Hey Kids! Comics! – Howie Chaykin’s History of Comics

Heykids

Howie Chaykin, a writer/artist who’s been on the comic scene since the early seventies, has always been a bit of an outsider. While he’s done his share of the standard and not so standard mainstream hero fare, has generally exemplified his best work among the “anti mainstream” tendencies. After all, a guy’s gotta work, right? But it’s within those oddball, fantasy concepts he reveres and excels in.

Early on at DC, working on the Burrough’s revival Weird World series, the wonderful Sword of Sorcery adaptions from Fritz Lieber; the related creator owned Cody Starbuck from Gary Frederich’s Star Reach label; culminating here on his most successful creation (in my own humble opinion), American Flagg for First comics. About this time he matured, decided to push the envelope on “acceptable” comics, and went off on a series of outlaw concepts for the mature readers Vertigo line, did the nasty x rated Black Kiss series at Vortex, and stayed away from the big two, only dipping his feet in the water for the steady paying work. During a recent reentry into semi mainstream, he collaborated with writer Matt Fraction on the wonderful (but also not fer kids) Satellite Sam series at Image.

While all this time having both steady income and critical praise, he still kept that outsider, trend bucking cynic that picked scabs frequently off those with gentler tastes. Whether brought on by personal experiences or sympathetic attitudes towards his fellow creators, this history in comics has brought him to create Hey Kids! Comics!, a five issue history of comic books and the creators that brought them to life and suffered greatly for the experience.

Chronically depicting the lives of three comic books creators that spent their lives working within our favorite hobby, he covers lots of ground by splitting chapters by decades, showing the aging and growth of our protagonists and the world they inhabit, warts and all. It’s a good way to keep all the misery from overcoming us, done in several page chapters, each issue repeating the format while continuing the main story, as well as some of the more scandalous and heartbreaking tales from its history.

Chaykin spares no expense here in the lives of these creators, as they struggle to continue to earn a living, meanwhile watching the business grow and evolve around them, swallowing decency and mutual friends along the way. The comics business is shown by its soft underbelly, the stuff you didn’t want to know, but knew it existed. The many lives destroyed in its endless conquest for fame and the almighty dollar.

While a decent understanding of comics actual history will provide dividends to those who study such things, the synonyms of those depicted will entertain and horrify any reader. The industry whose products we loved for a lifetime had their origins in stories not far removed from EC horror comics of the fifties. Both sides of the coin are represented and contrasted, the wealthy publishers, the insane editors, and the mercilessly taken advantage of creators, adding up as entertainment for mainstream comic readers that probably didn’t even know they existed for the most part.

Chaykin is in his element here, ceaselessly parading it all for us, never withholding the sordid truths, the monetization of sex, the racism and ever present class warfare, all adding to our precious comic memories, unshielding our eyes from it’s mean and devastating truths.

Aesthetically, one can say Chaykin here has some of his ticks that some readers may find off putting; his slight visual repetitions from one character to another and an expanding list of characters can make you work a bit to keep it all straight. I read each issue a couple of times, then blew through all five for a much more coherent and continuous read. The sheer cynicism on display here could turn off some readers, but its the subject matter here thats off putting, Chaykin’s talents only serve too well the stuff he’s depicting. For me, these ticks can be forgiven. After all, Howie is in his seventies, and he’s producing here an incredible tale- a sympathetic story thats incredibly sad mostly because it is real and the casualties are those we grew to love and admire in our desire for four colored fairy tales.

Chaykin only works with A-list talent, so kudos also to Wil Quintana’s rich, lively colors, and the never ending varieties of Ken Bruzenak’s lettering. Also assisting in his line up are several guest stars, helping him create the detailing that helps give the book life and it’s authentic touch, as well as back matter thats essential.

Despite whether you can stomach the details and the story, the utter lack of ethics or morals portrayed by those in charge that benefitted the most from them, there can be no doubt that (paraphrasing from the book) comic books are truly the ATMs of the media development industry these days.

Howie, you’re a tough read. But somebody’s got to do it, and while I’m sorry its you, you are the best fitted for it. Thank you.

More Formal Comics: Kevin Huizenga

Ganges #5Ganges #5; Fantagraphics; 2016; $8, 32 pgs; in print.
Ganges #6; Fielder Media; 2017; $8, 36 pgs; in print.
Fielder #1; Drawn & Quarterly; 2017; $8, 36 pgs; in print.

