On Howard Chaykin
(American Flagg and Times 2 art copyright Howard Chaykin, all rights reserved)
This past Christmas writer Miles Marshall Lewis and I were having a chat about comic books. Since we share a similar sensibility that ranges from Paul Pope to Frank Miller to Bill Sienkiewicz (though I’ll never understand the boy’s love for John Byrne), we somehow got on the topic that those of us raised on the four-color sensations of comics were somehow more creative.
After several glasses of white wine, I was convinced that the reason former geeks like Rza, Jonathan Letham, Andre 3000, Darren Aronofsky and, of course, ourselves, were so creative was because we all grew-up in the shadows of Jack Kirby’s two-page spreads, Ditko's weird surrealism and John Buscema's hulking barbarians.
“I once read an interview with Sonny Rollins where he said Kirby’s artwork inspired his style.”
“But, what artists do you think influenced your style?” Miles asked. Indeed, for those who might not be familiar with my fiction, I tend to write in a cinematic manner that is cool, urbane, noirish and colorful as an oil rainbow floating in a puddle.
Depending on the kind of story that I am writing, I find myself looking at certain artists and styles that include Pedro Bell, Marshall Rogers, Robert McGinnis, Romere Breaden, Alex Nino, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Howard Chaykin. Out of the group, Chaykin is the artist I most often revisit when it comes time to construct my own New York based fictions.
I was thirteen years old when I first discovered the art of Howard Chaykin in an obscure fanzine published by the great Wally Wood called Witzend. Since I wasn’t into superheroes as much as other comic fans, I was always looking for something different. I had already peeped the work of absurd sexy world Robert Crumb, the strangeness of early Heavy Metal's and the college rawness of National Lampoon, and I must have felt that Witzend #10 was going to rock my world.
Moreover, in its own way, it actually did.
Although I haven’t seen the issue in years, I remember it had Wally Wood wrap around cover and some amazing interior art from Alex Toth, Mike Zeck and Dick Giordano. But, what changed the way I looked at comics was a haunting three-page strip that Howard Chaykin wrote and drew called “On March 17, 1969.” It was about a serial killer roaming the streets of Manhattan; published during the time when the Son of Sam had just started his killing spree, it scared me to death.
Since this was a year before Chaykin's acclaimed Star Wars adaptation, I really had no idea who he was or that he had studied under Gil Kane, Wally Wood and Neal Adams. All I knew was that I had never seen comics drawn with a freshness that was sexy and creepy at the same time.
During this period of his development, so I believe, Chaykin was getting into the painting styles of Baron Storey, Bob Peak, Robert McGuire and Robert McGinnis (to name a few), and applying them to comics.
Yet, unlike some so-called comic book artists who just do illustrations and try to call sequential, Howard Chaykin knew how to tell a story. Experimenting with various design styles and page layouts, he broke ground for future upstarts Bill Sienkiewicz, Kyle Baker, Kent Williams and Dave McKean.
There was something about the jazzy rhythms and revolutionary style of “On March, 1969” that laid the groundwork for Chaykin's brilliant creations years later including American Flagg, a cool Bud Powell comic he did for a French magazine (it was later reprinted in Reflex), Empire, The Shadow, Black Kiss and my favorite, Time 2: The Epiphany.
Speaking in a visual style that had more in common with George Gershwin, Miles Davis or Henry Mancini than other comic book creators, Chaykin helped uplift the genre, if only a little. Original characters like Cody Starbuck, Dominic Fortune and Iron Wolf, which came out in 1974, but I didn’t it see until years later, were cocky existentialist cats who were smooth with chicks, quick with a gun and sharply dressed.
In addition, Chaykin’s women were smart and stylish fashion plates with many shoes and different outfits. Recently, while writing my latest erotica short “Brooklyn Bound” for the preview issue of Bunnie (see below), I dug out my copy of Thick Black Kiss. A stunning tranny/gangster graphic novel that was first published in 1988, this was Chaykin at his most weird nasty. Nevertheless, 21-years later, the book still stands up, and often helps me to visualize the landscape of my own characters and their erotic escapades.
Another element that first drew me to Chaykin’s work was the New York City aesthetic that was always a part of his style. Being a city kid raised in Washington Heights and Harlem, I was sensitive to Chaykin’s vibe; it didn’t matter how deep in space the characters might be, it was always New York as Rear Window, The Sweet Smell of Success, The French Connection or Annie Hall. And, as he showed in his revivial of The Shadow in 1985, when given a chance the cityscape becomes another important character.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I ever got from a critic was in the pages of Time Out New York when a writer compared my short story “The Whores of Onyx City” (from The Darker Mask: Heroes From the Shadows) to Chaykin’s masterwork American Flagg. While it was actually more influenced by Time 2: The Epiphany, I suppose us fanboys can’t be choosey.
Excert to: The Whores of Onyx City