Wednesday, February 19, 2014

PUT IT ON MY BILL - THE OFFICIAL HOWARD THE DUCK MOVIE ADAPTATION


Marvel Super-Special #41 - Howard the Duck
Kyle Baker is almost undeniably one of the most-respected graphic novelists of the last thirty years, having produced one of the funniest books to grace the medium in The Cowboy Wally Show and one of the most acclaimed in Why I Hate Saturn – not to mention some of his more underrated works like I Die At Midnight, or his still-fondly-remembered mainstream comic runs on Andy Helfer's The Shadow and DC’s Plastic Man. A master of the form, all around.

So when I stumbled across a copy of the comic book adaptation of the motion picture of George Lucas’ Howard the Duck, how else could I choose to look at it except as Kyle Baker’s Great Lost Volume! It’s either that or weep salt tears until I dehydrate and die.

Howard the Duck, the movie, holds tremendous power in comic book fandom – if nothing else can save Elektra, X-Men 3:Last Stand or Man of Steel, it’s the reminder that “At least it’s not as bad as Howard the Duck.” It’s the Citizen Kane of the worst movies ever made, except now that I think about it the Citizen Kane of the worst movies ever made is Plan 9 from Outer Space. Howard the Duck is the Battleship Potemkin of movies that make The Godfather III look like The Godfather. Wait, maybe it’s the Space Battleship Yamato of the Oh God movies. I've lost my thread. Where am I?

He's pus with a bill!
Until Howard the Duck, George Lucas’ name had been attached to American Graffiti, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, so it’s understandable that no one recognized the movie for the warning sign it actually was. Two great franchises and an American classic (and I know I’m not mentioning “Willow” here and – well, is this shameful to admit, I've never seen it? Although I understand it basically to be Star Wars skinned with a sword and sorcery coat and guest starring Lenny and Squiggy as white smurfs?) and the next thing you know the guy keeps leaving the digital equivalent of oreo-cookie-stained fingerprints all over the Star Wars movies - adding slapstick robots, bouncing Han Solos and farting Dewbacks willy nilly every decade or so. We should have seen it coming.

If you've never seen the cinematic version of Howard the Duck, then don’t bother buying a lottery ticket – you've already used up your lifetime luck allotment. Allegedly intended to be a wacky, zany, wonky, bonky, zonky, “fun” movie about a singing nymphet, a sexually promiscuous duck-man who resembled an oversedated pillow following a debilitating stroke and the half-scorpion/half-knife-vagina monster which brings them together, it’s actually kind of a slog.

I remember catching Howard the Duck in the theatre – for the record, I have excellent taste in films, but the only other major motion picture coming out that weekend was Friday the 13th Part 6, so don’t even start with me. I took a date. At least we made out, although I’m still angry with Howard the Duck for creating the confusing adolescent visual of a near-naked Lea Thompson cavorting with a gross bird imp.

Gross.

I understand the idea of a movie which is so bad it becomes good, or at least a movie which is so spectacularly bad that it’s a phenomenon of garish incompetence (one of your humble editor’s favorite movies is 1997’s Batman and Robin, for instance, if only for its Kaufman-esque endurance in trudging through depths of uncomfortable unwatchability, and the scene where Pat Hingle stumbles half-drunk through a soundstage and almost knocks over a fa├žade. “Ivy, you just met the most dangerous man in Gothaumble sumble” *smash*), but this movie. This movie. This'un.

No one gave Baker a
model sheet for the
Dark Overlord or, for
that matter, used the
words "Pulsating tooth
vagina on legs" while
describing it.
Allegedly, the only reason Lucas decided to go forth with Howard was because he was contractually obligated to produce another live-action film, and he felt he had the technology to make a man-duck believable. It’s a terrible reason to make a movie, forcing a narrative to be built around the frame of a technology, particularly considering the ultimate effect; Lucas wanted to see a live action man-duck walk the silver screen – as have we all since the dawn on mankind - and what he got instead was something that looked like a wizard’s wet beard eating a block of cheese.

