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Howard's End?
Excerpt from ¡Journalista! for December 12, 2006
(Note: Red text indicates a dead link.)

 

"Who cares if inspiration's gone? Life's safe in this here stall. I'll give the fans just what they want, and nothing else at all!"
- Jello Biafra

 

I don't believe in attaching special significance to coincidence as anything other than an amusing source of irony. Fate is random, and the ability to see a hidden hand at work in the confluence of events is little more than a human need to see recognizable designs in elements untouched by any kind of designer — like Da Vinci's advice that artists could gain inspiration by looking for images in the patterns found in stucco walls (sfumo, he called it, the Italian word for smoke).

So I suppose I really shouldn't read anything into the fact that I stumbled across this A.V. Club blog post by critic Nathan Rabin, on the subject of celebrities living past their sell-by dates, on the same day that I finally got around to picking up the first issue of Howard Chaykin's latest fumble, Guy Gardner: Collateral Damage... should I?

Rabin writes:

Take Woody Allen. If he'd died in 1992 after making Husbands And Wives he'd be revered as a genius gagsmith who matured slowly but surely into a master filmmaker whose heady, cerebral films wrestled with profound moral and philosophical issues.

But Allen didn't die in 1992. And the stunning work ethic that fueled his 70s and 80s heyday became his undoing. He became an autopilot auteur cranking out a terrible-to-mediocre movie every fucking year (Sweet & Lowdown excluded). Critics and audiences that once swooned over the prospect of a new Allen movie came to dread Allen's new releases or at least view them with the trainwreck fascination of someone watching a 46-year-old Rickey Henderson play for a minor league team. Of course Everything Else doesn’t make Annie Hall any less of a masterpiece. But fourteen years of Everything Else's have seriously degraded Allen's once formidable legacy.

 

Times2's protagonist, kinetic sculptor Maxim Glory, deals with the situation in this sequence from the first of two volumes, The Epiphany. ©1986 First Comics, Inc. and Howard Chaykin, Inc.

 

From all appearances, the same thing Rabin describes seems to be happening happening to Chaykin. I'm still not sure what to make of it. You still occasionally hear people reminiscing about the highwater mark in genre comics towards the end of 1980s, with Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins' Watchmen usually mentioned as the pinnacle. At the time, however, Howard Chaykin's name was being bandied about with the same awestruck tone. Armed with a drawing style that owed more to J.C. Leyendecker than Jack Kirby, a storytelling sensibility closer to Raymond Chandler than Chris Claremont, and design chops seemingly on loan from God, Chaykin produced work during the 1980s that in many ways still has yet to be equalled by anyone creating adventure comics to this day. American Flagg!, Time2, Blackhawk, The Shadow: these were graphically challenging works of surprising and lasting storytelling sophistication, capable of entertaining thinking adults like few other works being produced outside the still-embryonic art-comics scene at the time. An implied blowjob scene from Blackhawk, not actually depicted but suggested through clever use of juxtaposition and framing, shocked DC Comics' readership but signalled that Chaykin was an artist capable of anything. The comics that he'd already created, as well as what was to come, did nothing to dispel the notion.

If the works he produced during this period were a bit uneven when compared to one another — the second Time2 album, The Satisfaction of Black Mariah, was little more than an extended joke with a demonic cop fucking his car as the punchline — the benchmarks that Chaykin set for himself were still higher than anyone else working genre comics not named Miller or Moore was capable of hitting. A minor Howard Chaykin comic was by definition more interesting and readable than a major John Byrne success. Chaykin commanded top dollar and got it, and no one ever questioned whether or not the money was well-spent. When he began creating his hardcore vampire pornography series Black Kiss for Vortex Comics, it seemed for a brief moment like the last wall had been knocked over, and nobody could imagine anyone but Chaykin doing the honors.

 

A clever mix of framing, page design and typography turn a few simple elements into a tense moment in Howard Chaykin's radical reworking of the old DC Comics WWII series Blackhawk. ©1988 DC Comics, Inc.

 

Alas, Chaykin made a right-turn toward Hollywood, where he spent the better part of a decade or so earning top dollar by supervising scripts for such forgettable television series as The Flash and Generation X, his comics work slowly dribbling to a halt with three final projects: Power and Glory, which turned the superhero into an empty celebrity facade stage-managed by a CIA agent; Midnight Sons, which stripped much of the superheroics away to revel in almost pure vigilantism and its implications; and the 1996 revisionist Batman album Dark Allegiances, which reimagined Bruce Wayne as a liberal, pre-WWII industrial designer using the mask to combat Washington fascists trying to drag the United States into war on Hitler's side. Alas, these comics' releases went all but unnoticed. By this point, the Image- and Wizard-fueled collectability boom had gone bust, taking much of the Direct Market into the toilet as it drained, and the readers who once bought Howard Chaykin's work had largely abandoned the medium. For a while, it seemed, so did Chaykin himself.

