TCJ 300 Conversations: Howard Chaykin & Ho Che Anderson

Posted by on December 18th, 2009 at 1:35 AM

 

I started working with Ho Che Anderson when he answered a call Fantagraphics put out for sex comics; the result was a five-issue series, later compiled into a graphic novel, I Want To be Your Dog. Ho then launched into a serious graphic biography of Martin Luther King, originally published in three volumes and later compiled into a big single book in 2005. He’s also published with DC’s short-lived imprint, Milestone Comics in the ’90s, where he wrote and drew Wise Son. Hoods in Love (published by Fantagraphics in 1995) is a compilation of noirish urban short stories, On top of his comics work, Anderson has a successful career in commercial art, and dabbles as a filmmaker as well.

Over the course of working with Ho, we’d often talk about cartoonists and at the top of Ho’s pantheon sat Howard Chaykin. No matter how hard I tried, he could not be disabused of this lapse of discrimination, so when the time came to think of generational pairings for this issue, I thought, who better to talk to an artist who loves talking about himself?

I can get away with saying shit like that because I’ve known Howard since I was a teenager and we know each other well enough to say shit like that about each other — and besides, Howard knows everything I say is true. Chaykin’s an interesting artist (not unlike one of his mentors, Gil Kane): he was one of the Young Turks in the ’70s (along with Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Barry Windsor-Smith, Walt Simonson), where he was too smart and restless to settle comfortably into the creative routine of mainstream comics but too bourgeois to write and draw in a garret, so he straddled the two — that is, he combined the conventional tropes of mainstream comics and the irreverence of the alternatives with a visual style that was more sophisticated than mainstream comics and less idiosyncratic than alternative cartoonists. He was never a superhero artist, so he’d gravitate toward other genres, most pronouncedly sci-fi and crime, and liberated himself from the Marvel-DC axis by doing work for Mike Friedrich’s aptly but unprepossessingly titled ground-level comic, Star*Reach (Cody Starbuck) and, for the entrepreneur Byron Preiss, an adaptation of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and an original graphic novel written by Samuel Delaney, Empire, before unleashing his big gun in the ’80s: American Flagg!, which was a big influence on Ho Che Anderson.

Needless to say, they hit it right off, and all I had to do was sit back and listen.

— Gary Groth

Transcribed by Gavin Lees and Matt Click.

 

10-01


From Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! The Definitive Edition Vol. 1, ©2008 Howard Chaykin, Inc.


Ho Che Anderson:
You’ve been a big, big hero of mine for a long time. I feel like quoting American Flagg!, where one of your characters had revered Flagg as a hero for a long time and he met him and he was afraid he was gonna be a jerk and I’m kinda afraid of that, too, since I’ve idolized you for so long.

Howard Chaykin:
The fact is I have a great belief in the feet-of-clay syndrome. I’m an asshole, but not a creep, and better to be an asshole than a creep.

Anderson:
How do you distinguish between the two?

Chaykin:
You tell a creep they’re a creep and they get all hinky about it, they get very, very pissy. You tell an asshole they’re an asshole and they embrace it with gusto. It’s a badge of honor. [Gary] Groth is clearly an asshole… most comic guys are. The creeps in comics are frequently the writers. Ho, you may be on the fence since you’re Canadian.

Anderson:
No, I’ve got a lot of asshole in me, too.

10-02


Photo courtesy of Howard Chaykin.


Chaykin:
My reputation in comics is skewed and weird. I have this reputation for being an egomaniac — much like my mentor, Gil Kane. What no one ever understood about Gil, for all his hyper-criticism, was that Gil never charged anybody with anything with the implicit statement, “and, of course, I do it better.” That was never implicit in anything Gil ever said. He was at least as self-critical as he was of anyone else. He went to his grave never grasping he had transcended his own influences.

Anderson:
I hate everybody and everything, with certain specific exceptions, and I hold myself in that same regard. I’m extremely self-critical with a jaundiced and sanguine relationship with egomania. I’m comfortable with my own insignificance. That makes a fairly healthy attitude for me.

Chaykin:
I consider myself the least gifted and the least talented of my generation. I’m a grind and a workhorse and I don’t know about you, Ho, but your work looks like you have to work really hard to achieve the work you put on paper. Nothing seems naturally gifted. Is that fair?

10-03


Photo courtesy of Ho Che Anderson.


Anderson:
Yeah, that’s absolutely fair. I’m not sure if I think that anybody is really naturally gifted at stuff. I think there’s certain aptitudes that people have, but I’ve always believed that if you apply yourself hard enough … I never thought that drawing was some kind of gift that came from God, I’ve always figured that anybody could learn how to do this, as long as they’re willing to sit down and put enough time in at the drawing board.

