Howard Chaykin Interview - Toronto Comic Con 2018

by Hussein Wasiti on March 22, 2018

CTG: What did comics mean to you as a child and what made you want to make them?


Chaykin: I was four years old. I had two older cousins who gave me a refrigerator box filled with comics books, and in those days, if you read comics you read everything. You didn't read a genre. Comics in those days covered everything from funny animals to teenage stuff, superheroes, westerns, and they were just stories. And I can, to this day, bring up the sense memory of the smell of that paper. I knew instinctually, at the age of four, that someone made this. And that I wanted to be that person. I had no discernable talent or skill, but I had desire and hunger. From that day forward, I decided that I when I grew up I wanted to be a guy who made comic books. And I loved the idea of comics as narrative I taught myself to read from comics. When I entered kindergarten I was reading at a fourth-grade level. I could not pronounce the words but I could parse them and identify the relationship with the pictures involved, so I was able to pretty much figure out what these things meant. I have always been a reader and I love narrative. I must say I do not read comics anymore. It takes a lot for me to get to read a comic book because, for the most part, comics are not made for me as a reader or an audience. I can't think of the last book… Wait, I can. The last book I read with any regularity was Scalped by Jason Aaron and Guera.


CTG: So it would be hard to find an indie book that appeals to you as a reader?


Chaykin: I don't really care about what's done. Perhaps if there was a comp list that was being fed to me, but since there's a tyranny of choice available when you go to a comic book store, you have no real idea of what you're being offered for the most part. And I also find, to a profound extent, that the independent comics movement is there to create IP [intellectual property] and I'm not particularly interested in supporting writers who, whether intentionally or unintentionally, exploit the artists with whom they collaborate, to create IP that are basically writers' visions of material. I'm a cartoonist, I write and draw my own stuff, I draw from other people's scripts, and I write scripts for others, and I bring the same level of enthusiasm and intent to all the work that I do, but I feel the fact that we're living in an era in which the writer is the alpha in comic books is absolutely absurd. Let us accept the basic fact that when someone responds to the writing in a comic book, what they're actually responding to is the execution of the writer's vision as delivered to you by the artist. Comic book artists are not illustrators, rather they are graphic designers in the service of narrative. They're at least 50% participants in the concept of writing and narrative in comic books themselves.


CTG: I agree!


Chaykin: Thank you! I was worried.


CTG: You had Gil Kane as a mentor. How did he shape your process and what has he taught you that has stuck after all these years?


Chaykin: I went to work for Gil when I was eighteen or nineteen. I had no talent and no particular skillset, but watching him work gave me a sense of how things should be done. I also owe much of my career to Wallace Wood, Neal Adams, Gray Morrow, and on a professional and business level, Joe Orlando. But Gil taught me what it felt like and looked like to be a comic book man. What I find most odd and disturbing is that I recently read a collection of his work from Fantagraphics called Sparring with Gil Kane, in which he was saying things that I'm saying now and I had no idea. Gil and I were raised in the same neighbourhood thirty years apart, and I'm much less of a thief than he was. He was morally ambiguous, let's say. What he had to say about the material was right on the money. I believe, to a profound extent, that he was hampered by the fact that he couldn’t write worth a shit. He was a great writer of essay and critical commentary but when it came to actually writing comics, he was really out of his depth, which I find fascinating. There was a problem of relativism in his work. For example, he couldn't do what Harvey Kurtzman did, I know he couldn't do what Harvey Kurtzman did. Someone who Gil and I knew, who was very close with Gil, once described his work as hyperbolic and it's rightfully so, his work is extremely hyperbolic. It lacked anything in terms of nuance. And it also was incredibly generic. I spent most of my life trying to step aside from those particular criticisms. When I do a city, I want it to be a recognisable city that is an actual place. I want real clothes, real people. I was saying to someone earlier that I'm frequently criticised for drawing the same hero, as if it's an accident. As if I didn't know that I was doing it on purpose, all the time. And there's a reason for it. It's because it's easy, and because it's irrelevant. It points to the comic book fan's complete misunderstanding and misreading of what is and isn't important about comics. They tend to respond to pretty. They deify a nothing artist like Michael Turner and ignore Darwyn Cooke. They regard Michael Turner as a realist and they dismiss Darwyn Cooke as "cartoony". Which is completely idiotic! But it's a reflection of the atrophy of taste that happens to many people who read comics because their tastes are frequently atrophied and frozen at twelve. It's what you're introduced to at that point that becomes your standard of appreciation. Recently, I found myself discussing on Facebook these rancorous missiles of a guy like Ross Andru, who is one of the giants of the previous generation. But he wasn't pretty, his work didn't have that fan-favouring prettiness.


CTG: I would say the same thing about Jack Kirby. His characters weren't handsome since it was all about the action.


