GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "H" page 2
 

cover by Brian BollandEssential Howard the Duck 2002 (SC TPB) 524 pages

Written by Steve Gerber. Pencils by Gene Colan, with Val Mayerik, John Brunner, Sal Buscema, John Buscema, Carmine Infantino. Inks by Steve Leiahola, Klaus Janson, and others.
black and white. Letters: various.

Reprinting: Howard the Duck #1-27, Annual #1, Marvel Treasury Edition #12 (which, in addition to original material, reprinted Howard's origin material from Fear #19 and Man-Thing #1, and the back up Howard tales from Giant-Size Man-Thing #4, 5, -- all of which are included in this collection) - 1975-1978

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

Howard the Duck was -- and in some ways remains -- a kind of atypical project for a mainstream, super hero focused company like Marvel to commission. Created by Steve Gerber, Howard basically takes a Disney-esque anthropomorphized fowl, and inserts him into the regular Marvel universe. He was introduced in the pages of a Man-Thing story -- a comic which Gerber used to play around with conventions -- and then was spun off into a couple of short back up tales before finally landing his own comic.

And the weirdness ensued.

Stated simply, Howard the Duck was a comedy series, a funny animal strip. Stated more specifically, it was satire -- of an increasingly broad canvased nature as early gags on comic book concepts of super foes and the like gave way to more penetrating digs at society in general. Stated even more specifically, it was a melange of comedy and drama, satire and pathos, a comic that strove to be, in some respects, more grounded and realistic than most comics -- even those not featuring talking water fowl.

Despite the Donald Duck/Daffy Duck nature of the hero, Howard was essentially a grown up, "mature readers" comic -- mature meaning themes, not cussing, sex and violence -- as Gerber, a kind of autre of the comic field, used his feathered avatar to exorcise a stew of simmering impulses. Howard was written to be a real person -- cynical, jaded, with just a hint of idealism, selfish yet sometimes compassionate, wittily caustic but not always likeable. Just how seriously Gerber -- and his readers -- took Howard as more than just a walking one-liner was an extended sequence in the middle of this run where Howard has a nervous breakdown, and it's not meant to be the set up for a punch line. Further evidence of how seriously Gerber took his hero -- is the fact that when it does veer into drama...it still works. 'Cause we take Howard seriously, too.

As mentioned, the comic veers all over, from spoofs of comic book cliches, to social and political satire, from one off stories, to rambling, multi issue sagas. From silly to serious and back again. Howard wanders the streets of America, collecting an assortment of companions, including sort of girl friend, Bev, and does everything from team up with the super heroes, the Defenders, to running for president!

Perhaps the chief weakness with Gerber's imagination is that, with the longer story arcs, the plots can seem to get away from him, as the story arcs kind of meanders about and then don't so much seem to build to satisfying climaxes, as much as they just kind of drift off into nothing as Gerber suddenly latches onto a new idea. I'm pretty sure there were a few spots where the story seems like it's setting something up for a later resolution...that then never comes, as characters are introduced, then never recur. In the comic/satire milieu of Howard, such lapses can be forgiven, but it was also a flaw I felt about some of Gerber's more "mainstream" super hero work. He had the smarts, the ambition, the talent...but not always the discipline.

Of course, given that Gerber left Marvel rather acrimoniously, it can always be argued maybe he just wasn't allowed to tie up the threads the way he intended.

In fact, perhaps as deference to Gerber's role as Howard's guiding force, this collection stops at Gerber's last full-credit issue -- as if to reprint more would be to taint the purity of the work. How much Gerber was involved in the next couple of issues, I'm not sure -- issue #29 credits Gerber as the scripter, but not the plotter, which might indicate Gerber was already washing his hands of the affair. But -- and this isn't relevant to this collection -- issue #29 is actually quite good, and easily reflective of Gerber's deeper, social satire themes. But the point is, Howard only continued another few issues after Gerber left and, even if the work was less impressive, it might've been nice to include those issues since it would at least wrap up a rather major sub-plot that is left dangling by Gerber's departure -- namely, the separation of Howard from his lady friend, Bev.

