Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Howard The Duck #8. Written by Chip Zdarsky (Kaptara, Sex Criminals) with art by Joe Quinones (FF, Black Canary & Zatanna: Bloodspell), inks by Joe Rivera (Daredevil, The Valiant) with Quinones, and colors by Quinones with Jordan Gibson (Original Sins, Prime-8’s), this issue’s reunion of Howard and his former companion Bev goes deep with the emotional storytelling without sacrificing humor or action. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Current superhero comics could learn a lot from Howard The Duck.
Seriously. Stop laughing.
As the rest of Marvel’s lineup gets swallowed up in Civil War II nonsense and DC goes through Rebirth labor pains, this week’s Howard The Duck #8 delivers a quietly powerful story rooted in meaningful character relationships without skimping on actually funny jokes and crisp, dynamic fights. The issue smoothly incorporates continuity to bring immense gravity to the reunion of Howard and Beverly Switzler, Howard’s partner during Steve Gerber’s original Howard The Duck series, who hasn’t made any appearances over the course of writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Joe Quinones’ two-volume run. It’s a damn good superhero comic despite the main character‘s reluctance to be labeled as superhuman (because he’s not; he’s a talking duck from another dimension), and it’s especially interesting to look at this issue in comparison to the DC Rebirth one-shots that have been coming out this month, which are trying to integrate past concepts into what was The New 52 DC universe.
Howard The Duck #8 is doing similar work as it brings Bev back into Howard’s world, but it manages to avoid the traps that many of the DC Rebirth one-shots are falling into. The first is the exposition trap, and instead of using burdensome narration to catch readers up on Howard and Bev’s history, Zdarsky and Quinones provide that background information through the visuals and the dialogue. The first page provides glimpses of four different Howard and Bev adventures from the past in silent widescreen panels, and Quinones (along with co-inker Joe Rivera and co-colorist Jordan Gibson) does exceptional work making each one evoke a specific emotion in a single dramatic image. The retro coloring further indicates how far back this relationship goes, so when the reader flips the page to find present-day Howard and Bev standing before each other, they have a strong impression of what these characters used to mean to each other.
That emphasis on building a strong emotional foundation for the characters is another thing that the Rebirth one-shots are struggling with, and while some of the books are starting to build some promising character dynamics—Duke and Bruce in Batman, Ollie and Dinah in Green Arrow, the Bat-family in Detective Comics—no Rebirth book has the emotional depth of Howard The Duck #8. Unlike the Rebirth books, this issue of Howard The Duck isn’t necessarily intended to be somebody’s first, but any newcomers that pick it up will find a satisfying, self-contained story about two people who desperately want to be together, but are pushed apart by the circumstances surrounding them. Events from the past caused that split, and the creative team successfully makes continuity feed character, using the characters’ past hopes and fears to drive their present conflict.
Spatial relationships play an important role in reinforcing the emotional distance separating Howard and Bev, and Joe Quinones keeps the two characters apart for the majority of their conversation. The very first panel of present-day Howard and Bev highlights the space between them with a side shot of Howard standing about 10 feet away from the front of Bev’s new home in the Maine countryside, and Bev is standing on the porch with her arms crossed. Her body language implies that she’s guarding herself but also holding herself back, and she constantly returns to that arms-crossed position over the course of the issue.
That’s because Bev doesn’t want to admit why she left Howard, and it takes considerable needling for her to finally say what she needs to say (or at least part of what she needs to say). Bev wants a normal, quiet life for herself, and it’s not possible for her to have that with Howard. At first she thought it was their partnership that made all the craziness come to them, so she cut ties in hopes that the two of them could achieve a sense of normalcy on their own. She unfolds her arms before she drops this bomb on Howard, and the blocking on this revelatory page is an exquisite example of how Quinones uses physical distance to enhance the emotional storytelling.
The first panel is a silhouetted side shot of Bev standing far from Howard, her head down, hands at her sides, and back turned to Howard, who has one hand out, pleading to his old friend. This image establishes tension in both that space between the characters and the contrast of their silhouetted forms against the salmon background, and that tension gradually dissipates as Bev opens her heart to Howard in the proceeding panels. The color returns to them when Bev turns around to face Howard, and by the end of the page she’s moved closer to Howard than she’s been the entire issue, crouching down to his level when she tells him that she’ll be there for him when he’s ready for a quieter life.
Bev stands back up for the final panel where she talks about how Howard needs to find out why he’s such a danger magnet, setting up the page turn that reveals the sudden appearance of The Iron Punisher, a sentient Sentinel that wants to kill all superhumans. This sequence is the first time Howard and Bev make physical contact in the issue, and it’s only because Howard has to shove Bev out of the way of The Iron Punisher’s blast. He climbs up Bev’s body when they’re dangling off the edge of a cliff and then helps her up off the ledge, and it’s telling that their moments of closest proximity come when they get swept up in the superhero shenanigans that Bev has been trying to avoid.
Bev wants a normal life, but maybe she and Howard aren’t meant for a normal life, especially given the reveal at the end of the issue that Bev gained superpowers during one of their past adventures. During a study break from the fifth edition of Dan Flybert’s Diagnosing And Treating Birds (a book modeled on Zdarsky’s variant for his very first issue of Howard The Duck), Bev steps outside, looks to the sky, and briefly floats on air before coming back down to tell herself, “Just be normal.” It adds a brand new dimension to the scenes that preceded it, and the issue is even more rewarding on a second read with full knowledge of what Bev is keeping from her former best friend.
Gerber’s Howard The Duck run was one of the most clever, provocative, and imaginative superhero comics of its time, and while the newest Howard The Duck series is a different bird with a more contemporary storytelling sensibility, it hasn’t lost sight of the qualities that made Gerber’s run so remarkable. Never has that been more apparent than in this week’s Howard The Duck #8, and not just because Bev is back. Rather, the issue channels the spirit of Gerber’s work by adhering to this classic Gerber quote: “Life’s most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view.” Zdarsky’s script for this issue fluctuates between moments of poignant personal reflection and spectacular superhero madness, and the latter ultimately works to intensify the former as the narrative becomes about Howard’s inability to escape the deadly superhero stupidity that won’t stop following him.
It might sound like Howard The Duck is about to go down an overly existential road, but the ending is a reminder that the book isn’t planning on losing any of the zaniness that has defined most of this run. After an exhausting reunion with Bev, Howard wakes up in his office to find his newest client: Lea Thompson, who played Bev in the notorious 1986 Howard The Duck movie. She needs Howard’s help to find herself, and it’s easily one of the strangest cliffhangers recently attempted by a comic book. The final page hits especially hard after all the feels in the rest of the issue, and it’s a refreshing burst of humor that gives the book a big boost of momentum as it heads into a three-issue arc starring Thompson. There’s still plenty of silliness in store for Howard and friends, but this week’s issue plants seeds that promise even more character drama down the line.