Howard Chaykin did not expect to find himself careening toward his seventieth birthday and he certainly never thought he’d be doing it like this: clean, sober, gainfully employed and living under quarantine inside a country beginning to resemble one of his own pandemoniac visions.
Born in New Jersey and raised in Brooklyn, Chaykin was an obsessive reader and avid comic book fan when he came under the mentorship of Gil Kane, a superhero comics legend whose creations include the modern Green Lantern and the Atom. Chaykin launched himself from that internship into careers as first a comics artist and then a comics writer — though he rejects any bright line between those two activities — and bounced between major comics houses and independents. He dipped but never dove into commercial success, having had a hand in mainstream superhero work and even drawing the inaugural issues of Star Wars for Marvel.
Then everything changed for him in 1983, when he introduced his landmark series American Flagg!, a blistering social and political satire propelled by a sex-laden action-adventure, set in a barely recognizable yet eerily familiar United States.
Since then, Chaykin’s name has become synonymous with controversy for sharp, satiric narratives, often fueled by both violent sex and sex-drenched violence, in titles such as Black Kiss, Time², Power & Glory, American Century, and in the current series Hey Kids! Comics!, which mercilessly satirizes his own industry. An auteur with a coherent vision and a mammoth body of work to support that vision, Chaykin has nonetheless found himself marginalized in his own industry, and has described himself, with accuracy, as too mainstream to be considered literary and too literary to be considered mainstream.
“His comics return over and over again to characters on a search to locate the real, the actual, and the authentic in a world of fakes, charlatans, and simulations,” scholar Brannon Costello says in Neon Visions, his study of Chaykin and his comics. Although Chaykin rejects the idea of autobiographical comics — no Art Spiegelman’s Maus for him, he will say more than once — it’s clear that the search to locate something real and actual is Chaykin’s search, also.
In talking with Chaykin, it’s good to keep two notebooks on your desk. The first is to note all the art and comics that he’s absorbed into his own style: British-born commercial illustrator Robert Fawcett, whose best-known works include Sherlock Holmes drawings for Collier’s magazine; old newspaper adventure strips such as Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates; and especially Entertainment Comics, better known as EC, publisher of both intense and lavish crime and horror stories, and MAD magazine.
The other is for everything else that goes into what Chaykin calls his “kitchen sink” approach. When a personal question leads to a movie reference that leads to a jazz album that leads to a comic, it’s clear that Chaykin is not evading the question but leading you step by step to the proper answer. His mind, like his dystopias, is a riot of popular culture references, and it can be a challenge to wanderers without a map. You will likely leave a Chaykin conversation with a scribbled list of suddenly essential works to read, watch and hear.
This conversation, which covered just a portion of Chaykin’s amazing half-century of work in comics, took place from our respective pandemic quarantines in southern California and southern Louisiana. Chaykin was intensely focused on the topics, except for one moment when he suddenly cried out “Would you stop, you fucking whore? I hate you, I hate everything you stand for.” Fortunately for his interviewer, his outburst turned out to be directed toward an annoying bulldog.
HOWARD CHAYKIN: I’m nothing if I’m not dangerous fun. How can I be of service?
MICHAEL TISSERAND: By enduring questions. Starting with: How are you in these times?
CHAYKIN: I’m better than I have any right to be. And that’s not a joke, that’s not glib or capricious. It’s true. I’m careening toward seventy. I have young man hands. And I have the energy of a man half my age. And I'm grateful for all of that. That said, I'm still roundly pissed off at every possible thing in my life right now.
TISSERAND: By young hands, you mean you’re able to play the song as you hear it? You once wrote of Milt Caniff that his ink work bordered on cockiness. Are you saying you still have that type of line, those types of young hands?
CHAYKIN: I mean I look at the back of my hands and they’re not wrinkly and shit like old people. I take my vanity in small doses.
WE WERE ALL BULLSHITTING OURSELVES
TISSERAND: You’re probably tired of people saying that you predicted the future in works like American Flagg!, the comic you’re most known for. But much of your work did look ahead to a time of chaos, when our little experiment of a country kind of crashes down on the streets. Are you hearing some kind of echo of what you brought into your work decades ago?
CHAYKIN: I was raised by popular front Democrats. And from the time that I was first aware of social niceties and social exchanges — I'm talking really young — I was aware that we as a nation, like many nations, are built on comforting lies. On the myths we tell ourselves. This time we’re in now is, to a certain extent, the tearing off the scab of that comforting lie and getting down to some frightening truths.
My mother's parents were peddlers. Until two years before she died my grandmother could beat me in Indian wrestling. Staten Island, when I was a little boy, was rural farmland. In those days my grandmother and my grandfather would go to Manhattan on Sunday mornings and go to the Jewish wholesalers and buy clothes and then resell them on order to the provincials. And these provincials were Italian ladies, other Jewish ladies, Polish ladies, Black ladies. And my grandmother who was like 5’1” and looked like a kitchen witch, would sit there in the kitchen with her friends of various ethnicities and racial backgrounds. And the minute one of them left the room they would talk shit about her on a racial or ethnic level. And the lesson that that taught me was that we were all bullshitting ourselves in the name of niceties.
What's happened now is that civility has gone and this led me to understand: that is a center that cannot hold. That reality coupled with an almost pornographic interest in dystopia is where American Flagg! came around.
TISSERAND: Staying on American Flagg!, when you did that book in the 1980s, the President was an actor from old Westerns. Thirty-plus years later, our President is an actor from reality television.
CHAYKIN: Reagan was so clearly a criminal corporate tool to anybody who paid attention. And I was surrounded by people who felt that they could cherry-pick their vote for Reagan. They voted for him for the economic issues but not the social issues. The idea of people who were foolish enough to believe that you can vote for one and ignore the other was an astonishment to me.
