Waiting for the trade so long you buy it for pennies on E-Bay

I do that all the time. Here's some things from my latest haul, from Marvel's all but defunct MAX line of comics "for mature readers".

One is the kind of thing that used to be the bread and butter of one of Marvel's most popular writers, until he turned a once middling team book in to a bonafide franchise and never looked back. The other is the comeback one of the most beloved, innovative, and downright excellent Marvel Comics ever from the writer who made the whole thing work the first time. Were they any good? Read on, my friends, read on.

Alias vol. 3- I forget the title of this one. Much like David Mack's covers, they all run together after awhile.

I haven't read anything this profane or character driven from Bendis in awhile. This volume revolves around Jessica Jones, the gloriously screwed up lead character who would go on to become Luke Cage's baby mama in New Avengers, and her missadventures with J. Jonah Jameson, two Spider-Women, and some subplots from Bendis's run on Daredevil. The story even includes a pretty funny "team up" with a hapless Speedball that still feels more true to his character than his current emo/s&m status quo.

Jessica, with her failed superhero career and various struggles with everything from low self asteem to making a buck as a private eye encountering the seedy underbelly of the MU, makes her a fascinatingly flawed character that's easy to root for, which is the definition of all the great Marvel protagonists, when you think about it. Michael Gaydos and Matt Hollingsworth provide suitably gritty art that play well on Jessica's body language and facial expressions. I hate to call it noir-esque, because that word gets thrown around a lot these days, and I'm not sure it often applies, but I can't think of a better word to describe it. They use shadow really well and highlight the dingy side of the Marvel Universe that Jessica Jones inhabits.

While I've found what I've read of Bendis's mainstream superhero work, from New Avengers to Ultimate Spider-Man, to be solid I forgot how good Bendis could be when he was writing a book that played to his strengths of writing street level, character driven stories. Due to the price, I missed out on the recently released omnibus, but I'm more committed to reading the whole thing now. Even if the next volume apparently takes an even darker turn than usual, and probably won't involve Jessica conning Jameson in to buying thousands of dollars in pudding for homeless people.

The second book, in case you couldn't guess, is Steve Gerber's return to Howard the Duck. I'm about as big a Howard fan as you'll find, especially in an age bracket that had to have things like the Anita Bryant parody explained to them.

I think the tone of the book helps the stories hold up, despite the fact that stuff like the parodies of Bryant and Killraven went over my head, and the appearences of everyone from Kiss to Damien Hellstorm really placed this in an era Marvel's history that really hasn't aged well.

The general tone of the series, from Howard's vitriol at seemingly everyone and everything to the way in which it embraced the absurdity that surrounded it (his main antagonist was a man with a giant gong on his head named Dr. Bong, after all; Bong makes an appearence in the new series, by the way) made it a cracking read. In fact, the Essential volume may very well be my favorite comics collections ever, not to mention my favorite Marvel comic. It's right up there in terms of just crackling with energy, wit, and creativity, with Essential Fantastic Four vol. 3, i.e. the best of Lee and Kirby's run, or the Ditko-drawn issues of Dr. Strange, as the pinnacle of Marvel's output.

All of that fawning is meant to establish that I like Gerber's original Howard the Duck run a lot. Which means that I had pretty high expectations for Gerber's six issue mini-series from 2002.

I also wanted to establish that, even in 2002, some of the parody/satire (I don't entirely know the difference between the two; as you can see, I put my English degree to great use) was pretty dated; as amusing as the evisceration of Witchblade was, making fun of the concept and its execution doesn't exactly take a lot of work and, again, it's not like she was that popular a character by the time this came out.

Gerber chooses some other barn door targets as well, from boy bands to Oprah, but he handles that with enough ablomb and absurdity to get away with it. Even the Witchblade (or Doucheblade, as Gerber charmingly refers to her) is pretty damn funny, despite seeming really out of left field; or like Gerber wrote that part of the script in 1997 and it didn't age well before this series was finally published. I could buy that. Or maybe he just wanted to give Howard big breasts and this was the easiest storytelling engine that facilitated it; any of the above is plausible.

Anyway, much like the original, despite the dated humor, the book still works due to the strength of Howard as a lead character. His misanthropic nature is always entertaining, but there's always something to him that makes you think that underneath the curmudgeonly, cynical exterior, there's a decent guy under there. Even he happens to be a duck. Or Steve Gerber. At least one of those things, for sure.

One thing about this book; it's easy to tell that it's one of the first Max books, because it reads exactly like the old comics, except Howard's lady friend Beverly exposes her breastes on occassion and there's a decent amount of cursing. Not as much as in the aforementioned Alias or anything Garth Ennis has written under a "Mature Readers" banner, but enough that it feels incongrous when compared to the original run. Then again, I imagine that if he could have, Gerber would have had Howard and friends dropping some f-bombs in the '70s. Gene Colan probably would have been cool with drawing some boobs back then, if given the opportunity, too.

Speaking of Colan, he's a rough act to follow, but Phil Winslade (with an assist in one issue from series cover artist Glenn Fabry) does a pretty good job of it. He handles all of the deadpan absurdity really well, while still having some the grounded, realistic qualities Gene "the Dean" exhibited. He's not in Colan's league, but few really are, and he's a talented illustrator who does a good job with everything that Gerber throws at him, which is no easy task.

I'd reccomend both of these books, although if you've never read any of either series, start at the beginning. Really, everyone should own Essential Howard the Duck, and the first couple Alias volumes are good reading, so you can't go wrong.

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