Early Howard appearances were illustrated by Val Mayerik and John Brunner, and over the series such mainstream figures as John Buscema and Carmine Infantino pinch hit an issue here and there -- all artists proving quite adept at adjusting to the surreal needs of drawing a talking duck amid realist humans. But the main artist on the series is Gene Colan -- an artist that I've developed quite a passion for over the years. His style, rich in moodiness and texture, already blending an almost uncanny realism with a slightly distorted caricaturishness, is well suited to the many shifting tones and moods Gerber's scripts demand.

And it's these shifting tones that also contribute to the success of this collection, as, unlike other comics, where you want what you paid for, you almost turn to the next story, and enjoy it, precisely because you aren't quite sure what you're going to get.

How much Howard was a personal product of Gerber is perhaps best reflected by the fact that, despite remaining a bit of a "name" property, Howard's appearances have been limited over the years. After the cancelation of his monthly comic, the character was relaunched in a black and white, "adult" themed magazine, largely written by Bill Mantlo, which ran nine issues. As well, there was the ill-fated -- and ill-conceived -- big budget motion picture.

Despite the bitter falling out between Marvel and Gerber, eventually Gerber reunited with his creation for a 2002 mini-series -- definitely for mature readers. But the reunion was short lived as a more recent Howard mini-series is without Gerber's participation.

Curiously, Howard the Duck occurred around the same time as Dave Sim's Cerebus the Aardvark, and the two, despite different milieus, weirdly echo each other. Both take the idea of a traditional talking animal character and place him amid humans, both ostensibly started out as seeming light weight comic book spoofs, but evince far greater ambition and depth than that, both in the targets of their satire, and their willingness to embrace more dramatic undercurrents. And both smack of being deeply personal projects of their creators.

Despite a hit and miss quality to some of the stories, and fact that sub-plots are left dangling by the end of this collection, Essential Howard the Duck is, by and large, a thoroughly engrossing, occasionally challenging, and frequently funny collection with, oddly enough, one of the more human heroes in comics.

Gerber would eventually return to his creation decades later for a 2002 mini-series...reviewed below.

Original cover price: $__ CDN./$14.95 USA.



cover by Fabry Howard the Duck 2002 (SC TPB) 138 pages

Written by Steve Gerber. Art by Phil Winslade, with Glenn Fabry.
Colours: Chris Chuckry. Letters: Richard Starkings. Editor: Stuart Moore.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Reprinting the six-issue 2002 mini-series

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for "Mature Readers"

Published by Marvel Comics

Steve Gerber created Howard the Duck back in the 1970s -- a critically acclaimed, off-beat mix of comedy (it was, after all, about a talking duck), caustic satire (of pop culture and society as a whole) and even human drama. Gerber took the property so much to heart that it led to him bitterly quitting Marvel when they insisted they owned the character, not he. Howard continued in other hands (mainly Bill Mantlo) for a while, but most would argue that without Gerber, Howard was lost. (Oh, and let's not mention the big budget movie -- really, let's NOT!)

But eventually Gerber and Marvel patched up some of their problems and Gerber returned to his creation after more than two decades with this mini-series for Marvel's mature readers imprint -- MAX.

And sometimes, I guess, you really can't go home again.

Not that this Howard series is a complete misfire -- there are some chuckles here and there -- but it doesn't work more than it does. A lot of its weaknesses are inherent in much of Gerber's earlier work -- it's just that those earlier works had strengths that eclipsed the flaws.

The story begins with Howard and his human girlfriend, Bev, eking out a living in Cleveland. Things seem to look up for the duo when Bev lands an impossibly cushy job at a new marketing firm...but then she begins to suspect something sinister is going on...