Chaykin: By the time you became aware of his work, his work had evolved into a series of geometric and graphic forms. The guy who created everything, the guy who invented how the modern comic book page tells its story, is Will Eisner. When I was a Golden Age collector, I wasn't aware of that. I wasn't aware of how influential he was. The work that Eisner was doing had quality on books like The Spirit, Blackhawk, or Plastic Man with Jack Cole. Kirby's work in the 40s was heavily influenced by that work as well. It wasn't until Kurtzman comes along and introduces an almost detached perspective, almost a journalistic approach, where he lays the material out as well as writing it, that comics had a sea change of narrative. The third change is Kirby/Lee [Jack Kirby and Stan Lee]. If Eisner is melodrama and action and movement, and Kurtzman is information in a detached way, Kirby/Lee is about impact, not about action, but about impact. By the time Jack becomes the mainstay at Marvel, almost all movement is eliminated and what's replaced is impact and moment of impact. What's happened today, in my opinion, is an attempt to create Kirby/Lee effect with Eisner technique.


CTG: There was a certain bit of controversy, to put it lightly, about your Image series The Divided States of Hysteria. What exactly was your intention with it and did you expect the reaction it got?


Chaykin: My intentions were to produce a thoughtful work about a subject matter that had not been addressed in comics, which is the aftermath of the next successful terrorist attack in the United States with a hero who was less identifiable as a melodramatic archetype of heroes. The book appeared at a flashpoint for a kind of self-referential identitarianism on the left in which the contradictory irony was defined by, again, I'm putting words into the mouths of other people as they put them into mine, but I'll get to that in a moment… It should be explained that the criticism of the book did not come from anybody who had read the book. There were actually people who read it who said that they didn't have to read it to know that it was vile, that "I'm all for artistic expression, but…". I know they didn't read the book because each issue had an email address to which you could write letters of comment, and the only letters of comment we got were from right-wing nuts who actually got the fact that the book was an attempt on them, not the over-sensitive left. The only reason I have not been pushed from the left to the right, and I'm pretty to the left myself, was that the right is so fucking loathsome. I was called a Nazi on Facebook yesterday by a right-winger, so at least I'm doing something right because I'm hitting it on both sides. Among the criticisms were that as a cis-gendered heterosexual white male, and since I'm Jewish I'm noo longer white by the standards and circumstance of the American administration, I'm not allowed to tell stories about people who are not like me which is, from my perspective, absurd, and that the identitarianist movement says that we must be accepted as part of the social fabric but at the same time held out as a separate entity against that social fabric. I find it shocking that conclusions were drawn based on no evidence, particularly about a single character in the book who… The three flashpoints were the first issue's cover which was a woman wearing a niqab made of an American flag, which I thought was a perfectly reasonable image. It was ambivalent and ambiguous. The second was the revelation that there was a rape of a transgendered woman in the book, which was not true since it was an attempted rape, in which the transgendered woman defended herself and rightfully so, was the only one of the four characters who were morally justified in their behaviour. And then of course the cover of the fourth issue, which depicted the lynching of an Indo-Asian Middle-Eastern man with an implicit castration. People seem to feel that the depiction of the event was the equal to the event itself and that somehow academic culture, which has been careening in the direction of protecting students from what might offend had invaded the readership, came in. Now, comic books by nature are profoundly anodyne. Let's face it, the Comics Code Authority infantilised comics in 1954. It eliminated the idea of comic books aimed at an older adult audience. Even in genre material. All that was left after the dust had settled was superhero comic books. I have no problem with superhero comic books, I don't care about superhero comic books. I do them for a living every now and then when someone calls me. I don't solicit work from any of the companies for work anymore. I've just done a five-page piece of Captain America. I have no idea why they called me.


CTG: Well, it's because you're name's Howard Chaykin -


Chaykin: Doesn't mean shit to a tree. I'm not a name of any consequence. And the fact is that superhero comics are based on an ethos which I find adolescent, anodyne, and ridiculous. Anecdotally, when I was 35 I wrote my first movie. It was a rewrite of a script that had been in play for a long time. It was a franchise, I was the seventh guy on the script. And the franchise of the script was, and I'm gonna use air-quotes here, "Dirty Harry" and "James Bond" both work for the same intelligence agency, and they both think the other has gone rogue, shockingly they've been betrayed, someone in the agency has convinced the other, and they get together and find out who did it. It was a terrible script, my version wasn't any better than what had preceded it. But the notes that came from the two producers, who were notorious [odd Hebrew word for criminal], didn't speak to each other or share notes, both asked me if there was any way I could make the hero more altruistic. Criminals! That is the perfect essence of what comic books are about. Creating characters who are unbelievably, unrealistically moral and noble. Without any acknowledgement of human nature. It's what Star Wars is. Star Wars is degenerate in its refusal to depict actual adult emotion. Comic book fans like titillation and pin-ups, but when the element of actual desire is introduced into the equation, they get very fluffery because for the most part they have the adolescent sensibilities of a fifteen-year-old boy. They have to, otherwise they would look at the work they're reading… I mean, let's face it. Batman is about a rich guy who had a bad day when he was eight.


