Howard Chaykin is no stranger to the comic book industry. He began his career in the 1970’s under the tutelage of Gil Kane and has since worked on hundreds of titles for a variety of publishers. Known for his Star Wars run in the 1970’s as well as a bevvy of independent comics, Chaykin recently came under fire for his series The Divided States of Hysteria, which takes place in America, “after the next successful terrorist attack”.
CGMagazine’s Alex Handziuk got the chance to conduct a phone interview with Chaykin, about his career, the recent controversy and above all, comics.
CGMagazine: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us! What is it that you’re currently working on?
Howard Chaykin: I’m working on a new book which I can’t talk about because we haven’t dropped the info on it yet. It’s a complete and total departure for me and I’d love to promote it and I’d love to do that this weekend at Toronto Comicon, but the wait is killing me. It’s like nothing that I’ve ever done before. It’s structurally different, it’s narratively different, contextually different, and it’s just really odd. I’ve got a new book that will follow this which is at least temporarily titled Oligarchs, which pursues some of the themes of Divided States as well as the third and concluding volume of Time ². The first six issues are done, but at this point at least thematically speaking, the other book Oligarchs will follow some of those themes: My blind rage at the s**t stain that is American culture in this day and age.
CGMagazine: For those who are unfamiliar with the Divided States of Hysteria what is the book all about?
Howard Chaykin: The Divided States of Hysteria is about the aftermath of the next successful terrorist attack in the United States, in which, the hero misidentifies the target who pays for this with the life of his family, his wife, his children, and his girlfriend. My heroes are rarely black and white good guys, bad guys and he’s hired by a mercenary firm similar to Blackwater, to put together a kill team to murder the man responsible for this terrorist attack without being aware that they are planning another one. And that’s what it’s about! And of course, it’s a love story.
CGMagazine: The book has been rather controversial-
Howard Chaykin: It’s controversial for those who haven’t read it, which I find fascinating.
CGMagazine: What do you mean by that?
Howard Chaykin: The fact is that we publish an email address at the back of each issue in order to have people write letters of comment. None of the people who were complaining about the book, the megaphonics, and the Identitarian’s who decided what the book was about without reading it, and said explicitly that they didn’t need to read the book to know that it was terrible. Didn’t bother to write to that email address and they never saw it. The only letters that we got were from right-wing criticisms of the book which is justified because the book is an attack on the right wing. But the left didn’t seem to notice.
CGMagazine: Do you think that as a creator you have a responsibility when dealing with such sensitive topics, to say the message of your work in addition to having it out there?
Howard Chaykin: I think that the reader has a little bit of a responsibility in this as well. I mean you should read the book before. I also have it in from my colleagues who bowed to pressure from non-readers and kicked me under the bus. Those people are dead to me. I’m waiting for one of them to come up to me and give me a no hard feelings. I’ll show you what no hard feelings is.
The problem is that I’ve been in social situations with these people and they haven’t said a word to me. People who prefer to hide behind a podium of keyboards, as opposed to a face to face confrontation. Which I understand, because I’m not much for confrontation. But I also recognize the fact that I made a book that was not the kind of anodyne, morally black and white, good and evil heroes and villains thing that most comic readers prefer. And I’m not here to pander to the audience. I tend to do works of moral ambivalence and ambiguity. Unfortunately, that goes against the ethos of contemporary comics which are no more than Y.A. fiction.
CGMagazine: You’ve been in the industry for a long time, since the early 70’s. How has the industry changed since then?
Howard Chaykin: The introduction of independent comics in the late 1970’s early 1980’s opened comic books to broader elements and themes. The independent comic book market died, leaving behind most of the alternative comics, guys like the Hernandez brothers, Daniel Close and those people. For my money, the work that I did made it possible for mainstream comics to explore darker ideas which they did mostly in, frankly, an anodyne way. Let’s face it, Watchmen, if you’ve read it correctly, was intended to destroy superhero comic books. What it did, instead, was create a new language for people to sort of patronize and pander to an audience that was 50 years old and reading the same stuff when they were 15. With a slander of gravitas, an edginess if you will.
I grew up reading superhero comic books, I loved superhero comic books. I was a huge Julie Schwartz, crazy fan of that and when Marvel came, I loved that stuff as well. But by the time I became a working professional and my skill set caught up with my desires, I was hoping for the evolution of an EC kind of line. Historical comics, crime comics, any genre that wasn’t a guy running around in a mask and cape. That never emerged and I feel like I’m alone in my own margin of wilderness that I have built for myself. And one of the things that I’m proudest of is that I have built a career by not doing what everyone else does. For the most part, people have become big in comic books, have done so attached to a character or a concept, and I’m not that guy. I like Westerns and crime stories. I like political thrillers, historical fiction. I prefer to fo that kind of stuff and unfortunately, I find my work being compared to superhero comics, which is what the standard is.
