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When I was reading comics as a teenager in the 1980s, everyone I knew knew that the hot writer/artists in comics were Frank Miller, Walter Simonson, and this guy, Howard Chaykin. His American Flagg redefined comics for readers in the '80s, a landmark series set in a believable near-future that, these days, seems all too real. The series is about to be re-introduced to today's readers in collections to be jointly released by Image Comics and Dynamic Forces. Chaykin's resume in comics goes much deeper than Flagg, though, from the early pioneering graphic novels Empire, The Stars My Destination and others to comics work as diverse as Sword of Sorcery, the first comics adaptation of Star Wars, his brilliant re-creation of The Shadow, the deliciously subversive Black Kiss, to more recent fare like American Century, Mighty Love, The Challengers of the Unknown and the forthcoming creator-owned Wildstorm title City of Tomorrow.
Chaykin has also enjoyed a long career in television, heavily involved in the production of The Flash, Viper, Earth: Final Conflict, Mutant X and other series. He describes himself as having a "youthful attitude problem," and attitude has in large part defined his comics work, a defiant, iconoclastic body of work that ranks as among the most unusual and exciting in comics history. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss his career with him.
When did your interest in comics begin?
Iíve been obsessed with comics since I was four years old -- when an older cousin laid a refrigerator box filled with comics on me -- and I loved comics uncritically for an awfully long time after that.
If you remember, what was in that refrigerator box of comics, anything stand out in your memory as being particularly influential in how you saw comics?
Not really. The box contained mostly superhero comics -- with a smattering of westerns and horror -- not, as I recall any ECs, but more the imitation stuff -- the kind of crap that might convince any right thinking mom that Frederic Wertham had a point.
Now that I think about it, those horror books were a big disturbing turn off -- which might very well account for my disinterest in horror -- in film, fiction and comics.
What were your earliest days in comics like? What was true then that isn't now, and what remains constant?
When I became a professional comics artist, there were still a number of anthology books, where a newcomer could develop in relative obscurity. These days, a guy has to be ready to kick ass from right out of the starting gate.
Another difference is simply societal. Thereís a loss of interest in narrative on the part of the artist -- which, since I believe that much of the writing in comics should be done by the artist, is a crying shame.
And back in the '70s, the money was lousy, we got no royalties, and we didnít get our originals returned -- three situations that changed in my time.
What kept you in comics during those early years when the work conditions were so poor, what got you through?
The work was the reward -- and we all lived cheaply.
You mention the lack of interest in the narrative on the part of many of today's artists...tell me what you think makes for good, compelling comics, and why you think that's been lost?
Itís impossible to answer with specifics, because the details are themselves case-specific -- but it just seems to me that most comics artists whoíve come into the business in the last twenty years or so -- with some very conspicuous exceptions -- have no interest in the storytelling aspects of comics.
The kind of talent Iím talking about is more interested in endless splash pages, or trading cards -- mostly posed imagery that brings to mind professional wrestlers glowering at each other or bodybuilding competitions -- as opposed to narrative based forms like fiction, the drama, opera or musical comedy -- all of which can share in the heightened reality of story telling with visual imagery.
Who are the comics creators you see as being the most influential on your own work and on the artform itself?
The men who influenced me were Gil Kane, Alex Toth, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, Bernard Krigstein, Johnny Craig, and Wallace Wood. Outside of comics, I worship the work of Robert Fawcett, Noel Sickles, Austin Briggs, Al Parker and Harry Beckhoff.
Many of these men were profoundly influential on comics in general -- but I believe the single most influential talent to enter the business in the past twenty five years is probably Michael Golden. Although nowhere nearly as prolific as many of his peers, his work has been picked over, plundered and absorbed by a mob of lesser men -- none of whom can hold a candle to him. Golden is a brilliant draftsman, designer, and storyteller -- a living master of the craft.
You shared studio space for a time with Walter Simonson and other artists. What are the benefits and problems that result from a working environment like that?
There were no problems that I recall. Rather, we were all marathon talkers, and, to paraphrase a line of dialogue from The Maltese Falcon on a drawing of Sydney Greenstreet by Walter Simonson, we were men who liked talking to men who liked to talk -- and we talked about everything. Iím not sure thereís quite as eclectic a group of people in the generations that followed ours.
Along with guys like Simonson, Miller, Sienkiewicz and a select few others, you were a creator who really was able to inject a very personal vision into comics long before creator ownership was even possible. What sort of problems did you encounter in trying to create the sort of comics that you enjoyed doing? What sort of trail do you think you and creators of your caliber blazed in the 1970s and '80s?
I believed then, and continue to believe now, that I could never have done AMERICAN FLAGG! for either of the two majors. The baggage dragged around by both companies would have obviated such an odd book.