TISSERAND: Casting an actor as a president who’s also a front man seems like it could come from one of your stories. Flagg himself came in first as a TV character.
CHAYKIN: Flagg began his career as a guy playing the role that he ultimately had to occupy. And that was not an accident. I'm a great exponent of the work of Robert Fawcett, who was an American illustrator and who constantly referred to the work of illustration as contrived imagery. And I'm a great believer in contrivance, in pointing at things.
The fact that the hero of Black Kiss, for example, his name’s Cass Pollack, which refers to Castor and Pollux. The problem of course is that the mainstream audience has been on a downslide of social, cultural and political literacy over the past half century and they just don't get shit.
IT’S NEVER TOO SOON
TISSERAND: In the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin talks about growing up loving Westerns, and then he realized that the Indians in these movies were him. And he talked about how those shows were designed not to trouble, but to reassure. It seems your stories are just the opposite, that they are designed to trouble and not to reassure.
CHAYKIN: And I obviously succeed enormously because I am so universally disliked. I’m really good at this.
We watched Gunga Din last night. I had not seen the film in fifty years and watching this picture goes directly to what you’re talking about. And Peckinpah also diligently refuses to comfort the audience. I’m a great believer in that.
TISSERAND: How did you come to this desire and intent to discomfort people?
CHAYKIN: It can't be any secret to anyone that I like doing transgressive work and I like exploring the darker aspects of my own persona. Growing up in Brooklyn as I did in the 1950s with an adopted father who I thought was my dad, that turned out not to be, who was a bag man for Murder, Inc., I got to see a part of Brooklyn that was not available to the guys who are growing up watching Ozzie and Harriet.
So I was completely and totally unprepared for adult life by dint of growing up with this criminal tenement experience. It took me a long time to catch up. I was a complete introvert until I turned 16. And then I discovered marijuana and other drugs and it transformed my life in the best possible way.
TISSERAND: In some ways, it seems the debates over your work parallel the debates over Robert Crumb’s work …
CHAYKIN: I’m nowhere near the class of Crumb. I regard Crumb as being one of the great transgressive artists of the 20th century, along with Judy Chicago and Pablo Picasso. The people who don't understand the genius of Robert Crumb don't deserve to be bothered to be understood in their own right. But please go on.
TISSERAND: Is it a question of looking at something as art versus looking at something as product? In art you’re engaged in the exploration of the shadows in the corners of the closet. And in product it can be more about putting out certain types of messages and images.
CHAYKIN: I’m a great subscriber to the “it’s never too soon” school of reality. I first experienced being judged for the words coming out of a character’s mouth 25 years ago in a book I did called Power & Glory, which was a cruel parody of the kind of comics that were coming out of the Image guys in that time.
I was excoriated for a joke that the President of the United States tells in the course of the opening sequence. As if I were telling the joke as opposed to using the joke to convey the nature of the character of this person. And this is the problem you come up against when you're dealing with an audience —and all too often a talent pool — that accepts as a given the qualities innate in a franchise that looks like Chuck Jones's Road Runner/Coyote cartoons in which there is no such thing as closure, that heroes are heroes and villains are villains, and villains self-identify. This adolescent idea of behavior.
So judged by those standards. I’m not a walk in the park. I don't care about what they think or what they love. The assumptions made about me, about my character, about my persona, about my personal beliefs based on material I've chosen to depict are asinine and puerile at best. Assumptions are drawn.
TISSERAND: Yet do you also look back and see how a story reflects a particular time in your life, and your changing ideas or sensibilities during that time?
CHAYKIN: Yes, but that doesn’t obviate the verity of the work, in any way. I think about how Philip Roth was attacked and insulted for being bad for the Jews. And I've never understood the rejection of self-examination in comics. What most enthuses me about doing a book is the opportunity to present characters that you haven't seen before in mainstream material.
TISSERAND: One of the specific and most heated debates was around depictions of trans people in your work. How did you first arrive at this material?
CHAYKIN: My parents were both huge fans of the Jewel Box Revue. So I’ve been aware of this stuff since I was a kid and that went on in a bigger way in my teens. My first job as an artist was doing pasteups for a company in which all the other employees with the exception of me and my boss were Puerto Rican transvestites. And I got a look into their world. I was a 17-year-old speed freak at the time, and it was fascinating and incredibly sexy and incredibly dirty and incredibly dark and kind of fun. And I got high with these guys every day.
I've always been fascinated by that, and the concept of transformation is really appealing to me.
VILLAINS ARE ALL HEROES OF THEIR STORIES
TISSERAND: Many of your narratives seem to be putting the whole idea of an American good guy under the microscope. Right now, much of our country is engaged in crashing the myth that a badge and a shield confer virtue, which also seems very much to have been a theme of your work.
CHAYKIN: As early as 1973 or ’74 when I did the Scorpion, the last line of the first issue is, and I'm paraphrasing here, “Altruism is for Albert Schweitzer. I get paid.” And I stand on that. The motivations of heroes in the context of comics is nonsense to me. Batman is about a rich guy who had a bad day when he was eight. Superman is about a god-like being who comes to the Earth and puts aside his god-like nature in the service of a clientele that is functionally beneath his contempt. These characters patronize and pander to a fantasized belief system that has nothing to do with anything even vaguely smacking of reality. And the more realistic they become by dint of sort of slathering on gravitas, the more idiotic and foolish they become. Modern myth? Just suck a dick.
TISSERAND: Instead, you’ve cited other heroes in popular culture as models for your work, especially James Garner’s card sharp character Bret Maverick, in the TV show Maverick.
