary, and Howard just as quickly became Gerber's alter-ego, a smart-ass duck "trapped in a world he never made." Okay, sure, the book stars a talking duck, but this is some sharp, angry, sacred-cow-ripping satire. The comic takes on everything from religion to the oil industry, from mental health to moral censorship. Howard runs for President in 1976, and Gerber's commentary seems like it's about Bush-Gore instead of 25 years ago. He even gets away with more then than he could have today: somehow a modern story about a Presidential candidate (albeit a duck) running from assassins doesn't seem like it would make it in the politically correct 21st Century. With that exception, the topics seem just as relevant now as they were in the seventies (although Howard's human companion, Beverly Switzler, sometimes seems the product of a less enlightened time).

Most of this collection is drawn by the excellent Gene Colan, whose sweeping and fluid line art is probably best known from his other seventies title, "The Tomb of Dracula." While several other artists also contributed to the book, it's the Gerber-Colan team that really brings Howard to life. Howard's a duck, but he's a real person, pushed to the point of nervous breakdown by a world he does not understand.

Gerber left the "Howard the Duck" comic after 27 issues, in a legal dispute with Marvel Comics over the ownership of the character. This book collects Gerber's entire run on the character (with the exception of a newspaper comic strip that ran at the same time), over 500 pages of hilarious, ahead-of-its time satire, reprinted in affordable black and white. Unfortunately, as much as Gerber's wit and intelligence make this an easy book to recommend, the circumstances of his departure make a recommendation harder. He left with many, many plot threads unresolved, and this collection simply ends with the characters' lives up in the air and no hint of what was to come next. If there is ever an "Essential Howard the Duck, Volume 2," it would reprint non-Gerber work, and maybe we would find out what happened to the characters, but that doesn't help us now. After reading 500 pages, Howard is a real character whose travails in a very difficult world demand some closure, and the reader deserves a conclusion, but this book simply ends with a "next issue" blurb and we have no idea what really does come next.

Today, 20-some-odd years later, Gerber himself is working on a new "HTD" series for Marvel after resolving some of his differences, but he has said that any "Howard" story he did not write is not his Howard the Duck (case in point, the misguided movie version, which starred a duck named Howard, but not the "real" Howard the Duck). It's a testament to the writer that we care about Howard so much by the end of this book, but still, a conclusion would have been nice.

Two and a half stars.

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