REVIEW: Howard the Duck MAX Series

Howard the Duck MAX tpb

Writer: Steve Gerber, Art: Phil Winslade, Glenn Fabry.

Marvel, 2001.

This six issue miniseries (collected into a single trade in 2002) was one of the first things to be published under the Marvel MAX imprint, which seems tailored both to writers like Steve Gerber and characters like Howard the Duck. The loosened restraints that come with being a MAX book allowed Gerber to expand beyond the already surreal concepts and plots that he developed in his “normal” Marvel work. It also gave him an opportunity to mix a little venom in his social criticism by allowing an embrace of adult themes, mainly nudity and profanity, since we seem to think graphic violence can deserve a pass these days, because we see it as far less dangerous to show an exploding head then a female’s nipple.

But I digress…

The series begins with Howard and Beverly living in a junkyard shack. Beverly lands a job at a marketing firm that is testing boy bands for their “arousal” factor on a group of gay men. It seems that the boy bands are not just being tested, but grown in cloning vats. When the firm is revealed to be run by Dr. Bong, who hired Beverly because he is still carrying a torch for her, conflict ensues and Howard is knocked into a vat of recombinant DNA protein when he comes to save Beverly.

Dr. Bong’s facility is burned to the ground. Beverly and Howard manage to escape, but Howard’s exposure to the genetic vat chemicals causes him to be molecularly unstable. He transforms into a mouse, then several other animals and combinations of animals, until finally he settles into a rodent form. After their home in the junkyard is destroyed by a homeland security raid looking for terrorists, Howard and Beverly wander the streets in search of shelter.

At this point the series parodies several other comics: Witchblade, House of Mystery, Transmetropolitan, Sandman, Preacher. There is also a scathing parody of Oprah Winfrey and her pal/self-hating male friend Dr. Phil. Here Gerber notes how Dr. Phil’s advice for women follows a selfish double standard that is closer to Ayn Rand than any possibly meaningful relationship. As much as I enjoy Oprah, at least as much as a married white man in his late 30s can enjoy her, the criticisms are spot on. Dr. Phil’s bad psychology is combated by a resurrected Sigmund Freud with a disintegrator beam-firing cigar. The cigar saves us from Oprah and Phil but blasts Howard to ashes.

Howard meets the Holy Trinity in a bar in the afterlife/Hell/existential purgatory loop he ends up in after being killed by Freud’s cigar. Howard and Yahweh (God the Father) have a rather didactic Brechtian conversation that allows Gerber a chance to denounce religious fundamentalism and declare that the universe was a creation of a “work for hire”. I read the “work for hire “angle at the end of the series as a commentary on the Howard the Duck character as a thing which Gerber does not own, yet has been poured full of his beliefs and observations. The deus ex machina, literally in this case, returns Howard back to his own life…as miserable as it may be. This ending may have be a bit more It’s a Wonderful Life than I would have liked, but seems an appropriate way to end the series. After the meditation on creators’ rights and work for hire with Yahweh, it seems only natural that a return to status quo would be the ending.

Phil Winslade provides pencils and inks except for issue 3, which was done by frequent cover artist Glenn Fabry. Winslade was a good pick because he balances the comic and comedic expressionism that suits Howard the Duck with a tight and defined slickness that makes the book figure into a Marvel style.

I am a huge fan of Steve Gerber’s work. This book was different than his 1970s and 1980s work on the original Howard the Duck, Man-Thing and Defenders. In those books he could move in some creatively unusual directions, but here the MAX imprint opportunities let him off the chain. This series also allowed him free rein to explore social commentary by thickening his ability to utilize parody to a level he hadn’t really been afforded on a mainstream stage before. Taking the limits away resulted in some powerful indictments of modern popular culture as well as the comics medium he worked in. That being said, one does have to recognize that this book is pure absurdist comedy, more Monty Python or Airplane! than traditional comedy storytelling.

Alas, Steve Gerber passed away in 2008.

Howard and Yahweh

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I have a master's degree in anthropology and do contract archaeology (in season) in the Midwest United States. The rest of the time I have a flunky job at a major retailer that keeps me in health insurance. I am married and have a cat named Odin.

3 thoughts on “REVIEW: Howard the Duck MAX Series”

  1. All very true. Great review. This never got as much attention as it deserved.

    The mouse thing: after the awful Howard movie tanked, Disney–which now owns Marvel–timidly caved in to Disney and allowed them to dictate his appearance because they claimed resemblance to Donald. This is how you ended up, for instance, with the orange pants. So Gerber just changed him to avoid having to deal with Disney at all. And he figured a mouse would be nicely different from a duck.

    I love Gerber.

    Now if DC would only release his PHANTOM ZONE miniseries with Gene Colan…

  2. “Dr. Bong’s facility is burned to the ground.”

    Note that the top of the Bellwether Building is in the shape of a Star of David. Foreshadowing — and that’s only the beginning.

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