Note: The following interview contains preview images that may not be appropriate for all ages or workplaces.
By 1988, cartoonist Howard Chaykin was already known for producing hard-hitting comics that didn't skimp on pulp-influenced action or amped up sexuality. But that year, the release of Chaykin's 12-issue series "Black Kiss" through the now-defunct Vortex Comics label pushed the envelope farther than any of the artist's previous works. A black-and-white detective thriller that combined elements of Los Angeles P.I. novels, occult horror comics and outright pornography, "Black Kiss" originally came shipped in black bags to prevent young people from flipping through it on the comic racks, though that didn't stop many people from crying out against what they views as inappropriate comics.
And that's just how Chaykin wanted it.
"The book was done at a time when there was serious talk about trying to create a rating's system for comics, and the idea was that I would do a book that would be appalling and offensive...and funny," the artist explained to CBR about the book which will be reprinted in one volume by Dynamite Entertainment in May. "I still feel the book has a broad comic tone – black, but funny. I protected myself from what I perceived as the serious danger of nobody buying the book by taking a large advance against royalties. At this point, the book has always made money for me. It's been, probably on a per-page basis, the most profitable book I've ever done. Back then, there were issues, and I'm sure there will still be issues today. I bet I'll take heat for it, but I'm glad Nicky [Barrucci of Dynamite] is publishing it."
"Black Kiss" tells the story of Cass Pollack, an L.A. jazz musician on the run from the law and the mafia who finds a chance at salvaging his life by stealing pornography smuggled out of the Vatican for a washed-up Hollywood starlet and her transsexual prostitute. And then the vampires show up.
"To a great extent, I think one of the things I've done all my life is throw a lot of different material from different genres into the mix and see what eventually evolves from it," Chaykin said of the collision of genre tropes, sex and violence that made the comic what it was. "That's been a part of my M.O. I'm a big kitchen sink guy; I like throwing a bunch of shit at the wall to see what sticks. In that regard, I think 'Black Kiss' is an opportunity to do that in black and white. You can't overstate the fact of doing a back and white book of that sort."
In Pollack, Chaykin found a protagonist that allowed him to pay homage to the many crime and mystery creators that had influenced his career while also working out the issues he was coping with in his own life at the time. "I think that there's a long-standing tradition well before this – if you think of John Buchan's 'The 39 Steps' or all of Hitchcock's stuff – of an average guy who accidentally gets sucked into something bigger than him and has to save his own life and survive. The only way he can do so is by solving the problem set in front of him. Some of my favorite stuff is the stuff that Alan Furst does. He's a historical novelist who almost exclusively writes about normal men and women who find themselves completely and totally subsumed by the events of 1939 to 1940 in Europe. I really respond to that sort of stuff – the idea of an average guy in a situation bigger than he can accommodate. That to a great extent is what 'Black Kiss' is about.
"The California-ness of it is a really big deal as well. I'd been living in California for four years when I did 'Black Kiss,' and it was the first thing I did that articulated in any real way my incredible paranoia about Los Angeles. I grew up in New York City and left New York in 1985 with no expectations. I thought I'd be back in a couple of years. I had no plans to stay in California and was just coming out here as an experiment, but now I've been here since 1985, so obviously something took. But I have to say that I'd never felt the kind of paranoia that I felt in Los Angeles in New York City. Ever. It's an entirely different sensibility. I think that paranoia is a part and parcel of 'Black Kiss.'
"I grew up reading [Raymond] Chandler for years, and when you read Chandler, you get a real sense for what 1930s and 40s Los Angeles felt like, and I don't think it changed that much into the '80s. It's not really a night town. The business it's in is a daytime business, but it is oddly creepy. There's just something really discomforting about the city that remains today."
And while the artist now lives well outside Los Angeles city limits, he still feels enough of a connection to "Black Kiss" that he plans on preparing more stories set in that world in the future. "I've got the premise for the sequel, but I haven't had the opportunity or the time to do it yet. But that time will come shortly," he said, adding that for now he's happy to have the book in print at a time and in a format that won't hide it away as if it was some dirty little secret. "I think the answer to that is that one of the things that's happened in the 20 years since it came out was that the bar has been changed. And I think I contributed to that. People aren't getting worked up about this sort of stuff anymore."
In the immediate future, Chaykin fans can find the creator's writing work in the final issues of BOOM! Studios "Die Hard: Year One" miniseries, and he promised more work throughout 2010 including the just-announced "Rawhide Kid" series for Marvel. "As I speak, I have no life. I'm juggling four jobs – none of which have been announced. I'm sitting on 20 pages of pencils with ten more I've inked already, and I'm polishing some pages to deliver a chunk of artwork for 'Rawhide Kid.' So I'm very busy."
"Black Kiss" ships in May with an all-new cover by Howard Chaykin from Dynamite Entertainment.