CHAYKIN: He is the lynchpin archetype of everything I believe. Garner was the archetype of the reluctant hero. The smartest guy in the room who recognizes that heroism is bullshit is where it’s at for me. And that's the guy.
TISSERAND: What did Garner bring to it? Was it that bemused way he had of looking at someone, a little flicker in his eye as he’s sizing him up?
CHAYKIN: Yes! It’s also true of William Holden and Henry Fonda. And my understanding is that Fonda was a horrible human being who was an extraordinary actor and who was able to convey a level of decency that defined the American male for the first half of the 20th century. And someone told me this and he's right, the character that Holden plays in Stalag 17, Sefton, is as archetypal of a character that I would have created that you could possibly find.
I'm in the process of developing some material with John Schoenfelder for NeoText and one of them is an idea I've been dancing around for some time — a character who literally had to work to become someone like Jack Reacher without any moral probity. A compass-free figure. Not a villain. Because villains are all heroes of their story.
TISSERAND: How is that?
CHAYKIN: Writing Hitler off as a maniac lets him off the hook. These are people who believe they are doing good. Whether psychotic or sociopathic, they believe genuinely that their behavior is for the good of those around them. Mustache-twirling dishonest Johns are not the people that I'm afraid of. People I’m afraid of are people who believe that the march on Charlottesville was a march of heroes. That they were heroic figures.
Alan Moore nailed it in V for Vendetta. The most interesting part of V for Vendetta was that television series everyone was a fan of, Storm Saxon, this crypto-Nazi was the hero of this show. It’s curious to me watching the cultural reaction to what's going on right now with the backing off of police dramas. This is all just a matter of rethinking the nature of heroism and villainy.
IT WAS ALL NUN FUCKING
TISSERAND: When you were a kid, you wanted to be a superhero cartoonist. Can we go back to those first experiences drawing? Do you remember the first time you sat down with pencil and paper?
CHAYKIN: The guy I thought was my father identified the fact that I love to draw very early on. He adopted me, I was about five, and he bought me one of those big newsprint sketchbooks, and some pencils. And I remember the first drawing I ever did was a cowboy on a horse, watering his horse in a stream. I very clearly recollect my parents entertaining two friends of theirs, Jack and Pearl, and Pearl had a son who was a hipster. It was the first time I heard Symphony Sid on the radio. And my father called me out to show the stuff to Jack and Pearl and I nearly shit myself because I assumed he was expecting a book’s worth of finished art. Because I was terrified of him. But that was it.
Then in school, drawing got me out of a lot of scrapes, because I would draw filthy pictures for the bullies in my class. That was a regular part of my boyhood.
TISSERAND: Pictures of teachers in compromised positions?
CHAYKIN: Mostly it was nuns. They really loved porn with nuns. The guys who were beating the shit out of me were Puerto Ricans or Italians who were in public school because their parents couldn't afford Catholic school. But they were being Catholicked at like a son of a bitch. So it was all nun fucking.
TISSERAND: Did you ever get caught drawing these?
CHAYKIN: No, I didn’t look the part. I had an ingenuousness about my presentation that can't be denied. I was a short, fat, crew-cutted nobody. Cherub-cheeked and squinty, because I needed glasses.
TISSERAND: What are some of your first reading memories?
CHAYKIN: The week of my bar mitzvah, I had five bucks in my pocket and I went to the candy store looking for comics but there was nothing new. In those days you didn't have slews of comic showing up every fucking week. But there were on the paperback rack, those recently published Burroughs books, the Ballantines and the Aces, and for some reason I found the Bob Abbett covers on Ballantine more interesting than the Frank Frazetta, Roy Krenkel covers on the Aces, even though they were a dime more. So I bought the Ballantine edition, Bob Abbett’s cover, of the seventh novel in the Martian series called A Fighting Man of Mars.
I sat down on my stoop at about four o'clock in the afternoon. I was still reading at seven. It was like a Saul on the road to Damascus moment, it was a transformative experience. It just changed my life.
TISSERAND: Not too long after that, you hit the road and started hitchhiking. Were you reading the Beats at that point, and they inspired you?
CHAYKIN: No, I didn’t read the Beats until I was off the road, and I was like, Christ, I wish my experience had been like this.
TISSERAND: So you went back home and found your way to comics.
CHAYKIN: I got back to New York, I was housesitting for a friend over on 2nd Avenue and 60th Street, and I heard through the fanboy grapevine that Gil Kane’s assistant had died in his sleep, very young and an undiagnosed heart ailment. In my own callousness I called and said, “I hear your guy died, you need somebody?” And he hired me. I learned everything I needed to know about being a comic artist spending that year watching Gil Kane do his job.
TISSERAND: What were the primary lessons?
CHAYKIN: His presence, his experience, his belief system. He was an only child of immigrants. He was convinced that my generation was getting laid like a son of a bitch as opposed to having to work just as hard at has his did, just differently. He shared my enthusiasm for the theater. And he also began his career completely ineptly. He was just terrible. He was less terrible than I was, but he really sucked.
TISSERAND: Did he offer any lessons about creating heroes?
CHAYKIN: Not really. What I learned from him was sort of avoiding the traps and snares. I went to work for Wallace Wood about a year later. And I recognized due to my habits and behaviors at the time that I really wanted to grow up to be like Gil Kane but I was terrified that I might end up like Wallace Wood. I mean Woody was a hapless, angry, rage-filled drunk, and whatever rage Gil had was channeled into the work.
I’M NOT A NOVELIST, I’M A COMIC BOOK MAN
TISSERAND: In those early days, were you thinking of yourself more of an artist than a writer?