The series starts out okay -- but it starts to meander, and wobble, and stagger. Part of the problem is: where does satire and story find a middle ground? This isn't a sustained narrative, but an episodic series where ideas are introduced, and then left by the wayside. The whole thing with the sinister corporation (and Howard's old nemesis, Doctor Bong) is over and done with in an issue or two, never really building to anything. At times, the mini-series can almost seem like a "greatest hits" package, as Gerber trots out old ideas (Howard having a brief breakdown) but just breezes through them.

Gerber's original Howard comics (and even some of his more "serious" super hero comics) sometimes seemed to suffer from Gerber lacking the discipline to develop and follow through on plot ideas. Here there's no sense of drive to the story -- nor a whole lot of logic. You have Howard using a mystical weapon to defeat a monster in one scene...with no explanation for how he knew it was even a weapon! Or a scene where an entire studio of people are vaporized...except for the relevant characters -- again, with no explanation for why they happened to emerge unscathed.

Nitpicky comments in a comedy? Maybe. But surely narrative logic applies even in a satire.

As well, Gerber's satirical targets keep zigzagging from "legitimate" social commentary, self help gurus and the big daddy of all, religion...to kind of trivial spoofs of other comics or bad music. And the problem is, it just ain't that funny. I mean, in the sense of actually having funny lines or jokes. It might be funny if you're familiar with the targets, just to see the recognizable icons, but if you aren't, there's not as much to amuse (f'rinstance, you don't have to be familiar with disaster movies to get most of the jokes in "Airplane").

But as I worked my way through the issues, I think I realized what was fundamentally off.

The characters.

In my review of Essential Howard the Duck (collecting Gerber's 1970s work) I comment that Howard emerges as a true personality. But here, Gerber seems to have lost that focus. Part of that may be because Howard spends most of the series transmogrified into a talking mouse (I had initially thought that was just an absurdist joke -- doing a comic called Howard the Duck with a mouse protagonist -- but subsequently read the suggestion it was actually because Disney was beginning to get litigious) so he doesn't look like Howard. But it's deeper than that. Gerber is so focused on his satires that he's reduced Howard (and Bev) often to being props to act as segues between sequences. And when Howard does get to talk -- well, he can get a bit tedious. As Bev exasperates at one point, "You're even whinier as a mouse than you were as a duck!" Ironically, there are moments where Doctor Bong has a line or two where we get a sense his character is driving the action, not the other way around.

So Gerber seems to have sacrificed (however unconsciously) his character for the jokes...and then he seems to have sacrificed his jokes to philosophizing.

And therein lies another problem.

I kind of suspected if I had ever met Gerber, I wouldn't necessarily have liked him. His world view seems so steeped in narcissistic cynicism. But even if I might not fully agree with his point of view, I was still intrigued to see him express it, because his characters and stories could be interesting above and beyond the "message" (I mean, his Howard and Omega the Unknown are among my favourite reads!). But here the "message" seems to predominate...and frankly, a lot of this just comes across as a guy who isn't happy unless he's bitching about something. So Gerber just fires off random volleys at everyone and anyone, and it gets a bit wearying after a while.

And a lot of it seems contradictory, even hypocritical. At one point he seems to make an irate comment about the debasement of religion in pop culture...even as the mini-series itself bars no holds in its attempt to offend every religious denomination it can. He satires violent comics...even as this is a "mature readers" comic and Gerber himself once caused a minor furore years ago with his Void Indigo series. And so on. Heck, at one point Howard decries the "self-centredness and rampant incivility" of people...even as surely the definition of Howard's character is that he's self-centred and uncivil! And that's not even getting into a vague undercurrent of sexism, even misogyny. Or the profoundly creepy -- and heartbreaking -- fact that Gerber takes some not so subtle jabs at the anti-smoking movement...when just a few years later, Gerber, a smoker, would die prematurely of respiratory failure.

