Permanent Damage

Wed, August 19th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

I talked to Gil Kane regularly over the last decade of his life, when we worked together on and off. I wouldn't say I was his best friend, but I got to know him fairly well. Know what really bugged him? He'd read interviews with other comics artists, they'd be asked about their influences because interviewers love to ask about influences even though in most cases people don't cop to (and sometimes are even unaware of) their real influences, and it would infuriate him that they'd never mention him when he could go to their work and pick out swipe after swipe from his own work. Egoism or righteous indignation? Hardly matters. Gil was an artist whose work was widely swiped, to the point where it may as well have been open season on it, and arguably the second most influential action artist in American comics history after Jack Kirby. Like Neal Adams, what he accomplished has been replicated so often by so many that his original achievements have faded against a Xeroxed landscape of them, many of the Xeroxes his own. Meanwhile, Gil wore his own influences (since he spent considerable time reflecting on such things, I'm fairly sure he was pretty accurate) – artists and writers like Burne Hogarth, Manny Stallman & Otis Adelbert Kline – on his sleeve. Since his death, Gil's place in comics history has been somewhat reassessed for the better, but the full extent of his influence is unlikely to ever be fully recognized.

And so it has been for Howard Chaykin the past couple decades. Howard – I've known him since around 1973, when we met in Toronto, and though he had no particular reason to remember me (I was much less than completely unknown then) months later when we met again in different circumstances, he did, and I've always appreciated that, so, okay, I'm biased – is what you could call colorful, and a pretty severe study in contrasts. One of the most outspoken decriers of comics as throwaway junk (in practice, not necessarily in theory), he also has maybe the most severe work ethic I've ever seen in a comics professional, working steady hours for years – decades – as though at a 9-5 job while more often than not maintaining an office outside his home to reinforce his own perception of comics as his job. And through most of his career he has out intense focus on craft, downplaying his own natural talent and emphasizing that every skill he has he had to painstakingly teach himself, like he, being colorblind, not only had to learn coloring on a technical level but became one of the most innovative colorists in comics at that time, and, unusual for any comics artist, has turned color itself into a story element and supervised the coloring of much of his work. Really, this has been his approach to virtually every aspect of his work, resulting in the long run in the appearance of talent so encompassing and effortless he'd seem to be some idiot savant of comics.

Not that craft alone is ever really enough, if you don't want to be a cog in the comics machine. From the start, and despite a considerable body of work-for-hire product (it's a romantic notion to starve for one's art, but considerably less savory in practice, and he's no dummy) Howard didn't. One of the wave of talent who broke in to freshen up the business in the early '70s, Howard was the first to make the dream jump, barely a year after his pro debut, to creator/plotter/artist of his first original work, the swashbuckling space opera Iron Wolf in DC's WEIRD WORLDS. (Whether by Howard's decision or DC's, Denny O'Neil was tapped to dialogue.) Reading that material now, Iron Wolf may seem a small thing. But it's a pivotal strip for American comics, told with a verve much more modern than of the time and reintroducing a character type well known in comics today: the rogue. (You could count Marvel's Conan, but Marvel was backing off from his roguishness almost from his debut.) Even the edgiest comics heroes to that point were essentially John Wayne or Gary Cooper, the solid man who knows what's right and does it. Iron Wolf was Clark Gable doing Errol Flynn, with twinkle in eye and tongue in cheek, and, if not the real progenitor of many modern characters, at least the prototype for the progenitor, Howard's first pure creation, Cody Starbuck.

