New Flagg, New Kiss: In Depth With Howard Chaykin

In Depth With Howard Chaykin

This July, the Hero Initiative releases the fundraising Hero Comics for your reading consideration: 32 pages of sparkling, brand-new content from some of comics’ best and brightest creators, with all proceeds benefiting our past generations’ comic book artists and writers in need of assistance.

Among the talent roster organized for the book is the grizzled, honest-to-the-core, constantly entertaining writer/artist Howard Chaykin. For over three decades, the controversial Chaykin has stamped comics with his own salty brand of sex, violence, and ultra intelligence, shining on hard-boiled crime and espionage books with sultry dames and dashing-yet-disillusioned heroes.

His newest work in Hero Comics brings Chaykin back to what is considered his masterwork: the creator-owned satirical science-fiction epic, American Flagg!.

Newsarama caught up with the dynamic veteran to discuss the current state of his long, unique life in comics.

Newsarama: Are you gearing up to go to the San DiegoComic-Con in a couple weeks?

Howard Chaykin: I'm going to come down Thursday morning and leave on Friday afternoon. I live about five hours north of San Diego, and I've been taking the train down there for years. I feel like I'm best served by spending a day there, seeing pals, and blowing Dodge by around four o'clock on Friday afternoon.

In 34 years, I've missed maybe three shows. I'm hearing a lot of people this year are either skipping it entirely or pit-stopping.

NRAMA: Why? Do you think it's part of the economic downturn, or are people being driven away by it's size?

Chaykin's new Flagg from Hero Comics, page 1

HC: What it comes down to is: I think it's a crush, and we don't get to do the kind of socializing we get to do at shows, and it's a madhouse. It's just too insane. The newer guys take that as the new normal. Look at a show like Emerald City, which used to be a small regional show - it's become a terrific local art show - the same is true of WonderCon. I've not been to the New York show, since they started that up again - mostly because the first couple times, I didn't want to be there in the middle of February, but I hear it's a great show and it's got a great energy. Nothing against San Diego, but I just feel like, for what I go to conventions for, I'd rather do New York, which is its opposite.

For example, last year, I took the train down. I live in a small town, so when I get on the train, it's empty. By the time we pulled out of Union Station, the business car was packed, and I'd say about twenty five to forty percent of the people in the business class were neither fans, nor professionals, who were going to the San Diego show which I found very odd.

You and I - we live in this world, and we sort of take certain things for a given, and these were obviously people who'd seen and heard about this on television and everything else and they were going down to sort of 'look at the elephants' with the same degree of interest that you and I would have going to the zoo, or Sea World, or Lego Land. I find that sort of curious, don't you?

NRAMA: Yeah, definitely. Do you think that's a detractor for a lot of the people who are going specifically going to further their interest in comics or meeting creators?

HC: I can't say - I don't know. I did find it odd. I've been a comic book professional for years, I've been a fan since I was 12 - well, well before 12. I was given my first comic book when I was four years old, and I learned to read from comics. I've lived in this universe for far too fuckin' long, I can remit. So you'll understand when I say that one of the things about 'our world' is on the one hand, we all felt for the longest time, we were members of a secret society, and nobody really knew the extent of what we were doing. We wanted to be taken seriously and understood. Now that that's happened, it's created this sort of slingshot effect of everyone and his mother being seemingly hip to what we're doing, but having no idea of what it really means. It's kind of like when Groucho Marx said 'I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member'.

Chaykin's new Flagg from Hero Comics, page 2

I always loved the idea of the exclusivity of the comic book universe club. All this time it seemed I wanted the world to know about it, but now that the world knows about it, I'm not sure I'm all that thrilled with them knowing what they know.

NRAMA: On the subject of the Groucho Marx quote - that's a famous line also used by Woody Allen, a very famous, eccentric New Yorker. Having been born in NY and a big jazz fan, are you into Woody Allen films? Do you still identify yourself as being a New Yorker?

