In the pursuit of interviews, there are advantages to not being a life-long comics reader. I’m not carrying around twenty years of fandom baggage and that makes it easier to approach people. On the other hand, it’s a bit awkward when everything I know about the person I’m approaching has just been whispered to me by John ten seconds before slapping down a business card and saying,” Hi! I’m Lisa Fary with Pink Raygun!”
Ten seconds before walking up to the guest at the Hero Initiative booth at this year’s Phoenix Comicon, John whispered, “Howard Chaykin. Artist. Writer. American Flagg! Been in comics since the 1970s.” Considering that this was the first time I’d heard the name Howard Chaykin, I hadn’t read American Flagg!, and didn’t learn to read until 1980, I figured I was about to embarrass myself more than usual. Chaykin agreed to a phone interview for later in February, so at the very least, I’m pretty sure I didn’t get spit on him in the initial approach.
Pink Raygun: I’ve got to be honest with you. When I approached you at the Phoenix Comicon, I wasn’t terribly familiar with your work. I picked up my first comic book three years ago, so there’s quite a lot of material that’s been around for a while that I’m discovering myself for the first time.
Howard Chaykin: What are you doing involved in a field you’re so unfamiliar with? How did you end up being involved in comics? How old are you?
PRG: I’m 31.
HC: And you picked up your first comic book at 28? Which one?
PRG: Kingdom Come.
HC: You liked it enough to continue?
PRG: Yeah. Kingdom Come was my gateway and it grew from there. Lately, I’m getting frustrated because a lot of new comics don’t really interest me, so I’m reading more older books. I have read a few of your books since we talked that first time and I’m quickly becoming a Howard Chaykin groupie.
HC: I don’t patronize or flatter easily, so be careful. I have a pretty realistic view of my position in comics. I have no illusions or false modesty about the quality of my work. I also recognize that excellence and virtuosity don’t really matter in comic books. What matters is an ephemeral, yet very real, connection to the sensibilities of the audience.
It’s like garage band rock n’ roll in terms of its relationship with the audience.
PRG: With that in mind, let’s talk about American Flagg! for a moment. It was pivotal and influential in comics, but you seem to have a different perspective on your career as a whole. What’s your perspective on the influence of American Flagg! and its place in comics?
HC: American Flagg! was a profoundly influential book mostly because of its invisibility in its publication. It was published by a small company that was defined as independent. I make a lot of jazz and television references, and the best reference I can make for the influence of Flagg! is about a series of sides that Miles Davis recorded with Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans in the late Forties, but were not released commercially until the late Fifties.
By that time, it had been heard by hundreds of jazz musicians. The album was titled The Birth of the Cool – and this is where all of the ideas that eventually evolved into West Coast Jazz in the 1950s and 1960s came from. But, it had never been heard by a commercial audience until then – so it seemed to the listener that these ideas had come from nowhere.
Flagg!, because of its small scale publication, was influential in comics because the only people who really paid attention to it were professionals. It sold well enough in the context of the 1980s, but it never really achieved mass-market, ground level support or fame because it was more obscure. It was difficult to read. It was occasionally opaque and frequently obtuse. It made a demand of the reader that most comic books at that time were not making, which is why, when people talk about comics in the 1980s, they talk about Watchmen and Dark Knight. The third book in that triumvirate, I believe, should be American Flagg!, but, it’s invisibility is a source of frustration for me.
I’ve learned to accept the way the world works, but it is frustrating, and of course it’s not helped by the fact that the reprinting of the book has been delayed so long.
PRG: Other properties from the 1980s and early 1990s are making a comeback. Matt Wagner has brought back Grendel, Steve Rude brought back Nexus last year. Do you have any desire to bring back American Flagg! for a new audience?
HC: I don’t know. Flagg! was an expression of how I felt in the 1980s. It reflected my feelings about the Reagan administration and about where the country was heading. A lot of people talk about what I got right in terms of predicting what the future would be like, but that’s irrelevant in the long run. It really was a screed about popular culture and my relationship with popular culture. I have a love/hate relationship with pop culture. I’m a different person than I was then. If push comes to shove, I certainly could. But, would I? I don’t know.
To tell you the truth, my first interest would be to do another Time2 because that was a very personal product for me. It’s a fantasia of my family’s story. I define Flagg! as a post-holocaust-negative-utopia as burlesque comedy and I stand by that. The audience for comics today is much less interested in these complex themes.
