So, one fallacy at the heart of corporate comics publishing is the belief that above all things, it’s the trademark that makes the sale. If Amazing Spider-Man starts selling well due to a change in the creative team, its nothing to do with that creative team, there must just be a random spark of interest in Spidey, and the best way to capitalise on this is to produce spin-off mini-series and one shots. Also not featuring any work by the creative team who get the book going up in sales in the first place, mind.
As any of you paying attention over the last couple of decades may have noticed, this never, ever works. Batman will always sell a certain amount, but stick Jim Lee & Jeph Loeb on the book and watch those pre-orders quadruple. Ditto Morrison & Quitely on New X-Men, JMS & John Romita Jr on Amazing Spider-Man. You get the idea.
Then watch as somebody in corporate decides that they know best what sells the book. They start pissing in the water bottle to make it taste better or worse, find someone who isn’t good on the same wavelength to start emulating the superficial aspects of the popular thing. Watchmen, to the low-minded, is a comic with nine panel grid pages featuring graphic, brutal violence and super-heroes having problems in real life, so Green Lantern gets a DUI and starts beating up homophobes with his magic power ring to copy that. League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, using that theory, is a comic that people enjoy because there’s a lot of what Will Elder called ‘Chicken Fat’ background detail.
Readers feel a bit better about themselves with LoeG because there’s a lot of in-jokes and references to be found if you examine the panels, and we all pat ourselves on the back when we recognise Steptoe & Son or Tharg, so Edge Of Spider-Verse is built around fangasming when we spot Spider-Prime in the background. Only the surface ideas are taken, under the mistaken belief that those elements are what’s appealing to the public. So it doesn’t matter if Grant Morrison leaves New X-Men for whatever reasons, because you can throw around the words ‘Quantum Physics’ a bit, continue the love affair between Scott & Emma, get in someone who draws a bit like Frank Quitely and even bring back Xorn as the readers liked him. J. H. Williams III leaves Batwoman over DC’s decision to remove the lesbian wedding angle at the 11th hour, but hire someone sympathetic to gay matters to write the book and an artist who can ‘do’ a Williams III riff if you squint a bit and the machine continues to produce the sausages.
‘Its the trademark, not the creator.’
Which brings us to what I’ve come to call ‘Pogo Larsen Syndrome’. A situation where neither side can look particularly good.
For younger readers, Pogo was a very beloved cartoon by Walt Kelly which started life in 1941 as a strip for Dell’s Animal Comics. It was a beautiful mish-mash of word play and political satire. The middle ground between George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Berke Breathed’s Bloom County, if you like. Probably (sadly) most famous with comic fans today as being parodied in issue 32 of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, (A story drawn by Shawn McManus simply titled ‘Pog’.) but at the time of publication, Pogo was huge. A quality cartoon strip running in over 500 newspapers across the world that was also part of the political conversation of the day. In a better world, Kelly’s writing would have seen him ranked alongside Mark Twain or Jonathan Swift as a top-notch satirist.
But then time happened, and on October 18, 1973, Walt Kelly passed away. There’s more to this story, but the long and short of it is that the Kelly Family and associates continued to produce the strip under the title ‘Walt Kelly’s Pogo’.
To be blunt, it was not received with the same love. I have friends in this business who start to get angry at the mere mention of the non Walt Pogo strips. It looked the same, some of Walt’s inflections had been recreated, but without Kelly’s constant innovation and ability to react to the news as it happened, it was little more than a museum piece rather than a vital part of the global conversation and the true heir was and remains, to me at least, Berke Breathed’s Bloom County. Which proves to me that you can put a hose on a dog’s nose, but it still ain’t an elephant.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a fan reaction that I can only, rather unfairly. call ‘Larsen Syndrome’ . Erik Larsen is the writer and artist of The Savage Dragon, an Image book I love because of the love of comics that exudes from every issue Larsen creates. Larsen is also the only original member of the Image Seven to simply get on with creating his own comic and see it through without jumping onto other projects or starting a toy line. He just wanted to create an ongoing Savage Dragon comic and issue 206 ships in May, making him the only real contender to Dave Sim’s record set for most issues of a comic created by one person published independently on a monthly basis. (Cerebus finished on issue 300. ) Also, he drew an awesome Venom. And that’s important to me.
But Man, did Erik get a couple of unfortunate gigs in the 90s.
