Tripwire Speaks To Comics Legend Howard Chaykin

Raising The Flagg

Tripwire’s contributing writer Paul N Neal spoke to industry legend and Prince of Comics Howard Chaykin this summer and here’s his exclusive interview…

TRIPWIRE: I would like to start by simply asking how as a young gentleman you discovered comics. What were the first comics you recall enjoying?

HOWARD CHAYKIN: In the summer of 1955, coincidentally the year in which the Comics Code Authority infantilised the product and the audience in one stroke, I was four years old.  Two somewhat older cousins, both well-spoiled, had been instructed by their mother, my aunt, to get rid of the massive pile of comic books that had accumulated in their finished basement. They dumped them all into a box that had once held a refrigerator, half filling it, and gave it to me on my grandmother’s lawn.  I climbed in, and luxuriated on this pile of paper, colourful in a way I’d never seen before.  The box contained every genre then imaginable in comics. I knew, not of course in so many words, that this was work product, that someone made this.  I knew as well that I wanted to be one of those people. Within a year, I was reading on a fourth-grade level.  My parents, idiots both, identified this phenomenon as the result of some sort of genetic anomaly. I have no recollection of what I first read in that box.  I do recall that the only genre which held no interest to me was horror, a distaste that persists today. I also recall that a few years later, Blackhawk was the first comic book I ever stole.

TW: So, after discovering comics, which came first for you: was it a desire to write or to illustrate comics?

HC: All I ever cared about as a fan, a fan who wanted in, was the artwork.  Understand, I dug the narrative, but all that was clearly secondary to the visual nature of that narrative.  When I became a professional, I lost my interest in reading comics, certainly the contemporary stuff, and soon came to understand that the writers of my generation, for the most part and with very few exceptions, were failed artists.  This didn’t strike me as a qualifying CV.  I was widely read, and frequently better read than my contemporaries, with actual life experience as opposed to the learned variety.  That said, it took me years to feel the courage to write my own stuff.  Once I did American Flagg! however, I found my voice, and my comfort in putting forth a point of view in my work, and never looked back. Today, I regard my value as that which is found in the synergy of visuals and text, a perfect simpatico of the requirements of the craft.

TW: Can you describe for me how your very first comics came to be published? Did you make home-made comics? Or what was your first paid published work?

HC: My work was terrible, functionally worthless, until I’d learned my craft over my first decade getting work, under mostly false pretences. I did very little fanzine work, as in those days, such stuff was mostly made in the Midwest and the Southwest, so I had no relationships that might be taken advantage of.  I did some ghost work for Wallace Wood and Gray Morrow, and it was Neal Adams who convinced an editor at DC to give me work, work on which I was incapable of bringing any professional skillsets to bear. Shame and fear of public embarrassment was a great motivator in learning craft. That said, I recognised that, as lame and unschooled as I was at that time, the writing in comics was mostly pointless hackery.

TW: So you started out as an artist rather than a writer? Or to rephrase my question what was your very first paid professional work?

HC: I would have assumed anyone who knew me, or my work would know that. It was a one-page embarrassment I will not identify.

TW: I am very familiar with your work, and I am an enormous fan.

HC: Fair enough.

TW: What was your very first significant paid published comic work?

HC: Likely the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser book for DC, Sword Of Sorcery.  Not that it was any good–I had no idea what I was doing, and I wasn’t skilled enough to do much with what little I could bring to the table.

TW: Can you remind me who wrote it?

HC: Denny O’Neil. He was a wonderful comic writer and sadly missed.

TW: My very first exposure to your writing and art was Black Kiss. Because of the subject matter, it was reasonably controversial. You have likely discussed the comic to death, but is there anything extra you can say the series?

HC: The book was inspired by a collusive attempt by DC and Marvel to impose a rating system on comic books, modelled on the movies then recently concocted enterprise.  In my boyish and libertine enthusiasm, I regarded this as bullshit, and with Lou Stathis onboard as editor, I produced the work in the late 1980s, for a now-defunct Canadian comic book publisher, to some positive but largely negative reaction.  My feelings remain unhurt.

TW: I vaguely recall there was some online debate in the imagery of Black Kiss about whether you had illustrated stockings properly and how to take them on and off. Is it true you were criticised for that online?

HC: As for that Black Kiss query, I have never heard of this, nor does it merit attention.

TW: I believe my Black Kiss query relates to a comment in the comics letter pages many moons ago. We must discuss American Flagg. It is “almost” the series that you are best known for. How important do you feel it is as a piece of writing today politically? And given more life experience now, would you change it at all?

 

HC: For the record, that’s American Flagg!  In a perfect world, it would be the series for which I am best known, as opposed to the hack dreck that is Star Wars.  I find it creaky in some of its graphics, but that’s also an aspect of the shitty reproduction we dealt with in those long-ago days.  Textually, it remains unembarassing, despite the revisionist assumptions made by a generation or two that weren’t there and have no clue of what was happening with my generation in our wonder years. And to hell with them. That said, I could never be that optimistically funny about such a subject again.

