In part two of our interview, Howard Chayin talks about Time2 and motion sickness, Mighty Love and fashion, and American musical comedy versus wrestling.
PRG: Earlier you said that you’d like to do another Time2. I read Time2: The Epiphany and that was the first time I’ve ever gotten motion sick while reading a comic book. I’d intended to read the entire book in one sitting and couldn’t. I had to put it down and come back to it the next day.
HC: Define motion sick. You got a laugh out of me, but now I need a definition.
PRG: I get headachy and nauseous when I get motion sick. Obviously the page itself is static, but I got the distinct sense of rapid motion, almost like standing in the middle of the convention floor in San Diego, where it gets dizzying and nauseating.
HC: You’ve just made my day! I’m proudest of my Time2 work over anything else. I love that stuff. It’s very much a fantasia of my boyhood. The characters are pastiches and fantasies of actual people. It’s about my marriages. It’s about my relationship with media. It’s about my relationship with my family. Only people who know me intimately can recognize the reference.
I’m very happy with the Time2 stuff. They were incredibly difficult to do. I did them in utter acts of arrogance and hubris because I should have recognized at the time that my obsessions and interests weren’t shared by the audience. I wish there was a way to make them a more commercial property, but that seems irrelevant now.
PRG: I prefer reading comics that elicit some reaction to me, whether it’s physical like with Time2 or something more emotional, largely because I don’t have reactions like that to things in my actual life. The artwork in Time2 was so fluid and the layout does elicit the distinct feeling of standing in a crowded space. How do you go about laying out something like that on a page?
HC: I wanted to do a book that was inspired and influenced by my own interests. I love modern jazz going back to its earliest days. I believe that the modern jazz movement began with Lester Young, one of my heroes. I wanted to do a book that in some way captured the sensibility of how the music effected me. Time2 is the underworld of the city as visualized in the General Motors Futurama exhibit at the World’s Fair in 1939.
I wanted to do a book that felt like an artifact of that world, so I played with the idea of what it felt like to walk down a street in my boyhood in Brooklyn in the summertime. I lived in a neighborhood that was Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican and Black. You’d walk down the street and the radios were blasting from open apartment windows.
It was like turning the dial of the radio. That was the inspiration for the way the dialogue reads, breaking out and opening up from different perspectives. You heard Symphony Sid on WJZ, you’d hear the Yiddish radio station, you’d hear the Latino stuff, you’d hear Daddy Divine, I loved that.
I had a hugely Catholic childhood in that I was Jewish, but Catholic in the sense of covering a lot of ground. I wanted to get that tone, overlay it with the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s, a huge part of my boyhood. When I see Weegee’s [Arthur Fellig] photographs, when I see The Naked City, when I see The Sweet Smell of Success, that’s my childhood.
I was born in 1950. There was no building of any consequence until the late 1940s in New York because the war stopped everything. When Lever House went up in ’54, that changed everything. until then, New York was red brick and the light that bounced off the buildings in summer, winter and fall was an entirely different light than exists there today.
I wanted to get that sensibility. I also just wanted to do stuff about people you didn’t see in comic books. Hustlers, thieves, gamblers, musicians. At the time, I thought I could do anything. It taught me that the audience didn’t care what I cared about. Then about ten years later, people who had bought the book and had no idea what it was about at the time they bought it, started coming up to me saying “Oh, now I get it.” So clearly, it was a book that was too obscure and grew into its time, but again, serves as a textbook and template for other peoples’ work in design and graphics.
[nms:howard chaykin art,1,0]
PRG: Following up on textbook and template, I don’t pretend that I know everything about comic art, but what really does stand out to me in your work that I’ve seen is a close attention to texture and pattern, particularly in clothing. Also the way you dress women is current to what’s going on in fashion and I don’t see others particularly paying attention to that. My question is what’s behind that compulsion, if it is a compulsion? Or is it just being a good artist?
HC: I think it’s a responsibility. I used to get a lot of heat for misogyny and the assumption that I didn’t like women much. I’m very interested in costume, and texture and pattern both in terms of fabric and the world in which we live. The current technical approach to doing comics lends itself beautifully in my work in the sense that I can now do fully rendered textures in black and white which then are translated into color in the computer.
I love clothing. I spent much of the 1970s as a serious clotheshorse. I was a fashion guy and I decided to get rid of my long hair and started wearing it pomaded. I looked like Eurotrash. When I moved to Southern California, I got rid of my suits because if you wore a suit in Los Angeles you were either an agent or an attorney, and I was neither.
