Easter eggs and in-jokes are like catnip for nerds. Even if it’s something small, the jolt of recognition from seeing something hidden in plain sight for super-fans is always fun and a great excuse to feel obnoxiously proud of knowing something other people don’t. Howard The Duck #1 (Marvel) manages to walk the fine line between a deep dive aimed at hardcore fans and an easy-to-understand first look for people who only know the character because of his on-screen exposure. Even skipping over the intro to go straight to the art, it’s easy to jump right in; the first page does a great job of introducing the longer story arc as well as Howard’s rather particular attitude. Before Howard himself is even on the page, it’s clear just how surly and misanthropic the character is.
Joe Quinones’ art is easily the star of the first couple pages with the help of Rico Renzi’s colors, which have a hint of the neon from his work on Spider-Gwen #1. Quinones, who also worked on Captain Marvel, has a crisp, recognizable style that underscores his talent with facial expressions and diverse body types. Jennifer “She-Hulk” Walters’ face in particular is astonishing: Exasperation oozes off the page and she looks seconds away from doing physical violence to Howard. With the end of Charles Soule’s She-Hulk it’s nice to see her again. But her reaction to the duck’s mere existence is perhaps the best demonstration of where Howard The Duck wears unevenly.
Writer Chip Zdarsky is best known for contributing art and high jinks to Sex Criminals with Matt Fraction, and as anyone who follows him online can attest, the man’s a riot. But what works on social media can feel overbearing all packed into a book. Howard’s quips are funny, as are the avalanche of duck jokes that hit many of the pages. But there’s so many of them that there’s no time for the reader to really recover between. And while Howard at first might remind readers of the gruff but ultimately gentle Eddie Valiant from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, so far there hasn’t been more than the hint of a thought of redeeming behavior on Howard’s part. Two different women tell him to stop calling them “doll,” and Jennifer herself says “…so we can leave this duck in the 1960s.” In the context of nonstop jokes, it’s annoying.
The biggest laugh in the book is probably a shot taken at Spider-Man at the end of the issue, not because it’s the funniest line but because it has enough room to breathe. Zdarsky is hilarious, Quinones and Renzi are really talented, and the book has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, it’s suffering from “event syndrome”—without knowing how long the run will be, and linking in to other titles as well as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s just a bit too much going on at once. If anybody can pull this off, though, it’s these three. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Lauren Monger gives her group of anthropomorphic twentysomething characters—regularly seen in her ongoing online comic, Terrible Terrible Terrible—to a first print outing in Sleepwalking (Space Face). It’s a new, original story, not reproduced, collected material of the webcomic, and an easy access point for anyone unfamiliar to Monger’s previous narratives. The Terrible Terrible Terrible comics revolve around central character Clementine and her group of friends and acquaintances, struggling to find jobs after college, struggling to find meaning and purpose, negotiating growing up and responsibility while still young and simply wanting to do whatever you want to do. Monger’s grungy painted watercolors and largely brown, gray, and cream color palette help provide the work with a distinct appeal. Those comics have a covert implication of social ramifications: the treatment of the young and unemployed, the failure of systems, and potential racial subtexts (some artists use the color of animals to show differentiation, while others use anthropomorphism as a leveler). Sleepwalking, however, is a change of pace.
The plot opens with Clementine and her friends smoking and strumming guitar in their flat and making up stupid songs before leaving to attend a music festival. As they complain about the music, Clementine is recognized by an old friend who invites them to leave and instead go to a party at which he and his band will be playing. It’s pretty much swapping one scene for the other: people who don’ t really want to be there, people with nothing better to do, the inebriated and the stoned, those who are really into it all. Monger’s good enough that the dialogue reads true and strong, and the underlying relationships and doubts and fears are present and hinted at. The banal nothingness of it is stark. Monger’s aware of this, and her characters are, too—“But what do you want, really?” she asks. This is as real a situation as any. How many times have you found yourself right here, in a room you don’t really want to be in, because of your friends/pressure/no better alternative, holding a drink and making awkward conversation?
It seems like a very clichéd scenario: a group of “slacker” kids going to listen to bands. And while it’s easy to dismissively label and box things, clichés exist because they’re true. Truth is not monolithic, but multi-faceted, so while Monger’s characters are in a situation familiar to many, presented familiarly, they are no less people, their situations no less present or real. If you step on a Lego piece, you don’t feel it less because it’s happened to thousands of people the world around. You can, however, probably grow tired hearing about the experience. What was fascinating and gripping the first time is less so on the 10th retelling. But it’s the unspoken emotion, the absence of the unarticulated, that makes Sleepwalking’s ragtag bunch of characters empathetic in their unsureness and directionless; that never stops feeling current or personal to some extent. [Zainab Akhtar]
The ’60s were over, both figuratively and literally, when the first issue of Guy Colwell’s Inner City Romance shipped from Last Gasp in 1972. More than 40 years later, the series has been lovingly collected by Fantagraphics. While it remains something of an anomaly in the chronology of underground comix, the book remains significant in a way that few of its peers in the movement can still boast.