A mentor of mine described the works of a well known creator as mistaking gravity for enormity and, to a profound extent, that’s where comics are today. Flagg! was a comic book that was about funny stuff. I read a piece back in the early 1960s which said that the only comics that were ever going to achieve an adult audience were humor magazines. At the time I was repelled by that idea because I thought humor magazines were kid stuff.
As an adult I came to believe it as truth. Without a tempering of humor – and I don’t mean whimsy, I mean genuine humor – the material remains adolescent. The best comics to me are the ones that combine drama, melodrama and humor.
PRG: I want to follow up on something you just said. Today’s comic readers aren’t interested in taking in these complex storylines. Is that an attitude you find widespread in American culture in general, not just among comic readers?
HC: I think it’s true of the culture . There’s been a huge slide away from reading in the past several years. I accept it as the natural course and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t rail against the tides and bitch and moan. But, I do think something else will come along and replace reading as the intellectual support system.
The mass market audience doesn’t really care. Films, television, comics, most fiction, even mainstream fiction – people want a template that answers their expectations. It’s why The Wire, the best television show I’ve ever seen in my life, has not achieved anything beyond a critical response. It demands things of the audience that no other television series does – complete attention.
You can’t do something else while you’re watching The Wire and follow what’s going on. Most television is made for half an eye, which is true of most entertainment. I’d love to have a Panglossian attitude that everything is as it should be and this the best of all possible worlds. I don’t think I’m living in the best of all possible worlds and I’m glad I’m old, so I don’t have to live in it too long.
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PRG: You’re glad you’re old?
HC: Oh, I’d kill to be 25 again, but I shudder to think what I’d be like. I’m 57 years old, which I used to keep a secret, but with the internet there are no secrets. And I’m absolutely appalled at what’s become of our culture and I hate the fact I’ve become my parents. I’m a product of popular culture. I love television, I love comic books, I go to the movies two or three times a week. I love crap with an absolute passion. I like to temper it with the occasional not-crap. The Wire is a perfect example. But, I watch a shameful amount of television. Flagg! is a reflection of my own love/hate relationship with television.
PRG: I saw quite a bit of that theme in Power and Glory with the pervasiveness of the media and marketing and being famous simply for being famous. I read that Power and Glory was optioned for a 2010 movie release. Do you have any involvement in that?
HC: It had been optioned.
PRG: The four issues read as if they were created for film. Was that the original intent with Power and Glory?
PRG: I recently learned that you worked on The Flash - my mom and I loved that show.
HC: That was my scholarship to television writing school. I did Power and Glory while I was working on another series for those guys. I had my ass kicked physically and emotionally.
PRG: After spending that time in television, you’ve jumped very heavily back into comics. You’ve probably been asked this – I find that it’s difficult to ask you a question you haven’t been asked – do you have a preference for working in comics or television, or is it all the same to you?
HC: I came to Southern California in the late 1980s to get into the movies because I had some cachet from Flagg!, and I stumbled into television after writing a couple of movies that never got made. I really liked working in television. It was like working in comics in that it was deadline based, it was collaborative and yet alone, it had a real energy to it that I really liked. I never worked on a show that I would have watched had I not been on it because I’m not particularly interested in the kind of stuff I was doing in television.
But, I had a great time working and I loved the money. The money is truly astonishing in television when one considers that in the last couple of years I was working on utter crap, and I was being paid a great deal of money.
I was fired for the first time in 2002 in an ugly situation. Once the shock was over, I realized I was much happier. I missed the money, but I did not miss the aggravation. I had the unfortunate experience of spending the first part of my television career working with people I genuinely love and the second half working in some of the most toxic environments I’ve ever experienced. I asked my wife if it was OK with her if I never went back to television and she was absolutely delighted because I had become an unbearable creature from working in TV.
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The medium pays you a fortune so it can treat you horribly. It really is as Hunter Thompson said, “television is a cruel and shallow money pit, a long plastic hallway in which pimps and thieves run free and good men die like dogs. And of course, there’s a negative side.”
To a great extent, I found that to be the case. Again, there were some wonderful people. I worked with some great guys in the first half of my career, but the second half made me miserable and I never went back. Now I’m working on getting my properties optioned and am having a much better time working in comics.
My reputation in the profession of comics as opposed to fandom is very different. I’m not a beloved figure in fandom. I’m a cult figure at best, the Van Morrison of comics, the Robert Altman of comics. But, in the profession I’m a fairly well-respected guy because I’m dependable and honest. I deliver what I say I’ll deliver when I say I’ll deliver it. I also never burn bridges. I’ve made it a point to maintain good relationships with everyone I know because I take nothing for granted.
Check back on Tuesday for part two of our interview with Howard Chaykin.