Interview with Howard Chaykin: Jazzy narratives and stylish colour-blindness

by deborah on 12/14/2010

Howard Chaykin is my first interviewed comic book artist from this year’s edition of Funny Comic Show Festival, held in November in Zagreb. I grabbed some of his time after two days seminar on comic book labour, he led at the beginning of the festival.

Chaykin is considered among experts as one of the most innovative storytellers, influenced by jazz and politics, but always on the edgy side of controversy during the history of comic books.

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Photo above: Howard Chaykin (taken from F-book)
Photo bellow: American Flagg!, First Comics (c)


Before I started recording our talk, he had told me: ‘You know, I like your red hat, so bitchy. Exactly for a comic book!’ … and I knew it immediately that this is going to be one nice, nonchalant and interesting talk. He’s also well known for taking care about the clothing style of his characters, so we might consider him as a comic book’s costume designer.

Tell me something about your style and beginnings… you are well known for specific narratives, working with mayor comic labels, but then you also had big interest in experimental comics (America was the ground landscape for experimental and alternative comics, such as Robert Crumb…)

HC: Well, I certainly do not put myself in the class of Robert Crumb. Robert Crumb is an American icon! He’s a God! I’m a journeyman; I’m a working man artist. I’m a man among men; I’m a worker among workers. I believe that my work has been a fairly painful journey to unlearn bad habits.

I started a career with a series of tricks and tropes, which weren’t very good, weren’t very professional, but made it possible to me to deliver work. And over a ten year period I developed an understanding of the internal language of comics, which I begun actually to take note of, write down and cut off.

So, by the time I was in my early thirties, when I came back to comics after a hiatus, I had developed a set of theories, which I have applied to narrative, and did so for a number of years. Ultimately, I then went to television and worked on television for fourteen years. Many of those ideas became deeper ingrained in my understanding of pacing of the story, in pacing of narrative. So, when I came back to comic books in 2002, I had a tool box of a number of graphic ideas that were visual interpretations of narrative notions, and that’s where all came from.

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Bang! Tango #6 by Howard Chaykin, DC (c)


How did you find yourself within the scene of big publishing labels, such as Marvel or DC? Did you ever experience an editor who wanted to change your ideas and concepts?

HC: I’ve worked for everybody in the business, with a couple of very small exceptions. And I’ve never delivered a job for a company, whether it’s an independent, you know, with a fly by night reputation, or Marvel, DC, Dark Horse on top of the line, with anything less then a full commitment to the job. I don’t believe the job is different, I think that the publisher may be different, but my responsibility to the job or to the publisher remains the same.

I’m a service based person. I’m a branded element, and I work for companies. I work for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse. I’ve also worked with IDW Publishing, the smaller houses. Um, it’s the same job! I mean, my tools, my techniques remain the same, and when I hear about people adjusting their level of craft depending on the client they are working for, I think that’s just nonsense. I think it’s unfair to the client, unfair to the reader. That’s my feeling…

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Howard Chaykin: Challengers of the Unknown, DC (c)

Let’s talk a little bit about your influences. It’s obvious that jazz and the elements of music had influence on you. Do you use actually elements from music in the rhythm of the comic, in the rhythm of story telling?

HC: Absolutely! I mean, today for example I did a dialogue for a comic book I’m working on right now, and I’ll be drawing it next week when I get home. And I’ve written the panel borders, it’s broken down, the story is told, and what I’m doing right now is the narrative, the dialogue.

In writing I realize that much of the dialogue exchange is as influenced by the work of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Erwin Berlin; as by, you know, crime writers, comic books writers, science fiction writers, television writers, but it’s all other piece. I described myself yesterday as a romantic realist and I stand by that description. I like sentimental romantic ideas, but on the sophisticated way.

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Howard Chaykin: BlackHawk, DC (c)

What about literature and cinematography?

HC: Not really! I don’t think so. I mean, I’m a huge fan of the films by Anthony Mann with John Alton. I like the Alton black & white stuff for a great deal, but generally speaking I’m a journeyman, I really am!

Anything that looks right that I can absorb and use, I will. I’m looking what you have for example, in order to figure out someway to use that. You know, your hat is red, and your scarf is purple and you’re wearing a Pacman T-shirt. I think it’s just a fantastic look! It’s something worth remembering.

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Howard Chaykin: Time2: The Epiphany, First Comics (c)

Thank you! (laughs) Yeah, what about colours and these black & white relations?

