Howard the Duck was a cult favorite when he first appeared 1973. Writer Steve Gerber was considered a brilliant (and slightly subversive) creative, and "HTD was fêted as a proof of how truly clever a comic book could be.
While I enjoyed Howard (and I have allocated a slice of my limited shelf space to the complete run of Vol. 1), I never quite drank the cool-aid. Novel and surreal, yes. Occasional flashes of brilliance, intellectual insight, and emotional impact. But there's only so far that "weird" can take you, it's not an automatic passport to five-star rave reviews!
But that was then, and this is now. We're up to Howard the Duck Volume 4 now. Chip Zdarsky has taken up the mantle, and launches himself once more into the high concept of "Man-sized walking talking Duck comes from another dimension to live in New York City. Hi-jinks ensue." I don't envy him. What came before is as much a burden as a benefit when reprising beloved classics.
Also, Spider-Man appears. Another mixed blessing.
Prologue: An alien figure runs across a strange landscape, until he is captured. The captor's spaceship heads now for "Earth".
Cut to: Howard T. Duck is in a police station holding tank, picked up for some crime or other. He is released, along with Tara – a young woman of unknown history. We learn that the woman is a tattooist, and Howard (for those who didn't read Vol. 3) is a private detective, with 40's vibe.
Howard shares an office building with lawyer Jennifer Walters (aka She-Hulk), with whom he also shares an antipathic relationship. Howard has a client, a man who wishes to engage him for the purposes of recovering a necklace stolen by the Black Cat. Formerly an exclusive burglar (and one-time lover of Spider-Man), Felicia Hardy is now a mob boss and all-round dangerous woman to know.
Our fowl friend accepts the commission, and immediately attempts to contact Spider-Man to learn the current location of the Black Cat. Spidey and Howard meet on a rooftop, but the web-slinger wants nothing to do with any attempt to meddle with the Black Cat, and declines to assist in any shape or form.
That leaves Howard some stuck for clues, but he runs into Tara once more, and she happens to know where the Black Cat hangs out. Turns out it's not really much of a secret, Felicia doesn't keep a low profile. The two (Tara and Howard) decide to launch a counter-theft mission together. Cue the training montage!
Tara and Howard dress as pizza delivery staff and break into Felicia's apartment, setting off the alarms. Finding a secret door into her hidden treasure room, Howard does manage to re-steal the necklace just as Felicia and her bodyguards return. The would-be burglars flee out the fire escape, only to run into... the big collector guy we saw in the prologue.
Spider-Man arrives on the scene, just in time to see Howard evaporate in a puff of smoke leaving a pile of ashes. Spidey drops to his knees, sobbing "uncle ben noooo uncle ben i'm sorryyyyy uncle ben...".
But in fact Howard is not deceased. He is instead captured inside "The Gatherer's" spaceship. (The Gatherer is a robotic agent for The Collector). The pair are collecting unique items and species, and Howard is certainly unique. So also is his cellmate, Rocket Raccoon of the Guardians of the Galaxy.
I'm never quite sure what Howard the Duck is supposed to be. The original issues were mostly famous for sheer off-beat inventiveness and a lack of regard for "the rules". But we're 40 years down the track and anthropomorphic animal characters with gritty human personalities are no longer at the cutting edge of satire and philosophical self-inspection.
This story can't make up it's mind if it wants to be gritty or silly. Is it creating new and interesting characters and examining them for insight, or is it throwing a dozen characters at the scene and shuffling them around? Is it based in New York City, or in space? Is Howard going to do some investigating? Or is it a road-trip and he's just going to change scenes every issue.
In any case, nothing here is really new. Howard ain't new, nor are Spider-Man and Felica nor She-Hulk. Tara is new in name but not in concept – every damn hero who got a limited series in the past decade has gained (and promptly lost) an edgy, punk-headed, leather-jacket, tattoo'd neighbour/romantic interest at least once, be they Spider-Man 2099, Flash/Venom, Ben Reilly, or whoever the hell you care to name.
Oh, I do have to mention, that "uncle ben... nooooo!" scene totally rubbed me up the wrong way. It wasn't really painted as a joke so I didn't feel like laughing. But after a madcap robbery-gone-wrong, it didn't really work as a serious moment either. In fact, Spidey's whole character in his nearly three pages of appearance is just plain wrong.
The whole thing is confused. Zdarsky feels like he's trying to have a go at everything, throwing it all at the wall to see what sticks. Spider-Man and She-Hulk are poorly-used parodies of themselves, and their presence only serves to remind us that Howard is no longer fresh and original – he's part of a massive corporate legacy that is so very far removed from whatever Steve Gerber was trying to achieve.
1970's Howard was interesting because he stepped away from the Marvel Universe and broke out in a new direction. But this Howard (Vol. 4) is utterly trapped in a Marvelverse he never made.