HC: Not for many years. I left New York twenty-six years ago, and I left with everyone thinking I'd be back in a year 'cause I could never handle California. I moved from New York to Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley, and I now live in a small town about an hour and a half from Los Angeles, which is the equivalent of living in a tall building in New York. I know my neighbors, I run into everybody I know on the street when I go to the market - I literally live in Smallville, USA. Woody Allen represents an aspect of my life that has long since passed me. Of course, everyone assumes that I love Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I don't like that show particularly, because I just don't really care about those kind of Jews, and my wife doesn't really like it because she feels like she lives with it every fuckin' day of her life.

NRAMA: How does that affect you, living in a small town as opposed to a larger city? Creatively, does that have an impact on your work?

HC: Not in the least. I still live in the same closed-bubble universe that I've always lived. I was telling a story earlier this morning to some colleagues of mine at breakfast about living and working in New York City. I lived on 25th Street and 2nd Avenue for many many years, on the east side. I had a studio with Walter Simonson over on the west side of the city, and I'd walk over there every day and still, it was an enclosed universe. We rented a studio space - it was me and Walter and a couple of other guys - I think Frank Miller came in and Jim Sherman was there for the longest time - and you're still living in the same universe. My office has always been the same, no matter where it's located. The music is the same, the books are the same, and the sensibilities are the same. Now I just work in a place where I happen to hear the ocean when I turn the stereo off.

NRAMA: You did the studio thing with different creators you've worked with, and now it's a bit different in that you have your office at home and you work by yourself. Has communication in terms of the internet and, at the touch of a button being able to talk to anyone you're working with affected your comics, or comics in general?

Chaykin's new Flagg from Hero Comics, page 3

HC: In 1982, when I started doing Flagg!, I was living in NYC, working for a company that was in Chicago. That was when I got my first Federal Express account. At that point, the experience of doing comics, which had always been: you move to New York City, you get to know the editors, and you get work - changed completely.

It's created a talent pool that no longer has to spend a year or two or three living in New York City to develop the relationships - and that's one of the things the conventions do as well, you get to know people at conventions. I think what's different really is it's sort of a collegial fellowship - it's become more widespread. When I first got in the business, we all hung out together. I hung out with Bernie Wrightson and Mike Kalluta, Alan Weiss, Walter Simonson, Al Milgrom - the guys. You got work, and you learned your craft by looking at what other guys were doing. That's no longer the case today. I'm assuming the young guys hang out - I mean, you've got guys in Atlanta, you've got a bunch of guys all over the country, you've got little studio pockets.

NRAMA: As far as the young creators now - with the influence your comics have had - what is it like to work with people that grew up reading your comics? Is there an opening conversation that kind of gets it out of the way? What still influences you these days?

HC: That conversation doesn't really happen. I've been around a long time, and I've also been very productive in my career. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, I don't actually talk about the work, I actually do it. There are a lot of guys who have spent their entire careers talking about that job they're gonna do. I tend to believe it's my responsibility to do the job. I kept treading the waters, and throwing work out there. Some of it's been good, some of it's been truly lousy, and some of it I'm very proud of. I recognize the fact that we're all influenced by everybody else. Christ, I look at guys who weren't born when I started my career, some guys today knock my socks off. I love Leinil Yu's stuff - it's astonishing. He's amazing. I love Eduardo Risso's stuff. Chris Sprouse is another guy that just knocks me out. There's some amazing talent out there today.

One of my primary influences was my mentor, Gil Kane. Gil was a guy who always stayed fresh by looking at the young guys' [work]. I was working up at Marvel when the pencils for that Avengers Annual that Michael Golden penciled, and Armando Gil ended up inking [Avengers Volume 1, Annual #10] and Gil Kane just going absolutely berserk over this stuff - really, in awe of what Michael could do - and Michael was an astonishing talent - I think the single most important comic penciler to come into the business in 35 years, certainly the most influential.

I collect American illustration - I collect painting and pictures from books and magazines. Along with that I also have books and books of tear sheet illustration. I still look at stuff that was done before I was born, and I look at contemporary illustration, I look at everything. It's important to remember that you don't want to work inside a bubble. You can work in a bubble, but the work itself should reflect an outside sensibility. I'm influenced by everything I see. I seek out stuff to solve problems, you know - diagrams, bullet point presentations - different ways to evolve the concept of visual narrative.