In late 1973, underground comics had just been effectively euthanized by the Supreme Court, aborting their conquest of the American comics market, but writer Mike Friedrich was determined to create a middle ground between underground and "overground" comics where the new breed of mainstream creators, who'd come up out of fandom and were equally familiar with Mr. Natural and the Human Torch, could create without imposed editorial burdens, and launched "ground-level comics" (the name didn't stick but the idea did) with STAR*REACH #1. STAR*REACH launched with Cody Starbuck. Space pirate Cody Starbuck effectively stripped the last shreds of mainstream heroism from the Iron Wolf model, introduced an integrated visual/verbal narrative style that Howard would spend much of his career refining and developing, and created a template for creation after creation to come, not only for Howard but for the business. When Starbuck debuted, it emphasized the direction that Friedrich wanted to carve. When Starbuck subsequently got his own one-shot, it spurred a generation of comics pros to want the same for themselves and their creations, even if few had the faith or drive to get it. (Apocryphally, Cody Starbuck is also rumored to be the inspiration for Han Solo in George Lucas' STAR WARS. And remember that classic Indiana Jones scene, where Indy, faced with a charging swordsman, pulls a gun and shoots him? There it is in the second Cody Starbuck story, c. 1976.)

From there, Chaykin backtracks to explore '30s pulp tradition, with the virtually simultaneous THE SCORPION for Sol Brodsky's short-lived Atlas Comics (their sole book that got any notice at the time) and Dominic Fortune for Marvel – and, in a characteristic show of audacity, they're the same character! Other creations and co-creations pop up – Killraven, Red Sonja, the space manhunter Monark Starstalker, the first comics adaptation of Solomon Kane (the last begins a longstanding Chaykin trend of thoroughly infuriating a character's fans, in this case by designing a more distinguishable outfit of Kane totally at odds with Kane creator Robert E. Howard's description) – and odd jobs like a pivotal Nick Fury one-off. Through all this is experimentation and stylistic refinement, and, through work-for-hire, dabbling in virtually every genre imaginable except superheroes, save a handful of minor character one-offs and one Batman story during Archie Goodwin's memorable DETECTIVE COMICS run, so exclusively superhero fans would barely have known he was there at all. (It was a truism in 1970s comics that if you wanted to be noticed you'd work lengthy runs on properties, the more popular character the better, and it's still a truism today.) If Howard's wasn't widely appreciated by fans at that point (though he's among the first comics talents to be awarded the appellation "fan favorite," not that his adaptation of the unexpected hit STAR WARS with Roy Thomas hindered that any) it was likely due to his superhero aversion, his acerbic, abrasive personal style, his willingness to shatter anyone's presumptions about anything, and rapid fire chatter that reminded everyone he was the smartest guy in the room. The latter also became hallmarks of his writing, and that, too, is something of a new style in mainstream American comics that ultimately becomes a norm.

In the meantime, he was making breakthroughs in the nascent American graphic novels and in his own work, drawing science fiction novelist Samuel Delany's EMPIRE (which prefigured "widescreen comics" by a couple decades, and co-creating an Eternal Champion story with Michael Moorcock, THE SWORDS OF HEAVEN, THE FLOWERS OF HELL, as well as adapting Alfred Bester's classic THE STARS MY DESTINATION with adventurous designs and a challenging "picto-fiction" style that preserved much of Bester's text. Among the most European of American comics at the time, these also open up new possibilities and help force mainstream comics toward a more adult direction. A stellar run of painted comics also appears in HEAVY METAL (including revivals of Cody Starbuck and his other STAR*REACH co-creation, Gideon Faust) and EPIC MAGAZINE.

Then there's AMERICAN FLAGG!

Reuben Flagg will always be Howard's main legacy as far as comics fans are concerned. The science fiction gimmick of it is fine, if now dated – devastating war in 1999 drives governments off Earth to Mars, leaving the Earthbound to congregate in fairly laissez-faire cities that are little more than survival enclaves centered around launchpads – plexes based on the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex that Howard flew through in the early '80s – and policed by Plexus Rangers, which former TV star Rueben Flagg joins following his removal from his own show – but the main point of the series is to articulate Howard's now fully developed worldview, inconsistencies included. Like Chaykin, Flagg's worldview is cynical and disdainful, but in a triumph of pure existentialism, he takes his work very seriously nonetheless, even while shrugging off its day to day importance. Inspired by, among other things, Normal Spinrad's prophetic and pivotal new wave sf novel BUG JACK BARRON, the series is a brilliant whirl of political intrigue, sexual politics, random violence from comical to horrific, cultural iconography, innovative narrative tricks that have been stolen and stolen since to the point of cliché, highly influential use of dialogue, word balloons and sound effects, compressed information, biting social critique/satire, and a very sly, virtually omnipresent sense of humor (though some can only be deciphered if you understand the real world context).

