Duet On Solo, Part Four: Howard Chaykin
Published between 2004 and 2006, Solo was a DC Comics anthology series with an innovative twist: each issue was created from the ground up by a single cartoonist and collaborators of his own choosing. Edited by DC's head art director Mark Chiarello (Wednesday Comics, DC: The New Frontier), the series offered artists a platform to control their visions completely in the form of original stories, unfettered access to DC's library of characters, and without regard to continuity or other publishing concerns that affect the creation of a typical DC superhero book. Although Solo spotlighted the work of such talented and popular creators as Darwyn Cooke, Tim Sale, Paul Pope and Michael Allred, the series was cancelled after just 12 issues.
Even in a time when the superhero comics were experimenting wildly with structure and style, Solo stood apart and remains one of the best and most interesting mainstream series to emerge from the early years of this century. In this installment of Duet on Solo, writers Sean Witzke and Matt Seneca take an extremely close look at the fourth issue of Solo, created by Howard Chaykin.
Matt Seneca: Howard Chaykin was the first Solo artist to confront Paul Pope's raised bar (which we discussed last week), which in itself is interesting. Chaykin is basically Paul Pope before Pope was a thing, if that makes any sense: he provided the template that not just Pope but everyone from Darwyn Cooke to David Mazzucchelli would eventually pick up; a guy whose genre-based stories are too outre for the mainstream, but whose level of commitment to craft and interest in genre keeps him relevant to that same group of readers. He's a "cartoonist's cartoonist," never a huge fan favorite but someone you'd be hard pressed to find people you respect saying a word against. (At least, against his art; Chaykin doubles as one of the most notoriously cantankerous personalities in comics.)
Sean Witzke: Chaykin introduced novelistic sophistication to serialized comics, as well as media-saturated satire with American Flagg!, before leaving the medium for Hollywood with his kiss-off sex comic Black Kiss. In the American Flagg! collection, Michael Chabon notes that Chaykin's real masterpieces don't read like fire-from-the-belly angry young man work, but rather they have the sophistication and intelligence of composition that only comes from obsessive professionalism. American Flagg!, Time2, Black Kiss -- they're so good because they don't have the self-seriousness of Alan Moore or Frank Miller at their prime. Because of Chaykin's professionalism, there's bile but it's completely well humored bile.
MS: This issue of Solo came at an interesting point in Chaykin's career. After spending a decade or so basically out of comics, he came back to corporate work-for-hire jobs, which he'd been basically out of for a quarter of a century. It's interesting you mention that comment by Chabon, because in a recent Comics Journal interview with Ho Che Anderson, Chaykin talks about the kind of hungry auteur comics he created in his prime, characterizing them as a young man's game. That's fascinating given the context of his larger career; those older comics may not be self-serious, but they're still serious, and little he's created since coming back to comics from Hollywood has been. These days, Chaykin seems more interested in doing what his pulp-comics influences did and just batting out genre comics with as high a level of competence as possible.
Which is perfect for Solo, really, and Chaykin is one of the few creators whose issue never grates up against any of DC's formal or content restrictions.
SW: Chaykin's Solo is a compendium of all the things we've come to love about Howard Chaykin, condensed down into some sharp, nasty stories. All the key points are here: Hollywood, nazis, romance, romance gone wrong, professionals being professionals, more nazis, jazz, Gil Kane, cowboys, and the march of progress in American history.
MS: Well, there's no oral sex scenes, so it isn't really everything typical of a Chaykin comic. It's solid action comics all the way through, but -- at least in my opinion -- it gets far too close to basic mediocrity for comfort, at points. Sometimes trying too hard is better than batting it out, you know?
SW: I don't know if this can ever be called "mediocre" considering that Scott Hampton's Solo issue exists.