TW: Twilight was an interesting series. I’m intrigued because it is an example of where you have written the storyline but not illustrated it. Do you find it difficult as an artist to see another illustrator create the imagery you have imagined?

HC: Not in the least, and certainly not in this case.  I thumbnailed the series as per the editor’s instructions, and the book remains something of which I am very proud.

TW: I thought it was excellent. Much, much more recently you provided art for Brian Michael Bendis’s run on Avengers. May I ask how that came about? Were you keen to work together for a while?

HC: Not especially.  I needed work, and I was grateful for the run on the book, but it doesn’t represent anything more than a use of a skillset of mine that is certainly not a primary.

TW: You have a recent endeavour with Image Comics. I bought the first book, and it is truly interesting. Precisely what inspired it?

HC: I’ve been making material for Image for a decade now.  Black Kiss2, Midnight Of The Soul, The Divided States Of Hysteria and Hey Kids! Comics! volumes one and two.  Which of these are you taking about?

TW: It is the Hey Kids! Comics! I find interesting. Surely you must admit they are slightly autobiographical

HC: You can’t really think this is some gotcha moment, can you?

TW: No of course not.

HC: Hey Kids! Comics! is a roman-à-clef , a subjective fictional history of comics. As I’ve said more than once, some of it never happened but it’s all true. I’m hard at work on volume three right now. It’s subtitled “The Schlock Of The New!” It’s about fandom.

TW: I truly look forward to the issues. They are on my weekly pull list from my local comic shop in the UK.

HC: So, you’ve read both volumes one and two? Volume Two’s trade has two pieces that are explicitly autobiographical.

TW:  But what inspired you to actually create, write and take the time to draw the series?

HC: It’s about something I care far more about than the sort of thing devoured by institutional comics fandom.

TW: Do you consider yourself a controversial or especially outspoken creator online? I ask with zero bias. You can obviously reply however you feel comfortable.

HC: Are you talking about my work and its perception by the audience, or do you mean my presence on social media, which is to say on Facebook, which is my only platform, where I post links to my occasional substack essays?  It’s worth noting that being controversial is hardly an inviolable absolute in any regard, and certainly, in so anodyne and infantilised marketplace as mainstream comics, I occasionally come off as somebody’s version of the antichrist.  I might add that I am very comfortable with myself, and I do my level best to never express an opinion I can’t back up with information.  My tombstone’s epitaph will read “MY INFORMED ENTHUSIASM FOUND WANTING BY YOUR IGNORANT INDIFFERENCE.” So, maybe, but I’m surrounded by a horde of people bereft of a point of view, or an equal number who don’t know their asses from a hole in the ground.  So, it’s a low bar.

TW: I know there were Blackhawk and Steven Spielberg rumours. I have read loads of suggestions about it. Bearing in mind, you could potentially create a movie with arguably the most respected film director of all time….  Is there a story behind these facts?

HC: I doubt there will ever be a Blackhawk movie, let alone a Spielberg-directed feature.  I take issue with your description “…arguably the most respected film director of all time…” Hardly.  Based on a number of stories, including one in which I was involved, Spielberg has little interest in or no understanding of comics.   Maybe it was the War Wheel.  I remain dubious–and besides, the fact that they’re using my artwork to discuss this, my version of the character diverges dramatically from the traditional material that preceded it, frankly more influenced by Kurtzman and Wood’s Black and Blue Hawks.

TW: I did not know that. Thank you.

HC: Anecdotally, when the Heavy Metal adaptation of 1941 was in play, he told the book’s editor to describe the props and physical plant to the artists.  More recently, I created a faux 1960s superhero comic book, echoing Gil Kane and Ross Andru, for Amazing Stories.   Spielberg demonstrated his non grasp of the form in a note regarding a panel’s depiction of action, asking for what a storyboard artist would do in two frames, expecting me to be able to do this in one.

TW: You’re known for illustrating The Shadow. Can you say artistically and thematically what appeals to you about the character?

HC: And to answer your question, and likely start another pot boiling, I have no particular interest in The Shadow.  I’ve read a few of the “novels,” to get a sense of the world, and that’s that.

TW: My research failed me (I apologise) …I had recalled you creating some comics with the character.

HC: I did, once in 1986, then a prequel to that miniseries sometime in the past decade, I don’t recall exactly when.  None of which changes my answer in any way.

TW: Am I wrong for associating you with Dominic Fortune? It is a much-underappreciated Marvel character. I am certain I am right on this at least.

HC: I created the character.  You clearly have a very limited view of my career.

TW: I have a reasonable knowledge… I was just hoping for a little more history of the creation of the character if possible.

HC: The character was created after I left Atlas, where I’d created The Scorpion.  I crossed the street, walked a block uptown, got to Marvel, and asked whether they’d be interested in doing such a character there.  They bit, and like a shmuck I once again created a work for hire character.

TW: The series you did called Avengers 1959 is interesting to my mind to say the least. I only have a French language edition of the series. Can you say how this series came about, and is there any reason why tracking down an English language version is so tricky? Did it have an odd publication history?