Towards the end, Gerber launches full tilt into religious satire in a way that'll probably offend everyone, as he isn't just satirizing religion...but the angels and deities themselves. Unfortunately, it all just leads into the same basic "revelations" that we've heard before -- free will, finding truth in yourself, etc. It's not that there's anything wrong with Gerber positing these views...but it's not like he's breaking any ground (or really offering anything to challenge Howard's world view -- meaning, for all the cosmic "wow"-ness of Howard meeting God, it's not like it really advances the character anywhere).

This was published as a "mature readers" comic, and so in addition to the sacrilegious aspects, and occasional bits of gore, there's plenty of cussing, raunchy material, and some nudity (Bev is probably one of the few mainstream comic book heroines to actually have nude scenes -- dating all the way back to one panel of the post-Gerber Howard the Duck black & white magazine). It's ironic that in my review of Essential Howard I say it was a mature readers comic, just without mature readers trappings. As such, there's almost a feeling that now that Gerber can indulge in swearing and nudity...it actually seems cheap.

The art is mainly by Phil Winslade, and he was probably a good choice, as his art is essentially quite realistic (and gritty) yet with just enough distortion to handle the comedy and satire. He follows in the footsteps of Gene Colan, an artist primarily associated with Howard's earlier comics, where the humour worked precisely because the weirdness was grounded in a realist art. Glenn Fabry pinch hits an issue, and does a decent job, also working in a straight forward, realist vein that's able to slip into comic exaggeration when needed.

Humour is a strange beast. Perhaps more than drama, it requires the audience to be in the right, receptive frame of mind. So in that sense, maybe I just wasn't in the right mood when I read these issues, and the fault lies with me as much as Gerber. Except that I managed to get through the whole of Essential Howard the Duck and even when I wasn't consciously in the "mood"...I would be once I was reading the comics.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $14.95 USA.


cover Howard the Duck: Media Duckling 2008 (SC TPB) 138 pages

Written by Ty Templeton. Pencils by Juan Bobillo. Inks by Marcelo Sosa.
Colours: Nestor Pereyra. Letters: Nate Piekos. Editor: Aubrey Sitterson.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Reprinting: the four issue 2007-2008 Howard the Duck mini-series, Howard the Duck #1 (1976), and a short story from the one-shot Civil War: Choosing Sides

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

Howard the Duck was created by Steve Gerber in the 1970s. And though the character's exploits have been chronicled by other writers (notably Bill Mantlo), most critics felt Howard was never really Howard without Gerber at the helm. Years later, Gerber returned to the character for a 2002 mini-series (reviewed above)...and, in my opinion, even Gerber was no longer able to connect with the muse that fuelled Howard's glory years.

Which brings us to "Media Duckling", the second major Howard project in less than a decade, once again without Gerber (Gerber having passed away after a long period of poor health). Written by Ty Templeton, a Jack-of-all-Trades in comics (having worked variously as a writer, an artist and an inker) but usually called in for comedic projects. Here he's paired with artist Juan Bobillo.

And though that previous Howard mini-series was a "Mature Readers" comic, this is more mainstream (as much as a comic about a duck and a human woman sharing a bed can be).

Ironically, I'd argue it's a better than Gerber's 2002 return...even as it still didn't quite work for me.

It's better because Templeton remains more focused, telling a less episodic story. And though the satirical barbs are many, ranging from media, celebrity, guns, civil rights, and others, Templeton seems less like he's just firing off random volleys. Templeton's also Canadian, so Canadians might recognize the "in joke" of a couple of radio personalities whose names are borrowed from the famous English Canadian comedy duo, Johnny Wayne & Frank Shuster. One might even argue the nature of some of the satire might be fuelled by a Canadian perspective.

The story has Howard being attacked by a couple of duck hunters. When video of Howard trouncing them is up-loaded to the internet, Howard becomes a national celebrity. The ensuing chaos has Howard (and his human girlfriend, Bev) being alternately lionized and vilified, ending up on trial, and discovering that the media is largely being manipulated by a branch of A.I.M. (a long time terrorist organization in Marvel Comics) and its sub-human master -- M.O.D.O.T.

