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An Interview with Howard Chaykin, part two...
Howard Chaykin, swearing to a confused fan that, yes, he did draw the original ten issues of Star Wars...
Continuing our conversation, I turned to Chaykin's debt to those who came before, and maybe what lies ahead...

DM: Do you teach, or take up-and-comers under your wing, at least? There's a lot of young guys that can draw one element, but can't put the whole thing together.

Chaykin: I always have an assistant, because frankly, I've been doing this long enough that there's a lot of stuff I just don't feel like doing anymore. I always have a guy working with me as sort of a Hound of the Baskervilles or Brom Bones, riding behind me to keep me going.

I was an assistant to many of the great lights in the generation before mine, and one of the things you learn is that you can never give back to those guys what you got from them. So your job is to pass it on to the next generation.

I've had some great people working for me. Everyone from Peter Kuper to Lynn Varley to Don Cameron, who is now a sensational animation designer. I've got a guy working for me right now who is absolutely sensational.

If I were living in New York City, in all likelihood I would be teaching at the School of Visual Arts, because I like the sound of my own voice. But I also think I learned a great deal from teaching. It's one of those great clichéd truisms that happens to be real.

I always find it difficult to do portfolio review. Because what I expect of the material, what I understand about the material, what I know about the material, has so little relationship to what most guys who are in the comic book business as professionals or even fans have. It's like Venus and Mars.

One of the first things I do with any guy I hire is give him Harvey Kurtzmann's Two-Fisted Tales and Front-line Combat. I give him Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. It's historically the first, and for my money greatest, example of what we do. More than Prince Valiant or any of that other stuff. It's pure core storytelling. I also feel that to a great extent Wash Tubbs is a little too obscure for them. Terry and the Pirates is more accessible than Wash Tubbs.

I mean it.

Buzz Sawyer is more accessible, but by that time, he's gotten slick. But you look at Caniff, and you see the evolution of what he did with Terry in his first year and it's unbelievable. Take a look at the dailies alongside the Sundays and you're going what the hell is he doing? By 1937 and 38, everything's in place, and he's just inventing the stuff that we do.

Kurtzmann is just the best writer in comics in his time. He understood the relationship between narrative visuals and captions. He was a word counter. His structure is just mind-boggling.

But the problem is that both of these guys, neither has the flash and dash of a Lou Fine and his descendants, or Will Eisner and his descendants. But I think you can learn more from those other guys, then apply the flash and dash to narrative structure.

DM: You mentioned that you don't get a lot of kids because you don't do The X-Men…

Chaykin: Why haven't I done The X-Men?

DM: Well, there are definitely mature themes running through your work. But would you ever be tempted to do something that is more appropriate for, shall we say, all ages?

Chaykin: I don't know. The fact is that Challengers is going to confuse and confound my audience because there's no sex in it. Sorry, kids.

Sure looks like there's sex and violence to me..
It's more about paranoia and fear. It's good-looking people. It could be a code book. It's definitely not a mature readers book. Know that right up top.

I'm not sure that my drawing style is applicable to that sort of thing. I was a teen-age dad. That's one of secrets of the comics that they don't talk about in the books. So I have grandchildren.

I look good. But I do have grandchildren. I have a four and a half year old granddaughter, a year old granddaughter and a three week old grandson.

I've been drawing for the eldest, because she loves pirates. And I've tried to work in a style that's fun for a four and a half year old. I'm not sure I have those goods in me, if that makes any sense.

On the other hand, I might add, that it's always amused me that so many pornographers would make great children's book illustrators and vice versa. But that's another story.

DM: You give me a good segue. At Wondercon you made a joke about trying to get Black Kiss made into a film.

Chaykin: That's no joke.

DM: Could American culture stand such a thing?

Chaykin: I think Black Kiss is one of the funniest things I've ever done, a darkly funny comedy. I did at a turning point in my life. I turned the point and now I'm done. There's no reason that film couldn't be made. I don't think it would be a PG-13, but it could be done anywhere from a hard R to an X.

You could do that film with a hard R, by making implicit what is explicit. There's no reason it couldn't be. And there have been a number of situations where it was almost there. We've had a number of almosts, in the first place with a semi-well-known Canadian actress, another time with a very well-known American director. Hollywood is filled with almosts.

I'm still hoping someday to get it happening. That's one of the reasons that I like that it remains in print.

DM: It's a far cry from your early days drawing Star Wars. Not to dwell on that work, but you have made the comment that Star Wars paved the way for Ronald Reagan to be elected. Would you explain that?

Chaykin: What's weird is that I made this comment several years ago. Then I saw a very similar remark to that effect in a wonderful book called Seeing Through The Movies.

I think that Star Wars and similar films of the seventies made it possible for the electorate to sort of put their minds on hold and go with their feelings, more than they ever had before. It was a real turning point in American culture.

It's another remark, I think in Power & Glory, where the President's talking about the space program being in trouble because people are more interested in Star Wars than real stuff. Because the real stuff is boring. I mean, they just don't look good; the suits don't look cool. It's one of the reasons why, I think, in the late seventies and early eighties there was a major overhaul and redesign of spacesuits to make them look hipper.

I think that people have always liked a man on a white horse, and Reagan was a man on a white horse. He managed to portray Jimmy Carter as a creature of indecision, and indecision is always perceived as an unheroic act. And I think we're paying the price for that.

I am not, as you might guess, a Republican.

On the other hand, I find myself in the curious position of actually considering the possibility that there is actually a Republican politician in this country who I would vote for. John McCain.