First, through burn out and having a million guest stars thrown at him on a bi-weekly schedule, Todd McFarlane, maybe one of the five most popular and influential artists to draw Amazing Spider-Man, quit drawing Amazing Spider-Man. Marvel teased Todd was up to something else but as far as Marvel fans were concerned, the sheer outrage of Colleen Doran infusing her fill-in on ASM with Ultra Girliness and THEN Marvel failing to find a way to chain Todd The God to the drawing desk of Spidey forever more. SOME poor sucker was going to be the whipping boy for these awful sins.
Enter: New Amazing Spider-Man artist Erik Larsen, who was vilified in the Fan Press at the time for simply….not being Todd McFarlane. Nothing wrong with his anatomy, his composition, his perspective, he just wasn’t Todd The God. I think the readership only really forgave him for his NotToddness when Marvel announced they were publishing a new, adjective-less Spider-Man drawn (YAAAY!!!) and written (Um….Okay?) by Todd McFarlane. Which Todd stayed on for 15 issues. And then left. To be replaced by…..Oh, you can work it out….
Now, neither state of mind is very objective. It’s obviously massively cynical (and usually a mistake.) for any publisher to think they can replace the talent who create the content that makes the book connect with the fans with anyone who can ape their style and get the same results. On the other hand, the fandom hatred of anything involving change can be so short-sighted as to be staggering, whether it be the almost feral reaction to the idea that Thor could be a woman, Bill Sienkiewicz’s experimenting with various art styles on the pages of Moon Knight or New Mutants and being drubbed in the pages of Comic Buyers Guide for it, Grant Morrison being ‘All weird and pretentious on “Doom Patrol” and I don’t get it so its bad.’, the ‘How Dare Peter Parker Not Be Spider-Man!’mob, the downright hilarious reaction to Milligan & Allred’s run on X-Force (common decency prevents me from taking photographs of the letters pages of those books, but they’re up there with the infamous ‘Man Of Action’ letter from Punisher 19 for sheer ‘Written With A Crayon Using Feet’ rage .) or any other number of things that turned out to be a good idea despite the crowing of people who hadn’t actually read all of the comics so didn’t really have an informed opinion to offer yet.
Which brings us, finally to All-New Hawkeye 1 and Howard The Duck 1
There’s no way of saying this that isn’t going to sound bitter, as the previous volume of Hawkeye was one of my favourite Marvel comics of the last decade but All New Hawkeye 1 is out on the shelves way, way too soon. Aja & Fraction’s run hasn’t actually finished yet at time of my writing this, so there’s no way of not comparing the two series. I totally understand that Hawkeye is now a commodity due to the character’s newfound popularity and Marvel must be wanting to get a regular dose of Clint action out there, but a wiser choice of action might have been to have him pop in a series of cameos across various books for a few months to slowly build up the anticipation for ANH 1, which could probably have waited until after the dust settles with Secret Wars before publication.
In this debut issue, we catch up with Clint and Katie, attacking a Hydra outpost in modern times juxtaposed with memories of Clint’s childhood in a flashback sequence telling us a bit more about what motivated Clint to run off to the circus in the first place
As it stands…All New Hawkeye is…okay. Its alright. There are some nice touches, like the painted artwork used for Clint’s flashback sequences, and the modern stuff looks enough like Aja’s art on a superficial level that it won’t be too jarring for people who wanted more of the same but on a more regular schedule. Some panels seem designed with the hope of being reposted on Tumblr as an exercise in coolness rather than reading as part of a flowing story. For me, though, I’m with Gil Kane, the good is the enemy of the better, and the last thing my house and budget need is to start on one more competently produced super-hero comic. I’ll hold out hope that it develops its own unique style, voice and direction as it starts to dig its own path away from satisfying the readers who just wanted something that looked like Fraction & Aja’s book on a more frequent basis.
And then there’s Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones on Howard The Duck.
Okay, I’ll be straight with you. In my head, anyone who isn’t Steve Gerber writing Howard The Duck is tantamount to comics blasphemy to me. Like anyone else doing Calvin & Hobbes, or Gavin Rossdale fronting Nirvana, or The Manic Street Preachers replacing Richey Edwards with Shane Richie. It could be done, sure, but the levels of karmic damage such a thing incur would have set me off like the Westboro Baptist Church at Boy George’s funeral.