 

Bruce Wayne, meet... oh, I see you're already familiar with the Chancellor's work, then. Detail of a panel from Batman: Dark Allegiances, ©1996 DC Comics.

 

He returned to comics at the dawn of the 21st century, this time as a writer working with partner David Tischman, but while there were a few gems in the resulting pile of comics (notably the vampires-in-Miami crime comic, Bite Club), the rest were overwhelmingly forgettable. Even since he's begun drawing again, the duds have come more often than the bullseyes — for every successful comic like Challengers of the Unknown, Chaykin's remaining fans have had to sit through such turkeys as the superhero romance bomb Mighty Love and the by-the-numbers American Flagg!-wannabe City of Tomorrow. His issue of the DC showcase title Solo had its moments, but tellingly, the most successful thing he's done lately wasn't comics at all but illustration: His drawings for the pulp-fiction issue of McSweeney's, which allowed Chaykin to indulge his passion for hard-edged urban thrillers.

The kind of audience that would buy Howard Chaykin's work largely no longer exists, of course, at least in the Direct Market — comics shops and their customers want decadent superhero comics geared towards bored thirty-year-olds, and the contradictions of the genre simply cannot hold enough sustained reference to the Real World of Adults to allow for the kind of serious subversion at which Chaykin excells. (He did it in Dark Allegiances and Power and Glory by tossing most of the genre's accumulated clichés out the window and rewriting the rest to suit his needs, but it's an option sadly no longer available to him under current circumstances.) It's likely for this reason that we're getting comics like Guy Gardner: Collateral Damage instead. It's not a bad comic, exactly; while Chaykin's enough of a commercial artist to give his clients the Green Lantern moments expected of him, you can still see the old subversive storyteller peeking in around the edges from time to time. Unfortunately, the results are still a Green Lantern comic with touches of Chaykin, rather than a Howard Chaykin comic with touches of Green Lantern. Hell, this book's in continuity, for crying out loud. What idiot editor restricts Howard Chaykin to continuity?

(As for Chaykin's comics illustration-for-hire work: What little I've seen of his run on Marvel's Blade has been top-notch, but the less said about the Hawkgirl run he made with Walt Simonson, the better.)

 

Another example of Chaykin's graphic wizardry, from Challengers of the Unknown; ©2004 DC Comics.

 

All that said, things aren't necessarily as bleak, and Chaykin isn't as late-model Woody Allen, as I'm making it all sound. In an interview originally published in Back Issue and now available at Comic Book Bin, Chaykin mentions several "personal projects" in the pipeline, including a Black Kiss prequel and a book based around ideas found in Greek myth. An interview at Silver Bullet Comics mentions a book currently being produced for Europe, a Western set at the dawn of the 20th century called Century West, which is slated for English-language release sometime next year. It's entirely possible that the current batch of Chaykin comics is but a brief lull before a new wave of books from the artist whose work used to make heads spin as a matter of course. Again, such work is almost guaranteed to tank in the Direct Market, but with the growing interest in graphic novels geared towards the bookstore arena, a smart publisher could surely find a way to put it in front of readers likelier to appreciate Chaykin's particular gifts.

For that matter, Howard Chaykin is on good terms with a comic-book publisher that still, despite everything, shows every possibility of figuring out how to crack the Barnes & Noble nut: DC Comics. With its recently-announced Minx line, DC has surprised onlookers by demonstrating that it has at least half a clue as to what the company has been doing wrong up to now. If the Minx line justifies itself enough to make DC executives accept the idea of producing work that can't be sold at your local Hero Hut, Chaykin would be an ideal creator for a new push in other directions. Further, DC is sitting on a small treasure trove of classic Chaykin stories, ripe for presenting to new markets: Blackhawk in particular, but also The Shadow and even Dark Allegiances, though the central presence of Batman ironically makes the latter a tougher sell. Timed right, a mix of old and new work could result in a marketplace invasion that might make real-world critics and bookbuyers make notice, especially if the long-planned American Flagg! volumes ever get around to hitting the shelves.

Things don't look good at the moment, and the quarter-million dollars DC is spending on Minx may, ironically enough, lead to a retrenchment in more familiar territory if the resulting books don't sell enough copies in the short term, but even if DC Comics can't make proper use of the talent available to them, surely someone else can. That's a fair number of ifs, to be sure, but I like Howard Chaykin's work far too much to write him off. Here's hoping I don't have to.

 

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