HC: I’ve always assumed that the only reason this miniseries happened was that Brian Bendis, who had such pull at that time, guilted/shamed/suborned Marvel into getting it done, with me doing it.  I have no notion of why it’s so hard to find, and my only anecdote connected to it was that it was my last assignment, other than the occasional cover I’ve ever done for the company.  I was told, when I delivered the final pages of the last issue, that I’d have another job in a month. I stopped waiting five weeks later.

TW: Some years ago, you wrote for television. I’m guessing it was your experience in the comic industry that led to working on the original The Flash and Mutant X series. I hoped you could discuss that experience. Was it enjoyable? How did it compare with creating comics?

HC: I was lucky enough to be hired on The Flash, despite my complete uninterest in the character or the genre, for that matter.  They got me incredibly cheap, but in return, I learned a brand-new skillset.  Mutant X was my last television series, and was a rank piece of shit, but not the worst show I ever served on.  That would be Earth: Final Conflict, which was apocalyptically dreadful.  It should be noted that I never worked on a television series I’d watch, but I did the best work I could in the service of junk, and in return I acquired a measure of financial security which I could never have found in comic books, lacking as I do, as noted, a commercial footprint or following.  The Flash, and the other series I worked on for Bilson and DeMeo, was a good experience.  My work for Tribune ranks as a truly shitty couple of years, working, for the most part, for people I would gladly hear had they all been diagnosed with painfully lethal illnesses.

TW: Given the “Golden Age of Television” we are experiencing now with so many streaming sites etc…. would you ever consider writing for television again? Have there been any recent opportunities? As you indicated it is profitable medium to work within.

HC: I have never been solicited, and I would be rebuffed if I sought out work, as an old man.  Anecdotally, at a celebration of the twenty-five years that had passed since The Flash  had tanked on CBS, one of the executive producers of the current iteration, who has since been ejected into the abyss for well-documented sexual harassment-based misbehaviours, spent most of the event barely able to conceal his anticipatory terror at any of the writers from the original series who were attending approaching him for work.  I certainly did not, and I don’t believe any of the others did, either …And for the record, the money is still better than comics, but unless you’ve got a housekeeping deal with a studio or production company, it isn’t what it was, even in the shitburg of syndicated television, a market that no longer exists.

TW: Can I take that as a solid No?

HC: Fuck, yes.

TW: In your career, were you ever invited to write within the computer games industry? I know several “named” writers have been and it is a lucrative industry. Have those opportunities ever come your way?

HC: I have had a number of experiences in that world, some profitable, some frustrating.  I might add that I have no interest whatsoever in videogaming, a form of entertainment that demands of me aspects of participation which I have no desire to provide.  I never understood the choose your own adventure stuff, either.

TW: So, I guess my final question is simple. What precisely does the future hold for Howard Chaykin? Where do your ambitions lay current…. or even for the next five years, for example?

HC: I’m seventy-two. I take my life one day at a time.  At this juncture, I would prefer to die before I go blind, as my ophthalmologist assures me will be the case, and to die before the tsunami washes my street into the Pacific, of which no assurances are available.  Beyond that, my friends, colleagues and associates are all aware they are expected to get laughs at my memorial, at my or anyone’s expense, and that the pissing on my grave will begin well before the worms have done more than preliminary work.

TW: I mean no disrespect, but I believe your tombstone will read far more positively than you might anticipate. You have fans. I refuse end our chat on such a negative note. I do not accept your perspective…. so, I ask you one final question. What is the one comic you have produced that you would say you are truly proud of? The pinnacle of your career if you will?

HC: Time Squared.

HC: Understand, none of this is said in any way self-deprecatory.   I am fully aware of how good I am at my job.  I am also fully aware that I operate by and with a set of standards, interests, curiosities and experiences which I don’t share with the vast majority of comic book enthusiasts–at their loss, to be sure. Despite their ignorance of this fact, awash as they are in hypnotic junk aimed at arrested adolescents, many nearing retirement age.  And for the record, my requested tombstone epitaph reads, “INFORMED ENTHUSIASM FOUND WANTING BY IGNORANT INDIFFERENCE.”

TW: It would certainly give a good stonemason a reasonable challenge, if you’ll accept that in the spirit the comment is meant.

HC:  With gusto, delight and love.  And in regard to stonemasons everywhere, the only actual delight I experienced in the ridiculously long overdue and insultingly delivered Eisner Hall of Fame nonsense was a photograph of a gravestone, engraved, to my joy, with the word, “SPINNING.” One can only hope.

 

The post Tripwire Speaks To Comics Legend Howard Chaykin appeared first on TRIPWIRE MAGAZINE.

Raising The Flagg Tripwire’s contributing writer Paul N Neal spoke to industry legend and Prince of Comics Howard Chaykin this summer and here’s his exclusive interview… TRIPWIRE: I would like to start by simply asking how as a young gentleman you discovered comics. What were the first comics you recall enjoying? HOWARD CHAYKIN: In the
The post Tripwire Speaks To Comics Legend Howard Chaykin appeared first on TRIPWIRE MAGAZINE.Read MoreTRIPWIRE MAGAZINE

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