As far as results in mainstream comics go, entertainment is the number one priority, generally. But what if a creator(s) wanted to add something else to the mix? More extraneous content, such as a secondary, or plural purpose behind their intentions? Formal comics, as I call them, take into account a creator’s desire to go beyond simple entertainment. Such as adding a “profound” point, or perhaps displaying further inclusions into the author’s mind. Perhaps, dare I say it, comics providing an additional level of sensory experience?

Kevin Huizenga, what one could label a contemporary formal cartoonist, has been working for a number of years now, eschewing powerful fictional leads and situations, and produced some truly thought provoking work, with a talent that still entertains, yet seeks to provide another layer of humanism to the mix.

Initially in self produced “fanzine” formatted mini comics, Kevin has explored subtle questions about a variety of personal interests, pushing the expectations of comics in a uniquely different direction, while simultaneously giving himself aesthetic challenges to what comics depict, as well as attempt to reveal questions that puzzle him and provide impetus to produce comics, and test the mettle of his act of creation.

These examinations look toward the real and the imagined, the easily visible and experienced, as well as the realm of unreality itself. Whether it be a more traditional biographical approach, incorporating the side tracks and inroads towards non visceral, imagined, and theoretical reality as well.

His narrative approach, while seeming scattershot at times, reveals an artist that loves tangents, forks in the road as it were, to explore and develop as he goes along and discovers them, all the while keeping a touch of narrative approach to keep the reader on board. These little pamphlets have the physical ability to be both charming, intellectual, yet never entirely give up on the basic goal of comics themselves: to keep the reader reading, take them on a journey, and prove to them its an interesting journey in and of itself.

Now this approach can be fortuitous with success, or a disaster that leaves the reader lost, whirling in an undefined haze that ditches the needs of the reader for an egotistical self navel gazing mess that no one but the creator is interested in. For every rare successor, there are countless others that have left the witness behind in a surreal dimension that is neither interesting and fails utterly to come close to entertainment.

Yet, Huizenga’s craft level does this, submerging his personal context to keep the oddball topics accessible and even provoking. This is even reflected in his artwork that continues this approach, sublimating any type of recognizable style of rendering for a simple, basic, shape based set of visual icons that doesn’t bombard the reader with fancy visual tricks. It almost could be categorized as a non art type of visual, leaving no overt personality to interfere with the ideas he’s exploring.

Ganges #6

Such mundane topics as cohabitation, video games, sleep disorders, as well as fascinations with historical figures and events are all delivered with an almost generic method of depiction, yet the effect of page layout on the way your eye travels across the page are all done with the utmost care during this process, each with its own set of visual cues that the witness can grasp, and have fun with on this journey.

We comic readers generally all have this “stack” of unread comics we’ve accumulated yet not read, and when I recently purchased a copy of Huizenga’s Ganges #6, and discovered I had a copy of issue #5, they both fell into a two issue examination of the life and experiences of protagonist Glenn Ganges, a character I assume is a metaphor for Huizenga himself. Shortly after, I came across his newest comic, Fielder, that nicely rounds out a good reading challenge.

Ganges #5 explores many domestic topics including his relationship with Wendy, Glenn’s wife(?), their shared careers in creative art, the interaction of family members during a funeral that winds up with feelings of misplaced guilt that pretty much anyone could relate to. All of these topics work within the 12 page story, and despite its all over the place approach, comes off as linear and relaxed. The second, which begins as an overview of James Hutton, the originator(?) of modern geological theory, segues into an existential treatise on the passage of time, and how perception can completely turn around your view in an instant, all the while keeping its narrative focus and avoid being a didactical mess. It’s rounded out by a few pages of short bursts, comprised of little questions thrown at the reader to puzzle and explore.

Ganges #6 significantly ups the ante, utilizing almost the entire issue depicting reflections of Glenn’s perception of reality, seamlessly integrating a more complex set of visual tactics, dense packed with as many things as the brain can handle, yet it still comes off as a structured narrative, with as good a conclusion as we can produce in our own real time. All this and accomplishing a developed set of visual devices while still maintaining a non personal, simple drawing style that keeps the focus on its proceedings. Ganges #6 would have to be one of the more complex comic books I have ever read, yet keeps its identity as an accessible, entertaining exercise in its own right. Incredible.