It’s to Baker’s credit as the book’s artist that his caricatures of the assorted actors – Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones and Tim Robbins, just to namedrop a few for the unlikeliest SEO trifecta possible – are spot-on, but he absolutely refused to approach Howard in any other manner than his comic book likeness. Whether that was an artistic or editorial decision, it’s for the best, because the movie Howard did actually resemble something like a McDonald’s fish sandwich turned inside out and moved like a diminutive epileptic who was cursed by a wizard. Which is not even to mention the eyes, the eyes on that robot duck puppet looked like weary testicles lost forever in a fog of velvet toenails. Correct artistic decisions were made in the context of the comic, to be sure, in the face of what appeared to be a used albino teabag which was the size of a Selectric typewriter

Scripting the adaptation was editor Danny Fingeroth, who simultaneously seems like the best and worst candidate to approach the book – if you are, after all, merely adapting an existing script, then you’ll want an editor. With that being said, though, Marvel had on speed dial a whole cadre of Seventies vets whose drug-addled early days made them more than suitable for tackling the typical Howard vibe. Gerber, of course, would have been the best choice to write an adaptation, but he spent the period of promotion surrounding the movie’s release in an apparent state of shellshocked optimism, brutally let down by the finished product.

Rule one: never let Jeffrey Jones show you a videotape.
As far as goes the adaptation, Fingeroth did his duty in terms of representing in the book what happened in the film (minus the music by Thomas Dolby, which had been one of the few high points of the film – we only get the lyrics, none of which are exactly Maya Angelou. It’s pretty much an even trade, though, considering that Baker thankfully spared us any rendition of that walking rubber glove orgy that passed for Howard in the film). The absence of extrapolation, though, underlines the toothlessness of the source material – what had been one of Marvel’s odd, experimental, existential stabs of the 1970s had been repackaged, neutered, and dumbed down within an inch of its life.

The film has its strengths, too, in a perky Lea Thompson and a surprisingly comedically gifted Tim Robbins – I have to admit, I've seen the man in a thousand serious roles and I still think of him as a comic actor, if just because of this film ... and his hairstyle. Jeffrey Jones wins hearts and minds as a demonic Mister Rooney, although he’s let down by the number of scenes which requires laser beams to erupt from his eyes and a scary Michael Ironside voice dubbed over his real one. Imagine that happening in Deadwood. Now imagine Swearengan played by Ian McShane in the Howard costume. It’d be what the bacteria inside your intestines might look like in a striped suit.

Of course, these strengths don’t translate to the comic book adaptation, which suffers the worst of all possible worlds; no music, no performances (for better or worst), no special effects, but still the same lame plot, time-wasting chase scenes and allegedly comedic asides, all having shunted the elements which made Howard the Duck a desirable read in the first place. As far as the masterpieces of Kyle Baker goes, I rank this under, um, Nat Turner, but slightly higher than … um … the alien races he penciled for The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. No, wait, higher than that.

Still, since Disney now owns Marvel, Lucasfilm – hell, AND the Muppets – live-action Howard the Duck could show up again anywhere. You might be in the middle of the next Star Wars movie or Muppet movie or the inevitable Star Wars Muppet Movie (don’t get excited, it’s just words) and right when you least expect it, BAM – Darth Howard! Consider yourself warned.

This was all shot in a single take, like the opening to Touch of Evil.


7 comments:

Sean said...

Every time I go to the local grocery store, I notice "Howard the Duck" among the ranks of the discount DVDs, and I wonder what kind of marketing logic led to its presence there. Impersonal computer logic, presumably.

I'm occasionally, slightly tempted to pick it up for myself, since I did enjoy it when I saw it as a kid in the 80's. Upon rewatching it in the 90's, however, most of the charm I remembered was strangely absent.

Adam said...

I have fond memories of the novelisation of this movie. That's how I "saw" a lot of '80s movies - by buying second-hand paperback novelisations long before the VHS made it to video stores in rural Australia. Cinema release was not an option. I remember reading this adaptation too, and not liking it very much at all.

Calamity Jon said...

The only film novelization I can recall anything from was the one for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and even then all I can recall is a paragraph describing a Heavy Metal pinup poster of a multi-breasted alien girl hanging on the older brother's bedroom door...

neofishboy said...

And the fact that E.T. apparently wanted to bang the kids' mom.

Your mention of the Marvel Universe books makes me want to go see if those write-ups Leonard Pierce did on Ludic Log are still around. Those were great.

Calamity Jon said...

Let's ask him - Leonard?

MISTER LEONARD PIERCE said...

Funny you should mention that. I have been contemplating reviving those in some form or another, thanks for the kick in the ass...

neofishboy said...

Holy sheep shit! What, you keep him in a box?

The cool thing was, I had read the Official Handbooks so many times as a kid that I could visualize damn near every entry. Revisiting those would be truly badass.

Cheers!

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