Howard Chaykin: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi)

Editor Brannon Costello and the University Press of Mississippi spotlight one of the most important and influential writer/artists to enter comics in the past four decades.

304 pgs., B&W; $40
(W: Various; Edited by Brannon Costello)
Half a century hence, a glitzy musical entitled Chaykin! could blitz that era’s Great White Way—and if so, much of its libretto could easily derive from Howard Chaykin: Conversations, edited by Brannon Costello.
“A theatrical production based on the life of a…a comic book creator?” one can almost hear panjandra of the proscenium sniffing. “Surely not!” Yet through no fault of its own, Costello’s compulsively readable compendium of interviews with the comics creator in question would certainly support such a whimsy, insofar as it portrays a nonstop controversialist with a wit and an aesthetic alike as sharp as a straight razor.
Howard Chaykin: Conversations, which tops 300 pages, opens with a seven-page introduction from Costello, an associate professor of English at Louisiana State University, and a six-page chronology of its subject’s life and career to date; it closes with a 13-page index, a lagniappe not exactly common in comics-related tomes even in these enlightened times. The University Press of Mississippi issued it earlier this spring as part of the Conversations With Comic Artists series under the general editorship of M. Thomas Inge, pop culture scholar extraordinaire.
The bulk of the book comprises 16 interviews—15 reprints from various sources and a 39-page original from Costello conducted last year. All but three hew to the simple question-and-answer format, illustrated fairly liberally with published examples of Chaykin’s work from all stages of his career.
The reprints range in length from five pages to a whopping 54 (the latter from Jon B. Cooke’s Comic Book Artist). In date of publication, they range from 1975 to 2005; the majority, eight, originated in the ’80s—arguably Chaykin’s bonanza period as a writer/artist—with another two each from the ’70s and ’90s and three from “the aughts.”
The first two reprints, incidentally, should each constitute a blast from the past for comics aficionados in general and for aficionados from St. Louis (the situs of this site) in particular. To wit, the opener bears the byline of Dave Sim, from an interview the crusty Canadian conducted roughly two years before unleashing Cerebus the Aardvark on an unsuspecting world. Following it is a Q&A from St. Louisans Jerry Durrwachter, Ed Mantels, and Kenn Thomas, published in the local fanzine Whizzard (which long antedated the similarly titled but meatheaded comics mag that recently went pixel and which, in the spirit of full disclosure, sometimes included exceedingly inconsequential contributions from this review’s author).
Throughout the interviews, Chaykin shoots from the lip—quite delightfully. An example? “A lot of comics tend to view their readership as a bunch of morons,” he tells two interlocutors in 1984. “I think readers are attuned to be morons by what they read. I don’t think morons create moron material. Moron material creates a moron audience.” Hallelujah, brother Howard!
He subsequently explicates that dire state of affairs in conversation with science fictionist Edward Bryant: “Most comic book writers are marginally literate; most comic book artists are worse. I think comics still, with a very few exceptions, have been written with a very limited range of dialogue, vocabulary, and thought.”
From a lesser auteur, of course, such a denunciation might inevitably stand revealed as mere snark or backdoor hype. As inveterate comics devotees know, though, Chaykin has long walked the walk in addition to talking the talk, especially during his landmark ’80s run: American Flagg! at First, his Shadow miniseries for DC, the Time² duet again at First, the Blackhawk miniseries again for DC, and the blissfully infamous Black Kiss at Vortex.
Customarily informing his better work, as he explains at some length to Bryant in 1985, is a repudiation of much of the mainstream: “I’m not interested in the ethos expressed in most modern comics. I’m not interested in the level of craft maintained in the writing or the art. It bores my butt off. What I was trying to do with Flagg! was to create a book that somewhat compromised the position, that looked like a commercial comic book, that didn’t have the patina of the ‘graphic novel,’ so that it could be disregarded as simply an aberration or a pimple. That it looked like a mainstream comic book, that it felt like a mainstream comic book, that it used to an alarming degree, to some people I’m sure, all the appliances and emblems of mainstream comics, down to the point of occasionally having the characters speak with exclamation points over their heads. And yet was about stuff that hadn’t even been considered in comic books before.”
