Tuesday, October 07, 2008

I saw at Tom's where today is HOWARD CHAYKIN's 58th birthday...which is as good a reason as any for a Bacardi Show Birthday Greeting, featuring another of my massive birthday cover dump salutes!

Honestly, though, of all the multitudes of comics artists that have galvanized me over the four decades I've been reading funnybooks, Chaykin is right up there with Kaluta, Kirby, Ditko, Eisner and others in my top ten. His work grabbed me hard from the first time I saw it, at age 14, in a short Archie Goodwin-scripted lead story in issue #441 of Detective Comics in which Batman had to rescue Robin from a nutjob Judge who had kidnapped him, and who forced Bats to run a gauntlet in the form of a booby-trapped house to do so. I was utterly fascinated by Chaykin's art on this story; still early in his career and not as refined as it later became, it was still rough, and sloppily inked- I had never seen an inkline like the one he used. It gave his art an earthy feel- that's the best way I can think of to describe it- and would have been ugly if the figure drawings and layouts weren't solid underneath. I just couldn't get it out of my mind after that, back when I still aspired to be a comic book artist, but not knowing exactly how comic book inking was done and what materials were used, it was as if I was looking at something totally alien to my experience. Eventually, I sent Chaykin a letter care of DC asking him what materials he used...and of course got no reply. If he saw the letter, he probably gave a snort and a hearty belly laugh. Not long after, I spied a copy of Weird Worlds #10, with its Kaluta cover, on the spinner rack. Intrigued by not only the cover but the name of the character in the blurb- Ironwolf- I paid the quarter and took it home, and here was that Chaykin guy again, with that funky art style of his, and this character (scripted by Denny O'Neil, but the concepts were Chaykin's), along with the world he inhabited, were incredible! Couldn't wait for the next issue...which was not to be, because eventually I noticed in the letter column that that was the last issue. Even so, the one-two punch of Ironwolf and that Batman story made me a Chaykin fan for life. Everything he did was a reflection of his personality by most accounts; iconoclastic, sarcastic, down-to-earth, and just plain ornery- from the clutch of idiosyncratic characters (most featuring a tall, dark-haried, dashing square-jawed goy type that I like to call Chaykinman) he created for both DC and Marvel, as well as fledgling Atlas Comics and Gary Friedrich's Star*Reach magazines in the 70's, through the first couple of issues of Marvel's Star Wars adaptations, and eventually, one of the high points of his career, American: Flagg! in the 1980's. Flagg! was an audacious mix of satire, sci-fi adventure, and plain ol' sex and was one of the books that kept me reading comics in my early 20's, when I almost kicked the habit out of boredom. He followed that up with a series which, I've always thought, had the potential to be even better: Time Squared...but sadly, the vagaries of the market prevented that series of graphic novels from establishing itself. It reflected a lot of the things he was into at the time, including the Jazz music of the 40's and 50's. He's gone on to do a lot of things since then- the squalid Black Kiss, a reasonably funny, if-reliant-on-earlier-tropes Power and Glory for Malibu Comics, the cheeky redo of the Shadow which Andy Helfer and Kyle Baker later took to even greater heights of absurdity, for lack of a better word; Twilight, which ruffled a lot of fanboy feathers in its time with its irreverent revamps at DC's stable of science fiction heroes of the late 50's-early 60's, and delighted me no end by tying into his earlier Ironwolf concepts; and speaking of ol' Wolfy, his script for a graphic novel with Mike Mignola and Craig Russell, 1994's Ironwolf: Fires of the Revolution, was an outstanding return to a character he had (as he said in interviews at the time) forgotten about. That's just scratching the surface of the work he's done in the comics medium alone; he also spent many years, mostly in the 90's, developing and writing for television.

In recent years, his star has dimmed a bit- many of the concepts he came up with in the 90's such as American Century, City of Tomorrow, and a Challengers of the Unknown retake, some in collaboration with Dave Tischmann, have failed to catch on with readers...and while this may be simplifying it a bit, it seems like even more recently he's chosen to do a lot of what frankly seems like a lot of uninspired work-for-hire, mostly in the form of covers and the occasional brief run on interiors for DC titles that one has to believe he wouldn't have come within fifty miles of back in the day. Hey, that's the way it goes sometimes- inspiration burns bright then sputters out, difficult to sustain at best. Man's gotta pay the bills, after all, and if you've got the skills then go for it and god bless. Still, however, I hold out hope of seeing one more grand Chaykin magnum opus in my lifetime...guess we'll see if that will ever come to pass.

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