Saving Soviet Jewelry... and that's not the only twisted joke on the page

Series fans remember it where everything in Howard's career and personality before that came together in the first unfettered expression of his creative voice, and as the series that put First Comics on the map as a creative force. Their preceding series were retreads of things that had come before – you could easily trace their derivations to genre standards, earlier series and other publishers - but AMERICAN FLAGG! was something new. It's only through careful dissection of the material, and comparison with what else was published at the time, that breadth of what Howard introduced to mainstream comics can be appreciated. A few months ago I roused a lot of ire by putting AMERICAN FLAGG! on a list of the most influential American comics of all time, to the exclusion of more popular works, so it's nice to see a recent spate of reassessments of Howard and his work (here, here, here, here & here, for starters) predicated on his new Flagg! short in HERO COMICS, his recent Dominic Fortune revival at Marvel, and book collection of his AMERICAN FLAGG! and BLACKHAWK work.

So if AMERICAN FLAGG! was so influential, and Howard so talented, why the decline in appreciation of his works during the years since? Pretty easy to answer, really: while everyone was scrambling to catch up with AMERICAN FLAGG! Howard was already moving on.

I'll elaborate next week.

This is the difference between Democrats and Republicans: when Republicans get into the White House they want to build majorities; when Democrats get into the White House they want to build non-partisan consensuses. Even when they have enough Congressional Democrats to achieve most of what they want. Why, I couldn't say, but Democrats are obsessed with being loved in the moment - and so overwhelmed with paranoia that Republicans could "make a comeback" they love to cut their own legs out from under themselves so the GOP can't take credit for it - while Republicans generally assume that, whatever they do, history will exonerate them.

The current health care reform nonsense is what has become an appallingly typical case. Talking about a health care "plan" is deceptive; there are several floating around, and a specific single plan hasn't yet taken shape. Which is probably a huge lesson to take from this: have a plan before you try to sell one. It doesn't help that the O-Ring has taken up the Rumsfeld practice of answering the question you concoct in your own head instead of what's asked, though while Rumsfeld used to veer so wildly it stunned questioners into silence, the O-Ring at least tries to maintain the appearance of answering the original question. But they're starting to smack of desperation, probably as they recall how Hilary Clinton's push for health care was an early derailer of Bill Clinton's presidency, which may also be why Obama has been reluctant, at least until very recently, to affix his own face to the reforms. But it's not helping there cause that the "plan" does include questionable provisions, like allowing the government uninhibited access to your checking account information, and that rather than admit to such things and adjusting the plan accordingly in the face of public outrage the O-Ring is trying to sidestep and pretend those elements aren't really there are all.

Which is why the Birthers, who break up town meetings with demands of proof that Obama's indeed a natural born citizen, and Death Panelers, who insist the health plan gives the government absolute control over life and death medical decisions of all Americans, are doing the O-Ring a huge favor. The former come off as infantile morons and the latter are so easily disproved they're effectively making all criticisms of "the plan" seem loony while drowning out legitimate concerns. There's little doubt that the insurance industry and their cronies are behind these cheesy scare tactics; they're smart enough to know what no one in the country wants to admit, that insurance companies will be the big loser in any real health care reform.