But then I saw Chip Zdarsky was writing it, and that stopped me in my tracks. I have a total crush on Chip, or his online persona at least. His ongoing romance with Appleby’s, the contribution to the letters page of my beloved Sex Criminals and his comic ‘Prison Funnies‘ gave me pause to think.
I decided, rather than going full on mental about it, to that the adventures of Chip’s Howard were actually the further adventures of the clone released into the Marvel Universe from Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck 1. That way, Gerber’s legacy would remain untarnished and a whole new bunch of fun could be garnered as long as nobody tried to contradict what Gerber had said since he’s not around to argue back anymore.
So, with that in mind, I popped it open and…..
Its actually properly funny. The story concerns Clo-Ward, as I’m dubbing him, taking on a case in his ‘job’ as a private detective to retrieve some stolen jewellery and running afowl of some of Marvel’s best and brightest (I’m not going to spoil the full cast, but I will say Chip writes the funniest Spider-Man since Rick Remender’s take on the wall crawler over on my favourite crossover event ever, Axis.) There’s an obvious question raised in the first issue that I can’t wait to see the resolution to, a script chock-loaded with brilliant gags, a ton of respectful nods to the history of the title, some beautiful art by Joe Quinones whose perfect grasp of design and body language feed back into the story, a new companion and a full mark out cliff-hanger setting up a concept everybody would have wanted if only they’d thought of it.
What makes a Howard The Duck 1 as revolutionary in 2015 as it was in 1976 is that Chip (I keep using his first name as if I know him, but the truth is my spellcheck is throwing up at his surname. Which is fair enough. It took me 6 years to teach it ‘Skrull’.) isn’t letting the shadow of Gerber’s work influence what he writes here. The character works in context of the story being written, rather than a preconception dragging HTD into being a period piece. This isn’t a karaoke misanthropy act but a Duck angry at the world WE live in, now. That’s worth far more than maybe Marvel realises, and I hope when Chip Z (hmm, got away with that one without the dreaded red underscore of Doom.) has said what he has to say with Howard, the book isn’t assimilated into Interchangeable Marvel Output Quota For March Fulfilled ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ….
Truly, Howard The Duck 1 by Chip & Joe is the Fifty Shades Of Grey to the Twilight that was Steve Gerber’s Howard The Duck 1.
(Thanks to John Lees for being another comics fan who doesn’t go to bed at any reasonable hour and provided feedback and suggestions on this review. The 1st collection of his series ‘And Then Emily Was Gone’, drawn by the astonishing Iain Laurie is out now to buy on amazon.com or if you can’t wait to read what I called one of the best books of 2014, pick it up on comixology now.)
I suppose this is the price you pay for having your standards formed by The Comics Journal as a teenager.
Understand that I was a proper Marvel Zombie as a kid. As much as I spent time as a kid in the library reading RAW, Mr A, Valerian, The Incal, A1, Love & Rockets and Tintin, I was also that kid who would bunk off Double P.E on a Wednesday afternoon to walk three miles from school to my closest comic shop to spend a week’s worth of saved lunch monies and bus fares so I could pick up your Spider-Man 1, your Generation X 1, even…..Wizard. I would not eat for two days so I could buy Spawn 1. Yup. Really.
And I wish I could remember exactly how it happened, but I ended up with a few copies of The Comics Journal. I suspect it may have been the issue with the sexy Michael Kaluta Shadow/Starstruck that caught my interest, knowing me as a 14-year-old. Sitting down and reading those magazines in the park one summer’s day was as transformative an experience as getting hold of the Anna Nicole Smith issue of Playboy, watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Rocky Horror Picture Show back to back when I was 13 or discovering Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo’ as a student.
What The Journal did for me as a teenager, due mainly to the reviews and Gary Groth’s editorials, was make me realise that I was wasting my money on rubbish. Not only that, but by going in to a comic shop and funding the status quo of polybagged comics, crossover events, fake death comics and the like, I was helping to ensure that not only would modern comics be rubbish, but that they would stay rubbish. If I wanted to read good Spider-Man comics, I’d have to wait until someone I liked was working on it to buy it, rather than picking it up to see exactly what the deal was with Peter’s parents being alive*. It took a bit of hammering home for this delirious and often drunk teenager, but I finally realised, by way of Howard The Duck, that the person writing the comic was more important than the character featured in said comic and far more important than who was publishing it.
