Permanent Damage

Wed, August 26th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Ideally, AMERICAN FLAGG! would have ended after the first twelve issues, comprising four story arcs and one complete story that was one of the finest balancing acts between serial comics structure and novelistic structure. That story, complete in itself, not only paid off on the promise of Chaykin's earlier work and fixed Howard Chaykin among the top ranks of comics writers but coalesced "the Chaykin sensibility" - fast pacing, pulpy action, sexual content (commonly punctuated by '50s-style Frederick's Of Hollywood lingerie), irreverent characters, iconoclasm and interwoven humor ranging from wryly subtle social commentary through slapstick – that has punctuated most of his work since.

It also exposed a weakness either in the business or in Howard, depending on your point of view.

In my on-again off-again quest to reread and reassess Robert Howard's work (currently off again due to Thomas Pynchon's new novel), I recently read a collection of arguably his best sword & sorcery creation, BRAN MAK MORN THE LAST KING, whose introduction quotes a letter from Howard to Clark Ashton Smith (who, though largely forgotten today, was with Howard and Lovecraft one of the "big three" at the WEIRD TALES pulp) on the subject of continuing characters:

"The time will come when I will suddenly find myself unable to write convincingly of [Conan] at all. This has happened in the past with nearly all my numerous characters, suddenly I would find myself out of contact with the conception, as if the man himself had been standing at my shoulder directing my efforts, and has suddenly turned and gone away, leaving me to search for another character."

Publishers and readers, understandably, like continuing characters. But this has distorted comics, as it has distorted pop fiction in most media: characters have become more important than the stories they're in. But if any one thing characterizes Howard's writing, it's a basic understanding that characters only matter in a context, and that context is what we call story. There are fundamental differences between the first twelve issues – the first story – of AMERICAN FLAGG! and what comes after. The first story is a bravura feat of dazzling concentrated world-building that rivals WATCHMEN and matched by precious little else. It was clearly the AMERICAN FLAGG! story Howard wanted to tell. Later stories are good, easily the equal of anything else of the day, but there's a remove apparent, as he broadens some characterizations and starts filling in the edges of Flagg's world, and a sense that he had already said everything with it he was interested in saying. AMERICAN FLAGG! was a hit. Fans wanted more. First Comics certainly wanted more.

Howard was already looking toward TIME2.

If AMERICAN FLAGG! is Howard's FLASH GORDON, TIME2 is his RIP KIRBY, a jump into even more compressed worldbuilding set in a New York City both timeless and embracing all possibilities (zombies co-exist with slick private detectives and cyberpunk) and locked into the '50s of Howard's childhood filtered through SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. Howard's most personal and imaginative work, it was created for and published in the graphic novel format he championed and had worked with earlier, and he took advantage of the larger sized pages and greater color options the format provided, refining his storytelling and line even more. It was, in fact, everything that was good about AMERICAN FLAGG! cranked up to 11, Howard's attempt at creating his own genre. Didn't matter. In 1987, graphic novels were still a dodgy prospect – around that time, First publisher Rick Obadiah wearily told me of regular conversations he had with retailers explaining how they'd make more money selling one graphic novel than a price equivalent number of comic books, to always be met with blank stares – and readers made it clear what they wanted was AMERICAN FLAGG! and that was that. First put out two TIME2 volumes, then abandoned it. (Meanwhile, FLAGG!, turned over to other hands, slid into a mess as talent after talent – I include myself – failed miserably to match up to Howard's work or even grasp the essence of what he did with the book, even when artists worked directly from Howard's scripts. The best anyone achieved was drab imitation, and readers turned away from the series.)

The next few years were a blur of oddball projects, as First editor Mike Gold shifted to DC, while DC, in a burst of fan attention following the success of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTH, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN intended to cash in on their new market and wanted talent that could make that happen. Howard's two notable works at DC during that time were THE SHADOW and BLACKHAWK (soon to be collected), intended to re-render the characters for modern audiences and apply his now fully developed writing and art styles to what the business had now marked as "more mainstream material." (Even by 1987 the direct market was increasingly shifting away from upstart companies like First for the more familiar shores of Marvel and DC.)