CHAYKIN: I had no idea that I could write. None at all. In those days there was an extreme bifurcation of the two approaches. With a couple of exceptions most of the guys who were writing comics in my generation were guys who had failed as artists. This didn't seem to be a worthy CV. I started writing in the early ‘70s, and I became, I think, a pretty good comic book writer by the early ‘80s, through Flagg!.
My wife who has never read a comic book in her life has been hocking me for years to write a novel and I said I'm not a novelist, I'm a comic book man. My work survives because of the synergy that exists between the visual imagery and the text. The two things are of a piece. They don't exist particularly well on their own.
TISSERAND: That’s pretty much the definition of comics. Words and pictures.
CHAYKIN: I think it's the definition of a successful cartoonist.
The thing about my work is that it generally has a conventional presentation but it's context and its content is often transgressive, that’s what sells the idea. I know I’m graphically different from a lot of people, but I also recognize the fact that a lot of the graphic tropes that I’ve introduced have been absorbed into the mainstream. And I’m OK with that. Bitterness is a waste of time for people my age.
TISSERAND: Did coming as an artist first help you as a writer? As an artist you already were telling a story, a narrative, in the art.
CHAYKIN: I don’t think you can move in the direction from writer to artist. For me, the meaning and definition of writing in comics is one of the most profoundly misunderstood ideas about the comic book medium that's out there. Because readers tend to presume that the artist is an illustrator, that he's an instrument of the writer’s concept. Actually, in the best of circumstances the artist is literally taking the narrative template that the writer has provided and finding the visual language.
My job is to make a page of two people talking look interesting enough to compete with two people punching the living shit out of each other. That's my job.
TISSERAND You’ve said that when you first saw Milt Caniff’s comic strip Terry and the Pirates, you thought it had achieved that perfect balance of text and visual.
CHAYKIN: Absolutely. But I also said that when I first saw the first couple of months I was very disappointed because I'd heard so much about it and all of a sudden six months into the daily strip he hits on something. He's doing this sequence on a storm at sea and everything changes. It's just like, what the fuck. It’s just amazing.
And also watching him completely burn out two years into Steve Canyon, to see him crash and burn creatively. It’s stunning. He starts Steve Canyon and it's got energy, it's got gusto, it’s a greasier, bigger look, then he just runs out of steam and he starts repurposing Terry and the Pirates franchises, and it's just dead meat.
TISSERAND: What do you think happened?
CHAYKIN: I think he got bored. I also think he got subordinated by the Air Force which started in the Second World War. I think he just lost his taste for it.
I met him very briefly in the early ‘80s, he and Noel Sickles were co-guests of honor at the San Diego convention. And there was a tension between the two of them that I thought was palpable. Caniff had made this transition from the left to the right whereas Sickle seemed to have held on to his convictions of that classic 1930s popular front populist sensibility.
Sickles is the better artist, but Sickles could never write as well as Caniff. Caniff had an understanding of text and pictures that is breathtaking. You look at a Terry from, say, Terry in flight school to the end of the run and there are amazing sequences in there. It’s popular stuff, it's mainstream stuff, but it's so utterly exuberant in its understanding of its own time.
TISSERAND: Any of the other old newspaper strips affect you in that way?
CHAYKIN: Frank King. Cliff Sterrett. I regard Alex Raymond's work on Rip Kirby to be as transformative in its own way and it's just tragic that the writing on the strip is just so fucking boring. But second acts! After Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and Secret Agent X-9, he comes out and he does Rip Kirby which completely reinvents the way strips look.
TISSERAND: It seems like a lot of your own innovations have to do with these features you love about old strips, the way the art and text work together.
CHAYKIN: For the most part I think where I've been influential has been in the recapture of the concept from all the grid pattern stuff to the introduction of an idea that space represents time. That the amount of space allowed to an image is directly related to the action involved in the image. By being plastic and elastic in panel size, and wrestling with the writer's point of view that the material is simply a delivery system for text, has been, I believe, my greatest success.
The idea of using lettering the way I did derives from two great sources. Walter Simonson’s work on Manhunter, which is an astonishing achievement, and also the way Wallace Wood did that sound effects piece in MAD years ago.
TISSERAND: Your work is very aware of early MAD and EC comics. Do you consider part of your project as bringing some of that visual language forward into a new context?
CHAYKIN: Well I was schmuck enough in my youth to think that we would outlive superhero comic books and that my generation would be a reflowering of the ethos of EC. It astonishes me how wrong I was.
I love the science fiction stuff the most. I never developed a taste for horror because I’m not a horror person. I don't like blood. I can’t look at my own or anybody else’s, it makes me explode. But when I found the war stuff and I found Johnny Craig stuff and I particularly found the stuff that Woody was doing in Shock SuspenStories, the liberal hysteria stuff. I learned how to draw suits from Johnny Craig. When I later read Jim Thompson, it was seen through the visuals of that urban decay material that Woody did in the early fifties. I loved it so much.
And Harvey Kurtzman, the second grade genius of comics, the first being Will Eisner. But Kurtzman was an astonishing talent. The work doesn’t hold up for comedy any more than erotica of the 1950s holds up for sexual stimulation, it’s of its time. But it is brilliant of its time. And if you can get past contemporary chauvinism and presentism, looking at this material, it’s revelatory. I think about Rubble!, Corpse on the Imjin!, these Korean war stories, just astonishing. To quote Gil Kane, I think every one of the guys who worked at EC did the best work of their lives for EC.
Alongside my desk right now I have the Crime SuspenStories set and I have the Shock SuspenStories set. Because you never know when you need to get a goose.
TISSERAND: By the way, did I read that you and Eisner actually had an altercation that Jules Feiffer stepped in on? I’m having a hard time picturing you two, arms swinging, with Feiffer keeping the two of you apart.
