HOWARD CHAYKIN is a longtime veteran of the comic book business, serving as an artist and writer for nearly every publisher of comics in the past four decades…and counting. He took the ’90s off to work on mostly unwatchable television, so he missed the money and dreck that was comics in that execrable decade. He is responsible, some might say culpable, for introducing a number of previously unexplored themes to comic books. If you’re not hip to what that’s supposed to mean, there’s always Wikipedia.
Chaykin is generally better regarded by his colleagues than by the enthusiasts, a reality that serves his ego but not his wallet. Thanks to the above mentioned unwatchable television, he’s usually okay with that.
These days, he’s on a tear about the inexplicable Alpha position maintained by comic book writers at the expense of comic book artists, working on educating those aforementioned enthusiasts as to just what writing really means in the context of this curious visual medium.
He lives a quiet life on the California coast, hoping to dodge any imminent tsunamis so he can live long enough to die in bed, without ever lapsing into the cute old age so currently popular on movie and television screens.
That’s my current biography, which, with minor adjustments to accommodate specific needs, is what I usually provide to publishers or conventions looking for something to cover who I am, and maybe why they bothered with me in the first place–which raises the odd issue–if I’m such a big deal, why haven’t most comics enthusiasts heard of me, and of those who are aware of my existence, why don’t they love me more?
How nice of you to ask.
First and foremost, it should be pointed out that when I started out, I was the least talented and least skilled of my generation. In lieu of these apparently requisite gifts, I possessed instead a desperate hunger fueled by an anger that should be truly called inchoate rage. And unlike most of the other talent free mooks that have entered the comic book business in the forty odd years that I’ve been around, I was and remain afflicted with a self awareness, denying me any illusions about entitlement or such nonsense.
I was fully aware that I was short in terms of skill sets, and that if I hoped to make a career of comics, I would have to learn how to do the job on the job. I was lucky enough to be mentored in this quest by four great men of an earlier generation–GIL KANE, WALLACE WOOD, GRAY MORROW, and NEAL ADAMS. Oddly, and significantly, although I created crude pencil work for Woody, Gray and Neal, and did no actual hands on work in my experiences with Gil, he remains the most important influence of these four giants.
All that said, my career in the 1970s, my first decade as a professional, has no actual highlights of any real quality.
Rather, my work adapting STAR WARS to comics, a mediocre effort at best, lousy at worst, will haunt me to my grave.
It wasn’t until I left comics for a few years, to work as a paperback cover artist, that I developed the work effort and the skill sets that made producing work of which I could be proud became possible. Harking back to that aforementioned rage, I finally managed to use that anger to fuel a healthy ambition and desire to actually improve my work–and to find the connecting tissue between writing and drawing that would make me a true comics man, who could both write and draw–in other words, a cartoonist.
Now, it should be understood that from the moment I became aware of comic books, at the age of four, I was in love with everything about them. I learned to read from comics. I learned the significance of picture making, diagramming, from comics. To a pathetic degree, I learned social behavior from comics, which means, of course, that I was graceless and socially inept until well into my late teens.
And like all adolescent comic book enthusiasts, my obsession, certainly at first, was with content. The heroes were the brand. And, I suspect if I’d moved on from comics to other interests as did so many of my contemporaneous enthusiasts, I’d still regard the content as the relevant aspect of the material.
But naturally, that didn’t happen. Instead, by sticking around and growing up with comics–I hesitate to use the word “mature” here for what I hope are obvious reasons–my interest, still aware of content, began to shift to the identities of the men who were responsible for the work that, frankly saved my sanity at a time when my family life was imploding.
All this is to convey the undeniable truth that I was, as a boy, the near cliché of the archetypal comic book enthusiast.
Overweight? Check. Averse to sports? Check. Socially retarded? Check.
And just to keep it fair and honest, I’m overweight once again, and remain averse to sports. As for social retardation, that’s a long forgotten issue–I’m far too damned socially adjusted for my own damned good–just ask anybody who knows me, thinks they know me, or don’t know me at all but have an opinion.
But I digress.
All this is to explain that from the moment I discovered comics and they conquered my life, until my late teens, I adored mainstream, commercial superhero comic books. And to deepen the explanation, this wasn’t uncritical unconditional love. I loved the material that was popular, when it was produced by the men who were best suited for that work.
I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but I had taken the first steps toward what I regard as one of comics’ most basic truths–that the companies have a natural and obvious stake in convincing the enthusiast that the characters are the brand–whereas anyone with half an ounce of awareness, a touch of common sense, and even a casual understanding of the process knows full well that the creative talent is the brand.
I spent my life from the age of fifteen until I turned twenty being turned away for work from every venue available, until I finally ended up as a gofer for Gil Kane–who responded to my description of my work as “mediocre” with a withering, “Hardly, my boy–it’s worthless shit.”
I can’t date it precisely, but I do know that somewhere in those years my interest in superhero comics, both as a reader and as a potential producer, began to dramatically wane and fade. Thus, by the time I actually began to generate work of my own, under my own name, I was more interested in fantasy–read Sword & Sorcery–and science fiction–read Space Opera.
In hindsight, I can see that this was the first step, unintentional but all too real, that I took in separating myself from commercial comics–and for better or worse, eluding the attention of the ever shrinking mass of comic book enthusiasts–most of whose interests remained fixed on superhero comics.
It should be noted that my lack of proficiency in producing creditable work in the superhero genre as called for at the time was both a contributing factor in my choosing to make this move, and a reason for my need to find other subject matter from which to develop into a body of work as well.
