Mathew New accomplishes a neat trick in his second and third issues of Billy Johnson And His Duck Are Explorers: he actually manages to successfully attach an interesting back-story and develops sub-plots to this bit of total nonsense. New's storytelling remains as clear and simple as ever, and he makes judicious use of color in these stories that are part Tintin, part Indiana Jones. The titular character is a janitor who also goes off on adventures, only he's terrible at it, relying on a Let's Go... style guide to give him advice on how to navigate deadly traps and tombs. The titular talking duck, Professor Barrace Wilcox, is a teacher at the university. That he is a duck is rarely remarked upon, a bit of absurdity that is in itself a running gag.
New also has a Lara Croft-type character whom the duo encounter at the beginning of issue #2, which begins with an elegant heist that is later loudly interrupted by the bumbling Billy. This is a classic tomb raider type of adventure that not only involves a cursed ring, it involves Barrace having to deal with the fact that he put on the cursed ring when he and Billy were there before. They were only returning in an effort to perhaps get the curse removed. There's a lich-like creature waiting to be freed, the desperate gambit of Barrace using Billy's sword (apparently a magical blade that he has named Mr. Jabbers), and a handy bus running over a haunted suit of armor. Underneath all of the silliness is a rock-solid plot and an internal logic that runs flawlessly. At the end of the story, we are introduced to a mysterious, shadowy figure who has a special interest in Billy and Barrace. New's use of color is not merely functional; the way he switches from red to grey in one sequence creates a beautiful contrast that makes the story more exciting. Jon Chad and Caitlin Rose Boyle both contribute backups which are amusing, but Chad's greater use of detail and Boyle's greater stylization are both jarring in their own way. It points to how perfect New's approach is with regard to this particular story as he balances the expected action-adventure tropes as well as the story's comedic elements.
Issue three is a classic desert adventure that's not quite as wacky as issue two, but it actually does a bit to add depth to the characters--especially Barrace the duck. On a search for a supposedly extinct bear, the duo have to deal with their own incompetence in preparing for the desert, famous explorer Hal Hardwick and his mummy assistant, sand storms and what might be magical intervention. This issue isn't as crisply paced as the previous one and goes on just a bit too long, but I enjoyed the fact that there were no pointless fights and everyone involved parted on good terms. Once again, his palette is tasteful and assists the narrative. New seems intent on portraying action without indulging in actual violence, which makes this unusual for an action-adventure comic, even one aimed at a YA audience. While we got indications of this in past issues, this seems to have been the first one where New firmly decided that he wasn't going to double down on absurdity at all times, but would rather start to flesh out his characters and their world. That's both from a narrative perspective as well as an emotional one. That focus on feelings isn't just tacked-on; it's earned through the narrative and the interactions between the main characters. At this point, and to my surprise, New has found himself with a potential book on his hands, as he's managed to organically open up some surprising narrative avenues as well as have his cake and eat it to with regard to silly but still fully-formed protagonists.