This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on March 13, 2015.
Steve Murray, the writer and artist better known as Chip Zdarsky, is one of the most interesting men working in comics today. That’s not hyperbole. If you spend anytime at a convention or signing watching him interact with fans and fellow creators, it becomes clear that he’s operating on an entirely different level. This comes not only from the craftsmanship present in his work, but from the manner in which he has integrated himself into the work. From the letters column in Sex Criminals to interactions with Applebee’s on Facebook, Chip Zdarsky has been molded into a public persona comparable to that of Andy Kaufman. There is an unpredictable silliness on the surface that obscures the intelligence and wit just below the surface. It’s not a simple gag or an act; it’s a component of Murray’s art that enhances the comics he publishes.
Howard the Duck #1 is Zdarsky’s first major comics work on an intellectual property he does not own, but he brings the same enthusiasm and attitude to it that can be found in any of his other comics. His love for the property, and readiness to integrate it into himself has been apparent for months. At this January’s Image Expo, Zdarsky began his time on stage by announcing Howard the Duck, and following up with a series of waterfowl-centric Image titles that were shouted down by publisher Eric Stephenson. There is no mercenary motive apparent in the work or Zdarsky’s treatment of it. Howard the Duck brings the same personal charm that he has curated in his own creations like Sex Criminals and Monster Cops.
The source material in Howard the Duck is embraced with a pair of burly, open arms. Zdarsky doesn’t just like what he’s writing, he loves it. This is an opportunity to not only toy with one of the most offbeat characters in the Marvel universe, but to poke at all of the other wonderful creations that surround him. In Howard the Duck #1, Zdarsky opts to tackle one of the most popular superheroes ever: Spider-Man. His lampooning of the classic character comes across as being funny, but never cruel. It’s a chance to laugh at what both readers and Zdarsky love.
Zdarsky lays down a lot of jokes, and not all of them land. They don’t all need to though. There’s a gag in almost every panel, and they come in such quick succession that if one fails it doesn’t drag on the momentum of the story. It’s a performance similar to that of a great Mitch Hedburg show, in which the departed comedian could toss out a new punchline every fifteen seconds. Once you’re willing to accept Howard the Duck, you can roll through the story and enjoy each page based on its own merits.
All of Zdarsky’s charm and humor would fall flat without Joe Quinones’ cartooning though. The world that Howard constantly refers to not having never made is one brought to life in wonderfully animated action by Quinones and colorist Rico Renzi. Even in a construct as farfetched as a shared superhero universe, Howard stands out. Whether he’s fighting supervillains or simply walking down the street, his appearance draws attention both to himself and the incredulous circumstances that surround him. Quinones and Renzi play into this zaniness and turn up the volume on Howard’s world.
Everything about Quinones’ art is heightened, whether it is the appearance of a mysterious foe or the titular detective characters are all exaggerated to function best within the humor and action of the book. The design of an anthropomorphic duck would be cumbersome and lackluster if made too realistic. Quinones recognizes that to be true of all aspects of the comic though. In a world where anything is possible, realism is a loose guideline at best. He does not take any of his work so far as to make characters appear like caricatures though. Spider-Man, space aliens, and civilians all read like forms that could stride into a series like All-New X-Men or New Avengers (with some stylistic tweaking). Quinones isn’t mocking the universe, but allowing it the freedom and flexibility to work alongside Howard and Zdarsky’s humor.
Renzi’s colors, already lighting up Spider-Gwen in gorgeous neon displays, are a perfect fit for Howard the Duck. He adapts to Quinones much cleaner line work with a cleaner palette. Characters and settings are lit like an Adult Swim cartoon, popping on the page and accentuating the presence of key characters. Howard’s white plumage is a point of focus within every panel. Renzi is distinguishing himself as Marvel’s colorist of choice for titles that lie off the beaten path. Whether it’s a teen-pop drama or a self-aware farce, he lights up the angst and comedy in these pages perfectly.
The debut is a delightful romp through the Marvel Universe, but it raises the question as to whether Zdarsky and Quinones can maintain their momentum on tone alone. Both plot and characters in Howard the Duck #1 serve the screwball comedy first. It is very effective in a 20-page issue, and may continue to entertain given the quickly changing scenery and supporting cast. Yet this doesn’t read like a formula for long-term success. Without the ability to adapt or embrace the characters within this comedy, the charm of this issue may wear thin. That isn’t to say that it will, Zdarsky has helped to create one of the most compelling character dramas in comics today, and Quinones’ cartooning creates vibrant, lovable leads. If they rely on the same elements that make this issue such a resounding success though, then Howard the Duck’s readership will experience quickly diminishing returns.
Given the past successes of these creators, it’s easy to give Howard the Duck the benefit of the doubt. It’s a comic that shows the careful consideration of artist, colorist, and writer. Zdarsky may be unable to resist joking about every subject that pops up, but Howard the Duck #1 wasn’t written as a joke. It’s something that Steve Murray wants to land with readers, playing in the Marvel universe and bringing something new to fans of superhero comics. He and his collaborators have succeeded in this first issue. Howard the Duck #1 is something that Zdarsky, Quinones, and Renzi’s mommies will be proud of.