TCJ 300 Conversations: Howard Chaykin & Ho Che Anderson

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

 

Anderson:
Let me ask you a question, Howard. I’ve always been curious about something in your books. It’s something I’ve noticed, specifically in your miniseries over the years: A lot of the time, the first issue, the second issue is unbelievable — the artwork is absolutely on-point — and then, by the end, it seems like you’ve run out of steam on it.

Chaykin:
Is that true?

Anderson:
That’s how it seems to me. I’m thinking specifically of Black Kiss.

Chaykin:
I agree, that’s definitely true of Black Kiss, yes.

Anderson:
And even Blackhawk, which is probably, right next to Time2, my favorite of your work, the first few issues were absolutely beautiful and the third one was great, too, but if you look at the first one and compare it to the third one, it just sort of seems: eh.

Chaykin:
I feel that you’re right about Black Kiss. I can’t say about Blackhawk since it’s been so long since I’ve seen it, but I’m embarrassed to be hit with this charge. [Laughter.] I’m serious, it makes my brain hurt because one of the things I’ve always felt is that I have to be consistent to maintain my career; otherwise they’ll find out I’m an impostor and dump me.

Anderson:
You’ve got impostor syndrome, too?

Chaykin:
Absolutely. For example, right now I’m working on a miniseries for Marvel, reviving a character I did when I was in my 20s and I’m very much committed to maintaining the level of enthusiasm. I’ve done a number of minis for Marvel over the past couple of years — I did that War Is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle, with Garth Ennis —

Anderson:
That was beautiful, by the way.

Chaykin:
— and I think I’ve solved whatever problems you think you’ve seen in keeping that level of enthusiasm going from top to bottom. I feel that way about City of Tomorrow and also the Challengers of the Unknown stuff I did.

Anderson:
Yeah, Challengers was great.

Chaykin:
I will cop to the Black Kiss; I can’t say about Blackhawk, I don’t know.

10-07


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


Anderson:
So, what happened with Black Kiss?

Chaykin:
It’s hard to go into a hard answer about that without talking about my physical and mental state at the time. I was in a lot of emotional turmoil at the time, Black Kiss coincided with the beginnings of a change in my life that was deep and profound, that happened over a two-and-a-half year period that ultimately led to who I am today.

I was drinking more than I should, doing things that were incredibly counter-intuitive — God, I’m being so low-key here — ultimately, I became clean and sober a couple of years later. People like me, who use drugs and drink to excess, whom I refer to as “recreational drug enthusiasts” —

Anderson:
I’ve got some experience with that.

Chaykin:
— We frequently find ourselves in the position of having an additional job, because maintaining the life one leads while you’re fucked up becomes another job. So, back then I had three jobs: I had my working life, my personal life, and I had my drug life.

Ultimately, the work suffered for that and the big change in me happened after I got fired from my TV job because, previous to that, I’d had that kind of anally retentive idea about knowing where I was going before I got there.

What happened — and I wasn’t aware of it until a year had passed — was that I developed a much more comfortable idea of improvisation. Much of my life before I got sober was defined by a self-deluding perfectionism. You know, “if I cannot achieve perfection, what’s the point of doing it?” Great excuse for us lazy-ass motherfuckers. I’m no longer that sort of perfectionist.

Anderson:
It seems strange for you to call yourself lazy and I’ve heard you say that in other interviews, but it’s strange to me — having talked about having to get up at 4:00 in the morning to turn out a page, on top of writing a TV show. How can you actually call yourself lazy? It doesn’t seem like the two coincide.

Chaykin:
That’s my mother talking to me from beyond the grave, because I was always lazy as a kid, and I know I’m not any more, but I still kick my own ass with that old shit. Look, I’m far from a miracle of mental health. One of the guiding lights of the comic-book business once told me he was the sanest man he knew and I just fell on my ass at his self-delusion.

