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A (CHARMED) LIFE IN COMICS

I’ve told the story before, and to be honest, all too frequently, so if you’ve heard it before, be patient and bear with me.

I developed my lifelong obsession with comics at the tender age of four, when my cousins, Alan and Bobby, the Corrente brothers, gave me a refrigerator box half filled with comics of every variety, every publisher, every genre. Both boys had made the executive decision that they’d outgrown such childish things, at the age of eight and twelve respectively, as I recall.

I climbed into that big box of comics, and experienced what turns out to have been the first transformative moment of my life. I knew, instinctually, intellectually, what the fuck every’ally, that someone made this magic stuff — and I wanted to be one of those someones.

And become one of those someones I did…despite having no discernible talent, other than hunger, desire and blind rage. This is why I don’t consider what I do an art, but rather a craft. You’re welcome to your own definitions and descriptions, but for me, I’m a craftsman, and will remain so identified.

I learned how — by repetition, by study, by analysis, by sweat labor — to do the job that I’ve done for nearly fifty years — forty of which I look back on with pride of accomplishment. The first years make me wince — but in retrospect, I’m grateful for the time spent being awful, which shamed me into growth and improvement.

To confirm, for those who mistake my dismissal as dreck my first ten years of comic book work as self-deprecation, or even false modesty, that’s not it at all. The work was and remains functionally worthless.

Unlike many of my contemporaries, I didn’t arrive in comics fully grown.

Rather, it’s a statement of pride in my commitment to concerted effort — that with that labor also mentioned above, I was able to rise above my own limited skillsets and put my money where my mouth was, so to speak. And for those who knew me then, and if forced to be honest, these days too, I’ve got a big mouth. Really.

I taught myself to draw, and ultimately to draw reasonably well. This, because I took as the divine gospel of comic books, the unassailable breakdown in disciplines as it was handed to me by my endless examination of those comics which inspired and instructed me. Someone drew, someone else wrote.

That said, I taught myself to write, and ultimately to write reasonably well. This, because I realized reasonably early on in my career that even in my crudest efforts, I was at least as good, and usually better, a writer — certainly within the confines of the definition of “writing” as it applies to comics — than those with whom I collaborated… and that I was doing much of the writing with my imagery, not to mention my contributions to plot, for which I was never compensated in any way.

Over a period of approximately five years, these two disciplines became conjoined, and I learned how to move past simply drawing in at least a marginally attractive way, to develop the specific to our curious discipline’s skillset, namely, the ability to create pictures infused with narrative value, and to produce text that worked in tandem with those narrative images.

To make it clear, I became a cartoonist — namely, a comics talent who both writes and draws to, it is to be hoped, equal effect. And to my surprise, then dismay, then finally acceptance, almost concurrent with this development, I lost my interest in superhero stories, the very subject matter that had drawn me to comics in the first place.

By the same token, I still had interest in genre material — just not the genre that defined — and for such as me, stifled — mainstream comics in capes, masks, insignia, and adolescent angst, performed by skimpily evolved empty vessels/plot devices pretending to be, or maybe, if we consider the context, masquerading as characters.

For this audience, it seems unfortunately clear that all that is needed to be regarded as a character is to be a hero with a wound, no matter how banal and obvious that wound and how shallow and underdeveloped that so-called character might seem to be to anyone with only the slightest touch of critical thinking.

And of course, there’s the archetypal antagonist of these melodramas, an equally paper-thin character who all too frequently behaves and actually identifies as a “villain,” with complete self-awareness of his or her perfidy — as if true evil ever actually thinks of itself as anything but the hero of its own narrative…see Hitler, A., Stalin, J. as only two of a vast swathe of pertinent examples.

This is why, in the early 1980s, I began a search to explore other genre narrative choices, with science fiction, crime, westerns, war stories, roman noir, political satire, pornography — occasionally, not to say frequently, mixing genres in an attempt to find something new of interest, to keep my own interest in the work alive.

This was, I realized in retrospect, influenced by my longstanding admiration of EC comics, which, in their time, were well ensconced as perfectly acceptable mainstream comic books, until the Comics Code Authority eliminated anything other than the most anodyne of comics genres in its morally performative sweep.