CHAYKIN: It was fantastic. It was in San Paulo, Brazil. But it started in Barcelona, five years earlier. Eisner accused me of being fascist, on a panel. All he knew about my work were my covers on American Flagg! and he presumed they were bereft of irony. Eisner’s dismissive disdain for everybody else in comics was so obvious to me and invisible to others. He presumed that he was entitled to be ironic with the Blackhawk material but that anybody else was actually literally and energetically working without the scrim of irony. And I offered Joe Kubert ten bucks to kick his ass, and Joe Kubert said he’d think about it for twenty.
And again five years later I was in Brazil. Eisner just wouldn’t lay the fuck off. And Jules comes over to me and doesn’t so much play the umpire between the two of us but he puts his arm around my shoulders and says, Let it go, he’ll be dead soon. Which I thought was pretty funny.
Eisner invented comic book storytelling, there can be no doubt. He was the first one who identified how to transmogrify what was being done on the newspaper page into a comic book page, taking two different aspect ratios and finding a language there. Everybody in the 1940s was doing Eisner, including Jack Kirby. Eisner was the one who invented it. And Eisner then leaves comics and goes to work for the government. And when he comes back, the things that he does, the Tenement Stories, such treacly horseshit, I couldn’t fucking bear it. But I credit Eisner completely with the invention of the language in the 1940s.
I DIDN’T EXPECT TO GET THIS OLD
TISSERAND: It seems to me that the humor in your work doesn’t get talked about enough.
CHAYKIN: Because nobody gets it, that’s why.
TISSERAND: It’s not like wry little asides, like the kind that was introduced in Spider-Man, it’s very sharp, audacious humor. It sometimes reminds me of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, just in terms of how the humor is either in service of an adventure story, or the adventure in service of a funny story, and you’re not totally sure which one.
CHAYKIN: For me the primary influence of that stuff comes directly from Jack Douglas and Patrick Dennis. I cannot credit them enough. I remember finding the Jack Douglas books alongside a stack of pornographic postcards in my uncle’s drawer. And giving the pornos a quick scan but reading the Douglas book and finding myself literally snotting and laughing and crying so much.
TISSERAND: Speaking of influences, we just lost Dennis O’Neil, with whom you worked closely.
CHAYKIN: He was my first editor. And Denny was a good companion. He was really good at his job. He was instrumental in my life and career. Christ, his son was my assistant in the mid ‘80s.
Denny was a good guy. I drank with Denny when we both drank. He was the one who introduced me to the now long lost string of Irish bars all over the East Side of New York. The Blarney Rose, the Blarney Stone — they’re all the same fucking joint, you walk in there, they all smell like piss, beer and corned beef. It was the best. They were just run dumb dives. They looked like they came out of Charles Bukowski's ass. It was fabulous.
TISSERAND: I’m going to now try to transition from Charles Bukowski’s ass to Star Wars.
CHAYKIN: You have a problem?
TISSERAND: Working on those first Star Wars comics gave you a significant role in developing one of the most pervasive stories of our time. I’m wondering if, given your love of Westerns, you saw the Star Wars movie as The Searchers in outer space. And when you set out to tell a Western tale or a space opera or a sword and sorcery story, are these the same story with different settings, or does each genre come with its own set of rules?
CHAYKIN: You know, when I read The Hero With a Thousand Faces, it felt like a lot of self-justifying bullshit. But my experience has demonstrated that there was a certain validity to it.
So much of my childhood is defined by watching cowboy pictures and Western television shows. When I was a kid and I first came to Southern California one of the first stations of the cross that I wanted to see was that big fucking rock in Chatsworth that the Lone Ranger always rode by. Here I am this nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, obsessed with this shit. Later on I realized there were other guys just like me and they also shared my interest in bluegrass. Nice Jewish boys listening to Southern Appalachian music.
TISSERAND: Like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
CHAYKIN: And John Cohen, just a giant forgotten by history, the guy who basically brought Appalachian music and folk music and blues to New York City in the early 1960s. I learned to recite Texas Rangers from him. Cowboy poetry. (Starts to sing) "Come all you Texas Rangers, wherever you may be.”
TISSERAND: We’ve skipped from Bukowski right over Star Wars to cowboy poetry.
CHAYKIN: Keep trying.
TISSERAND: Do you see your artwork as having influenced the Star Wars phenomenon?
CHAYKIN: Star Wars is the religion that I expected Elvis to be.
TISSERAND: And what was your role in that?
CHAYKIN: Accidental and regretful. The opportunity to do this book meant that I had six months of work. And I needed to generate cash to support myself, and I hacked out the work. I truly did. It's terrible work. I might have been able to do better work had I any idea how huge an impact it would have on the modern world. But I’m not sure I had the goods. This is not any kind of false modesty, it’s genuine self-loathing.
So the experience is unmemorable, the work wasn't very good, and it was exacerbated by the fact that the work was done almost a year to the month before a royalty system was established in New York City in the comic book business, thanks to Neal Adams and a number of other people. The Star Wars books sold an average of a million five per for those first six issues. I received an additional 15 bucks a page reprint fee. Had the book come out a year later I would have made a million five to two million dollars from the reprints.
CHAYKIN: But also I’d be dead, because the lifestyle I was living at that time, I would have spent that money on wine women and song, which is to say drugs and anything I could get to kill myself. I didn't expect to get this old.
DEEPLY COMMITTED TO A SEX LIFE
TISSERAND: How much time was there between that work on Star Wars and beginning American Flagg!?
CHAYKIN: Five years. I went and did paperbacks for a couple years and was wooed back to comics with a financial offer from First Comics. Comics is a calling but it’s also a job.
TISSERAND: We’ve made the circle back to Flagg!. Where did that character come from?