A.I.M. is usually run by MODOK -- the Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing -- this branch is is run by MODOT -- Designed Only for Talking. The joke being even his underlings can quiver at the notion of being subjected to his incessant pontificating.

Since Howard is social-satire, he warrants up-dating to modern times, and his becoming an internet sensation is clever considering the character originated decades before there was an internet! Of course, stories like this treat him as an unknown novelty to the public...when he had had previous bouts with fame, including being a presidential candidate! (Instead of ignoring that, as this story does, that could be its own satire on the fleetingness of fame) And Howard also has one webbed foot in the more self-reflective square of being a comic book satire, so there are a few references/jokes on Marvel Comics lore, from A.I.M., to the She-Hulk guest starring (as his lawyer) and tying it in a bit to Marvel's "Civil War" arc (which itself was seen as a metaphor for the War on Terror).

But the sum never quite reaches ignition. Some of it is just a pacing problem. In the scene where we first meet the two would-be duck hunters, lamenting over their unsuccessful hunting trip, it's supposed to be an obvious set. But as such, it probably doesn't need two pages! Then Templeton skips the "punch line" scene when they first see Howard -- simply cutting to them in the back seat of Howard's cab, planning on shooting their driver. Obviously, this was a deliberate choice to skip that moment -- but I'm not sure it was the right choice.

Traditionally, the art chores on Howard comics have been handled by realist artists (with a tweaking of caricature). The idea being the gags are funnier, the surrealism more accentuated, the less blatantly comedic the visuals. Here, though, artist Juan Bobillo (and inker Marcello Sosa) employ a more cartoony style -- with mixed results. Of course, in this day and age, where plenty of mainstream super hero artists employ cartoony, or Manga inspired visuals, maybe Bobillo's art is the new "realism". Certainly limb proportions aren't distorted, and the environments are meticulously detailed (if occasionally inconsistent). And, of course, a comedic comic does need an artist with a comedic touch. Bobillo is also probably the first artist to draw Bev as unattractive. Oh, she's intended as a caricature of attractive, with exaggerated contours, but she's not actually attractive.

This also marks a major visual overhaul of Howard. I'd read somewhere that Marvel was under pressure from Disney to alter Howard since he looked like basically the cousin of Donald Duck. Assuming that's true, and not an apocryphal rumour, Howard has been revisualized -- his beak is smaller, his proportions altered, his wardrobe changed. The result, like everything else, is mixed. On one hand, if there was legal pressure then, hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. And altering Howard's wardrobe might be in line with keeping him relevant. But dropping the hat, the suit jacket, even the cigar, means there's less visual connection to the old Howard. Perhaps more distressing, the new Howard reminds me of...the Howard from the ill-fated 1984 motion picture! Coincidence? Or are modern comics so in awe of Hollywood they'd rather emulated a poorly received movie than no movie at all? Now how's that for a subject of media satire?

But it means Howard looks, in a way, less like a duck, now that his bodily proportions are closer to that of a little person.

I'm not sure what to say in reviewing this. It has a narrative focus, and its satirical targets are mainly legitimate and on target. And it does have some cute bits. But it just didn't strike me as that funny, even with scenes that I thought, intellectually, should've been funny. And maybe a problem is that Templeton forgot that the old Howard comics worked because they often had an undercurrent of drama, that not every line -- and every character -- was there to service a joke. (Although the fact that there's a thread through the story of Howard being conscious of his lack of acceptance in the world smacks of a Templeton taking a stab at some character undercurrents).

The TPB also reprints the first issue of Howard's original 1970s series (which first introduced Bev -- though Howard himself had appeared before) -- a reasonably amusing effort. As well as a short Howard tale from the one-shot Civil War: Choosing Sides.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: $__


cover Hum 2009 (SC GN) 254 pages

Written by Scott "Diablo" Marcano, Tom Lenoci. Illustrated by Renzo Podesta.

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Diablo Publishing

Hum is a science fiction graphic novel and it tries hard to live up to that designation. Not previously serialized, it's all original material that comes to about 250 pages! Nor is it part of a series, or the opening act in a larger, vaguely promised epic. It's a novel, with a beginning and end.