Certainly, my entry in DC’s SOLO series was a distinct and direct acknowledgment and tribute to the EC line of comics, and to the sort of stories produced by those seminal comics men.

Along the way, I gratefully dabbled in mainstream superhero stuff, most frequently as an artist, but occasionally as writer, and now and then both, applying some of the techniques and ethos I’d learned or developed elsewhere in fringier work to this middle of the road, audience pandering product, with varying and decidedly limited degrees of success, financial, d’estime, or otherwise.

Lest you think otherwise, I did this work gladly, in order to make a living. In that course, I did the best work I could in the service of this material. Call me a professional, call me a hack…comics is my career, and my job.

Like it or not, sometimes we all have to produce the occasional work that we know going in isn’t going to change lives — but will potentially cover the mortgage, not to mention fill the refrigerator and keep the lights on.

If this admission means you think less of me, I promise I’ll find a way to get over it, and I would hope you will, as well. Life is too short for delusional denial about the real world, not to mention its expectations of functional, self-supporting adults.

All this is to say that it’s taken me to the endgame of my career — and make no mistakes, I am all too aware that I’m well into that final lap of my professional experience, believe you me — to finally awaken to, for the most part, and to admit without rancor just how nearly isolated I am in my enthusiasms, my interests and my experiences as they apply to comics.

And to be abundantly clear, I am a bit embarrassed by how long it took for this realization to arrive. I’ve always known Spiegelman and his cadre hold those of us who produce genre material with utter contempt…but inexplicably, I’m finally forced to admit, I thought at least some of the mainstream comics community were at least somewhat interested in the same things that intrigued me.

What a fool I’ve been.

With all due respect, I for one don’t care who plays Batman. Or about his upended wedding. Or about his penis. To be clear, I don’t share my colleagues’ apparent enthusiasm — or for that matter, the ability to mime that enthusiasm (trust me on this) — for children’s stories of costumed adventurers and dei ex machina slathered with crypto-gravitas to make them acceptable to procreating, voting and driving adults.

I don’t give a fuck whether Captain Marvel is a man or a woman, black or white. I feel the same way about Ghostbusters — and naturally, the same goes for Doctor Who.

I don’t care about Star Trek, or Star Wars, or, frankly and likely, just about anything with “Star” in its title — including the current version of A STAR IS BORN — except maybe “STAR 80.”

Bob Fosse. Him and his work I care about. Judy Garland in her iteration of A Star is Born gets my vote, too. But I digress.

I don’t care about zombies, or vampires, or demons, or wizards, or barbarians, or mutants, or anything that even vaguely smacks of the superpowered, supernatural or fantastical.

And yes, I know that my admittedly filthy black and white comic book, BLACK KISS, has a supernatural/fantastical element. You got me-and I admit it — it was a cheap trick to sell a transgressive, blatantly erotic black and white comic book to an adult audience whose attention seemed to be, to my discomfited lights, perversely riveted on the adventures of skimpily dressed teenaged mutants and other such chazerai.

Another secret of the comics, revealed. Happy now?

I don’t care about perpetual variations on a perpetual theme, which is the very template, the body electric of mainstream comics. The endless repeating of what’s come before in an ostensibly new way, is the internal combustion engine, the be all end all of what the mainstream comic book business has become.

Mainstream comic books are, for the greatest part, really no more than one massive and endless pastiche, in which “imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism” is no longer a cautionary tale but a training manual. Beating a dead horse isn’t a problem hereabouts, it’s a solution.

When you get right down to it, the essence of mainstream comics is perfectly personified by Chuck Jones’ Road Runner and Coyote cartoons. Substitute Batman and the Joker, or Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, or any other of the various archetypes and iterations that populate modern mainstream comics, and you get the picture.

They all died in the movie. You all cried at the movie.

But you know, not really. Just wait ’til next summer.

Because of that template of endless pursuit, comics is a medium in which narrative consequences have no narrative context — a corporately imposed fact that seems to trouble no one to any great extent in either the audience or the professional community.