MS: I don't use "mediocre" negatively. What I mean is that while this is a comic that accomplishes everything it sets out to, none of its goals are really anything new. Forgivable, sure, but that familiarity you mention, with Chaykin's key themes being struck once more in miniature gets, well, too familiar. If this was someone's first Howard Chaykin comic it would be a pretty great primer (which in itself is an interesting concept for the Solo format). But it's too close to the Tim Sale issue that way, I guess -- not that it isn't of far higher quality, but there's nothing here people who are actually interested in Chaykin's work haven't seen explored in greater depth before. I think the most interesting story is the one that isn't really a story per se, in which Chaykin drops the veil of fiction to discuss his influences. There, at least, he's bringing something that's only been implicit in his previous comics out into the light.
SW: The digression to camera is really the best thing here. I'd love if the whole thing was formatted that way, it's a far more interesting choice than most of the other Solo artists take (except Sergio Aragones), which is the comics-based anecdote. Chaykin talks not just about comics but genre itself and how he got into storytelling, which includes a refrigerator box full of comics, movies, television, and meeting Gil Kane at a young age. The segment is called "Horrors" because Chaykin feels that he has no real handle on horror as a genre. He goes into the irony of this, being the author of Black Kiss and breaking into comics at the time of the second major horror revival, in the 1970s when they had to call it "mystery" to get published. Like a good half of the creators of Solo, he pays tribute to the EC Comics cartoonists, but I think only Chaykin goes as far as to list them (and his contemporaries), and what they did best. I love stories like this because that era of comics is sorely under-discussed aside from the odd interview, and it's profoundly interesting because it's so alien from how mainstream comics are made these days.
MS: That list, which matches each of the artists associated with the early-mid '70s "Studio" crowd and EC's roster, is really a great piece of comics criticism, too. Only someone who was there would know for sure which of the EC guys the Studio artists were attempting to ape, and it's such a valuable reading of that body of work. I still think about this story whenever I read not just Chaykin, but Mike Kaluta or Bernie Wrightson or Walt Simonson, too. It's a note-perfect characterization of a pretty wide swath of interesting comics.
SW: It's also pretty self-effacing, which makes it fantastically Chaykin, like when he compares himself to Jack Kamen.
MS: I'll confess to finding Chaykin's final comparison of himself to Johnny Craig a bit rich, but then again I'm a big Craig fan. It's also fascinating how well that story works as a meta-comment on the rest of the issue, which is a 48-page compendium of shorts, just like the EC books were. Specifically, it's a riff on EC's Shock SuspenStories, with each of the genres that dominated comics before the Silver Age ascension of the superhero represented. "Horrors" stands in for horror, and beside that we've got a Western, a World War II short, a spy comic, a double-duty sci-fi romance, and, to truly nail down the Shock SuspenStories verisimilitude, a "preachy" that takes on a pertinent social ill (here, white supremacy) and manages to be simultaneously vague and explicit.
SW: They all operate on the twist ending too, even the non-horror selections.
MS: It's just shocking, isn't it?
SW: The jazz story seems to be the thing here that's closest to Chaykin's heart. It's his perfect subject, but I think that it's less successful than other pieces in the book because maybe he cares too much about the material. I do think that there is more expressive acting in the nazi soldier than the rest of the characters in the other sections, though. Chaykin gets particularly expressive with him. There's some great layouts, as well, especially the page of the jazz musician ducking the patrols. It's really simple but it portrays some complex timing with the narration that most comics artists wouldn't even try to pull off.
MS: I think that story has far and away the best art in the book (including the cover piece that goes with it), which makes the rest of the comic slightly disappointing by comparison. A few of the other stories have slightly confusing layouts or pages with way too much text on them (always a Chaykin weak point), but this one really cooks along. I guess it's Chaykin doing Harvey Kurtzman, the least wordy of the EC writers as well as the funniest, so we get great action blocking and a nazi lighting up a joint to make the ride from Paris to the Swiss border go a little quicker.
You're dead on about the slightly overcooked nature of the jazz story, though. Despite the fact that it's basically light as air, you get the sense that Chaykin's really invested in the travails of his leading man, who only ends up in danger because of his own idiocy. Which doesn't have to be a negative -- in fact, it's something Chaykin's pulled off pretty well before, but it takes more than eight pages to build up a protagonist whose pratfalls are enjoyable.