I’m a pretty stable guy. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I’ve developed a set of tools to make it possible for me to function. One of the clichés and tropes of the world in which I live is that people like me were not equipped from birth with the toolkit and instruction manual that most normal people are, and there’s a certain truth to that.

The life I live now is based on learning how to behave in a way that’s acceptable to society at large. I was — for 25 years — pretty much loaded all the time, and having a really good time — 20 of those years were a lot of fun, five of them were a bit problematic. What we’re talking about here is a heightened self-awareness with a bit of glibness, acknowledging that I’m no one to judge anybody else’s mental or emotional state, except when I choose to. Does that make any sense?

Anderson:
Yeah, that makes total sense to me. I actually relate to about 99 percent of what you just said.

Chaykin:
Where do you live in Toronto?

Anderson:
Parkdale; you know Parkdale?

Chaykin:
Vaguely, I have a general idea of where it is.

Anderson:
Yeah, it’s right down by the lake.

Chaykin:
Yeah, OK. That’s a nice area.

10-08


From Time2: The Epiphany, ©1986 First Comics, Inc. and Howard Chaykin, Inc.


Anderson:
So, what I was fascinated to learn — you did an interview with Comic Book Artist about two years ago. You talked about how Time2 was sort of an autobiographical story, which, when I look back on it, makes perfect sense. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.

Chaykin:
I’m a Jewish son of a Popular Front family. Unlike a lot of my co-religionists, I’ve never had that sort of codependent relationship with my mother I was supposed to. I’m a happy orphan — I’m illegitimate, which I only found out about 10 years ago, the guy I thought was my father was not my father.

Anderson:
Yeah, so I read in that interview.

Chaykin:
I frequently speak to groups of recovering drug addicts and alcoholics and I describe my childhood as Jewish with deeply Italian sensibilities. I stand on that: There was a lot of violence and a lot of rage. The Time2 stuff was an opportunity to find a metaphoric take on the world I grew up in.

I had breakfast with a bunch of cronies this morning who were all California-born-and-raised, and I said to a Brooklyn kid like me, everybody in California looked fabulously rich, while I grew up in a Weegee photograph.

Anderson:
Holy shit.

Chaykin:
Time2 is a fantasia of that childhood. I saw a lot of that from a toddler’s perspective, you know; I grew up surrounded by hipsters in baggy pants and crêpe-soled shoes, the friends of my parents and the children of the friends of my parents. Symphony Sid, the bebop radio stuff, the Jewish culture of the Lower-East Side.

My grandparents were peddlers, and my parents were just constantly fighting and just beating the shit out of each other. So, Time2 was the only way I could comfortably find a way to get back at those people for all the bullshit I’d been put through by my family. It’s the only work of mine I have in the house all the time — I’m really proud of that work.

Anderson:
Well, you should be — it’s great stuff. So, what’s going to happen, are we ever going to get the third book?

Chaykin:
I don’t know, I certainly hope so. I’d love to.

Anderson:
Why don’t you just do it then?

Chaykin:
It’s something my attorney and I have talked about at great length, but maybe, who knows?

Gary Groth:
Why do you have to talk to your attorney about doing it?

Chaykin:
Because basically, it’s a matter of where the rights stand, that’s why.

Anderson:
You don’t own the rights?

Chaykin:
It’s a complex answer to a complex question.

Anderson:
OK, fair enough, fair enough. So, it just seems to me that it’s your book. You should be able to just fucking sit down and do it.

Chaykin:
I know, but the thing is — well, I don’t want to get into a sidebar conversation that defames other characters that I’d just as soon see dead. [Laughs.] I once described one of the parties involved in the situation as the kind of guy who made you wonder whether Hitler might have had a point. [Laughs.] Now you know why people hate me.

I’m easy to dislike, but it seems a nonsensical conversation to have at this point. Yeah, I’d like very much to do it; it’s work I really love. I’m very much a product of the 1950s, even though I really came of age in the ’60s and I resented the ’60s for eliminating good grooming, shaved armpits and legs, and cool underwear.