Needless to say, ultimately this would all lead me to burn a number of bridges in comic books in 1980 or so, which would lead to my wandering in the wilderness of second rate illustration for a few years–a banishment which came to an end with AMERICAN FLAGG!
I can’t really say why the people who ran FIRST COMICS–and it should be noted that none of those good people are in any way associated with whatever exists under that name today–considered me worth asking to create a book for their new line. Very little of the work I’d done for the previous decade would indicate any reason for faith in my ability to produce anything of genuine value, commercial, critical or otherwise.
But if you’ll allow me to pat myself on the back, I did just that. I think it goes without saying that FLAGG! was the first great mainstream comic book of the 1980s, introducing a narrative and visual vocabulary, a graphic template and a spatial architecture for what comics would look and read like for the next several decades.
Unfortunately for me, my wallet and my ego, it never reached an audience any larger than a quarter of the enthusiasts–so FLAGG! never found the commercial success I’d like to think and hope it merited. Again, in retrospect, its subject matter, themes, and sensibility pissed all over much of what most mainstream comics posited as an acceptable heroic worldview–so that the other three quarters of the enthusiast population might very well have been utterly repulsed.
FLAGG! did, however, reach a spate of up and coming talent, who absorbed its lessons, all too frequently to create utterly incoherent but very stylish work with no narrative content or context whatsoever–or, as we often call it in my house, the 1990s in American mainstream comics.
Much if not all the work I’ve done since FLAGG! is informed by what I learned doing that work in the early 1980s. TIME(SQUARED), BLACK KISS, THE SHADOW and BLACKHAWK reboots all reflected those lessons–and even the direction I took with the commercial work among those and others continued to build a wall between me and mainstream attention.
Clearly my great flaw was my assumption that the audience shared at least some of my sensibilities.
In the early ’90s I did a parody of the then current bombastic style of comic book entitled POWER & GLORY. In the course of the book, a character who is clearly loathsome tells a characteristically loathsome joke–intended, as present company certainly understands, to confirm this loathsome character’s loathsomeness.
To my surprise and genuine dismay, at least one reviewer held me to task for telling such a joke. This is an asinine charge to the utmost–a writer puts words into a character’s voice to convey character–but this willfully ignorant shithead had an axe to grind, reality be damned.
I should have learned a lesson from this, and perhaps I did–but true to my character, I chose to ignore this as an aberration–never realizing that this would become the way of the world. More to this point later.
By 2002, when I resumed a full time career as a cartoonist, I’d discovered the landscape had changed–and not to my benefit. As in so much of modern life, nice had begun the relentless process of driving out the good–leaving the landscape littered with honorable men and women, ruined by likeably lovable opportunists whose cynicism had been forged and perfected in the 1990s.
Since then I’ve been lucky enough to carve out a late in life renewed career as a cartoonist, writing and drawing my own stuff, writing for other artists, and working with writers as a collaborator.
In that time, I’ve done the occasional mainstream material, but for the most part my work has been in the service of subject matter that was of deeper interest to me–war stories, historical adventure, pornography, crime fiction–the usual suspects.
Another adjustment in mainstream American comics that seems worth mentioning is the writers’ nascent ascendancy to the Alpha position in the professional equation. This seems to be the result of a number of factors, one, that the professional representatives of writing talent and properties–lawyers, managers, agents–have a vested interest in willfully ignoring the reality that the artist is responsible for fifty percent of what is perceived as writing…
…And, two, that the readers are the same people who were reading the same material twenty, thirty years ago, so entertaining fluff created by and for adolescent boys now apparently needs to be slathered with a layer of gravitas unjustified by the source material in order to keep that audience justified in its continued love affair with capes, masks and villainous grotesques.
It cannot be stated more firmly–comics are a visual medium, in which collaboration between text and art is the key and core of the equation. Unfortunately, all too many writers have little or no grasp of the real estate of the page–and all too many are willing to accept the “created by” label at the expense of their visual collaborators, all too often apparently regarding the visual talent as unfortunately necessary support and delivery systems for their genius.
As noted elsewhere, I’ve often referred to myself as the VAN MORRISON of comics–an influential figure who’s nearly invisible to the mainstream. Too damned frequently for my ego, I’m asked whether and why I absconded with tropes, business or vocabulary which originated in my material from some other guy who’d absorbed those selfsame elements from me to use in his own more mainstream work. This cultural amnesia shit is enough to drive a person crazy.
Needless to say, bile and bitterness don’t endear me to the enthusiasts–and furthermore, my subject matter is often enough to turn away prospective customers.
Sorry, but this isn’t by choice. I’m stuck with this sensibility. And when I’m referred to, either in print or in person, as a cynic, I try to keep my temper, and say, without irony, that I’m a skeptic. If I were as cynical as I’m so often accused, I’d like to think I’d do a better job of keeping my indifference and contempt for most of the average enthusiasts’ tastes a closer held secret.
Certainly a more reasonable definition of cynicism would be 90s comics. A bunch of guys make a fortune doing mainstream stuff, then set out on their own. But instead of improving the medium, using that power to deepen the craft, they create second rate pastiches of the same stuff that made them successful in the first place.
But who am I to judge? We all go along to get along, right?
And this all gets back to that “Good versus Nice” argument mentioned earlier. I’m not particularly nice–but I sleep well enough to know that I’m good–despite all those lovable likeable scumbags who’d say otherwise. And with the raft of shit being ladled out right now over appropriateness, I’m oddly grateful for that touch of invisibility.
Thanks for your kind attention.
As ever, I remain,
Howard Victor Chaykin — a prince.
Howard Chaykin’s latest book, HEY KIDS! COMICS! #1 is now available
in comic stores and via digital. Issue #2 arrives on September 12th.