Archive for August, 2014

[50/50] Book #14: Watchmen (1986)

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Favorite Book #14: Watchmen (1986)

1338201233_watchmen-12-of-12Had a strange conversation with an older friend the other day who said he’d finally sat down and read Watchmen recently — and didn’t get what all the fuss was about. This is a guy well-versed in pop culture, history and comic books (heck, his father-in-law apparently created ‘Archie’  wife’s late father was a writer for ‘Archie’ for decades), so it kinda surprised me: 1) that he hadn’t read it in the nearly 3 decades since it came out as a graphic novel, and 2) that he didn’t think it was the brilliant literary work that most readers think it is — including Time magazine, which put it in the top 100 novels of the 20th century.

It is true that much of the tension of the world-on-the-edge-of-Apocalypse that permeates the book was far more palpable when it was released at the pinnacle of the Cold War. It is also true that what made so much of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s dark and gritty deconstruction of the superhero genre so original has since been fully absorbed by the rest of pop culture — to the point where dark and gritty is a cliche to now be avoided.

“Watchmen,” however, is a layered work that rewards careful and multiple readings, that reveals character as much through design and layout as it does text, and, in the end, is a masterwork of stark existentialism. Zack Snyder’s 2009 big screen adaptation of the book, while polished and well executed, comes close but still fails to capture the emotional resonance of the original comic book — something, strangely enough, the second trailer for the movie actually achieves.

dave-gibbons-watchmen-2

A thumbnail of the plot doesn’t do the book justice either, but it is a good selling point. Set in a slightly alternative universe (where Richard Nixon is still in office!), Alan Moore imagines what would happen if costumed crime-fighters a la Batman were real; if superheroes had to deal with getting old, with fame, with PTSD; and if such a group of people could make a difference in a world where the US and the USSR are about to launch a nuclear war. What good is being a hero if you can’t save the world?

2522519-watchman_When I was going to art school in Pittsburgh, Eides was THE place: half punk record store, half comic book shop, and the place where all my discretionary income went. It was where I first saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 and first heard Agent Orange, Black Flag and countless other bands. It was also where one of the guys behind the counter told me about “Watchmen” — and he said the store would buy back your copy if you didn’t think it was the best comic book you ever read. As far as I know, it was the only time they ever made this offer … and I suspect no one ever took them up on it.

 

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It. Exists.

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

[As the following contains a potential spoiler for “Guardians of the Galaxy,” I’ll wait a few minutes for you to run out and see the movie. … … … ok, you back? Wasn’t that great? Anyway, spoilers in 3…2…1….]

 

It’s a goofy, throwaway joke, but the post-credit tag in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” kicked that summer movie up from very entertaining to A+++++. It also left anyone under 40 scratching their head and asking — “What’s with the duck?”

It was, or course, Howard the Duck. Director James Gunn had slipped in a sly homage to one of his favorite Marvel characters in the final scene. The cocktail-swilling, misanthropic talking duck once had his own best-selling comic book in the ’70s that was equal parts superhero parody, social satire, and existential musings. From the moment he appeared in 1974, Howard the Duck was a huge cult hit — and had a successful 5-year run until Marvel fired his creator Steve Gerber over creative differences, and Disney sued the pants on Howard.

Howard-the-Duck-01-00-FCHoward the Duck was also the spur to the greatest, dumbest quest of my life.

The cover of Howard the Duck #1 is still one of the best known covers of the Marvel era, with its send up of the fantasy illustrations of Conan the Barbarian and his ilk. In the issue, Howard is eventually sent on a fantasy quest dressed a la Conan, with nothing but a loin cloth, viking helmet and oversized sword. It’s ridiculous, but the spoof is so well rendered it works.

The thing is — I loved that cover. It’s so absurd but it plugged straight into all the stuff I liked at the time: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Dungeon & Dragons, wacky cartoon animals. And then one day, some guy at a game store told me that he heard they had made a D&D miniature of Howard the Duck in that exact pose.

htdEven though he didn’t have it and didn’t know who to order it from, he swore it was true. He’d seen it … or someone he knew had told him they’d seen it. And thus began my quest. For the next several years, in every game store I entered, I looked for it. I sought it out at conventions, and asked fellow gamers if they’d ever seen one. Some had heard rumors, some imagined they had seen it, but like the Maltese Falcon, evidence of the tiny figurine eluded me. Finally, I came to the conclusion the whole thing was an urban myth, that the game store owner had simply bullshitted me.

Howard the Duck 01 - 11And then the internet showed up.

I don’t know exactly what triggered it, but slowly the old curiosity came back. I had to discover once and for all if it was real or not. Googling variations of howard, duck, miniature, sword all proved fruitless however. Given the wild, open business environment back in the day, it was highly unlikely — scratch that, no chance in hell — that any company had bothered to license “Howard the Duck”™ for a simple lead miniature.

I did get a few hits: in the intervening decades, like-minded goofs had created modules, figures and entire games around sword-swinging anthropomorphic ducks. Weird, but didn’t count — I wanted the original. It was the holy grail or nothing. And then one day I stumbled across a site archiving old D&D figures and catalogs as if they were on an archeological dig in ancient Sumeria. And there it was —

Barbarian Duck.”

It existed. The urban myth was real.

A few more searches confirmed that Archive Fantasy Miniatures had indeed put out a 25mm Howard the Duck-like figure, complete with cigar, in 1976. Eventually one showed up on eBay. Suffice to say, I was the only bidder.

It is, admittedly, hideous. A small, misshapen lump of lead, it barely resembles the figure in the pages, much less the Howard the Duck of the cover. But it’s real, and it’s mine. And it felt good to scratch that itch.

So, who wants to play some D&D?

barbarian_duck