CHAYKIN: Well, he’s Maverick. He’s Sefton. He’s Candide, a naif who finds himself forcefully educated against his will in the way the world really works.
TISSERAND: And the rest of the book?
CHAYKIN: Everything I really cared about at that point shows up in that book. The elements of Flagg! that that were excoriated in its time, the sexual elements of it, I was 32 years old and deeply committed to a sex life. And I was also fascinated by the Giorgio Armani-ness of life. I was a serious clothes horse.
TISSERAND: How did Flagg! reflect your commitment to a sex life?
CHAYKIN: I was a horny 32 year old. I was married to a woman who I was unkind to. I was a cad in many ways. And I was a cad from my earliest experiences in male-female relationships. I did not cease to be a cad until my forties. And I still occasionally behaved caddishly and that’s just life as it's lived.
TISSERAND: So Flagg!, in some ways, reflects where you personally were at that time.
CHAYKIN: And hyper-masculinity, castration terror, technology fear. Flagg! was done in ’82 or ’83 when AIDS was first nosing its way into popular awareness and an understanding of what this meant. It coincided with the arrival of VCRs, so pornography was instantly available at home. And also there were allusions to the concept of what ultimately became computer-generated imagery which I call tromploigraphy. I love portmanteaus, I love puns, and I love tromploi painting. I thought the idea of applying the concept of tromploi to video seemed kind of interesting.
TISSERAND: What about the politics of Flagg!?
CHAYKIN: I’ve always been a very left liberal guy, and identified the right as a criminal enterprise. I believe that criminals so frequently voted for the right because they identify with authority and authoritarianism. The machinations of the government we're living under right now bear a stronger resemblance to Tony Soprano than they do to an actual government.
TISSERAND: You talked about second acts. If the hired work on Star Wars represents a type of low point, American Flagg! reinvigorated you.
CHAYKIN: I was stunned by their inability to replace me. It just seems ridiculous that they could not find a talent who could pick up the ball and run with it an interesting way. I don't mean to sound disingenuous. I had no idea how idiosyncratic and how personal my voice was, I just didn’t. And that was a revelatory experience for me.
TISSERAND: What did that tell you?
CHAYKIN: It inflamed me. It encouraged me. And it left me feeling more marginalized and alone than I could have anticipated.
CHAYKIN: I remain to this day stunned by the enthusiasm with which many of my colleagues relate to comic books as readers, as consumers. I just don’t get it. I hate to sound patronizing but I do and I will. It just astonishes me how anyone can continue to be entertained by utterly unchallenging work that offers nothing but simply variations on the theme of the same old shit. The last comic book I read with any regularity was Scalped by Jason Aaron. But I don't read comics. I derive the same pleasure from drawing them that I once did from reading them.
CASABLANCA, ONLY WITH FUCKING
TISSERAND: In Flagg and especially in Time², you seemed not the least bit concerned about confusing your readers, about leading them into a reading experience that will have confusing narrative patches, and expecting them to work their way through it. You don’t lead them by the hand, at all.
CHAYKIN: There are any number of people who can do that for you. I’m not that guy.
People constantly jump upon this “a ha” moment of the fact that all my heroes look alike, as if that's an accident. As if they don't notice the fact that my supporting cast is filled with as broad a range of humanity as you could possibly find. There’s a reason why that character always looks the same. It's because he's an archetype, that’s all there is, that’s his function.
By the same token if any of these things were filmed you could not cast the same actor to play any of my characters, they’re all very different people. They may look alike but they’re very different characters.
TISSERAND: You had mentioned Roth, who also has protagonists who will jump from story to story.
CHAYKIN: Exactly. What I love is the fact that he then creates a third persona in Tarnapole to confuse the reader even more. That made my heart explode, I loved it so much.
TISSERAND: Do you consider Time² a personal work?
CHAYKIN: Very much. I was raised in a really psychotic home. My parents were constantly fighting and I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother and with my aunt, my godmother, and I spent a lot of time in Lower Manhattan, walking around on Sunday surrounded by Jewish anarchists and lunatics and being taken out to the movies on a regular basis by my maiden aunt, godmother, on Broadway in Times Square. It was a delicious experience and totally psychotic and somewhat psychedelic.
That combined with seeing it through the scrim of Damon Runyan short fiction and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, which are clearly transliterations of his drunken rambles with Stanley Weinbam on the Bowery in the 1930s, transliterated to a world that Conan could live in.
And my obsession with robotics and genetics and advertising and neon and everything else. So it’s a kitchen sink thing.
TISSERAND: There’s also a lot of music in Time², and really in all your work.
CHAYKIN: When you hear a young Dexter Gordon, when he’s doing all those quotations, I was fascinated by the fact that he's both composing spontaneously and interpolating quotations from other popular songs of the era, in the middle of those compositions. It was like, Whoa, what the fuck, that's great.
And I found the melody in bebop and that was a real educational moment for me. And I wanted to try to find a way to apply that to narrative, to the visual stuff, the repetition. You know, I always loved the ballad form and I use a lot of ballad form to this day. You know, if you look at Kurtzman’s Rubble!, it’s a ballad. It’s a repetition. It’s a series of repeated beats, each reaching a different point and finally coming to a large conclusion. I am as influenced as a writer and as a narrative producer by Frank Loesser and Steven Sondheim as I am by any crime writer or science fiction writer or movie maker.
Loesser is for my money the single greatest vernacular voice in the American popular songbook. He is a great American genius who has been diminished by the performative morality of the puritanical schmucks who can't see the concept of seduction in another era and identify it solely through the scrim of their own absurd obsessions.
TISSERAND: When you talk of quotations I started thinking about Black Kiss, and especially the sequel, and its many, many quotations of films.
