People who follow this column religiously (are misallocating their time, and also) may remember that I spent a good year and a half or so stalking Marvel’s Howard the Duck Omnibus like it was wild game. By the time I found it for a price I could pay without having to sell my plasma, it was already long out of print. (Is it just me, or does it seem lately as if Omnibeaux somehow go out of print before they’re released?) By the time I got it, the book had long ago stopped being something I was sort of interested in checking out and had become a symbolic totem for all frustration I had ever experienced. When it landed on my doorstep, I did a victory lap around the porch, bought a case of Red Bull, and cleared my calendar for the remainder of the week.
I was naïve.
As it turns out, the amount of time I spent stalking the book is going to be nothing compared to the amount of time it’s taking me to finish it. 790 pages of Howard the Duck is one thing in the abstract and something else entirely when it is in your house warping a couple of floorboards. It weighs more than the table it’s sitting on. After my sight goes, my son will drive over to the home every Sunday and read to me from this book.
This is not to say it’s a slog, by any means. There’s just something about the Omnibus format that makes you feel like you should be reading it on its own podium and taking notes. I feel like I have to study every page, and soon that is going to be a problem. I’m approaching the issues that Steve Gerber didn’t write.
As I’ve written before, Howard’s life behind the scenes has been as interesting as his series ever was. Steve Gerber created the character as a joke, but Howard would evolve into a kind of avatar for his author; he became the signature character Gerber was identified by. When Marvel fired him, Gerber sued to them for custody of Howard; in every way that mattered, the duck was his.
When the gavel came down, of course, Marvel Comics were the more-or-less proud owners of Howard the Duck. Steve Gerber created him, Steve Gerber wrote every story he was ever in… and then suddenly one day he was thinking someone else's thoughts. And as much as I feel compelled to study every page of the Omnibus, it almost seems like I shouldn’t read those issues. It feels weirdly wrong somehow. Every time I try it, as I did with the recent Back in Quack one-shot, I find myself taken out of the moment by self-conscious analysis: “This issue’s tone is pretty consistent with Gerber’s. He probably wouldn’t hate this. Right? Isn’t this the kind of thing he’d have been doing himself? Maybe?”
Mostly, I find myself thinking, “Hey: hands off the duck.”
As much as these comics may be corporate goods that have been passed from writer to writer for decades, there are characters that become certain writers’ “property,” especially if those characters were their creation in the first place. I can still remember opening Allan Heinberg’s Young Avengers #1, seeing Jessica Jones, and recoiling. “No. No no no no, you give her back to Bendis and say you’re sorry. Hands off.” It would be like if I started talking and Conor’s voice came out of my mouth. Even if I were saying all the right things, grumbling about nothing and wedging in Deadpool jokes where none are called for, it would be jarring.
When Batwoman #0 came out the other week, I left it on the stands until three dozen people sang its praises because a part of me thought, “Nope! That’s Greg Rucka’s.” I know it’s not rational. Hell, Rucka moved on of his own free will. It still takes a conscious effort to get past that impulse. My shields went up the same way when Neil Gaiman’s Death appeared in Paul Cornell’s Action Comics, and Gaiman all but appeared on a Vatican balcony to give that book his blessing. Joss Whedon himself took over Runaways, but I still read most of his run with my arms crossed: “Not Vaughany enough. Too deVaughaned.”
Joss Whedon, by the way, is about to get Gerbered by Warner Bros. They’re making a Buffy “reimagining” without him. There are people rolling their eyes at me right now about the Jessica Jones thing who heard that Buffy news and had three strokes at the same time. Everything’s relative.
It doesn’t have to be characters the writer created, either. Sometimes, an author makes an indelible mark on a series. Even though most of the cast has been kicking around the B-list for decades, if it were announced tomorrow that someone else would be taking over writing duties from Peter David on X-Factor I would politely tip my cap and show myself out. I don’t even think it would matter who the new writer was. After David left his run on The Incredible Hulk, I did not peer between the covers of that comic again for years and years.
Then again, consider the alternative. One day, Peter David will tire of X-Factor, and I admit it would be a shame if we never saw Madrox again after he quit. The world would be a poorer place if Stan Lee had said, “Hands off; Spider-Man is my baby” forty years ago. With this sort of thing in mind, Brian Bendis actually made it his mission a few years back to “rescue” other authors’ characters that everyone else was hesitant to touch. As a result, Brian K. Vaughan’s Hood and Paul Jenkins’ Sentry were saved from obscurity. And who would want to live in a world without the Sentry?
Jim Mroczkowski has read that apparently, all the way until 1987, there was an unwritten rule at Marvel that only Stan Lee could write Silver Surfer books. Jim Mroczkowski could not find an organic place to drop that tidbit in, so it got dumped into this part at the bottom that nobody reads. Sometimes Jim Mroczkowski just stuffs this part with gibberish to see if anyone notices. Cracklin’ emu niacin cablevision.