As a curious and unexpected side effect, he managed to tick off longtime Shadow and Blackhawk fans something fierce.

It was a bit odd. Unlike others wildly revamping existing characters, Howard's approach was to return to the original characters and build outward from that, streamlining and stylizing them. But Shadow fans were bitterly outraged by violent fates visited on The Shadow's army of agents in the first issue of Howard's mini-series, apparently unaware all the death scenes were adapted from '30s SHADOW pulps. (Many Shadow purists were likely also furious that he had abandoned the tradition pulp illo character design for something sleeker and more modern, but otherwise very in keeping with the original.) Blackhawk fans were even harsher to Howard's bright and lively BLACKHAWK mini, set in the days before America entered WWII with Blackhawk as a Polish aviator (as creator Will Eisner made him; the character quietly and miraculously became American later in his run), but what really set many off, in the Reagan-Bush days, was his characterization as a socialist with communist leanings – a nod to Howard's own red baby upbringing – though that characterization fit the times beautifully.

Ticking retailers off was Howard's foray into black and white comics, and overt erotica, with BLACK KISS, as tiny Canadian company Vortex Comics offered him carte blanche to create. Like TIME2, BLACK KISS is a masterpiece of genre bending, a nasty if tongue-in-cheek crime novel that mutates into a nastier, more tongue-in-cheek vampire story, where he cleverly uses space restrictions, the lack of color and his by then trademark dialogue and sound effects to hyperamp the intensity. Critics and retailers dismissed it as cheap pornography, but Vortex made a lot of money from it.

A handful of things shifted attention away from Howard after BLACK KISS. New waves of "fan favorite" artists rose up during the '80s, and Image was just around the corner to change the nature of the market. Illustration work outside of comics and inroads into film and TV following a mid-'80s move from Manhattan to Los Angeles shifted his time elsewhere, lowering his profile. As in the early part of his career, the absence of a lengthy run on a high profile character limited his reputation in fan circles, lengthy runs being important in fan eyes and high profile characters often being key, and his overt and public disdain for the fan mentality likely didn't help. Increasingly, as his time was taken up by other things, Howard shifted to writing for other artists, returning to his first regular assignment, Fritz Lieber's sword and sorcery heroes Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser with Mike Mignola in tow for an Epic mini-series, and crafting a superb, complex reimagining of most of DC's space characters with Jose Garcia Lopez providing beautiful art in TWILIGHT. It was again met with inexplicable disdain.

By the '90s he largely moved away from original creations and into Hollywood as a writer, story editor, consultant and producer, though there was Epic's MIDNIGHT MEN, about generational action heroes, and POWER & GLORY, a parody about a corporate-sponsored superhero, but for the most part his art gets reserved for other people's scripts. There's a tiny flood of creations with writing and art collaborators for DC's splinter lines - CYBERELLA, PULP FANTASTIC, FOREVER MAELSTROM, BITE CLUB and others - mining various genres for light sex and nasty action, and snide humor, and a parade of Elseworlds novels that let him play with DC's characters in his own sandbox.

Then there's AMERICAN CENTURY.

Of all Howard's '90s work, AMERICAN CENTURY (the resemblance of the title to AMERICAN FLAGG! wasn't accidental; various contextual tidbits suggest AC is related to that work, with the implication its vagabond hero Harry Kraft, traveling through the weirdness of the 1950s, is an ancestor of Reuben Flagg, hinting Howard briefly considered, or considered parodying, a "universe") feels the most personal, despite co-scripting by David Tischman and art by various. On the surface an apparent retreat into genre motif in homage to '50s men's paperbacks and writers like Charles Willeford whose work danced between crime fiction and slice of life drama, it follows another Chaykin trait, also found in the THRILLKILLER graphic novels and other works of the era, of mining the past not for iconography for iconography's sake but to flesh out the context of our present culture. This trait underlies much of Howard's work, even much of the most minor, and underscores another apparent ongoing paradox: the frequent breeziness of his later work – by the millennium he's as comfortable with his skills and obsessions as any comics artist could be, and is rarely averse to putting on a show of them – hides an underlying seriousness of intent. Others fixate on increasingly artificial, lifeless "worlds"; Howard – in his way he's Steve Ditko's perverse little brother – expresses a worldview, one of the most coherent over time of any ever produced by comics.