Flagg! was met with confusion at both major companies -- and regarded as odd at best, or downright weird at worst. In the long run, however, it served as a template for comics today -- in terms of layout, texture and density of form -- so Iím both very proud and a tad bitter.
American Flagg stands as a landmark in comics history, one of the most iconoclastic and dynamic titles of the 1980s, if not of all time. Image and Dynamic Forces are re-releasing this work at last. What are your feelings about Flagg two decades later?
I recently re-read the Flagg! stuff -- and Iím delighted it holds up as well as it does. Iím also astonished at just how labor-intensive it is -- this was a buttload of work, for godís sake. None of this is to say that I donít work my tail off today -- but in a time when the only options were xerography and literal paste-ups and mechanicals, this was a serious production heavy job -- and Iím talking about before it ever got to Firstís production department.
In doing a little research online before starting this interview, I was really surprised to see the many and varied titles you've written and/or drawn in your career; surprised not only by the number of titles, but the general high quality that I associate with most of them, notable Black Kiss, The Shadow, Blackhawk, even going back to a very early favourite of mine, DC's Sword of Sorcery. When you reflect on all the comics you've created since you started in comics, what are the ones you feel proudest of, and why?
First off, thanks for your kind words. Iím proud of the work Iíve done, but I also believe that one of the reasons Iíve been able to keep working -- and at a fairly high level of polish -- is a constant reinvention of my approach and my attitudes.
I donít play favorites -- each of the projects youíve mentioned was the center of my universe when I was working on it -- and required a specific set of ideas for its completion.
Other than Flagg, are there any other works of yours that you would like to see presented anew to today's generation of readers?
I love the TIME(SQUARED) stuff along with a graphic novel I did for Heavy Metal, entitled THE SWORDS OF HEAVEN, THE FLOWERS OF HELL.
What comics creators working today, if any, do work you enjoy reading?
I read Alan Mooreís stuff, and Brian Azzarello, too -- particularly when heís partnered up with the brilliant Eduardo Risso. I like what Straczynski is doing on Supreme Power -- and Iíve also recently been introduced to Brian Bendisís work. Heís terrific.
You've made a second, and presumably much better paying career in TV. How did you segue into the industry, and how different is it from working in comics?
I moved to Southern California in the mid '80s to get into features, thanks to the attention Iíd garnered with American Flagg. I did a few movie scripts, then stumbled into television, and stayed there for thirteen years.
As to how it differs from comics, I give you a quote from the esteemed Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. "The TV business is cruel and shallow money pit, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side."
Television is far less a meritocracy than a political landscape. Youíve got a show, you hire a friend, your friend hires you when heís got a show. Itís also much more difficult to get the work than it is to do the work in television. Once youíre hired, the process teaches you how to do the work -- which, in television, is frequently more about where and how money is spent on an episode, and about servicing the cast and standing sets.
Comics, on the other hand, are far more labor intensive as Iíve indicated above -- and the hiring is more often than not more directly related to a subjective excellence -- standards we may not agree on, but that most of us can understand -- at least from a commercial perspective.
Quite a few of the TV series you've been involved in, including Mutant X and The Flash, focused on superheroes. I find that interesting, since so much of your comics work is NOT about superheroes. Can you tell me what it's like bringing the superhero genre to TV?
The show business likes to pigeonhole its players. Since I came out of comics, then it stood to reason to the powers that be that I must be a superhero guy. It should be borne in mind that in general, comics are perceived by films and television not as a medium but rather as a genre -- where Rob Leifeld and Harvey Pekar live in the same universe. Go figure.
Therefore, I took the work I was given and did the best work I could. As for superheroes on television, itís fairly difficult, since the executives of most of the major studios are convinced that the audience members theyíre after donít give a damn about superheroes, except in the context of summer blockbusters -- and Iíve come to believe that perhaps theyíre right.
It seems lately you're back in comics in a major way, with the Flagg! re-release, American Century, Mighty Love and other recent works. Tell me about your Wildstorm comic City of Tomorrow: What can we expect, and how did it come about?
As I speak -- or rather, type, Iíve completed issue six of THE CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN -- and Iím about to start CITY OF TOMORROW. Itís a six issue creator owned miniseries -- a suburban western -- in which COLUMBIA, an idyllic community is terrorized by two robotic organized crime families, until TUCKER FOYLE, the prodigal wastrel son of the communityís founder returns home to make peace with his father and, against his own better judgment, to tame the town-in the course of which he falls head over heels in love with a gorgeous female robot.
After City of Tomorrow and your other current work, what else are you looking forward to doing in the near future?
Iíve got a Western and a crime book lined up -- both of which Iím pretty damned excited about.
Special thanks to Howard Chaykin for taking the time to participate, to Abhay Khosla for consultation, and to Joe Rybandt for his assistance in setting up this interview.