Chaykin:
I believe that’s true. One of the things I’ve always said — I’ve spent more time teaching than I did getting educated — is that drawing is a learned skill. I also believe that there are people, Bernie Wrightson for example, who are profoundly gifted. There was a naturalness in his work and I envied him enormously. In retrospect, I’m glad I’m not him because I believe to a certain extent that, whatever it was that made him such a natural powerhouse back 25, 30 years ago, has fled him, that it was an aspect of his youth, comparable to an athlete. Whereas, I’m glad I’m the guy that had to relearn and reteach myself every five fucking years.

Anderson:
Well, that’s interesting, because how much work did you have to put in after you took off into TV for a long time? I remember you took a little break between Black Kiss and Midnight Men

Chaykin:
I was working in television.

Anderson:
Yeah, you were working in television and you came back and your work was still pretty strong and you seemed like you took another break between Power and Glory and Mighty Love.

10-04


From American Flagg! ©2008 Howard Chaykin, Inc.


Chaykin:
I did Power and Glory while I was working on a television series, which was a disastrous decision.

Anderson:
How did you do both?

Chaykin:
I have no idea. I must have been out of my fucking mind. I was a number two on a television series. TV is a time-and-energy-consuming process. You’re working 80-hour weeks and the guys I was working with at the time are among the best men I’ve ever known. It was an extremely healthy, safe environment to be a professional in. It wasn’t that we were working on such great stuff, but there was mutual self-respect. It was a very healthy atmosphere to be working in.

This position meant I was on an airplane every 10 days to Vancouver, I was rewriting freelancers, I was writing my own material, participating in story conferences and breaking stories. You were literally busy 12 hours a day, plus homework: I was writing and drawing a four-issue miniseries at the same time.

I was four years into a relationship with the woman I’m now married to and I didn’t see her for a year. That was a lesson that I should have learned earlier on with American Flagg!, that my relationship comes first. That was why I didn’t do comics again, except as a writer or a co-writer, until I got fired from my last television job.

Anderson:
Interesting. And when is it that you were actually working on Power and Glory? Like in the middle of the night?

Chaykin:
Actually in the very early morning. I would get up at 4 and put pages down. Because I was a number two — the job after my next job, I was a number one — with a very strong number one above me, I had a little wiggle room in the morning. But I was completely brain-dead. I was living on four hours sleep a night and did so for about six months.

Anderson:
And how long would it take you to actually turn out a page?

Chaykin:
Well, these days, I do 25 to 30 pages a month.

Anderson:
That is insane, by the way.

Chaykin:
I don’t work alone; remember, I have an assistant. But you’ll note that the consistency of craft that runs through my stuff, which means there is an interchangeability to the functions and sensibilities of my assistant. I learned a great deal from a conversation that I had — close to 30 years ago — with Milton Caniff and Noel Sickles —

Anderson:
Ah, one of my favorites: Milton Caniff!

Chaykin:
— about how they work with assistants. But in those days, Power and Glory were 28-page books, weren’t they? I think. I was turning out — when I was doing the artwork — a page a day, before I went into work and did my TV job.

Anderson:
That is fucked-up, man.

Chaykin:
Yeah, no shit! [Laughter.] It fucked up my body, it fucked up my relationship — are you a married guy?

Anderson:
Uhh, not quite.

Chaykin:
[Laughs.] You in a relationship?

Anderson:
Yeah, but not quite married yet.

Chaykin:
OK, but you know what I’m talking about?

Anderson:
Oh yeah, absolutely.

Chaykin:
You gotta commit! It was a lesson hard learned and I never did it again. It wasn’t until I got fired from my last television job and I thought I’d be unemployed for a couple of months that I decided to do comics again. Then, ultimately, I decided I never wanted to go back to television.

Speaking of that relationship, the last six weeks of my TV career, I was living in Toronto working on a television series that was shooting there and I’d gone from the first half of my career working, as I said, in one of the healthiest professional environments I’ve ever known — to the second half of my career working in one of the most toxically hostile environments I’ve ever been in. The last six weeks of my TV career was in Toronto, I was living at the Sutton and I was being put through living hell by someone I would gladly see raped to death in prison.

Anderson:
OK; that’s charming, by the way.

Chaykin:
I say that with a lot of love and spirituality.

10-06


From Temple Duncan #0, ©2001 Ho Che Anderson.


Anderson:
Well, I can tell, I can feel it through the phone.

Chaykin:
A truly horrible individual. When I got fired it was almost a relief. The way television works is that jobs become available in June and then again in November. In May and June, they hire the guys for the new season, then in November they hire the guys to replace the guys who fucked up that they hired in June. That’s the way it works.

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shannon_Smith: Howard Chaykin is the coolest. http://www.tcj.com/?p=1667