CTG: A really bad day, though.


Chaykin: That may be. We've all had bad days. And rather than investing those billions in the private sector or politics, and fighting crime where it exists in the ghetto, he instead dresses as a leather bondage freak and beats the living shit out of people he doesn't know, but he knows are bad by the way they look.


CTG: He could be just as crazy as the people he fights, which is a popular theory.


Chaykin: The fact that there would have to be a popular theory about what is basically a fifteen-year-old boy's ideal wet dream of justice and order demonstrates the point that I'm making. Are you defending this material? If you choose to, go ahead.


CTG: I like Batman but he's not a favourite of mine.


Chaykin: Who's your favourite superhero?


CTG: Superman.


Chaykin: And you believe that if a being of Superman's ilk and character came to Earth, he would subsume the nature of power and the corruption that is endemic to power to serve mankind in his Jesus-like way?


CTG: It's not as complicated as that.


Chaykin: No?


CTG: I love the supporting cast. I love Metropolis. To see a character shaped not by his strength but by his morals, by what his parents taught him, impacts me personally.


Chaykin: You like the fact that there's a fantasy element of a guy with that much power who subsumes that power in the nature of basic human good.


CTG: Sure. Christopher Priest gave an interview recently, saying he didn't like that it's becoming accepted that white men shouldn't write black men, or that straight men can't write gay woman.


Chaykin: The advent of geek girl culture in comics has opened the idea that diversity is everything. I have no problem with diversity, I spent my entire life writing these characters. It's an idea that is not as complex as people make it, and people will find out ways to be as offended as they possibly can as long as it serves their needs. Six months ago, I was in New York City, and I was seeing some shows. Two of the shows I was gonna see closed before I got there, so I ended up getting tickets at the last minute to see a show called Prince of Broadway, which is a jukebox musical heralding the career of Harold Prince, who is a great Broadway producer. He's done everything, and it's just various snippets of his various shows. And you get a piece, "If I Was a Rich Man", from Fiddler on a Roof, which is about a fifty-year-old milkman who's the father of four daughters in pre-revolutionary Russia. In the course of the show, this number was performed by Chuck Cooper, who is a sixty-four-year-old black actor and a Broadway mainstay. Now was that cultural appropriation? Or is that simply a statement of the universality of experience? You tell me, Mr. Smarty Pants.


CTG: Maybe the latter.


Chaykin: I'm willing to go out on a limb! And that's my point. The identitarian movement which is used to be identified as separate but equal, without being equal enough to justify its separateness. You can't have it both ways. My mother is a second-generation American. Her parents were born in Poland and Russia. She referred to herself as a Jewish-American. I refer to myself as an American. I take my Americanness very seriously. I reject the idea that patriotism is the province of the right, despite the fact that the right has learnt to own that. The criticisms that I received on the book [The Divided States of Hysteria] had nothing whatsoever to do with the book and everything to do with the assumptions about me and my character. And my feelings were hurt, my reputation was damaged, and I feel like it was an unnecessarily hateful exercise of hate. And now the fact that I've been called a Nazi by a right-winger closes the circle, and now it convinces me that I'm completely right, and I'm taking shit from both sides.


CTG: If it came out today, do you think it would be received the same?


Chaykin: Oh yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. The comic book audience, whether they care to admit it or not, is committed to being pandered to and patronised and, I've said this more than once today, I'm good but not particularly nice. And comic books love nice. They love people who tell them exactly what they want to hear, support their fears, and support their desires. For example, in the real world, Watchmen should have eliminated the concept of superhero comic books. Because it points out the utter ludicrousness of this material. But instead it provided an entirely new vocabulary to a bunch of second-rate talent and careers that have been going on forever. And I'm not interested in being compared or judged by the same people who read Batman comics or Aquaman comics. I don't do that kind of work. I mean, I made a conscious choice to seek out a smaller audience that has a different sensibility than the kind of morally prissy, black-and-white, good vs. evil… it's professional wrestling with capes. It's really all it is. Who's your favourite character? They're not characters! They're vaguely evolved plot devices which are informed by our own belief systems.


CTG: Is there anything wrong with that?


Chaykin: No, not at all! The difference between me and the audience that attacks me is that I'm perfectly willing to let them live and they believe I should be censored, destroyed, and ruined. That's where the illiberalism of the liberal left comes in. In that second essay, which I reposted last week, I talk about the fact that I don’t like seafood, I don't like hip hop, and I don't like Republicans. I don't vote Republican, I don't eat seafood, and I don't listen to hip hop. Don't buy my fucking book, cocksucker.