HOWARD CHAYKIN

This interview was conducted 07/06/2019

There are few people in life and in comics who truly need no introduction. Our next interviewee is one such person.

Ladies and Gentleman I give you Howard Victor Chaykin- A Prince!

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What was your introduction to comics as a child?

I was introduced to comic books at the age of four, when two older cousins gave me a refrigerator packing crate half filled with every kind of comic book known to man at the time.  I decided that day that this was what I wanted to be.

You worked under some real giants of the industry such as Gil Kane and Wally Wood could you tell us a little about how that all came about and what you gained from working with them?

I learned through the fan grapevine that Gil’s assistant had died.   I called him up and got to replace him as a gofer and clean up man.  It must be understood—I was talent free.

I met Wallace Wood through Gray Morrow, for whom I later ghosted several jobs, and worked as a penciler for Woody.  Again, it must be clear—I had nothing to offer, and Woody was so powerful an inker and a talent that he could, with a brush, coalesce anything into a presentable piece of work.

All this notwithstanding, my near year with Gil was the most educational of my life up to that point.  Watching him work, and listening to him talk taught me almost everything I needed to know—and to this day, those lessons define my professional life in a profound and real way.

After your apprenticeship with Neal Adams you struck out on your own for want of a better phrase doing various works for a number of companies.

My “apprenticeship” with Neal was brief, and in truth, he was directly responsible for convincing, not to say browbeating, editors at DC to give me work.  In that regard, Joe Orlando taught me volumes about navigating the hostile corridors of DC comics, hostile because Carmine Infantino despised Gil Kane—this loathing was mutual—and I was tarred by my relationship with Gil.

In the next few years you produced material for Heavy Metal, produced illustrations for works by Roger Zelazny and in 1978 drew a graphic novel adaptation of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination .He was a good designer but he seemed to have something against word balloons! He called Stars “one of the first sophisticated ‘full colour’ American graphic novels”; modest as hell and decided to get Baronet to publish it, after their modest success in 1978 with A Contract with God. Unfortunately, after publishing Stars Vol 1 in 1979, Baronet went out of business. Epic (Marvel) published the complete work in 1992 but is it true you only agreed to it on the condition that the book would state that the work was done over ten years ago?

Byron had what I have to say was a love hate relationship with comics.  Like many dilettantes, he felt he could improve the medium without actually having any true ground level experience with the craft, beyond fanboy enthusiasm laced with a frisson of contempt.

And I don’t recall any fiat that you mention—but it has been decades.

Preiss says in his introduction that he designed the panel configurations for each page and added that “The collaboration was not easy. It was an enormous amount of work for Howard and he did not readily agree with all of my panel decisions… Yet Howard’s work was, in my opinion, some of his best.”

Byron was a bright guy, but nowhere nearly as bright as he believed. In his adaptation of the novel, he missed a number of Bester’s allusions, taking them literally.  I felt the book was over designed in a way that never took actual advantage of the comics medium—and was a perfect example of a writer, with no visual sensibility whatsoever, dictation the visual translation of a literary idea to inept result.

I think the work does stand the test of time.

Eh.

It’s such a great book and some of the pages are so good that I’m actually rereading it right now, some 40 years after it started. How did you enjoy working with Preiss and what did you think at the time about his insistence on the unusual design?

I loved the novel, and hated working with Byron’s layout.

You also collaborated on two original graphic novels — Swords of Heaven, Flowers of Hell with writer Michael Moorcock. How did that come about?

The first book I did for Byron was an original, EMPIRE, in collaboration with Chip Delany.

THE SWORDS OF HEAVEN, THE FLOWERS OF HELL was not done with Byron.  Moorcock and I communicated, and he agreed to do a story of the ETERNAL CHAMPION for Heavy Metal.  I gather I’m on his shit list now.

Through the late 70s and early 80s you worked in paperback cover illustration what took you in that direction?

I had a screaming match with Marvel’s then EIC Jim Shooter over a decision he’d made on a piece of work I’d done for him.  I took this as a metaphor for an invitation to leave comics, and did for a few years.

I did paperbacks, but I never developed my skillsets as a painter beyond a very limited and not completely professional state.  I was doing okay, but I knew I’d never become a serious illustration talent.

In 1983 you launched the wonderful and highly influential American Flagg!  Was this the arrival of you as a brand?

That’s very kind of you—but, yes to toot my own horn, it was highly influential, not so much on the audience but on talent.

And yes, this was the defining moment when I went from a mediocre hack to become a serious cartoonist, writing and drawing in equal measure to generally good effect.