CGMagazine: So do you think that Superhero comics are intrinsically not meant for older audiences?
Howard Chaykin: I clearly am on the outside of that because most people who read comic books read superhero comics. And for example, the people who attack me personally feel that I should go away and be killed, not, “we hate this but it exists.” That is the evolution of the illiberal left in my opinion. I have no desire to have any comic books put away. I don’t want anybody to go away. I simply don’t believe that I have the right, or conviction to tell people what they should and should not do. I make choices the same way I vote, either I do or don’t. So I don’t feel that any stream of comics that exists, I have the right to say get the f**k away from me. By the same token, I believe there should be more and there isn’t. Frankly, I’m the more.
CGMagazine: Is writing something that you are gravitating more towards currently?
Howard Chaykin: Well, I started my career as an artist and with very few exceptions. The writers in the business of my generation were failed artists. There were certain exceptions, and I found that most writers liked to work with me because I did their job for them and they didn’t have to pay me an extra dime. That Marvel style stuff. So when I started writing my own stuff I realized that I’m as good if not better a writer then the people working in the comic book business today. Which means that I’m a cartoonist, as I write and draw my own stuff. I have a very clear-cut understanding of what writing in comics is and it isn’t what a writer does in comics. A writer in comics provides a template and a script for an artist to execute. The writing in comics is a 50/50 proposition between the writer and the artist. Comic book artists are not illustrators, they are graphic designers in the service of narrative.
CGMagazine: On that point, do you think that artists get the short end of the stick in comics?
Howard Chaykin: Yes, I do, because most readers don’t understand what writing in comics means and most artists are content with a kind of fake rebel pose which allows them to put one over on the man, without noticing that the man is already f***king them from behind. We live in an era in which the writer is the alpha presence in comics which is functionally absurd. Let’s face it, if the writers went on strike there would still be comics, maybe badly written comics, but they would look like comics. If the artists went on strike, how would those writers do? When you respond to the writing in a comic book, what you’re actually responding to is the execution of the artist’s work off the writer’s template.
CGMagazine: Has there ever been a time when you didn’t want to do comics or wanted to try something else?
Howard Chaykin: I moved to California in 1985, the day before I turned 35 because I had no prospects. I spent twelve years in television staff, fifteen years around freelancing as well and that saved my life. What it meant was that I missed the 90’s, so I lost a lot of momentum in terms of the attention to my work. But my work has always been an embarrassment because it identifies and addresses issues that they don’t like to have addressed by their material. It’s kind of like the clothes have no emperor. So I spent those years in television making enough money to live today. Because I recognized the fact that I may get this old and I did not want to be living on social security, Medicare and cat food. It bought me real-estate and a pension. Many comic book readers don’t like to hear the idea that beyond being a calling it’s also a job and requires attention.
CGMagazine: On that topic, do you think that comics could ever develop a union?
Howard Chaykin: We tried a number of times before my time. In the 50’s there was a massive movement, but it was destroyed by a number of people who became major players in comics. It’s never really played out since then because comic talent doesn’t believe that they are labour, they all believe that they’re management.
CGMagazine: Who is your favourite collaborator?
Howard Chaykin: That’s a tough question and there are different reasons for working with different people. I love to work with Mark Waid. Mark is one of those guys who has a real understanding of the real estate of the page. I just did a five-page Captain America sequence with him that was just a dream to do. I love working with Marc Guggenheim as well because again he’s another writer that has an unerring sense of the scale and depth of the page. But for the most part, I suspect that I will not do any great volume of work for the rest of my life, however long my career lasts, that I am not writing it myself.
CGMagazine: So are you going to be at Toronto Comicon all weekend?
Howard Chaykin: I’m flying in Thursday and I’ll be there all Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I look forward to seeing a bunch of people and I’m actually having a reunion with a guy I haven’t seen in 40 years which is exciting. I’m on a panel with Howard Mackie and Ty Templeton, two people I’m very fond of and we’re talking about writing in comics, so that will be an interesting experience. And I love Toronto! Like I said, I haven’t been there in a couple of years and I’m very much looking forward to walking the mean streets of Toronto.
CGMagazine: Last question, and potentially unrelated, but what does the world need more of?
Howard Chaykin: Well made chocolate. It’s less of a dairy food and more of a perfect food.
You can catch Howard Chaykin all weekend at Toronto Comicon, located at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Tickets are on sale at their website, or on location.
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