I’ve been a subscriber to GQ, Esquire and a number of women’s fashion magazines since my teens, but I don’t wear clothes in that sense anymore. I do believe in keeping current. One of the things I’m writing involves a teenaged girl. I’m going to be writing some dialogue for her today and I’m going to talk to one of my neighbors’ kids in terms of vetting the language, so I don’t wind up doing that awful 1960s attempt to do hipster slang by fifty year old men. My wife is also a serious clothes horse, so both of us are interested enough to keep current.
PRG: That is something I appreciate in your work. That kind of came to a head when I read Mighty Love and noticed that not only were different women were wearing different shoes with different outfits, but also that the shoes matched the outfit.
HC: There used to be an art director at DC Comics, Neil Posner. He called me out of the blue and said, “I just saw this book you did and I’ve never seen a comic book in which a woman was wearing pedal pushers and loafers.” It made my day. Since we have so little access to actual characterization in comics, there’s a great deal you can do with costumes and attitude and I try to make as much as I can out of that.
PRG: Continuing with Mighty Love, it’s mystery and adventure, but it’s also blatantly a romance comic. What kind of obstacles did you run into trying to get that published?
HC: It was inspired by a direct question from my beautiful wife who had never read a comic book and didn’t care about comic books, and is convinced that comics are written in a language, syntax and jargon that escapes her. She doesn’t know where to look first. She asked me why there weren’t any romance comics.
I explained to her that the guys who replaced the men who had edited comics since the 1940s were all comic book fanboys with no romantic lives who didn’t much like women or romance, so they took them out of the game and replaced them with what they wanted, which is why most mainstream comics are now about superheroes with the occasional war or so called crime book. And because much of the slack of romance comics has been picked up by the melodrama that takes place in teenage superhero books.
I’m a huge fan of The Shop Around the Corner, which started as a Hungarian play and became a movie with Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart, and then a musical in the 1960s called She Loves Me with Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey. Then it was adapted again in the 1990s as You’ve Got Mail. So, I pitched the book as You’ve Got Mail with superheroes.
I pitched it a month after I got fired from my TV job. I pitched it on a Friday, they bought it that Monday. It didn’t have any impact whatsoever and that disappoints me because I love the book. I’m very proud of it.
[nms:howard chaykin art,1,0]
PRG: I really enjoyed it. That came about because I couldn’t find something new I wanted to read at the shop and I made a comment that I wanted to read Jane Austen in space or Jane Austen with superheroes. My boyfriend suggested Mighty Love because it had all of those things I love in a story. I absolutely loved it and was disappointed that there wasn’t another book.
HC: I had every intention of doing a sequel. I planned it as a trilogy. In the second book, they found out each others’ identities. The third would have been the repercussions of that discovery. The therapist, would help them through the relationship. The therapist was based on a psychotherapist I saw in the 1980s, one of the most avuncular men I’ve ever known.
PRG: What was your first job in comics? Not your first big job, but your first grunt job?
HC: I started as an artist and became a writer out of self defense when I realized that 90% of the guys in my generation writing comics were failed artists. There are a couple exceptions to that. I think the first thing I wrote was Cody Starbuck, which was Conan in space with a bit of Errol Flynn’s The Sea Hawk.
In those days I was interested in swashbuckling stuff, but I loved Flynn and still love The Adventures of Robin Hood. If I find it on Turner Classic Movies, I get sucked right in. I loved that sort of thing. So that was the first thing I wrote, and it wasn’t very good.
The first thing I drew was a one page for one of Murray Boltinoff’s mystery books and I did romance comics for Dottie Woolfolk. She was a wonderful, battleship of a dame – a real broad – a cross between Ethel Merman and Rosalyn Russell. Her husband [William Woolfolk] had been instrumental in the creation of Blackhawk.
He’d been a writer for Will Eisner and became a novelist. So, I did a couple of romance jobs for her. Her assistant was a guy named Ethan Mordden. A very fussily dressed guy who reinvented himself later as a novelist, the Armistead Maupin of the East Coast who’s also written extensively about the American musical comedy, which is a big obsession of mine.
Besides comics and jazz, I love the American musical comedy. Unlike some of my colleagues, I’m not influenced by professional wrestling – it’s musical comedy by a length. In superhero comics, fights break out. In musical comedy, music breaks out. So yeah, I did romance comics. They were awful. Just terrible. I didn’t become even vaguely competent until the end of the 1970s. I sucked for the first ten years of my career.
I’m the least talented and least gifted of my generation, nothing more than the product of sweat and toil. On one hand, I wish I’d been a natural. On the other, I’ve had to reinvent myself every few years and that’s kept me young and green. Still, I kind of wish I’d hit earlier so I could sit on my fat ass. I work to live, I don’t live to work. I like to do the work, and I’m grateful I have the work to do, but I’d still love to be able to make a living eating macaroni and cheese or testing mattresses.