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Why did you choose to publish it through First Comics?

They asked me.  Working for Byron had ruined me financially.  I was in debt up to my proverbial ass, credit cards run out to the edge of the borderlands.  First Comics’ offer saved my life.

After the fact, Jenette Kahn asked me why I had never offered it to DC.  She disagreed with my response, which boiled down to my convinced belief that DC, or any other company with history, would never have published the book as delivered.  It needed a publisher that was a tabula rasa, bereft of baggage.

After doing 26 issues of Flagg you went to work on new projects the first of these being your revamp of The Shadow for DC. That series brought the Shadow into a contemporary setting what was the thinking behind that?

I accepted the assignment the day I took out a lease on what turned out to be my first home in Southern California, with the move planned for that autumn. I assumed they offered it to me as an artist who’d demonstrated an interest in mid 1930s style stuff, with an additional assumption that I’d carry on with what had been done by Kaluta and O’Neil.

I had no interest in this, nor in doing a nostalgic take on a moribund character.  Rather, I saw this as an opportunity to see how a man born in the late 19th century would function or not in the late 20th.

To be clear, I never had any idea that I’d offend Harlan Ellison so completely.  This was an unexpected result, and a delight unto itself.

The American Flagg! Special introduced Time². That was a very personal work for you wasn’t it?

It was, and remains so.  I’m closing in on completion of the third and final volume this week or next, which will close the door on this work.

Am I correct in saying you liked Blackhawks enough to steal it as a child? If so you must have got a kick out of revamping the title.

This is true.  And yes, I loved doing the reboot of BLACKHAWK.  I’ve offered my services to do this again at DC, to no response.

In 1988 you created Black Kiss at Vortex Comics and their usual printer refused to print the book due to its content. It really brought the hard-boiled crime genre back into comics with a bang and was immensely popular with those that read it due to your storytelling. Where did the idea for that series come from?

It was twofold.  One, it came to light that Carmine and Stan had met in private to create a rating system for comics—basically a new code.  I regarded this as retrogressive bullshit.

I happened to be walking on Madison Ave in September of 1985, a couple of weeks before I moved west.  I saw, at the end of the block, a woman I’d dated some years before.  When I neared her, it turned out not to be her, but a transvestite who was her dead ringer.

I filed this, and used this experience as the springboard for BLACK KISS three years later.

In the 80s we lost you to television. How did that appear on your horizon?

It was the ‘90s, actually. My reasons for moving two southern California were twofold, as well.  One, I could no longer accommodate the weather of the east.  Two, I realized that despite the attention FLAGG! generated, that attention never really materialized in sales.

I had no prospects, and recognized that if was going to survive, I needed another income stream.  I used the cachet FLAGG! generated in Hollywood to get an agent, who ultimately sold me out for chickenshit money to Warner           Bros television to staff THE FLASH.

I fired that agent—and remained in television in order to save my life, in much the same way that First had saved me in the early 1980s.

That said, skipping comics as a primary career in the 1990s means that when I returned to comics full time in 2002 there was a swarm of fans who had no idea who I was, or for that matter, what I’d contributed to the architecture of the modern comic book.

Curiosity and interest in history has never been a major factor in comic book enthusiasm.

Matt Faction said that Satellite Sam was Howard Chaykin fan fiction and I was wondering what your take on that was?

Needless to say, it was extraordinarily flattering.  As a result of that absence in the 1990s I mention above, Matt has a bigger footprint today than I do—so this might very likely confuse many of his fans.

The United States of Hysteria was a beautiful book. There was a real density of information on the page and I really enjoyed the fact that when I picked up the trade we heard from Ken Bruzenak talking about things such as placement and shape of word balloons and how the typeset through the middle of the page bridged panels and directed our attention. How much planning and thought goes into these elements?

That’s not UNITED, but THE DIVIDED STATES OF HYSTERIA—close reading is rewarded.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, Ken Bruzenak, to my mind, is the best letterer in the business.  And since unlike all too many of comics talents, I don’t regard lettering as no more than a delivery system for text…but as a vital part of the graphic/narrative experience.

I gave Ken a direction in regard to creating a visual iteration of “internet chatter—” and what I got back was so much more than I could have imagined.  Every discipline in comics-writing, drawing, lettering, coloring-must be a distinctive and vital part of that graphic/narrative experience.

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What’s a typical working day for you like? You work with two assistants what parts of the work do you give over to them?