Fielder #1

Fielder #1, the most recent, entertains, yet provides a half book length exploration this time putting forth his formal recreation of an abysmal third rate 60’s style adventure comic, breaking it down into pieces to examine its elements, and displaying their strengths and weaknesses for us to contemplate. The final set of short stories, one featuring Glenn Ganges and an overview of the mixing of sleeping and waking perceptions, features little reference to personal life pretty much entirely, and another more abstract video game interpretation of creation(?) round it out, except for the final tale, an unmistakable auto biographical foray in to Ganges life as an artist, takes a 180 degree turn as it is realistic, and cannot be confused with anything other than a mature cartoonist at the crossroads of his career and life. It comes off as somewhat melancholy, and discusses in length developments in his drawn work, and is purposely I believe depicted in as personal and realistic(?) manner as Huizenga has ever shown. While troubling, it may signify an end(?) to his previous approach, and sadly to this reader, an unknown sense of whether we’ll see him again. Nonetheless, Fielder #1 remains a solid example of what has come so far, and I really want to see what comes next for this impassioned, thought provoking artist that many can relate to, and of course, enjoy. I also noticed that the time it took me to read these three 32 page comics was just about 2 hours total. Try getting that much experience from three issues of the X-Men.

While Huizenga is not a simple read, he pays great dividends to the comic readers that will appreciate a road less traveled, as well as one that transcends typical storytelling methods for a greater reward, and perhaps an expanded view of what comics can be and achieve.

New Comics Wednesday

I got four.

Had lunch with a friend recently and afterwards went to a comic store with him. While nothing hit me on the the mainstream rack, the indies had me curious. So here, in no particular order, and possibly not as new as “this weeks long underwear books”, is a smattering of what caught my eye, and got me to purchase them.

Pope Hats #4

Pope Hats #4,5– when I got home, I discovered I had issue 4 in my “stack”, so I read ‘em both. Hartley Lin, current master of short stories about everyday people with issues, goes with an anthology style of shorts in 4 with good results. A half a dozen quick narratives are the stomping ground, with a huge swath of characters and some poignant conclusions on them. While each has a distinctness of it’s own, it s in issue 5 where Lin lets his inner talents loose with a lengthy 60 page story all about his well realized Frances, a young lady who’s watched her bff/roomie move away for work, and now deals pretty much alone with her position as a law clerk at a huge firm. While I could say it’s a more complicated version of Betty and Veronica, the love he has for the fate of Frances is more than communicated with a warm, formal, cartooning style that nearly brought me to tears here more than once. I now love Frances, I just can’t help myself.

Black Hammer: Age of Doom #8

Black Hammer-Age of Doom #8– while I picked up this middle issue cold, I was still familiar enough with the concept and the group here enough to catch on to the endless reboot theme thats underlying here. While there’s not terribly much meat on this comic, Dean Ormstrom’s art carries it, along with just enough willingness on my behalf for patience to see where Jeff LeMire is going with this. On the edge of teetering from it’s own weighty premises, Black Hammer gives something for those too crazy or stupid to give up on superhero comics.

House Amok #5

House Amok #5 – one of those favorite Vertigo replacement series from Black Crown, Chris Sebela manages to take a fast paced crazy family story with likable characters and just about kill all the momentum he built in the first four issues. Not the ending I wanted, but Shawn McManus’ great cartooning helps digesting this mess immensely. Decent first four issues, though, the train wreck that composes issue 5 kills it.

Lodger #2

Lodger #2 – Another Black Crown book, noir styled authors Maria and David Lapham relate a story here about a nomadish guy that gets involved with certain peoples lives, mostly for a bad ending for them. Lapham’s experience with down trodden folks and a love for depicting real violence give this one a convincing tone, and makes me curious for another.

All in all, not bad. Makes me want to try it again sometime. The threat of walking into a comic series cold was balanced by enough talent, and for the exception of Black Hammer, the ability to read a copy of something and get a warm fuzzy feeling while experiencing comics again, enjoying the random issues.

Marvel Meets #metoo

I recently checked out the latest entry in the Marvel universe series of films, Captain Marvel, an ironic and iconic title for a character that promises much, but delivers little, either in substance, or originality as these things go. Being a lifelong comic geek, I am probably just as swept up in the comics to big budget film mythology as much as any other fan of the art form. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t get into it as much as I thought I would be. Lets review the fundamentals:

  • “Classic” superhero from the Marvel universe? Check.
  • Big, bodacious sets, lots of well designed costumes? Check.
  • Pretty, attractive, female lead character, loaded with superpowers? Check.
  • Solid cgi with a nifty, nostalgic musical soundtrack guaranteed that we don’t miss a beat of the action? Check.

So why wasn’t I enthralled? Well, it certainly wasn’t the directors or those responsible for creating the film. They did their job, rounding the bases towards an action and adventure laden two hours of entertainment, with lots of feel good moments interspaced with battle scenes of galactic importance. But somehow, it just didn’t resonate here.