HC: Well, I’m colour blind, and that doesn’t mean that I see everything in the world of gray. What it means is that I have very little sensitivity in the green and some sensitivity in red. The rest is fine, but what it means is that I tend to think in terms of value, as opposed to specific colours…

…and it applies nicely in the narratives; it’s a matter of creating depth, and the dressing volume, and getting colourful decorative qualities. I mean, I tend to wear black, white and gray with a lot of pink, as you can see. Because I like pink, and I think pink looks great with my Mediterranean skin.

Definitely! What is your opinion on distinction that people do between terms of comic books and graphic novels?

HC: Do people actually do that? I don’t really know. Who gives a shit about those people?! I don’t pay any attention to that. It’s like, I mean… It is what it is! It’s comic, it’s graphic novel… If you need a word graphic novel to convince someone who wouldn’t normally buy a comic book to buy it, fine if that works for. But, you know, I’ve always considered graphic novels as big fat comics, and it just seems like it’s a devil’s tone description, and I don’t really care.

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Howard Chaykin: War is Hell, Marvel (c)


How would you describe your own style over decades in the context of development?

HC: Clumsy and inapt, like a struggle of a knuckledragger, and finally reaching some sort of point right on hate my own work every day. That’s about it!

Working on comics include also collaborative aspects, not only with your editors or publishers… working with artists doing colouring, lettering and so… is there anyone you would like to work with?

HC: That I haven’t worked with before?

Yeah…

HC: I don’t think so. I’ve been pretty lucky, I really am (laughs waggishly) . No, I’m quite serious. I mean, I’ve got some great working partnerships, you know. I mean, certainly my relationship with Ken Brusneak, who is responsible for introducing so many wonderful ideas in the context of comic book lettering, is on good permanent record.

And I worked with some great people working in colour, editors as well. I’ve been very, very lucky. I have no complains and, you know, I’m sure there is somebody out there, but I’m waiting and I can’t remember who you are. But I don’t think so, I’m perfectly happy in that regard.

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Howard Chaykin: Batman & Robin, DC (c)

What do you think about differences between generations… What are your experiences when you are doing lectures, workshops on Comic-Cons… Can you see how the younger generation perceives comics as medium compared to your generation?

HC: Yes! I mean, I speak from the States. I want to make clear that when I’m talking about, it is an American sensibility and America audience, cause that’s who I am and that’s who I represent. Um, the talent pool that I came into comics where all basically men born in the late forties or early fifties, and grew up in the sixties and we were all pretty much on the same way flamed politically, someone liberal, leftist or centrist, with a couple of exceptions.

Most of the guys today are more conservative politically and socially. There is more of a fraternity locker room sensibility, than it was when I was younger. There are fewer readers, there are more viewers, you know, of the skate board culture, which I’m not a part. But I’m an old guy, you know. I look good, but I’m definitely mature (laughs waggishly).

OK, but the old school has its own charm, you know… (laughs)

HC: No, I’m not… baby… I’m not apologizing, I’m good with it, you know. I mean, I’m perfectly comfortable with who I am.

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Howard Chaykin: Captain America, Marvel (c)

What is your opinion on the internet generation and sharing culture?

HC: I’m an internet guy. For example, I’m here, and my cell phone is not working here, cause I can not find a network in Croatia. But I’m locked on, you know. So I’m communicating with the rest of my planner by internet, and thank god, you know, cause I need that fucking communication.

But, you know, I’m not online every day, I mean while I was working today, I had my script on one side, and I had Yahoo on the other. I was reading the series of blogs that I go to almost every day, you know.

The only time I read the newspapers in hard copies is on Sunday. I download my New York Times crossword puzzles from the internet. I read Arianna Huffington. I read series under New York Times online. You know, I’m an online guy all the time.

But I do have issues with copy right placement. I’m a great believer in holding on my copy rights, because I have a wife, children, and grandchildren. There are few who are entitled to the inheritance and legacy of the work that I’ve produced. I want that my grandchildren can make some money on that stuff if I drop.

What do you think about new media tools that some comic book artists are using as a technique?

HC: I think that’s just fine. I think that’s a great idea. I love it. I mean, I have no problem with it what so ever. I use Photoshop as an add-junk to my analogue work, I use them both. I don’t have a problem, because otherwise we would seem to be juvenile.

Howard, Thanks a lot!