So, of course, the O-Ring is trying to build "consensus" by cutting deals with the most affected parties, like assuring drug companies drug prices won't be regulated and now, reportedly, offering to dump the whole concept of the government as health insurer to mollify the insurance companies. In other words, the administration is cutting deals right and left – and where's the public airing of these negotiations promised during the campaign? (Gone, because insurance and drug companies and the like don't want public airings that would make it all too clear just how much money they're making.) – to make sure no one currently making obscene profits, and the politicians they bribe with campaign contributions to ensure legislative protection of those profits, will ever find obscene profits more difficult to make.

Yeah, yeah, socialism, blah blah, but it remains that there will be no effective health care reform until we get rid of health insurers. The great conservative terror is a liberal government that believes American citizens (we're not even citizens anymore in common political and cultural parlance, we're consumers, meaning our main function in American public life is to spend money) are its property, but we're now surrounded by a money industry – banks, credit card companies, insurance companies, brokerage firms – that believe we're their property, or, rather, that our money is our due. Think I'm kidding? There's no shortage of documentation that credit card companies have purposely clipped their customers by doing things like intentionally - under orders from upper management, in fact - sending bills out too late to be paid by the due date, so they could invoke clauses automatically increasing interest rates (retroactively!) and imposing late fee penalties. And once one of your credit cards raises your interest rate, all of them can do it. Or could, since Congress a few years ago gave them the power to unilaterally change any terms without explanation or justification.

Health insurers operate on similar grounds. From what I understand, there's a general round of rate increases in the industry at the moment, to make up for money they're supposedly losing. But operations, the actual dispensing of health care, didn't drain their coffers; bad investments (remember than whole sub-prime thing?) did. And it's not that they're not making money, or operating in the red; it's that they're not making as much profit as they want. In financial circles, "losing money" no longer means losing money, it just means you're not making as much as you'd like.

The irony of all this stuff is that even if the government were trying to impose "death panels," so what? We've already got them. Death panels are exactly what health insurers and HMOs are now. The worst that could happen if government ran the death panels (not that I'm advocating them, mind you, I'm just saying) instead is they'd be run by people answerable to citizens rather than by people who don't answer to anyone except stockholders whose only concern is why their dividend check isn't at least five cents bigger this pay period. (Oh, right, I forgot: competition. If the government runs health insurance, we won't have other options if we don't like it. Because, gosh, right now if you don't like the health insurance your employer provides, you can just shop around for your own at very competitive rates. Sure, just try it.)

The O-Ring, and the Ghost's administration before them, has put way too much effort into coddling these money vampires and not enough into doing anything that will genuinely help the American public. The incentives that "saved" Wall Street and the banks? They should've spread them out in equal portions to American households and let the banks and brokers compete for that money. (And if the money went to cigarettes and diapers instead of Citibank and Charles Schwab? So? Tobacco and diaper companies bank and invest too.) Instead we're now in a situation where the whole country is being regularly and repeatedly held hostage by Big Money. Banks, Wall Street, the Fed, and now insurance companies, all do what they want and no questions, no recriminations, no investigation, no oversight or they threaten to take their ball and go home and just left everything go to hell. They're all playing chicken with the government and with the American public and any administration unwilling to call their bluff won't achieve anything.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Something I jotted down in notes for last week's column, then spaced on when time came to write it: Louis Malle's movie MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, filming a semi-improvised mealtime discussion between American directors Andre Gregory, returning from a long soul-searching world voyage, and Wallace Shawn, includes a bit where Gregory describes New York City as a prison where the inmates are the jailers. That struck me as an apt metaphor for the current state of most comics: the inmates are the jailers. Sorry I left that out; would've worked better in context.

