Denver Comic Con – Spotlight on Howard Chaykin

I arrived at Howard Chaykin’s solo panel a bit late. Glancing about, I estimated slightly more than a dozen people attending. It surprised me that Chaykin spoke from the floor, using a media cart as a makeshift podium for his cup of water. Emboldened from doing so at other panels, I slipped into the second row of seats.

Right in firing range. No, he didn’t excoriate me. But…

Typical square-jawed Chaykin protagonist with damsel in distress.

Typical square-jawed Chaykin protagonist with damsel in distress.

Howard Chaykin has flourished for more than 40 years in comics and related media. He has written, drawn, inked, and colored many titles (Micronauts, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Wolverine, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Conan the Barbarian, The Shadow, and even the original Star Wars series from Marvel). His American Flagg! is a landmark of indie comics, as are the explicit and controversial Black Kiss and Black Kiss II. His most familiar style, rooted in a noir-ish 1930-40s and incorporating a (post-)modern sense of graphic design, is truly unique: I can’t think of anyone who’s attempted to cop his art.

He’s a veteran of both DC and Marvel, and the list of comics creators he knows and has worked with is long and impressive. Starting in the 1990s, he spent about a decade writing for various television shows: the first Flash series on CBS, Batman: The Animated Series, the Gene Roddenberry-created Earth: Final Conflict, and Mutant X.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that he’s earned the right to be…a lot of “c” words: cranky, cantankerous, controversial, curmudgeonly, crusty, castigating, confrontational, and caustic.

Howard Chaykin.

Howard Chaykin.

Curiously, one thing Chaykin is not is conceited, at least regarding his own talents. Here and at another panel, he said that he has never considered himself a great artist or writer. He described his fans as more of a cultish following, citing the acquired appeal of musician Van Morrison and filmmaker Robert Altman as similar. His accolades for other comic creators, however, really were unstinting.

Salvo #1: He proclaimed our current milieu as “the age of cultural amnesia”: no one recognizes their influences, no one knows or understands cultural touchstones relevant to their field. Chaykin constantly acknowledges his four mentors: Gil Kane, Gray Morrow, Neal Adams, and Wallace Wood (read a list of his influences from outside comics here). And he repays his debt to them by his own coaching of newbie Marvel writers and artists (informing them, for instance, that “editors are not your friends”).

Comics are full of stock characters who have a longer history than some readers may realize. Chaykin specifically mentioned the commedia dell’arte, with characters like Pierrette (the female version of Pierrot), and of course, Arlecchino, or Harlequin. Chaykin sneered, “You can Google it. But I don’t have to,” and insisted that knowing your field’s history is essential. The answer is self-education. And I would argue that Google actually isn’t too bad a place to start.

Salvo #2: Comics are dying, and children just aren’t taking to them. How many attendees are serious comic enthusiasts, Chaykin wondered. He guessed 20 percent. And it’s not going to grow: he believes that kids are not reading or learning about comics. I imagine that the organizers of DCC—Pop Culture Classroom (formerly Comic Book Classroom)—would certainly be stunned to hear this! Granted, sci-fi/fantasy conventions now strongly focus on movies, television, and video games. The previous structural pillars—books, comics, and tabletop games (once mostly RPGs & minis)—occupy a smaller percentage of events, or, even, the reason to motivate the con in the first place. Undoubtedly some sales data would be good to know, but Chaykin’s status as a dean of the comics world is hard to discount.

Salvo #3: Speaking of movies and television, despite—or, more likely, due to—a decade scripting them, Chaykin holds a low, low opinion of Hollywood, deeming the industry (1) a bunch of criminals afraid to use guns, and (2) guys who used to beat us up and have appropriated our books and comics to take our money.

At times, Chaykin colorfully goaded us for questions, so toward the end of the hour, I asked him when he was the happiest. To my utter astonishment, he said now. He has titles to work on, he’s collaborating with good writers, and his skills are still reliable and sound. He sounded surprisingly satisfied.

So I guess another adjective for him might be…“contented” (albeit not wholly).