Colwell served 17 months in prison for refusing to serve in Vietnam. By the time he was released, prison had indelibly changed his outlook, both politically and artistically. Returning to the Bay Area, he saw firsthand the fallout of the ’60s as the former hippies splintered into camps of drug abusers and political radicals. Whereas he had spent the years before prison as an abstract painter, heavily influenced by psychedelic drugs, he emerged from lock-up dedicated to using his artwork for political ends. Inner City Romance was primarily a political book, and although it occasionally traded in psychedelia, it was more concerned with radical activism and sex (not always in that order). The graphic sex, while often gratuitous, ensured that the book sold well enough to give the series’ more militant story elements access to a far larger audience.
Colwell’s stories are often concerned with prison and its aftermath. The first story deals explicitly with men newly released from prison, offered the choice either to return to a life of criminal debauchery—basically, becoming pimps and pushers—or to dedicate their lives to reform and resistance. This is the choice offered to Colwell’s characters throughout the book: become part of the solution or remain part of the problem. People live and die on the streets every day fighting for rights and basic dignity, and anyone working to exploit their fellows is definitely part of the problem.
There’s earnestness to the work that underscores its timeliness. Innocent black citizens are still victims of police assassination, and lawful political dissent is still met with disproportionate force by representatives of the powers that be (still in Colwell’s time unironically labeled “The Man”). Sex can transport, or it can represent a new kind of prison. Colwell’s work avoids many of the pitfalls into which ’60s radicalism fell unfortunate victim: There is little in the way of the misogyny that often characterized peak-era underground comix or that, during the ’70s, forced feminism to split from other seemingly like-minded civil rights groups.
Colwell’s even-handedness allows him unique access to the inner lives of ex-cons and radicals both black and white. His treatment of race was such that he was often, sight unseen, believed to be black. A few anachronisms remain: Some instances of ’70s dialect seem regrettable in hindsight, and a story late in the volume featuring a graphic rape is something that would never see print today, and could perhaps have been left uncollected. But a few bum notes can’t detract from the overall effect. With a remarkably concise body of work Colwell established himself as one of the most essential cartoonists of his era, and deserves a wider readership today. [Tim O’Neil]
College-aged women are a demographic woefully underserved in the world of monthly comics, so when a new title caters to this group, it immediately stands out. Giant Days #1 (BOOM!) is technically a continuation of a three-issue series by Bad Machinery’s John Allison, but readers need no prior knowledge to dive into this story of three female friends in their first year at university. The first page provides the basic information needed to introduce newcomers to naive Daisy Wooton, dramatic Esther De Groot, and pragmatic Susan Ptolemy, quickly establishing each young woman’s personality before charging in the personal drama.
The story has a playful charm, never taking itself too seriously, but also setting the stakes very high for the characters. Seeing a familiar face from the past on campus or getting caught watching embarrassing online videos are events fraught with importance for these young women, because that’s what college is like. The small things are giant when you’re living on your own for the first time, and Allison’s script does great work capturing the significance of these moments in this specific moment in time. The most pressing of these plots is Susan’s mysterious past relationship with McGraw, the mustachioed new transfer student that she greets with rageful disdain. The exaggerated version of their history that she tells Daisy and Esther is probably far from the truth, and the final page suggests that McGraw’s version will tell a very different tale.
Allison typically writes and illustrates his own work, but he partners with artist Lissa Treiman and colorist Whitney Cogar for this six-issue miniseries. An animator for Disney who has worked as a storyboard artist on blockbuster films like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Big Hero 6, Treiman tackles her first major comic-book work with Giant Days, and her day job experience makes her an exceptional collaborator for Allison. She brings a huge range of expression to characters that look their age, particularly in terms of wardrobe and grooming (the facial hair on her men will be very familiar for anyone who’s been on a college campus in the last five years), and she renders the university environment in crisp detail, from the outdoor common grounds to the dorm rooms that reflect the characters’ individual styles.
Treiman’s animation skills come in handy for a surprisingly action-packed scene in the cafeteria, wherein Esther’s “drama field” sets off a chain reaction that starts with a man bending over to pick up her student ID and ends with McGraw combing gravy out of his hair. The moment-to-moment storytelling is incredibly clear, and the artist knows how to create a strong sense of movement on the page through her panel composition. After two larger panels showing the inciting action of someone tripping over the bent-over man and falling over a table, Treiman zooms out with a long, thin panel that shows the multiple ensuing reactions, then closes in again when the gravy hits the hair. Treiman’s crisp artwork is a perfect fit for Allison’s story, and hopefully she’ll stick around the comics industry after these six issues are through. [Oliver Sava]