Don't know if you've been following Tom Spurgeon's "feud" with Hervé St-Louis over the recent Superman copyright judgment, but Spurgeon made one comment,

"No matter how many times it's asserted in moral terms, fans do not own anything because they're fans of something, even if they feel entitled to that ownership. This is the same kind of ownership a three-year-old feels playing with another kid's toys while the moms sit and visit, combined perhaps with the lovely impulse of an angry drunk bellowing out the hit song's name from the audience when a band is playing their newest…"

that struck me as summing up pretty much the entire mentality afflicting comics these days (and for probably the last 10 or 15 years), across the board. Meanwhile, my old pal, Big Head Comics stablemate and former CBR stablemate Adi Tantimedh covers the old saw of 'characters people care about' in his new column at Rich Johnston's Bleeding Cool (where Rich also notes that it's never British comics talent medical fundraisers are thrown together for). Adi's recent graphic novel, LA MUSE, recently got trashed by another of my old pals, Mike Baron, over at Big Hollywood - resulting in a huge hit spike for the online version. (It's also now available in book form.) Hey, Mike, can you review ODYSSEUS THE REBEL too please? I want a huge hit spike too.

Thanks to a reader for leading me to this Slate piece asking why the hell comics movies don't amp up comics sales, at least for long. Unlike most comics-involved writers, writer Lisa Schmeiser points up how non-superhero comics are proving some of the most profitable "comics movies" out there, making those comics very enticing prospects for Hollywood. She doesn't have space to really dissect all the problems, but she makes a good stab at it and brings up some good points, though her prognosis for the business' future – loss leader for Hollywood-based IP franchises, rather than viable medium for creator-owned properties – is on the depressing side, though completely in keeping with her columns purview. (The section is called The Big Money.)

By the way, if you're still into that print magazine paradigm, do yourself a favor and track down the TRIPWIRE ANNUAL 2009. Very nicely designed with top-notch articles on film, tv and comics (modern and historical, "mainstream" and independent, Brit and American and elsewhere) whose interest doesn't demand your pre-existing interest in (and knowledge of the subject), from Joe Kubert to 70 years of Marvel Comics to the new Vertigo crime comics line, Guillermo del Toro, HEROES and BEING HUMAN, and that's only skimming the surface. Plus a variety of good original comics and my favorite annual joke piece, The Comics Power List AKA the most powerful people in the comics business. (No, pretty sure they don't intend it as a joke, but it's always pretty funny nonetheless.) TRIPWIRE was one of the casualties of recent Diamond policy changes, though Diamond has comfortingly offered to take another look (no promises, though!) next year, so reportedly the magazine has cut itself a different distribution deal, through Barnes & Noble, so do yourself a favor and track it down there.

Recently, Disney announced they'd hired David Mamet (who has managed over the years to reduce his once innovative style to a Tourette's-afflicted Ernest Hemingway stuttering) to adapt anew THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. And wouldn't you know it?: pages from the screenplay have already been leaked to the press! One of the funniest things I've seen in weeks.

One bit of O-Ring business unrelated to the above rant: ever heard of Vivek Kundra? He's the country's first-ever "Chief Information Officer," supposedly our man on the cutting practical edge of technology, and lots and lots of political insiders have been touting him as the best he is at what he does. (Yes, he's the Wolverine of I.T.) And they may be right, if what he does best is utter rubbish technobabble. If you get the chance to listen to Kundra, it's fascinating; there isn't one thing that comes out of his mouth that isn't gibberish. I'm guessing he knows full well his main audience will be politicians and political hacks who don't have the first clue about modern technology and how it really works, but Kundra's appointment and the White House's boisterous endorsement of him doesn't fill me with confidence in the O-Ring's technological vision. (If he gets any public attention, look for a flap about his apparently faked academic record to grow.)

Arch-conservative pundit and Opus Dei member Robert Novak died Tuesday, at 78, of brain cancer. I'll skip the obvious tasteless joke and just say I'll miss him; whatever else, he certainly was entertaining...

Congratulations to Jacob Schulz, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "blue." Jacob wishes to point your attention to The Museum Of Toys & Pop Culture, which gets pretty surrealistic. Check it out.

I'd love to do a Comics Cover Challenge this week but The Grand Comic Book Database seems to be locking up on me. Sorry about that. Back next week.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

TAGS:  permanent damage, howard chaykin, american flagg

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