Set on a distant world colonized by humans, the backstory was that when humans first landed, an epidemic rendered the majority blind (affecting their genes so that their children were blind as well) which led to a tiered society of seeing masters and blind slaves. Then, some years before the start of this story, the slaves rebelled and in the ensuing chaos, the civilization fell apart. Now all that remains is a few pre-industrial villages of blind people, having created their own societies and culture, and roving bands of sighted scavengers -- many of whom are addicted to a hallucinatory drug.

Vol is a sighted man who tries to infiltrate a blind village but is captured, where he then encounters Lum, a blind woman he knew and loved before the revolution. And while Vol is a prisoner/guest of the village, and gradually grows more sympathetic to the former slaves, his brother Rom, leader of the most powerful pack of scavengers, plots how to invade and destroy the village.

Hum emerges as a genuine science fiction story, about characters and ideas, and extrapolating upon this foreign culture. The story deliberately starts out a bit confusing -- as science fiction novels often do -- as we are plunged into this strange milieu, but then gradually, like the skin of an onion, the backstory is peeled back, the mysteries explained. It also indulges in a bit of mysticism that can be a bit ill-explained, but doesn't derail the main narrative.

Nor does it seem as though it's main purpose is to be shopped to Hollywood for a movie adaptation as so many comics are these days. At least, if that is the case, the creators hold Hollywood to higher standards than many of us, because though there is action and danger, in general the story seems a bit too talky, too introspective to be something you would expect would light a fire under Hollywood producers who too often see "sci-fi" as just a coat of paint to lay over a horror flick or an action movie. Maybe in the 1970s, but not so much now.

The book is self-published -- at least, one assumes as it's put out by Diablo Publishing, and one of the authors is nicknamed "Diablo -- but this mostly avoids any sense of an amateur indulgence (other than a few, minor printing imperfections, where a few of the pages look slightly smudged). The writing is perfectly professional, the plotting reasonably well handled. The art by Renzo Podesta is rather stylized, but effectively so, not in a way that seems a cover for a lack of skill. And he makes nice use of thick shadows and light/dark contrast to work with, rather than inspite of, the mainly black & white scenes. The few colour sequences are reserved for the dream flashbacks/drug hallucination scenes. Admittedly, the advantage to the colour scenes is the images are a little clearer. The black and white panels, by virtue of Podesta's stylized figures, and sometimes detailed line work, can occasionally require a bit of focusing to figure out what you're looking at.

But for all that Hum emerges as a good work, it has its flaws.

Though I applaud the thickness of this well-named "graphic novel", it feels a bit padded. When you actually reflect back on what occurs -- it's amazing it took as many pages as it did to tell. The creators could easily have shortened it, not by dropping scenes or characters, but by simply tightening what's there. There seem a few too many scenes where the characters have an argument, then just seem to repeat themselves. Even a few times where the characters almost seem to contradict themselves in an effort to keep the scenes going.

You're reasonably interested in where it's headed, and the protagonists aren't disagreeable. But neither do they fully capture your loyalty. That may be a flaw with Podesta's art, that sometimes it's harder to identify with the characters than if it was a more straightforward, realist style. Or maybe it's a flaw with the writing, with Vos never really emerging as a strongly defined personality, often being acted upon, rather than pushing the story forward himself. Or maybe it's simply that a comic, lacking the extra introspection a novel can have, and lacking a charismatic actor who can imbue the role with personality the way a movie does, has to work twice as hard to create compelling heroes.

The end result is a good, if not incontestably great, book. Sometimes with the strengths and weaknesses residing in the same aspects. Podesta's art is moody and effective, creating a distinct visual feel to this story...even as one can imagine a different art style might have created a stronger emotional resonance.

But the book tells a story, dropping us into this alien culture, peopling it with different characters with different goals and perspectives, and tying it up by the end.

Cover price: $__

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