By Cat Taylor
Howard Chaykin at Wizard World Comic-Con in Nashville, Tennessee: He had a lot of opinions and wasn't afraid to share them. (Part 1)
I knew it wasn't going to be a boring panel when Howard Chaykin marched into the programming room and looked around with mock disgust as he shouted, "Only eight people showed up to see me? Fuck you!" Of course, it was the first presentation scheduled for 5:00pm on the opening Friday, which is always the worst attended time of the whole convention. So, Chaykin probably knew the score when he signed up. Nevertheless, he wasn't going to let the sparse audience down. Even before the official start time, as moderator, Danny Fingeroth, was getting his notes organized, Chaykin gave me a verbal dressing-down about taking his picture for this article, "Why do you want my picture? Take a picture of some hot chick here instead. Of course, there's only one female in the whole room anyway." From there, he went into a monologue about how his looks went downhill after age fifty and continued to engage the audience, asking the now ten people how old each person was. For the record, almost everyone there was over thirty and over half of the attendees were over forty. Despite Chaykin's surface abrasiveness, he clearly was an old hand at this and used these affectations to entertain his audience and smoothly transition from talking about getting old to a mini-personal history of his life in comics.
As you may expect of someone with a long and celebrated history in comics, Chaykin fit the stereotype of a comic-book geek as a child. In his own words, "I was socially averse, averse to sports, and fat as pig, but I loved comic books." Although he was initially a fan of the comics by Julius Schwartz, Chaykin said that he remembers the exact moment he went from being a Schwartz enthusiast to being a Marvel enthusiast.
"It was a single panel in a Sgt. Fury comic. Fury was talking to one of the Howling Commandos and said, 'what do you want me to do, give you a kiss?' That was the moment. I was elated to see people being rude to each other in comics! After that, all I ever wanted to do was read and work in comics."
He finally got the chance when he became Gil Kane's assistant.
"Kane was not only my first boss, but he informed much of my life. He was a brilliant artist but a miserable person. In a way, he was a surrogate father since I never knew my biological father and the man who was married to my mother fought with her constantly and left when I was very young. Good riddance to the asshole anyway."
In addition to Kane, Chaykin credited four other comics' professionals with being critical to his career, Carmine Infantino, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Neal Adams. As he discussed these artists, Chaykin not only praised them for how much they helped him personally, but also their importance to the characters they created or co-created,
"The industry wants you to believe it's about the characters but the characters are just blank slates. Flash is Infantino, Green Lantern is Kane, the Fantastic Four are Kirby, Spider-Man is Ditko. The characters are meaningless outside of their artists."
Chaykin further lamented the culture of the comic book industry that gives writers more credit as creators than the artists,
"I'm not one of those people who thinks Stan Lee didn't contribute anything, but giving the writer sole or even primary credit insinuates that this stuff just draws itself. What even a lot of comics fans don't understand is that comic book 'writing' is typically more of a plot outline, or loose story ideas. The artist is the one who takes those ideas and not only creates a graphic narrative but fully forms the designs of the characters and their entire environment."
He referred to this paradigm as the auteur theory and compared it to movies and television where directors are viewed as the creators of the material and the involvement of the script-writers, cinematographers, and actors, among others is significantly minimized. Therefore, he encouraged everyone in attendance to,
"Look into who really creates the work you love and find out what it really means to be a comic-book writer, penciller, inker, etc. You'll probably be surprised by what each role actually does."
One attendee asked Chaykin about his best-known work, American Flagg, but made the critical mistake of admitting that he'd never actually read any American Flagg comics. Needless to say, the questioner received a customized Chaykin berating for that comment but was also rewarded with a thorough answer to his question,
"When I first broke into comics the only talent I had was an understanding of real estate and space. So, I invented genres that I could draw. When I finally had the credibility to do my own thing, I did American Flagg as a way to work my ass off so I could do comics that wouldn't embarrass me like the stuff I did in the 70s. Basically, American Flagg was a satire of Reagan's America."
Chaykin went on to explain that he's always been a Democrat but admitted to being a rarity among his political party in that he gets infuriated by the "public shaming" trend and that he is also no fan of multi-culturalism, "There are a lot of problems in America that could be solved with people learning the English language." Even if he hadn't said this outright, his feelings about a strong command of linguistics were obvious as he chastised an attending fan for mispronouncing the word, "prescient" and grumbled in disgust when nobody could quickly explain the meaning of the term, "Proscenium Arch." However, Chaykin is no elitist as he freely admitted working on Earth: Final Conflict, which he referred to as "the worst TV show ever made", as well as the television adaptation of Mutant X. "Mutant X was a terrible show too but it paid off my mortgage and enabled me to live on the beach."
As one would probably expect from such a character, Chaykin admitted that he no longer enjoys reading comic books for the stories themselves but now gets pleasure from reading them for research purposes in which he explores the artists' processes and narrative mechanics. Before concluding his first presentation, Chaykin recommended three books that he said every comics enthusiast should own.
"These aren't comic books or graphic novels. These are books without pictures: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones, and It's Superman! By Tom De Haven."
He then invited anyone who was interested in continuing the conversation in a less formal setting to come hang out with him at his table in Artists' Alley. Finally, he finished his session by singing a song. It was a rather unorthodox way for a sober panelist to conclude a presentation, but it's apparently something he always does. Even though he's no Tom Jones, he can carry a tune better than I can.
In part 2 of the Chaykin Experience, I will cover details of his second Wizard World panel, where he gave a brief history of the comic book industry, provided both his loving and his loathing opinions of various other comic book creators, and led a workshop on using graphic design as a form of narrative in comics.
Cat Taylor has been reading comics since the 1970s. Some of his favorite writers are Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Peter Bagge, and Kurt Busiek. Prior to writing about comics, Taylor performed in punk rock bands and on the outlaw professional wrestling circuit. He has attended every Wizard World Comic-Con in Nashville so far. He hopes to continue his record of perfect attendance. You can e-mail Cat at firstname.lastname@example.org.