And if that worldview – he writes and draws stories inhabited by people, not heroes; where heroism is a matter of circumstance and action, and often occupational duty, but not character; where those who call themselves heroes are conmen or self-obsessed prats; where everything matters but little is serious enough to take seriously – flies in the face of comics tradition, it has lasted long enough and bled enough into comics to be a countertradition. And not just his worldview; his sense of page and panel design, of character design, his evolution of color as story element, maybe especially his development of the comics character as sexual being are now found all over, as much of our common language as Kirby's or Neal Adams' work, and so common that their development in Howard's works are increasingly forgotten.

Now that he has largely disengaged from Hollywood, Chaykin has become almost three people, drawing some projects over others' scripts (Marc Guggenheim's BLADE, Garth Ennis' PHANTOM EAGLE), writing material for others to draw (SQUADRON SUPREME) and reviving his writer-artist career. CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, SOLO and MIGHTY LOVE earlier in the decade were all entertaining legstretchers demonstrating he still knew how to put it all together, but more recent works indicate new reexaminations of his own roots and a build toward at least one more great project. DOMINIC FORTUNE, for Marvel's Max line, kicks his '30s swashbuckler into BLACK KISS territory (aside from the standard pleasures of a Chaykin work, it's too early in the run to judge – only the first issue's out – but ain't it funny how material that 20 years ago sent half the comics business into panic and hissyfits is barely commented on now) while AMERICAN FLAGG! short for the benefit comic HERO COMICS puts a surly, funny exclamation mark to his best-loved work, demonstrating his flair for wry commentary is as strong as ever.

What it doesn't demonstrate is a "return to form" because a concentrated reading of Chaykin's work over the years reveals that his "form" never went away; everything since BLACK KISS has been evolution, experiment or entertainment. The question now is whether Howard can bring it all together for (at least) one last great creation that will once again break through into new territory, or whether he wants to, or whether the comics business still has any capacity to recognize it if he does.

Another blast from the '50s: Much as other publishers at the time liked to downplay the influence of EC Comics, even as virtually all of them were producing MAD COMICS knockoffs and before that tried to cash in on the horror craze EC triggered, EC's influence nonetheless seeped through comics of the '50s, especially among the knockoff companies, the publishers who, rather than generate ideas of their own, pursued whatever material was gaining sales momentum elsewhere. Greatest among these, of course, was Martin Goodman's Atlas Comics (or whatever he happened to call the company that week); though he did have one great moment of borderline originality c. '57 when he and Stan Lee brought on Jack Kirby to invent monster comics to replace the by then fading "mystery" books that survived the Comics Code's purge of horror comics, the "copy what sells" philosophy finally paid off big for him in '62 when he ordered Stan Lee to copy DC's rising JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, and Marvel Comics was born.

In the mid-'50s, though, Atlas' "mystery" titles were still doing their best to mimic EC Comics, and sometimes, usually with the help of EC artists, the mimicry was very good. Following is a story drawn by one of EC's best artists and one of the best ever to grace comics, John Severin, who ended up on the Atlas staff following EC's demise. A peculiar mix of TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and PSYCHO, it wouldn't have been out of place in TWO-FISTED TALES (the post war comics version) or SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES.

They did love their psycho twins in the '50s, didn't they?