Almost predictably, Chaykin’s candor encompasses other industry practitioners. At one point, for example, he characterizes Marvel’s late-’80s/early-’90s output under Mark Gruenwald and Tom DeFalco as “comic books that look like cereal premiums.”
In analyzing the industry, moreover, he apparently knows no fear, even when discussing potential employers like the erstwhile publisher of a now-defunct company called…WildStorm. “I am far from a cynic,” he assures an interviewer in 1994. “I think Jim Lee is a cynic. He is clearly far brighter than his audience. You don’t get out of Princeton without being a little smarter than the average comic book reader. Yet he produces some of the most idiotic work I’ve ever seen.”
Yet scarcely all of Chaykin’s reflections constitute tirades, as when, to Cooke, he assesses a comics giant to whom he once served as an assistant: “There was a sense of outrage to Wallace Wood’s stuff. Woody was the archetypal liberal mugged by reality. His politics start out popular front populist liberal—then, by the late ’60s, he codifies into this unpleasant race-baiting man. His self-loathing was intense. But the work from the early ’50s, the Shock SuspenStories in particular, is gut-wrenching.”
Tellingly, one major name seems to appear nowhere in Howard Chaykin: Conversations: Will Eisner. A pity, that. Based on a remark or two Chaykin made at a convention here late last summer, he scorned the earlier innovator, and especially given the congruent formal impact that each man’s work had on comics of his respective era, it would have made intriguing reading to learn the reasons for Chaykin’s scorn.
Almost perforce, furthermore, Chaykin’s barbs sometimes target society beyond the comics industry. “I believe the only way you can deal with politics in popular terms is to trivialize it to a human scale,” he relates to comics journalist Paul Gravett in 1988. “I’ve insisted that the real issue of the Cold War for my generation was not to be nuked to kingdom come before we lost our virginity.”
Also, as one of his comments to Costello hints, Chaykin has scarcely mellowed with age: “I think the Tea Party is the perfect example of the rabble being manipulated by the ruling class, and they embrace their rabbleness as a sense of identity—‘Yeah we’re an uncontrolled mob!’ They’re being manipulated by people who have no interest in their interests and who are simply using them in the same way that Johnny was used to kill other Johnnys in every war that this country has fought.”
Given its form, of course, Howard Chaykin: Conversations suffers from a measure of repetitiousness. In that respect, although the ’80s work inarguably deserves the attention and acclaim given it here, informed readers may well regret the comparative paucity of coverage accorded, say, Mighty Love from 2003 or City of Tomorrow from 2005—let alone Century West, a 2006 Disney (!) graphic novel available solely in Italy and Spain. A bit more on the tragically stillborn third Time² album also would have been lovely. Still, such criticism borders on Monday-morning quarterbacking.
Otherwise, though copyediting and proofreading alike appear to be turning into dying arts today, seemingly few typos, happily enough, mar Costello’s compilation. A reference in the Whizzard interview to “John Shonehair,” for instance, almost certainly involves a mistranscription of the surname of John Schoenherr (1935–2010), “regarded by some critics as the finest SF artist of his generation,” according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Similarly, in a Back Issue Q&A by Philip Schweier, a mention of “Lenny Regenstadt” (not indexed, by the way) probably constitutes a wing shot at Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003), the über-controversial, if disquietingly gifted, German director and actress.
In a related way, a discreet tweak to the Comic Book Artist whopper could have clarified “Y.E.,” the credit at the end of its intro, as a whimsical abbreviation of Cooke’s (“Ye Editor”).
Ultimately, however, such quibbles pale beside Costello’s achievement in assembling this material, particularly inasmuch as his subject (who just launched a serial, “Marked Man,” in the debut of the resurrected Dark Horse Presents) apparently remains as committed as ever to comics. In that regard, Howard Chaykin: Conversations warrants inclusion in the personal library of anyone devoted to the medium’s past, its present—and its future. | Bryan A. Hollerbach
Each Monday, Bryan A. Hollerbach contributes “Rude Chapbooks,” a grumpy, prolix comic book–related review column, to PLAYBACK:stl. He also belongs to the GatewayCity’s Ink and Drink Comics collective, now readying its third anthology. Hollerbach has been reading comics of all kinds for four-plus decades without apparent detriment to his faculties and, with somewhat more wear and tear, has toiled in St. Louis as a professional writer and editor since 1990.

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