CHAYKIN: Oh it’s rife. Completely. Look I'm a pop culture boy, I really am. I see the world through the scrim of television and popular culture. And it used to be a negative and now it's a positive.
TISSERAND: People who don't have that experience don’t know what it’s like to experience emotions through identification with whatever was on TV when you were four years old.
CHAYKIN: We’re big theatergoers. I sit with my wife almost all the time to my left, I'm left-handed, and she almost knows unerringly when to pull out of Kleenex and shove it at me. I cry. I'm an enormous weeper.
The other night we were watching The Best Years of Our Lives and that moment where Fredric March sneaks past Teresa Wright into the kitchen to find Myrna Loy at the sink I burst into tears. It is such a profoundly made moment.
TISSERAND: You’ve written about that panel in Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates where Pat and Burma kiss. But then Caniff ends that scene. While you typically go on to draw what happens after such a kiss, and it has both a grand romantic sweep and explicit sex.
CHAYKIN: I think I'm culturally available to make that decision.
TISSERAND: How so?
CHAYKIN: To move on and see what happens next. It’s intrinsic to the generation in which I was born. As an example I love Alan Furst’s work, because Furst writes the sort of romantic narrative that brings to mind Casablanca, only with fucking.
Every generation believes that their own depiction of themselves in the media is a lie, whereas they take as a basic truth what that selfsame media says about every other generation. I was raised to think that nobody was fucking before my generation. And Gil Kane believed that we were just rocking ourselves out of our socks on a daily basis.
TISSERAND: Some of the sharpest and most sustained criticism of your work centered around scenes of violence in The Divided States of Hysteria. Looking back on that criticism, did you find any of the conversations productive? Anything that you thought was instructive, good for your work, good for comics, good for our ability to talk to and listen to each other?
CHAYKIN: I don't know. I don't think so. My feeling is it says less about me than it says about the audience and its assumptions based on that mainstream belief that comics are all about fake change. Comic book characters never change, no matter what they do. They change costumes. But they never really evolve or change.
I found it fascinating that so much of the reaction to the book was being manifest by people who hadn’t read the book but had heard about the book, that they based their entire set of assumptions on the events of the first issue when there were five more to follow. That no one noticed the fact that by the middle of the book the character had become the moral focus of the book, the compass of the book, and by the end of the book had become the romantic lead of the hero. Complicating his life enormously.
The sequel — which I’ve written, it’s not been dialogued but has been panel broken down, and it’ll probably never appear — ends with the two of them separated for much of an issue. The last line of the book is my version of Billy Wilder’s Nobody’s Perfect.
TISSERAND: It won’t appear because the first book was so controversial?
CHAYKIN: I was all set to move. Image decided that the pillorying that we’d receive was so damaging that there was no point in going forward. That's how Hey Kids! Comics! came to be. They said do that instead.
TISSERAND: You set Hey Kids! in the comics industry itself. Is that because you have a few things to say about that industry at this point in your career?
CHAYKIN: The older people in the comic business I've known since I was 15. I met Gil when I was 13 at a comic book store in Brooklyn. And I knew Dick Giordano from the time that I was 15, he started throwing me out of his office at 15. I hung around with a lot of the old guys and listened to them talk and paid attention.
The first five issues of Hey Kids!, a lot of it didn’t happen, but it’s all true. Nobody ever hung an editor out of a window. That's wishful thinking. But the anecdote, with so many different names attached to the editor and the artist, has been circulating for so long you can't not tell that story.
The fact that there really was someone in the comic book business who never told his parents he got married because he was afraid they'd find out that he married a gentile girl was true. The fact that there was an attempt to unionize in the early 1950s which was destroyed by a buyoff by one of the editors at DC Comics, who basically corrupted and bought out the guys who were behind the attempt to unionize in the first place, it’s all true.
TISSERAND: As with Power & Glory, you’re part of an industry, a franchise, but it also feels like you’re creating stories that are punching your way out of that industry.
CHAYKIN: The problem with the second arc of Hey Kids! is that a lot of these characters are not dead yet. Everybody who's referred, all the avatars in that first arc, are now dead. They’re long dead men and women. And if there’s a third arc, the third arc is going to get me into nobody’s-going-to-ever-speak-to-me kind of trouble.
TISSERAND: You mean, once again?
CHAYKIN: Yes, a distinct possibility. I recognize the fact that to a profound extent I'm a confusing embarrassment to most comic book people, they don't know what to make of me. It's an industry that admires the moral uplift. Their idea of quirky is sort of like what would make people heated in Omaha. You know, I’ve never been a fan of David Lynch because it always strikes me as self-consciously weird. I have a different set of rules.
TISSERAND: Given that, do you enjoy your collaborations? Do you enjoy working on art with someone else's story, as in Satellite Sam, which was terrific.
CHAYKIN: The genesis of the book is a couple of days that Matt Fraction and I spent walking around New York City visiting the Paley Center and checking out places and just talking about that world. We both read the same book, about backstage stories of The Howdy Doody Show, it was just phenomenal. I’m a guy who literally the first time I was aware of crying at the result of entertainment was when Clarabell said, “Goodbye, kids.” We both wanted to do something that took place in that world.
TISSERAND: Did being a Howdy Doody devotee ever lead you to cross paths with Andy Kaufman?
CHAYKIN: No, but I was at the first Carnegie Hall concert.
TISSERAND: The one where he invited everyone out for milk and cookies?
CHAYKIN: My wife and I skipped that. We were both like, this is too fucking weird even for us. But the Kaufman stuff is a huge part of my middle years, my twenties and thirties. I would never have wanted to meet him. I have no desire to meet my heroes. It happens occasionally and it's always too fucking weird for me.
