Monday, February 10, 2014

HOWARD CHAYKIN: TALKIN' BOUT MY GENERATION Pt. II



Howard Chaykin was the best cartoonist of my generation..We were a impetuous group of youngsters who jumped at the chance to work for DC and Marvel during comics post-Code rebirth. We came after Steranko and ended with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. We began in an era of political turmoil with the  energy, idealism and the mania for change indicative of our age. We ended, like so many of our contemporaries, absorbed into  the system. But it was a long strange fun ride along the way. Chaykin epitomises that ride.

He was brash. He was charming. He was vitriolic. He was profane. He was never dull. Like Shaw, Howard saw things that never were and said, “Why not?” His only formal training was to work as an apprentice to both Gil Kane and Wally Wood, and while he drove them nuts he was soaking  their environment up, so that even in his earliest works at DC,  filled with a mish mash of influences, there was a polish.  It didn’t show on the surface, but in the crude lines there was a well planned design.



Unable to compete with the slick anal inking style popular at the time, Howard abandoned it and took a major leap forward when (like his idols Toth and Fawcett) he tossed out the traditional pens and brushes and began inking with markers. He had learned the technique doing advertising boards at Neal Adam's studio. In comics he perfected it. His drawings suddenly  sharpened and came into focus with  a high-contrast black and white style. There was minimal rendering. The work had a life and spontaneity unparalleled by the machine-like shellackers.

With the graphic novel Empire,  by Samuel Delany, he added full color. It was a first. We had seen graphic novels before, but Chaykin was the first one ambitious enough to paint the entire book with marker and opaque paint, again using skills learned in advertising. It was innovative; it was gorgeous. It barely paid the bills. But Chaykin persevered.
(One of the Blackhawk pages I pencilled)



Most (not ALL)  artists who had come into comics in the 40’s and 50’s did so because they were failed admen or illustrators. They had to settle for comics. My generation was the first where  to work in the industry was an end in itself. We loved comics...read them...studied them, and thought they were the apex of all art forms. 

As a result our standards were considerably lower.  We weren’t schooled in the disciplines of drawing. We all admired  Toth, Kubert,Jack Davis, Wood, but we didn’t truly understand that only by reaching beyond them could we surpass them. It meant hard work- it also meant taking chances, it meant losing out on money. So most of us settled for less- Chaykin never did. And he wasn’t shy about telling the comic book powers that be what he thought of their anti-creativity. Howard then moved beyond comics to illustration.


(Those little news reporters up in the corner are really our creative team: Chaykin, Richard Ory, John Moore, Ken Bruzenak,Tony Vanderwalle and myself.)

There were a number of wonderfully talented young illustrators working in comics. Jeff Jones was as an excellent painter. Barry Smith and Mike Kaluta used intricate decorative styles with carefully composed figures.  Bernie Wrightson had burst onto the scene with drawings so filled with excitement and mystery that they had a universal appeal. But in there struggle for excellence, as mentioned before, the amount of material they could produce was limited; in the periodical business this is anathema.

Howard avoided this by developing working methods that maintained   the qualities of illustration, but were produced within a deadline. His bible was the Famous Illustrator’s course.He worked very hard on the discipline of drawing and seeing. He studied graphics and their ability to communicate an idea quickly. He minimalized. There were weaknesses, but these were addressed and resolved in the next job. And unlike most of the competition, Chaykin was CONTEMPORARY.

(A couple of the Black Kiss pages I pencilled from Chaykin's layouts.)

It was only fitting that Howard illustrated the initial Star Wars series, since that film changed so much for our industry. At about the same time he was making a major career change to writing. Cody Starbuck and Monarch Starstalker were early efforts. Then came American Flagg, the most rollicking, fun-filled, action-packed, sophisticated satire to ever hit comics.

All of the successful writer/artists at that time were basically sons of Jack Kirby and it was rare to seem someone successfully create alternative material. Everyone stayed in the shadow of Kirby and his  simplistic heroic slugfests. Howard was the only cartoonist of that era who emerged as a major comicbook talent without ever being connected with a superhero book. We once joked to each other that while most of our contemporaries fantasized about ripping off their shirts to reveal a Superman or Batman costume, our fantasy was to be wearing tuxedos like Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire.

When American Flagg  came along it was a gift to the world of comics. While I enjoy Frank Miller’s stories I’d never want to go out to dinner with one of his characters- the opposite was true with the Chaykin cast. His people were witty, intelligent, alive; they spoke real dialogue, not exposition. They weren’t drawn from a comics background, but rather from Chaykin’s love of the silver screen, a library of books and his own fascinating life.

Comics had always been simplistic: the forces of good against the forces of evil. Once you destroyed (fill in the blank:monsters, mobsters, Commies, Germans,Jews, Indians, the British, etc.) this would be a better world and us good guys could get on with it. Stan Lee created an entire comicbook company based on the premise that even superheroes had foibles. Chaykin's writing went way beyond that; he understood that the eternal battle of good versus evil was an internal one fought within the soul.