I have an immense respect for him on so many levels. He's the most interesting politician alive, certainly out there with a public face, that I've seen in years. And I'm grateful that he's not running with Kerry.

I think that his personality, his anger, his passion is enormously appealing.

DM: So let's tie this back to Challengers of the Unknown. Do you think that the fictional paranoia you've set up fits with today's situation?

Chaykin: Oh, absolutely. I explained to somebody that Challengers was based on a line from Gore Vidal. I'm a huge Gore Vidal fan, both as a writer of fiction and as an essayist. I'm paraphrasing, but he made a reference in a piece once to "…the people behind the scenes who hire the men every four years who play our president." And that stuck with me.

That's sort of what Challengers is about: paying attention to the man behind the curtain instead of letting it go and hoping everything will be fine.

It's about the machinations of the man behind the curtain.

DM: What is it about comics that has lured you back from the lucrative career doing television?

Chaykin: The money that you earn from doing television comes at a price: heart, soul and stomach.

When I left the show I was working on, in the space of a couple of months I lost thirty-five pounds, started sleeping better and found my head, my emotional state, level of serenity and spirituality was greatly heightened. I was no longer rage-filled. I was no longer berserk. I was happy.

It finally all happened out of circumstance. I left the show in June, and in Hollywood, by June the jobs are all gone. The schedules are announced in mid-May, and by June there's no work. The best that I could have hoped at that point was to get a job come Thanksgiving. That's about it.

Chaykin proving his chops...
I found myself in the position of not having to work, because that was part of my contract. But I wasn't going to sit on my ass for six months because I don't do that sort of thing. So I pitched a book to DC on a Friday, and they bought it the following Tuesday. Which I have since learned is a record. And that became Mighty Love.

I approached Mighty Love with enormous fear, because I hadn't drawn anything of real volume in years. I'd done short pieces here and there, the odd cover, but it was an extended narrative. We're talking 96 pages.

And I discovered that my chops were in better shape than they had any right to be. There were things I never used to be able to do that I could do now, and there were things that I used to be able to do that I could do better.

I don't recommend taking ten years off from your career, but it worked for me. And I discovered that I really liked it. Half-way through the book, I was talking to my wife and I said, "how would you feel if we didn't have the kind of money that we're used to having?"

She said, "you're happier, you're healthier, you don't make me crazy; I'll live with it." And that was that. Now she's paying the price because she's working her ass off trying to catch up, but she is an absolute bulldog when it comes to work. Very much like me; the both of us are very work-committed.

I decided to stay in comics. I'm still available for other stuff, but I'm not actively insanely pursuing it.

I'm pretty happy doing what I'm doing. Life is good.

DM: Who currently working in comics interests you?

Chaykin: I love 100 Bullets. It feels like the work of one man, and for me there is no greater compliment. It's a great synergy of talent.

I love what Dave Johnson is doing. I think he's sensational in both black and white and in color. He's one of the smartest artists I've ever seen.

I'm really digging Phil Noto's stuff.

I like this new guy, Leinil Yu. A whole other way to think about the figure and the head. It's just really nice.

I love what Alan Moore is doing on ABC. I really love Tom Strong, because it's a great pastiche of stuff that interests me. I really miss Top Ten. I thought it was swell. I'm not a big fan of Promethea, because I'm an American Jew and I just don't get it. It has no resonance for me whatsoever. I love what Jim Williams is doing, but I just don't get the book; it's too f*****g English.

I love Adam Hughes' stuff. That good girl stuff just kills me; it's really funny.

Who else? I'm hurting people's feelings.

I also have to say that I'm absolutely stunned and delighted to see John Severin working. Two guys that I was a big fan of were John Severin and Russ Heath.

Yes, I see the Severin...
Nobody ever pointed out the huge influence that John Severin had on me. I feel that to a large extent American Flagg! is Alex Toth and Severin connected.

I've always been a fan, back to the Harvey Kurtzmann days. Seeing the work he did for me on American Century and for Judd Winick on Caper, f*****g A!

The same for Russ. Did you see the second half of Enemy Ace? My god…

On the basis of that, Russ is doing a huge four-parter that I've written, which will hopefully be published before he dies doing it. It's an astonishing piece of work. It will completely reinvent the way people look at Russ Heath. It's a year away at least, but it's that good.

DM: Would you like to give one last pitch for Challengers before I go?

Chaykin: Buy the book or I'll kill you. Just kidding.

People always accuse me of being cynical when it's really being skeptical. They mistake an honest statement for cynicism. We're surrounded by cynics that will pander to the audience and tell them what they want to hear just to get their attention.

Challengers, for me, was a difficult book to do. It was a lot of fun to do. The response I've gotten at the office has been extremely gratifying.

I think it's going to be a book that a lot of people will be angered by but delighted by as well. I had a great time with it, and I think that the joy and fun I'm having with the material comes through on the page. On every level, from the lettering by Richard Starkings at ComicCraft, to the coloring by Michelle Madsen, who is going to break out and become a monster because of the work she's done here.

I'm really excited and looking forward to seeing it on the stands. For you it's every month on the newsstand, for me it's every morning on my desk. I've been living with this for a long time. The first issue just went to the printer yesterday. I'm in the process of penciling issue four, and I've written to issue six. My reference file is just getting bigger and bigger.

I love this stuff. Read my book.

And so, Howard said good-bye with the vague threat that he would be appearing EVERYWHERE this summer in San Diego. There would be no escaping Howard Chaykin, though he chastised my youth for calling it Comic-Con. To the older pros, it's the San Diego Show.

No matter what you call it, I look forward to seeing Chaykin there with whatever he has to offer.


Derek McCaw

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