SW: The next story, "Upgrades," is a straight up Re-Animator riff, though, and there's nothing less personal than doing a riff on a comedy film version of a Lovecraft story. My favorite thing about the piece is how Chaykin has the scientist beat his wife to death with a power strip, which is a great little detail that gives both absurdity and naturalism to a page we've all seen before.
MS: This is the "Jack Kamen" story, right? That's how I see it, anyway, and perhaps appropriately it suffers from some serious problems with the art. For every great drawing like the one you mentioned or the frown on the face of the priest marrying the woman who's just left him for another man, there are panels where characters are completely unrecognizable or bizarrely bloated.
SW: It's slapstick comedy. There's a lot of Jerry Lewis' films in there as well, so I don't know if the way he's drawn it is part of that screwball quality. You can hear the soundtrack punches whenever a scene comes to a close up on a bottom-corner panel. The faces, though, they're the worst in the issue in places.
MS: One of the biggest virtues of this comic is how much it packs into 48 pages, but this story seems way too compressed: it's far too verbal, even on the pages stuffed with a lot of panels. The constant reversals of the hapless scientist husband's attempts to tinker with his wife's DNA to keep her faithful to him start out amusing, but end up exhausting by the end.
SW: "Breaking and Entering" is Chaykin redoing his Mighty Love graphic novel in eight pages, with better costumes. Lots of great dual narration here, and a great eight-panel vertical grid page.
MS: The whole story -- which is the lightest thing here, and as such is one of the most entertaining -- is really quite vertical, isn't it? Every page really emphasizes up-to-down, which isn't necessarily the most typical way to compose a page of comics. The drafting itself isn't quite as strong as the WWII piece, but this is basically well-drawn comics with, oh yeah, a plot too. It's kind of a palate cleanser, coming as it does in between two heavier stories, but it succeeds as what it is quite nicely.
SW: There's some lovely symmetrical gags, too, which don't break the flow for the reader as they easily could have. The lightness -- it is profoundly hard to pull something like this off without being twee or falling flat. That's the kind of writing that is easiest to mess up and Chaykin doesn't, like Mighty Love. But even Mighty Love was heavier than this.
MS: Well, I think the last page, in which we discover that the two super-spies we've spent the story assuming are working at cross purposes are (gasp) a married couple working toward a common goal, gets pretty twee. "Won't the kids be proud," indeed. But it doesn't jar too badly, and Chaykin's never been a subtle writer. This stuff is part and parcel of action comics: when characters are just kind of standing around being characters they act like total goofballs, which Chaykin is certainly aware of. In his best work, that awareness translates over to his characters, which is what I think is going on here. Everything seems said for our benefit, which can be a cardinal sin in comics storytelling, but works all right in this case.
SW: I think a lot of the sins committed in this can be laid on the format/page count. "Bad Blood," the current affairs nazi story, has a little bit of the media in it, but nothing really used for satirical purposes the way Chaykin has used the media largely throughout his career. Maybe a little with the Jenny Jones reunion at the end.
MS: The newscaster on the first page looks like Condoleezza Rice, does that count? Good God, the head spins trying to figure out what that even means in the context of a story about white supremacy. Yeah, I think this story is also pretty unsuccessful, especially given the work it's very up front about drawing from: Wally Wood's legendary "preachy" stories for EC Comics, which took on the KKK, racial hatred, and juvenile delinquency in a social climate where doing so was both risky and necessary. In Chaykin's story, the formula is intact right down to the "Is this beast we call Society not ill?" moment at the end, but making a stand against suburban Neo-Nazism isn't exactly bold. It comes across as petty given the preponderance of relevant social issues that cried out for some of Chaykin's signature bile around this time. It's easy to put the choice of such unadventurous subject matter on editorial, but it doesn't seem too farfetched to imagine that Chaykin could have squeezed something on undocumented immigrants or gays in the military through DC without much trouble. And even if not, a "Nazis are really hateful people" story isn't exactly the most interesting alternative.