I work on a mission basis. I sit down at my desk at 9 AM, with a specific understanding of what must be completed before I close up shop.  If this work is completed by mid-afternoon, I have the afternoon off.  If it goes until dark, so do I.

I have one assistant covering my digital effects—pasteup, clean up and patterns.

My other assistant is a background and clean up man on hard copy.

The Ruff and Reddy Show was hilarious and a real fun book to read was it as much fun to write?

It was.  And despite DC’s promise not to censor, they certainly did.

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Hey Kids, Comics! is a very interesting approach to the history of the American comic book industry what made you want to tackle the subject?

I’ve spent fifty years listening to anecdotes from the men and women who preceded me in the comic book business, and it seemed like the perfect time to do what boils down to MADMEN in the comic book business.

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I know you have said previously that most characters are composites and avatars and you don’t like playing the name game but I wonder if you’d give us a nod to any hints of Patricia Highsmith or Joe Maneely that might be in there.

Among many others.

What are your plans for future volumes?

I’m in script right now for volume two, entitled HEY KIDS! COMICS! PROPHETS & LOSS.  It starts in 1950, and concludes in 1980.

The covers for Hey kids are fantastic how did they come about?

When I realized there were no continuity based inciting incidents that would make sense as covers for that first arc, I discussed solutions with Thomas K., my estimable editor—and we opted for photographic images.  I hired the wonderful Don Cameron who concocted all the covers digitally, executing the concepts brilliantly.

Having different artists on the fake comic books from Yankee and Verve really set them apart from the main book how did you go about choosing the artists for them?

All the faux covers in volume one were the work of Jed Dougherty and Ramon Torrez, with logos provided by the aforementioned giant, Ken Bruzenak.

Having worked for Gil Kane did you ever experience any problems working under Carmine Infantino at DC due to their well-known dislike from each other?

See remarks above in regard to Joe Orlando.

How has the industry changed since you started out?

It has shrunk dramatically, as the readership has aged with no real replacements for those aging out or dying.

Superhero comics have become so predominant in the mainstream that they have become the unfortunate yardstick against which all material is judged.

Writers have become the alphas, despite their frequent complete lack of understanding of telling a story visually.

You’ve been very vocal and correct in pointing out the fact that artists get the short end of the stick in comics and don’t get the recognition for doing for want of a better phrase the heavy lifting. How do you think we can change that perception?

I think it’s a matter of a more educated readership, for which I have no hope.  As any serious observer of comics can tell you, when you respond to the writing in a comic book, you are actually responding to the artist’s execution of the writer’s template.

In many cases, the reason for the writer’s alpha position is simply that writers tend to be shrewder in their career management, and artists mistake behaving like amateurs for putting one over on the man.

If the art talent comes to realize that this is a profession, not a hobby, and actually commits to learning how to be better story men, and not simply interested in the fleeting attention and affection of a not particularly discriminating audience, there might be a change, but my breath is not held.

I may be wrong but you strike me at this point as someone who doesn’t think as much about the past as you do the future. I say this as you seem to move from one project to the next very quickly and also favour a shorter series would that be correct?

From my perspective the model, the paradigm, of mainstream comics is best described as a variation on Chuck Jones’ ROADRUNNER & COYOTE cartoons…in which there is no finality, no closure, no actual lethal jeopardy.  Clearly in most cases, this is dictated by the corporate ownership of the characters and franchise.

Everybody dies, but not really and not forever.

This, to put it bluntly, bores me to tears.  I like series fiction as much as the next guy, but for me, I prefer to do material with characters who will die, and permanently—thus offering narrative in which jeopardy is real, as opposed to fantastical or supernatural, certainly for the most part.

So what’s currently on your board that we can look forward to?

In complete contradiction to the previous answer, as noted above, I’m working the final volume of the TIME(SQUARED) trilogy, entitled HALLOWED GROUND(ZERO), which is pretty damned fantastical…as well as the second of what I hope will be three arcs of HEY KIDS! COMICS!

I’ve also got a graphic novel(ugh—such pretentious nonsense!) entitled SUNSHINE PATRIOTS coming out later this year.  It’s the adventures of two of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders as hired guns a decade later in Hollywood.

Finally, the first time I met you several years ago in Glasgow you recommended that I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. What are you reading these days and what would you recommend now?

I read a minimum of two to three books a week.  Check out my FACEBOOK page-there’s a shitload of recommendations there.

Thanks Howard for taking the time to speak with us.

As Howard say’s himself you can find his thoughts on life the universe and everything on his FaceBook page.

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