It’s pretty obvious, if you ask me, that the most commercially successful and “critically” (I can’t consider critics who just fucking love this sort of thing as unconditionally as they seem to as actually serious in their points of view) acclaimed talent in the mainstream market achieve this success with work that flatters the audience for its preference for this stuff, in what comes down to a circle jerk of shared sensibilities.

And much of what boils down to taste in this case is the equivalent, in any world but our own little piece of creative real estate, of an embrace of arrested development.

Despite the recent kerfuffle, I don’t much care about Bill Maher, and I certainly don’t care what he thinks about comics in general, or about Stan Lee in particular. Come to think of it, I don’t much care about Stan Lee, either, for that matter.

Make no mistake, and before you start looking for torches and pitchforks, I unconditionally adored him and his bullpen as a kid. I was a member of the MERRY MARVEL MARCHING SOCIETY. I was a fanatical and uncritical fan of Marvel comics, and ate up every word Stan shoveled at us from the Soapbox.

But hey — I also unconditionally adored the Three Stooges, Chef Boyardee ravioli and Swanson’s chicken pot pies back then, too. That said, beyond the occasional wave of rueful memory and wistful nostalgia, none of this, nor any or all the other stuff from my messily urban misspent childhood, has had any remaining or resonant impact on me, my personal or professional life for decades.

It seems all too clear to anyone paying dispassionate attention, that Jack Kirby made Stan Lee’s career, but it was Stan Lee who kept mainstream comic books alive, while merely paying lip service to the colossal debt he owed to his colleagues and collaborators.

It was Lee’s relentless cheerleading presence that kept mainstream comics alive long enough to achieve Brandon Tartikoff’s dream of their ascendancy to the cultural wellspring that long dead media visionary always knew they’d be, for good or ill.

And to be clear, and perhaps a tad pedantic — you’re entitled to love the fuck out of whatever you choose — just don’t think your love is an imprimatur of quality. It’s just love.

And to be even clearer, in terms of modern culture, it’s not exactly comics we’re talking about here, but rather the result of the transformation of invisible source material into a massive cultural worldwide cinematic tsunami which has had no impact whatsoever on the sales or creative health of that source material.

As an actual medium, the mainstream comics business continues to shrivel, well on its way to becoming nothing more than an IP farm.

And for the most part, with a few exceptions, the material remains fantasy and monsters, science fiction and superheroes. And of course, as we’ve seen recently, when confronted by diminishing sales, the reaction is to circle the wagons and double down on what’s been done for decades. When in doubt of any kind, do the same shit and hope the enthusiasts will continue to embrace what got them here in the first place. And of course, many do.

And for me, there’s irony here, too. Just around the time I first discovered comic books as a little boy, the Comics Code infantilized the medium, effectively driving away an audience which might have potentially dragged mainstream comics into a genuine maturity it would never actually see.

Decades later, after systematically eliminating and obviating almost any other genre than superheroes, the occasional monster, and a seemingly endless stream of all too obviously adolescent wish fulfillment fantasies, and thus, having successfully infantilized the audience as well, the Comics Code has been deemed irrelevant and functionally eliminated…

…First backed into a corner by the tin-eared wave of desperately self-congratulatory “relevance” in comic books, followed soon after by the commercially brilliant and most likely intuitive conflation of superpowers with (arrested) adolescent, guilelessly self-regarding angst, and then finally, effectively and completely buried by the grafting onto material originally devised by children for children a leaden gravitas immediately mistaken for enormity…

…All of which now combine in a mummery, a mostly internally self-referential, almost meta-body of work made up of kabuki’esque tropes, gestures and signifiers, poses and mannerisms that any astute and disinterested outside observer of this narrative culture would likely and all too correctly identify as an adolescent’s mostly misbegotten and ill-considered impression and impersonation of an adult’s behavior.

And to enhance the irony, a flawed but brilliant work in this genre, that saw all too clearly the vacuous and fascistic nihilism underpinning this material, rather than burning it to the ground as was likely its intent, has become instead the Rosetta stone and thesaurus of several generations, providing a vocabulary and syntax that has enabled and enhanced a cabal of writing careers for over thirty years and counting…

…And sadly, if not naturally, many of those careers belong to writers who regularly if not endlessly shit on the work of those from whom they’ve appropriated nearly every technique and trope in their own toolkits.