Captain Marvel (the current version), created in the seventies as a way for Marvel (the comic company), to protect their male copyrighted characters and prevent anyone from developing female counterpart versions, and perhaps to make an attempt to lure in female readers, was really never much beyond a cipher. I haven’t read any of the current stories, but the first twenty years worth certainly didn’t produce any memorable, groundbreaking, or even interesting series of comics. In fact, there are no great, classic comic book stories of her, and she never developed into much more than a prototypical, sexually clad female version of dozens of other, better written and drawn versions of the male studs that were already in the Marvel universe.

So in the first twenty(?) or so films of the Marvel film franchise, there seems to be little but lip service given to women heroes, other than to support their male counterparts. However, in this recent era of female empowerment, Disney seems to think its about time now to place a female as the lead, subtlety first suggested in the Ant-Man and Wasp movie, where the female co star seems to be a bit ahead of her male partner, both in abilities and brain savvy. Not that we aren’t WAY past this point already, but now the calculations of the Marvel machine seem to think that the #metoo movement may just run to the box office and financially support such an idea. Captain Marvel is the fruit of their labors, providing both a pretty face and cosmic powers than can easily demonstrate a ladies ability to whup ass with the big boys.

While this is a venture that’s time is certainly overdue, Captain Marvel comes across as an all too vanilla beat the drum and hit the notes version of stuff that’s already well known and not particularly interesting. Carol Danvers is the archetypal brat girl, her history a collection of failed attempts to compete with the guys (and generally failing), but it misses an attempt to create a character that could of been new, different, textured, and ultimately something that could of led towards bigger things.

Not that I deny her place among the mightiest of Marvel gods parapet, certainly women deserve to be there, but this effort is squandered on a pretty dull story with a calculated set of hit points, and the finale pushing her towards god like status seems too quick and dishonest for a heroine than really didn’t seem to endure much sacrifice in the first place. Her trials and tribulations seem trivial and calculated, its payoff the stock answer to a question that remains, is she a captivating enough story that deserves better, at least as far as the weight of this woman empowerment epic stuff goes.

Perhaps I’m being too picky. Unlike the more weighty art forms of prose, music, and films, comic books were never concerned for social issues that much except to inject a modern sensibility into the story to capitulate a interest and sell comic books. Perhaps Captain Marvel, with her humble origins and dreadfully pedestrian history has too much of a burden to fully succeed in this goal. But she is the one Marvel Studios (and Disney) chase to emphasize in this “sudden” interest in women empowerment

Perhaps its the laissez-faire attitude they have towards the histories of comic book characters, using the framework of the character as a springboard to fine tune into the goal they want a film to carry. While Captain Marvel utilizes pieces of comic history to cinematically tell her story, they are woven into a new tapestry for the needs of the filmmaker.

Rough childhood in trying to compete with the boys and their toys? The betrayal of her creators merely using her as a device to achieve their own ends? Her ascendance to god like status? Don’t remember any of that in the comic books. The Skrulls being a persecuted race of peaceful beings only trying to survive? Well, that’s in contrast to the fifty odd years they’ve been portrayed as merciless killers in Marvel comics. Ronan the Accuser running from a traitorous perceived inferior? And don’t get me started on how goofy Nick Fury comes off despite his disciplined persona in all the other Marvel films. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Perhaps the only thing that matters here is the establishment of a powerful female being in the hierarchy of the Marvel universe that can be exploited as an equal to get women and girls into a movie theater to watch Marvel stuff.

The sad part of this is, the movie is filled with plot devices that have already been done many times before, and better. Marvel’s male counterparts have stories and origins much more interesting than Carol’s, and sadly the movie doesn’t try to be their equal. Or better. Everything’s easy peasy, follow the numbers formula with lots of wink wink easter eggs that addicts of the other films can decipher on their way through them.

There are many other better examples of female empowerment in cinema that didn’t need a hot looking lead, loads of expensive cgi created special effects, and hit songs in the soundtrack to get the point across. These all come across as crutches aiding the final product.

While I certainly don’t expect a Marvel movie to be an experience in grand movie making, at the least we could of gotten a great roller coaster ride with all the money and effort that went into producing this. That it was a ride in a kiddie park level carnival that we’ve seen and experienced before in simpler times only leads to its disappointment, and a missed opportunity to create something truly different and lasting is just tough and sad. I don’t dislike Carol Danvers that much, I just don’t care about her all that much, either.

And that’s a darn shame, because I really wanted to.