Notes from under the floorboards:

Another good issue of DITKOMANIA, #74, has surfaced ($1.50 + $1 postage in USA; check the publisher's website for details) with another good spread of articles, mostly on Ditko's comics for DC, with a good timeline/checklist and explanations for the course of events. Best piece compares '60s Charlton characters, including Ditko's Captain Atom, Nightshade, Blue Beetle & The Question, with their WATCHMEN counterparts, and how Moore & Gibbons' versions are fairly logical progressions from the originals. The comparison of Rorschach and The Question amused me

"Another significant difference is that Vic Sage, the Question's real identity, is a handsome, successful TV commentator, while Rorschach is never seen in his civilian identity, Walter Kovacs, doing anything other than holding up a sign saying the end is near, wearing shabby clothes. Vic Sage has a girlfriend, a loyal boss, and a trusted staff. Walter Kovacs is almost completely isolated from the world..."

since my one objection to Ditko's character was a too-easy setup: though regularly infuriating and humiliating powers-that-be, including the boss' bootlicking son, with no-nonsense, illusion shattering straight talk, Sage was nonetheless protected by the elderly TV station owner who gave him free rein. My solution, in an abortive series intended for Bob Layton's semi-fanzine CHARLTON BULLSEYE, was a fatal heart attack for the old man, the son eagerly selling the station to a media corporation that insisted Sage be toned down or removed, and Sage, unwilling to compromise, fired and theoretically abandoned to obscurity, only to resurface as a tabloid reporter, for a disreputable trash paper that nonetheless allowed him free reign to pursue and publish all stories of his choosing, resulting in a Vic Sage just as dangerously muckraking, with a larger, more impressionable audience. Would never have spiraled him into self-doubt and soul-searching, though; down that road lies no Rorschach...

Heh. According to an 11PM local news report, Denver meth dealers use comic books to hide their product... okay...

For those who can't get enough political conspiracy, here's a real one for you: a fascistic right-wing quasi-Christian power cult called The Fellowship Foundation, AKA The Family. Wasn't that the name of Charles Manson's group? Serious about the fascistic part; the organization openly praises Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and other stellar political/spiritual role models. Not just Republicans either; a surprising number of powerful Democrats belong, including Hillary Clinton, and the Family reportedly believes that its members have something of a manifest destiny – they're blessed by God himself – to rule. It first came to my attention a couple months ago when one of Nevada's senators, the now notorious philanderer John Ensign, was revealed in the course of public exposure of a longtime affair (Ensign excoriated Clinton for extramarital sex and has regularly pontificated about the sanctity of marriage, blah blah) to be a member. (One virtue of belonging to the group, apparently, is that their political mission is considered so holy that sins of individual members are quickly forgiven.) What was briefly mentioned but not emphasized by the press here was that Ensign (and other members) is expected to seek, and follow, the Family's "moral guidance" on how to vote on bills before the Senate - and does! A lot of politicians are quietly members, and the group's existence has generally been a guarded secret, or was until Rachel Maddow and a handful of others started poking around, but a public light is starting to shine on them. The link above has a list of members, so you might want to check it before you step into the voting booth next time. A guy named Jeff Sharlet wrote a little publicized book on The Family that came out last year, if you want more information...

Mexico is decriminalizing possession of personal amounts of illegal drugs, instead emphasizing free treatment for those caught with them. Let's see if this makes Mexico's drug problem better or worse, since popular wisdom says only worse can come of it, while Portugal's liberal drug policy since 2001 suggests the opposite, according to reports...

Speaking of which, if "the authorities" (meaning my local morning paper, and all who are interviewed for it) can be believed – they tend toward hysteria about these things – you don't need a lab to make methamphetamines anymore. Seems someone figured out speed needn't be made in big batches, and anyone can make it for themselves pretty much anywhere with legal quantities of allergy tablets, a big plastic bottle and a few household chemicals – the article lacks specifics – by pouring everything into the bottle and shaking properly. Still potentially explosive, of course. Not that I've ever thought speed was a defensible drug, but between the vast sums of black market money made off the stuff (do we really want violent criminals making fortunes from this stuff?) and the specter of explosions in every parked car and public bathroom in America, maybe it's time to consider making speed openly available to amphetamine junkies, in the name of public safety...

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, a secret clue is cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but it's not the last thing you'd think of. Good luck.

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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