NRAMA: Do you see that there a still a genuine level of excitement coming from people in editor positions, like Gil Kane, in comics today?

HC: I can only speak from my own personal experience. Living in a small town, I don't spend a lot of time getting to know comics artists. I see those guys at conventions. I was in Philadelphia few weeks ago for the Wizard show, and I got to hang out with Simonson and Dennis Calero. These are guys, who when I lived in New York, I saw regularly of course. At the San Diego show, I'll see some folks I don't see for the rest of the year, and that's really about it. I don't have a daily contact with other comic talents the way I did, say, when I was living in New York City. Again, in those days, everyone working in comics lived in New York City. That was one of the requirements of getting the work and doing the work was being in town.

NRAMA: You're doing a brand-new American Flagg! story for the Hero Initiative Benefit book that's coming out in July. Can you talk about that a bit?

HC: I did a five-page Flagg! story about celebrity. You can only do so much with five pages, but I had a really good time doing it. Edgar Delgado did an amazing job coloring it - "The Fabulous Edgar Delgado" as he's known in my house, just did an amazing job on the piece. I had a great time doing it.

NRAMA: Are you going to be revisiting Flagg! or, with the current interest in sex-and-violence fueled vampire stories, Black Kiss in the near future?

HC: I never say never to anything. This is the second of the new Flagg! material I've done in the last couple years; I did new piece for the hardcover [American Flagg!] edition. Yes, new Flagg! material will happen sometime in the next couple of years. Yes, a prequel to Black Kiss will appear in the next couple of years.

I've been a working professional in comic books for the last 37 years. One thing that I'm grateful for is that my chops are still in pretty good shape. I'm still functionally-articulate - I can actually read and write and draw - so I take advantage of that as long as it stays with me. I look much younger than I am, but I’m rotting inside.

NRAMA: How do you keep your chops up when most guys your age are no longer active? You left comics for television, had a successful career there, and came back. What is it about comics that keeps you going?

HC: I had a really good run in television, and I lost my last TV job in 2002 and realized that I was burning out. Television is a very corrupting influence. It's very difficult to work in television without turning into a dick. I asked my wife whether she'd be okay if I never went back, and she was thrilled. I was lucky enough that I didn't burn bridges, that I didn't do the 'fuck you' to comics, because I never did, I wouldn't do that. Comics has always been a first love, and I was able to come back to the business and keep working. A lot of it is, I think, that I'm a responsible, working professional. I take very seriously the relationship between talent and client. I don't consider it a hobby - I consider myself very lucky that I can make my living doing what is functionally a hobbyist's work.

It's kind of like baseball. Baseball, as everybody knows, is a boy's game. It doesn't make taxing demands on an adult body. It's a kids game. A kid can't play football the way a man can play football. A kid is not built to play basketball the way a man is built to play basketball, but a kid can play baseball the way a man plays baseball. Comics are like that. It's a hobbyist medium. We're craft workers, and we're really lucky to be able to make our living from craft. Hey, people piss me off, but as you know, I have a tendency to be, you know, obnoxious.

The truth is, I'm very grateful for the career I've had, and I'm very lucky to continue to work. A lot of it is that I'm responsible, and I'm professional, and that's true in a biz that's staffed by far too many hobbyists.

NRAMA: Finally, there's been rumors of a Power & Glory film coming out for the last few years - IMDB.com currently lists it with a 2010 expected release date from New Line. Any idea how that's transpiring or what's going on with it?

HC: I take the Elmore Leonard route when licensing my properties. My thing is: don't screw it up, and I won't be a pain in the ass. I've not read the most recent draft of Power & Glory, I don't know where it stands. I'm hoping it's fabulous. I'm not sure that 2010 is valid anymore, as it was at New Line and New Line has had some issues. I can only hope!

Catch the inimitable Howard Chaykin currently writing Die Hard: Year One for Boom Studios, with art from Stephen Thompson. Issue #1 is due in August.

Hero Comics retails for $3.99 and hits the stands on July 29. The Hero Initiative will also have copies at their booth at this year’s San Diego Comic Con.

Related: 

Howard Chaykin on the Dynamic Forces Retrospective

Chaykin on the Coming Dynamite Collections

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