Howard The Duck was one of those comics that constantly featured in creator lists of ‘Things they liked.’ I’ve always got into things via word of mouth and recommendations by people I respect. When everyone I liked kept saying ‘Howard The Duck’, I gave in, I’d try to see what everyone was on about.
Except I screwed up and picked up the Playduck covered Howard The Duck magazine instead. I read it, thought it was alright and figured it was just one of those things where one influential person says they liked a thing, and everyone wants to seem cool and hip, so they say they like it as well. See: Peepshow (The comic AND The TV Show)
Students of Howard will know the mistake I made here. Howard The Duck magazine featured work by lots of Marvel regulars from the 70’s but not the person who made Howard who he is, Steve Gerber. A few years down the line, I managed to find the Essential Howard The Duck and understand why everyone I like liked the work so much. It;s a tour de force of social commentary, sensitivity, satire on the times and observations on modern times. Most of the points that Steve made about the world in the 70’s still hold up today.
That, and Beverly is somewhat #hubbah.
The thing is, for me, that having read the history of Marvel and DC, it’s quite difficult not to see their pantheon of characters as essentially a portfolio of legal manipulation and corporate swindling. I’d LIKE to sit down and just enjoy a run of Spider-Man or Superman, but I keep hearing the names ‘Steve Ditko’ or ‘Jerry Siegel’ in the back of my head as I work through the comics. Most of my friends are fairly aware of my stance on this, and probably find it slightly difficult to recommend things to me, as when they try to mention a particularly good run of The X-Men to me, I’m more than likely going to bring up the state of Dave Cockrum. Mainly because I think we shouldn’t really be allowed to forget that this stuff happened for the sake of being able to get one more movie added to the pile of Marvel Film output.
They do know I love Howard The Duck, though. So when I saw that he was going to featured in Marvel’s ‘Original Sin’, I tried to think of ways to tell them I probably wasn’t going to be interested.
How do I put this?….
MOST of Marvel & DC’s characters are just action figures that anyone can pick up, write and draw a fairly inoffensive story with and put down again., in my opinion They’ve been through so many convolutions and such that they’re fairly far removed from their original concept and background. There’s really not much that’s personal about them that couldn’t be replicated by any number of hacks needing to knock a mini=series to pad out this year’s crossover.
There are some works that almost seem to slip through the cracks, though. Some books that are so much the idiosyncracies of the creative team that one dreads the idea of anyone taking over the title in much the same way that you wouldn’t want anyone but Bill Watterson to work on Calvin & Hobbes, or have to read any Pogo that isn’t Walt Kelly. James Robinson’s Starman springs rapidly to mind, as does J.H Williams III run on Batwoman, Gillen & McKelvie’s Young Avengers (Although in my continuity, their Nov-Arr is a Skrull and The REAL Marvel Boy, i.e., the one Grant Morrison wrote, is still in Space Prison.) or Giffen and DeMatteis on Justice League.
Yeah, Marvel own the copyright to Howard The Duck. If they want, they can publish Ultimate Howard The Duck,, they can give him the Infinity Gauntlet, have Doctor Bong take over his body in Superior Howard, he can make terrible decisions but then reinstall his own mind with a back up brain USB or whatever, they CAN do all that. I realise This business is geared so that it really doesn’t want to recognise the fact that the people who work on the comics have more to do with their success than the concepts they’re publishing, otherwise ANYONE could be writing Batman next month and it’d still sell, right? Except that’s clearly not true and corporate response to, say, JMS writing a best-selling Spider-Man comic is obviously ‘Well, Spider-Man is back in vogue because the Four Moons Of Atlantis must be in alignment. Let’s knock out 5 Spidey mini-series ,that certainly won’t dilute the brand quality by not being as good at all.’
And, sure, the same can be done with Howard. Marvel own the copyright, but not the soul. It’s like Rob Liefeld doing Bone or literally anyone else writing besides Dave Sim writing Cerebus for all it matters to me, it won’t be Steve Gerber writing it. Some things transcend copyright law. And when you literally wait for a man to die before reprinting his defining work, you lose any say in the ethical bit of the argument.
Anyway, it isn’t the REAL Howard. Howard and Beverly ran away to the Image Universe in Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck 1 quite a few years ago. More on that here.