I have long been accustomed to the dismay I experienced when my attempt to bring something new to mainstream comics, be it subject matter or technique, was met with utter indifference, while the latest take on the same old shit was always welcomed as if a new way to breathe had been discovered or invented to the relief of the comic book community at large.

Of course, along with that indifference, much of those tropes and techniques that I developed off here to the side have been woven into the vocabulary of comics, their secret origin a mystery to those enthusiasts — and of course to the second and third generation of talent employing them.

Irony, indeed.

To be completely clear, I am in genuine awe, and to be completely honest a tad envious, too, of anyone who can find something new to say about any of these anodyne and adolescent tropes passed off as characters.

That said, I recognized years ago that critical thinking in regard to this stuff had vanished, replaced by a taste, a hunger, for what was basically narrative macaroni and cheese — comfort food for, with all due respect, a fatuous and credulous palate…

…And that it really was an audience and a business that paid the greatest rewards to the most effective purveyors of the same old shit — wherein familiarity inbreeds contentment.

And despite the idea of democracy, personal taste and all that, just because many, most or even all of you don’t agree with me, this doesn’t make me wrong. As noted above, simply liking something — anything — doesn’t make it necessarily good. This is an endemic problem in the comic book business, which seems biologically indifferent to the chasm all too often separating favorite and best.

So here I am, approaching the fifty-year career mark, making the kind of comics that interest me…most recently HEY KIDS! COMICS!, a fictional history of a decisive era of the comic book business. The underlying theme of this first arc is the complete misreading of the value of the work delivered by that first generation of comics talent.

These men and women had no idea that what they regarded as disposable junk for the consumption of children and immature adults, work to put food on the table until that which they were really meant to do showed up, would turn out to be the signature accomplishments of their lives.

And, as the above makes clear, I’ve got my own misreadings of my career in comics to deal with.

With very few exceptions, my generation was both unequipped and uninterested in superhero comic books. Not that it would have made a difference. Despite the cornball pseudo hipness, Stan wasn’t really comfortable with those not of his own generation, so he wasn’t interested in us, anyway.

And the superhero ethos was so powerful that none of us felt comfortable with or in many cases capable of being bent to the will of the tropes and signifiers of the genre.

Of course, in my case, I wasn’t good enough, anyway, so the point was moot for me.

That said, we were all blindsided by the arrival, some five years later, of newly minted talent that bent the material to its will, as opposed to making adjustments to one’s own skillsets to accommodate those already codified tropes and signifiers.

My generation, again with few exceptions, never really recovered from this blindside.

And of course, in my case, I’ve spent decades waiting out here on the margins for others who share my interest in genre comics other than of the superhero variety. To repeat, what a fool I’ve been.

Jack Kirby is often quoted as saying, “Kid…comics will break your heart.” Whether he actually said it or not, you get the picture. Bitterness was the reward to an acknowledged master — who seemed to expect better.

In my case, I will beg to differ. I’m a journeyman, not a genius, and in that regard, comics haven’t broken my heart. They sure as fuck have left me frequently disappointed, and often frustrated, however…but I know that’s just my ego, where expectation, and its kissing cousin self-pity, meet to fuck with me.

Once that flaw of character is sidelined, however, I remember just how delighted I am to have been able to make a life in comics — which, for me at least, is a living testimony of gratitude to the men and women who preceded me in this field, as frustrated and disappointed as they might have been by their missing the big picture, too.

When people ask my wife when I’m going to retire, she often says she’ll know I’ve retired when she hears my head hit my drawing table and it isn’t followed by a yelp.

And to be sure, no amount of disappointment or frustration is ever going to stop me from dragging my ass to my drawing table every morning, and doing it again and again until that final thud.

And that’s because, after all is said and done, I can still bring to mind the sense memory of the smell of that big box of cheaply colored and already beginning to mildew paper over sixty years ago, and with it the feeling that despite everything, I can, will and should do this.

As I’ve said more than once, comics is a calling…so, entre nous, it’s not like I have a choice.

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin — a prince.

 

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