Unfortunately, Flagg was published by one of the most miserably mis-managed companies in any field. The audience was never as wide or the rewards as great as they should have been. It was a controversial book. If ever there was a comicbook property that screamed to be adapted to film, it was American Flagg. But it was too far ahead of it's time for this to happen. And now that every film seems to be a remix of some comic project, it's a little too late.

Howard returned to DC to do the Shadow and Blackhawk and his critics ranted about  the sexual content and moral ambiguity of his protagonists.But the books were tremendously popular.

One of the other important things that Howard learned from doing Flagg was the difficulty of trying to produce monthly books entirely by oneself. Having been an apprentice in the shop system working with Gil Kane and Wally Wood, he started bringing in others to help him in the process. He was already working with Ken Bruzenak, arguably the best young letterer in the business. Now Chaykin started bringing in assistants to help him with production issues :ruling boarders,erasing,cutting zip-a-tone, filling in blacks,backgrounds as well as with the writing. As he was a brilliant organizer and art director, this system was an extremely efficient one for him and he could increase his output without diminishing the quality of the work.

Since he had moved to LA recently at that time, I hooked up with him and became part of the studio to help with a new run of American Flagg. Working in that environment was an education in itself. I was also "ghosting" some of pencils on his current project Blackhawk, and the first couple of episodes of Black Kiss. Creatively is was a dream.

Comics are a young man’s business. Talent and longevity are not qualities that the field rewards; the opposite is usually true. It wasn’t a surprise that Chaykin  eventually would move beyond comics. The choices were to continue as a serious illustrator or break into writing for movies and TV. He  gave up drawing in favor of writing as a primary focus. Most were surprised by this. The reality was as an artist, he would be confined to the limited scope of the emerging comics field, the ever decreasing occupation of illustrator, or designated to design someone else's ideas in film. That wasn't Chaykin.

Time has past and Howard has left what was  very successful writing career in TV and returned to the world of comics. I greatly admire him for being able to accept the change and to leave that world behind. And quite honestly, I have been so removed from the field in the past decade that my own knowledge of what he is doing this days is minimal. We had a falling out over a project I had developed called "Hunt and Peck", which eventually became "Power and Glory." While we resolved the issue legally, we've both gone our separate ways and as with most of the folks I knew from that era, we really don't keep in touch anymore. One of the difficulties with working as a free-lancer is that you're involved with numerous short term creative relationships that end with the project.
(My original conception of Hunt and Peck and below are a couple of the pages from my pitch to Epic.)



When I think of our generation I'm reminded of a quote from the great illustrator Ken Riley who said, "It's easy enough to be a genius at twenty five. The trick is to still be one at fifty." With all the fire and enthusiasm we seemed to have had, we still never really produced anyone with a stature of an Eisner, a Kirby, a Toth, a Kubert, or even a Buscema. Perhaps the field itself has become so narrow and prescribed that it is just too difficult to move into that charmed realm. We'll have to wait and see history's final pronouncement on our place in the field, but having the opportunity to have worked during that time I can only say it was a dream to be  cherished.

6 comments:

  1. As usual, thank you very much for sharing your memories.
    I don't know if Chaykin is actually the best your generation produced, he surely was one of the most original artists in comic books of the time. I still hold the first original American Flagg issue as a holy relic, even if that series was partly published in Italian magazine L'Eternauta and in comparison with Moebius' or Eleuteri Serpieri's works it didn't seem that awesome.
    Recently (less than ten years ago) Chaykin realized a comic book for Italian label BuenaVista Lab: Century West. I don't know if it ever appeared in USA.

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    1. Reprinted by Image comics last year. A nice enough tale marred only by the fact that everyone has the same chin.

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  2. Reading yiur post I thought at first that Chaykin had died. It was like one of the stars of my childhood had gone out. He is probably the closest thing to Alex Toth our generation has, although Toth would hate the lewd and bawdy excesses of Chaykins work.. I dont really buy comics anymore but Chaykins name still catches my eye in a bookstore occasionally.

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  3. I disagree about Chaykin on Star Wars. Those books were garbage...far below Chaykin's abilities. Looks like he hacked it out over a weekend. Lucas wanted Al Williamson but he was busy with the X-9 strip. As we see with the ESB adaptation, Lucas was right. Star Wars requires a classic approach, not whatever Chaykin was trying to get away with. (Roy Thomas tried to excuse the art in later letters pages but it was totally unconvincing.)

    The other time I was unhappy to see Chaykin's work was Hawkgirl. That was an abrupt 180 for a series that was well liked by its buyers. Fan disapproval was strong as the series soon died.

    Other than those two, I think highly of Chaykin's work. I absolutely loved his recent Buck Rogers series.

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  4. "With all the fire and enthusiasm we seemed to have had, we still never really produced anyone with a stature of an Eisner, a Kirby, a Toth, a Kubert, or even a Buscema."

    I think John Byrne has that stature or pretty close. And maybe George Perez. Byrne remains productive with monthly books, something the above artists were not doing in their latter years. He seems to never have much down time, a rarity for any age of artist in recent times.

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  5. John might agree with you. I certainly wouldn't.

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