SW: It does paint some absolutely awful and true-to-life bigots, but that's about it. The only really insightful thing here is the flags on the floor, which I'm pretty sure Chaykin got from a New York Times piece on a family at the head of a white supremacist group. Like the power strip, it's a great visual detail that helps a one-note story.
The best thing here, though, aside from the digression to camera, is "Tall in the Saddle," which bridges the gap between westerns and early Hollywood portrayals of such.
MS: It's also the only story to feature a pre-existing DC Comics character, the wildly popular Pow Wow Smith, who I'm sure a large percentage of our readers had on posters adorning their childhood bedrooms.
SW: If you've ever listened to or read an interview with Chaykin you know that his two major obsessions are western radio dramas and early film/TV history, so this thing that shows how many actual cowboys ended up doing stunts for fake ones is a story that Chaykin would be predisposed to tell. And on top of that, he's a DC western character (who I never heard about before this) and there's a crime twist and a parody of -- I don't know is that Demille or his he just named after him? Maybe Mayer or Zelznick? -- thrown in for good measure.
MS: I think that's probably just every filmmaking bastard who exploited actors to kickstart this crazy thing we call The Movies directing the comic's action. I think my favorite thing about this story -- which, like the best of the stuff here, really moves, largely because of Chaykin's adherence to more conventional layouts -- is how it functions both as a bit of irreverent historical fiction set in the dawning of the age of film, and a modern parable about comics' superiority to movies, or at least to Hollywood. At the end the two characters with legit DC Comics appearances in their background ride off into the sunset after making these Johnny Come Lately film kids look like a bunch of dunces -- which is interesting given Chaykin's disillusioned return to comics after doing a bunch of drudge work in Hollywood. I see it as a parable about all the comics guys who were holding up movie adaptations as the ultimate goal of their work in the mid-2000s, before the backlash really hit that way of thinking hard. Some of Chaykin's acerbic wit directed at an eminently worthy target.
SW: How great is the Pow Pow Smith closeup that ends page two and aged for the first of page three? It really does seem like the kind of story that should be handed to guys who get movie or TV production deals, along with a DVD set of Mutant X and a note that says "Chaykin came back to comics."
MS: Oh man, fantastic. There's a lot of great drawing here, Chaykin's so skilled with the dry brush and it's in full effect all over these pages. The layouts are also great, typically "widescreen" compositions on the top and bottom of each page sandwiching a taller dominant section in the middle. It's a template just rigid enough to keep the action boiling along, but loose enough for Chaykin to fine-tune his story's choreography within it. This is also the one story in the comic where I think the art and coloring really fall into tune with each other; a big part of my inability to get into some of the other work here is the clunky color choices made, but here it's all earth tones and knockout bits of blue and russet against heavily spotted blacks, which just draws the eye right in.
SW: I think as a whole it's not the best Chaykin comic, and it's not really in the running as the best issue of Solo, but I think that the final result of the approach yields a pretty satisfying whole. I don't think it has the uneven qualities that even the best issues of Solo tend to have (except maybe the coloring). Everything here is well above solid, even "Upgrades" has a couple good gags.
MS: I agree. If anybody deserves the opportunity to make their own EC comic, Chaykin's one of the top names, and it's tough to begrudge him taking the task so head-on even if it's hardly a thrilling use of Solo's format. My main issue with this comic is that picking up an actual issue of an EC book is likely to yield a more satisfying result, but then again that's hardly fair since Chaykin's doing everything here himself. This is all solid comics, but I have real difficulty even coming up with anything to say about it given how focused it is on providing its readers with passive entertainment. "Duhhh, it's good!" Not a bad takeaway, but hardly a high point for the series either.
SW: Well, they can't all be classics or calamities. Next up: neither of those, by a guy we used to love.