TISSERAND: Kaufman is another one who used the form to entertain, but didn’t mind if you left the experience feeling confused and even disturbed.
CHAYKIN: I’m delighted by that. We are in so aggressively chaste an era right now, that the dance that's being done to entertain is dismaying to me.
I WILL NOT UPLIFT
TISSERAND: You’ve been watching a lot of Turner Classic Movies during this quarantine time. Do you see any of that affecting your storytelling choices?
CHAYKIN: I saw Hester Street not too long ago and I was re-inspired to return to a concept about a little boy who was brought to the States in that first wave of immigrants in the early 1900s. Raised in the Lower East Side and rejects everything because he is completely and totally Americanized and secularized, who is drafted in the first World War and uses his experience of getting to France as an opportunity to enact an act of vengeance of something he witnessed back in czarist Russia, in the middle of the revolution. To murder a noble. That’s something I’m playing with. I haven't got the logistics of it worked out.
TISSERAND: Did you happen to see Daniel Fish’s recent production of Oklahoma! on Broadway?
CHAYKIN: Yes! I went in there expecting to want to punch it in its face. And from the minute it started I was completely and totally transformed. I thought it was a staggering production. I thought it was just utterly brilliant. The ability to create magic from nothing was breathtaking. I think the reinterpretation of the character of Jud was staggering and the dream sequence, as confusing as it was, was also brilliant.
TISSERAND: I saw it too, and I can still hear the barely restrained fury with which they sang how they belonged to the land. As with much of your work, that play, especially that staging, held up the American myth and really took a hard look at that thing, at just how far it’s gotten us, and at the stories that came out of that myth.
CHAYKIN: And how no good could ever come of this. That kind of work is emotionally satisfying and spiritually satisfying, but also professionally damaging.
TISSERAND: How do you mean professionally damaging?
CHAYKIN: I know how good I am. But I also recognize the fact that my standards that define good and the standards that define good for others do not meet in a train station of my choosing. I will not uplift. I will not apologize for themes and ideas that I’ve done. It seems pointless. I work in comics as a medium but the medium has become a genre around my ankles.
The most ironic aspect of the pillorying that took place in 2017 was the assumption that I finally put to rest on the part of the comicsgate guys, that I'd been driven away from the left to the right and that I would be welcomed with open arms, and I would embrace the politics of these crypto Nazis. And I cannot believe the utter and complete naiveté on both sides of the table, in their projections, their assumptions, their presumptions, and their utter and complete conviction about the inevitability of their beliefs as right. There's no room for doubt at all.
TISSERAND: When comics do achieve their full potential, what do they do that is wholly unique to comics? That you won’t get out of film, out of a TV show, out of an album, even out of a book?
CHAYKIN: I think it's a medium in which the experience of simply turning the page and being arrested and involved makes the reader the sixth wheel in the material. Editor, writer, penciler or artist, colorist, letterer, reader. The availability of the subjective experience in comics to the reader is what separates it from all the others.
I've never seen more movies on television than I have in the past three months. I do not like watching movies on television. I like the experience of being in a darkened theater. And I can’t watch Broadway theater on television either, it just makes no sense to me. The verisimilitude of it escapes me. It’s got to be the intimacy of presence.
Comics on the other hand is a medium in which I as a reader am a participant of the narrative. That’s how I feel when I read Kurtzman’s stuff, it’s how I feel when I read Craig’s stuff. It’s how I felt when I was reading Azzarello and Risso’s work on the first thirty some-odd issues of 100 Bullets.
That experience is what matters to me. There must be at least one image per page of every book in which there is a subjective acknowledgement of the presence of the reader. So the reader can continue his engagement with the material.
TISSERAND: Is it because the art hits your brain in a certain way, while the experience of reading hits you in another way, and then you bring yourself to the task of putting these things together?
CHAYKIN: When I tried to get my wife to read comics she just said she couldn't because she didn’t know whether to look at the pictures or read the words first. I explained to her that it was comparable to watching a subtitled film. At a certain point you start hearing the words you're reading. The synergy that exists between text and narrative in comics should be invisible at its most successful. It’s one of the reasons why I insist on running the graphics of the material. I don't go outside looking for letterers, I don't go outside looking for colorists. I work with guys that are on the same par that I'm at. Ken Bruzenak knows for example that a balloon should be the overlap of a panel border, or float. It should not butt up against it because butting up against it flattens out the image and it obviates the value of that balloon as a three-dimensional object to serve as a foregrounding space.
Most comic book writers regard lettering as no more than a delivery system for text and the art as a delivery system for narrative. And there's this synergy that exists between all the disciplines involved. I insist my colorist read diligently and deeply the scripts so they know what I'm looking for in terms of ambience and mood. It’s really important to me.
But I'm deeply organized and that organization enables me to control the narrative. And controlling the narrative is what it's all about.
TISSERAND: You’ve left comics for a time, worked on television, illustration. But you keep coming back. Why?
CHAYKIN: I do regard comics as a calling. I think it has more in common with the Jesuitry than it does with working in rock and roll or television or movies. When I was a kid and a comic book collector, I had all these pals of mine who loved comics as much as I did. Now I don't know what the fuck they're doing. But I’m fifty years in now.
You know I started out working under false pretenses. I wasn't worthy of the work that I was getting. And I finally earned the right to have the work. And with that came an awareness of the value of the work. And I developed a detachment and a distance from the material that has both served me and ruined me in the fifty years of my career.
I'm not congratulating myself for this. I'm a smart guy and it has not served me in any fucking way, it really hasn’t. But my feeling is I’m proud of the work that I've done. For the most part I feel like I’ve maintained a level of technical excellence for the past, say, 25, 30 years, and hope to continue to do so.
You know, with these young hands.