Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Howard for Prez

(Reference Here)

One of the most important factors in the unique - and to a large part singular - success of Howard the Duck was the book's dogged determination to break down every possible convention of mainstream adventure comics. Nowadays, genre conventions are flouted on a daily basis - in the wake of Watchmen, flouting genre conventions has become a kind of convention in and of itself. People have been bending and breaking the boundaries of superhero stories for so long that there really isn't a lot you can do to shock people anymore. I think, after Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol and Animal Man, and Marshal Law and Marvels, there is very little left to be done in the way of actual transgressive boundary-smashing. When the "shocking" homosexual love affair between a talking French monkey and a disembodied brain in a jar has filtered down to become accepted canon in mainstream superhero comics, and the black satire of Marshal Law (and Judge Dredd) has been eclipsed by the unintentional self-parody of Youngblood, that the superhero genre has become essentially invincible. The organism has evolved in such a way as to be capable of defending itself against any possible criticism, from without or within.

But it didn't used to be that way. Howard was distinctive because it didn't just satirize genre conventions: the self-aware superhero parody has been around almost as long as the superhero, himself, going back all the way to the original Sheldon Mayer Red Tornado and "Superduperman & Captain Marbles". Steve Gerber understood that critiquing superhero comics on their own terms was still essentially a capitulation to the genre's demands. The trick was to neither accept nor deny the premise, but to walk in a third direction altogether. Ergo, Howard didn't fight super-villains, he chose simply to walk away from unnecessary altercations. The most interesting concepts in Howard's run were never the villains - who remembers the Space Turnip? Even Doctor Bong was, let's be honest, one bad joke stretched a good ways farther than it should have been. (And, it must be noted, Howard's most effective foil was really just a delusional old lady in a fur coat.) But fiction needs conflict, so from where did Howard's conflicts arise? Often, the fact that he had no interest in doing what he was supposed to be doing. If given a choice between two equally absurd options, Howard always chose to opt-out of artificial dichotomies.

A long time ago I read and interview with Gerber where he admitted that one of the primary influences for Howard's adventures was the character of Mersault in Camus' L'Etranger. Initially - and for a long time afterward - I thought this was just so much pretentious twaddle. But after I had a few years to sit on the idea, and had gone back and re-read the original Howard run, it made some degree of sense. Mersault was a man adrift, unwilling or unable to understand the nature of social obligation, simply incapable of choosing between equally bad options when faced with inescapable absurdity. He couldn't even feel grief for his own dead mother, let alone for the man he killed on the Algerian beach. His lack of passion ultimately damned him.

Howard isn't dispassionate - if anything, he's too passionate, bound up by his frustrated self-destructive libido and strangled by his own perfectly conceived sense of futility. Howard is the prototypical paranoid, anxious Jew, a web-footed counterpart to Nathan Zuckerman and Woody Allen, filled with dynamic energy that can only be fully expressed in constant self-criticism. Howard can't simply lie down and die, like Mersault - he is constantly propelled forward by circumstances beyond his control, hurtling headfirst towards impending doom, perpetually helpless.

So what do you do with a character in a superhero comic book who isn't a superhero, has no interest in fighting super-villains, and wants nothing more than to be left alone while the rest of the world chokes on its own bile? Simple: let the duck run for President. There are few jobs more inherently futile than that of being a politician. It's telling that even when given the biggest microphone in the free world with which to speak, and given the opportunity to speak the proverbial "truth to power", no one really believes him.

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