That’s one of the reasons why I liked the ’70s so much, even though I wasn’t a fan of disco or punk, at least the women were well-groomed [Anderson laughs] and I always liked that. I was never a natural Burt’s Bees kind of guy; I remain urban, even though I live in a small town in Southern California right now. When I clean up, I clean up in a very urban way.

10-09


From American Flagg!, ©2008 Howard Chaykin, Inc.


Anderson:
I don’t know if you can answer this question, but how, if you were to sit down and do it today, do you think the final book would change in comparison to the first two?

Chaykin:
I think it would be just as non-linear and far filthier.

Anderson:
Filthier? I like that!

Chaykin:
Oh, absolutely! We work in a very prissy business, OK? And I have a real aversion to prissiness, I don’t like pin-up art, I like filth.

Anderson:
Me too.

Chaykin:
I’m not a vanilla-porn kinda guy, you know, I like nasty, dirty-ass shit.

Anderson:
Right on!

Chaykin:
It gets right to the core of what eroticism is about — for me. Again, you can do whatever you like. One of my colleagues is a guy who just obviously loves porn, but when confronted with the real thing, it’s like [puts on high-pitched voice] “Ohhhhhh God…,” you know? And I’m pretty comfortable with myself because I’m old enough not to give a shit. But, yeah, it would be nastier and dirtier because I like that kind of stuff.

Anderson:
Like, moreso than Black Kiss or would you take it to a different level?

Chaykin:
Different! Black Kiss was an attempt to do a sacramental approach to all the possible elements of filth I could come up with at the time. In Time2, I think it would be more narrative-based. Black Kiss is also very much about being in California. As a city guy I never felt paranoid in New York City; to this day I feel very paranoid in Los Angeles; Los Angeles is a very creepy version of the city.

The Valley, The West Side, I just find there’s something decadent and degenerate about Los Angeles. The first week I spent in Southern California, I was staying with my pal Dave, sleeping on a Murphy bed — this was 1975 — and I read Hollywood Babylon from cover to cover. It’s a great way to get to know the city.

There are people who go on that way about New York. I’m always glad to leave, but I feel completely safe in New York, because I know where not to go. And I instinctively know the answer to that question in Toronto and Vancouver and San Francisco as well — Los Angeles just creeps the fuck up on you and scares the shit out of me.

Anderson:
I noticed your work often concerns itself with the concept of the hero. A lot of your characters seem aware that they’re supposed to be the hero of the piece, while others seem to cut them down because of it with lines like “You’re not the hero,” or “Who made you the hero,” or “You’re not my hero.” What is it about the concept of the hero that attracts you, and are heroics something you see a lot of in your day to day life or in your observations of the greater world?

Chaykin:
By the time I got to the point where I was actually able to write and draw my own stuff, I had reached a point where the limited motivation of most heroes had begun to seem rather limited at best, and unmotivated at worst.

As a result, I’ve always enjoyed playing with a self aware hero, who can almost be visualized watching his own life as a movie, or a hero who has no real choice but to behave in a way that leads to what works as a heroic conclusion.

For the record, I’ve never met anyone I admired who didn’t disappoint me in some fashion — so I’ve both lowered my standards and my expectations, and stopped trying to meet my heroes face to face.

Anderson:
I also noticed that the theme of the “hero returning” often shows up in your stuff. The Shadow returns after 50 years, Maxim Glory returns after a mysterious disappearance, Tucker Foyle returns to his childhood home, even Reuben Flagg to an extent returns to his ancestral home, Earth. Is this mere coincidence or is this something that has some resonance in your own life?

Chaykin:
The returning hero is simply a trope I like to play with. It’s a choice, rather than a coincidence — a dramatic device that gives me an opportunity to allow other characters to talk about the protagonist in a way that both reveals his character and theirs.

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