Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Howard Chaykin: The Reinvented Man

"When I started in comics, there weren't many opportunities,"
Howard Chaykin reflects in a San Diego bar. No longer drinking alcohol, he sips seltzer water with lime.

"In retrospect, had I been able to visualize in the early '70s, that I could make a living using the skills I have in show business, I might have ended up in Los Angeles sooner and my life would be considerably different now. Not having any way to see that, I stayed in comics. I didn't really develop a sense of who I was, professionally, until the late 1970s, and that was only by putting myself in the position of publicly humiliating myself unless I could deliver what I promised.

"I took on jobs I didn't think I could do, so I put myself in the position of either doing them or fucking up and dying."

Now in his fifties, Chaykin's gone from being the young smart-assed Jewish kid from New York of the 1980s and grown into the older smart-assed Jewish man of 2008. His sarcasm has evolved into a sharp-edged wisdom, but without the feeling that his best work is far behind him. Maybe it comes from his constant reinvention, and the knocks he's been dealt in his life (some of his own doing, others uncontrollably so). Chaykin, after all, has a complex life with the type of childhood only characters in movies or Charles Dickens novels have.

"I was born in New Jersey, because I was illegitimate, as I learned later, and was being hidden out in Staten Island," Chaykin says. "I've lived in all the boroughs, and my last ten years there were in Manhattan. The New York sensibility is a big part of my life, back to my earliest memories.

"The guy I thought was my dad, and my mother, had a very rocky relationship. I was shipped off to my grandparent's in Staten Island [on weekends]. It was more of an enclave, more like New Jersey than New York. On Sunday, my grandmother would go to the lower east side to the wholesale clothing sales run by the old Jews, to sell to her customers in Staten Island. There were no malls then, and no places to buy clothes.”

New York, back in the late '50s of Howard's childhood, was still a dominantly ethnic city. The Jewishness of The Big Apple was still prevalent in an Old World sense that might not be as widespread today.

"Someone once said that in New York, you're either Jewish, Irish, or Italian," Chaykin notes. "I was raised on welfare, in a neighborhood that was predominantly black, Puerto Rican, and Italian. My early experience was basically spent fucking around with a lot of black kids, fucking around with a lot of Italian kids, and running crazy in the street with them. I was not an athletic kid, and was bookish, which is what was expected of me as a Jew....

"I was also a theater guy. At twelve years old, my aunt took me to the theater twice a year. I'm deeply steeped in that arcane world, and the old Jews are gone, while the new ones are more assimilated and subtle. Those that have returned to the faith don't have that old-worldness."

With a tumultuous childhood, Chaykin found a means to metamorphose out of his bookishness and into something new, courtesy of another self-made man and Jewish cartoonist, the late Gil Kane. Noted for his art on everything superhero from The Atom and Green Lantern for DC Comics (both of whom were co-created by Kane), as well as Spider-Man at Marvel, Kane also pioneered with his comic strip Star Hawks and prototypical graphic novel Blackmark. Kane was eloquent, outspoken, argumentative, and prone to climbing up on a soapbox first opportunity he got.

"I remember, very specifically, sitting on the stoop of my front porch when I was a kid," Chaykin recalls. "I lived at 370 Saratoga Avenue in the 1950s; in the 1930s and '40s, Gil Kane lived at 420 Saratoga Avenue. We went to the same grammar school, 30 years apart. But he was more of a hoodlum than I was [and] as much a self-creation as I am. To a profound extent, he is the single-most important male in my life.

"I went to work for Gil when I was 19, and he taught me how to tie a necktie. His stories of his running rampant in New York City as a teenager are fabulous. He was as tall at 14 or 15 as he was when he was an adult. He was a big guy, very rangy; never got fat because he never developed a palate because he ate like a child. The importance of eating socially wasn't lost on him, but the act of eating was of no interest whatsoever, and he had no taste. As a kid, he ran wild in the same street I was living on in the 1950s."

"At the same time, I went to work for him, and was taught his background and history, and his self-invention. That concept of self-invention made it very clear to me...I couldn't articulate it at the time but I sought self-invention, as well. I was fat, socially unavailable, inept, and easily confused. I didn't have control over my life. Gil's successful reinventions of himself gave me the clues and cues that I needed to reinvent myself. I started in my mid-20s."

Look at Chaykin's work in the late '70s, primarily on the Star Wars movie adaptation for Marvel: figures are crammed into tall panels, camera angles are often static, and the whole thing just looks vanilla. But, take a quick look at the work that was more than an assignment, but a project that he was rearing to tell, and it was all over the place with dynamic design, glossed over by an art deco veneer. Whether it was sword and sorcery or his pulp character The Scorpion, for short-lived publisher Atlas, Chaykin's work shines the most when it's a subject matter he's obviously passionate about. In 1983, he hooked up with indy publisher First Comics and aced out on the indy craze with his mature series American Flagg!
Flagg! follows former porn star Reuben Flagg, whose career is cut short when he's replaced by a computer simulation. He becomes a Plexus Ranger and is stationed on a shopping mall base on Earth. Flagg's a smart-ass Jew (who, in one memorable scene, feels self-loathing for having angry sex with a Nazi) who is forced to reinvent himself while finding a new direction in his life.
Like Chaykin, he's a self-made man.

"I simply created a kitchen sink strip, which reflected everything I wanted to have in a comic book," Chaykin says. But Flagg! was more than that: it was an eerily prescient strip that first showed the fully realized Howard Chaykin to the world. Flagg! owns its own distinctive brand of pacing and sound effects, and was a mature and sophisticated (though occasionally disjointed) melding of satire, humor, and action.

Howard's short-lived graphic novel Time Squared: Epiphany, set in a future world laden with sexbots and jazz music, came out in 1986. He claims it's his most personal work, starring another Jewish hero in the Chaykin vein, who could arguably be speaking from the artist's own mouth:

"I experienced a moral responsibility for the first time," the hero of the book, Maxim Glory, said. "It hit me like the divine wind and after the hurricane of thirty-some odd years of accumulated guilt had broken me down I came out a reformed shitheel and a...well-a self-righteous prig with a conscience."

After working as writer on TV shows like The Flash, Viper, and Mutant X in the '90s, Chaykin flirted in and out of comics, making a comeback in the late '90s, often times with the same mold of hero, be it Reuben Flagg or Maxim Glory, reflecting one facade of the complex Chaykin. For all of his bluntness, Chaykin's up front about dealing with recently learning of his unknown biological father ("While it's not a wound, it's still omnipresent in my life," he says), and his former alcoholism and drug use. He still lives in LA, but remains a New Yorker at heart, with the coolness to prove it.

"I've reinvented myself about a dozen times over the years," he notes. "If I'm going to continue to work in this field, I'm going to have to be competitive. A lot of my colleagues still behave as if it's 1984. I've been around, and have had a career that was much more satisfying, more longer lived, and much more anxiety and stress-filled than I anticipated when I started. I had no idea what to expect. One thing it has taught me is to step away from expectation, to shun it completely, and accept things as they come, but not necessarily happily."

Earlier that day, he turned down sitting up in a panel of his contemporaries, legendary pros who let themselves be shoehorned into being the artists of a set era in comics.

While many of his '70s and '80s peers struggle to keep up with the emerging technology of Photoshop (or embrace the mediocrity of only reliving past glories at conventions and in fan magazines), Chaykin evolves with it. His current work still maintains a full bleed on the edges of his pages, and a sense of depth through digital manipulation, the modern day Zip-A-Tone. That reinvention is what's keeping him from becoming known as "the guy who did" a certain comic, and has kept him one of the guys who are "doing" a project.

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