THE GALAXY IS HIS HUNTING GROUND
Sometimes I get lost in a single comic book. Not lost as in, "I don't understand this story so I have to go online and complain about the writer and his rampant drug use," but lost as in, "What did you say? I am ignoring you because this comic is in front of me and I...pretty comic. Pretty, pretty comic."
The comic doesn't even have to be conventionally attractive. I have taste that may differ from what you see on the mainstream shelves. People like Ed Benes comics? Jim Balent had - has - a long career in the industry? Greg Land gets plenty of work? No, I have what you might call "good taste." Then again, you might call it something else. Everyone's mileage may vary.
But the comic I find myself obsessed by this week isn't anything special. It's possibly something you've heard of, but it's never been reprinted, and it doesn't really have anything to do with the industry today, even if its feature character appeared in some "Nova" story last year and may pop up in some "Wolverine" thing that's coming out eventually. It's "Marvel Premiere" #32. Smack in the middle of an issue featuring Woodgod and an issue with a Solomon Kane inside. It's the debut - and only appearance for almost 25 years - of Monark Starstalker. And it's written and drawn by Howard Chaykin.
Chaykin, as much as he's discussed by comics bloggers and comics professionals, still doesn't - and this is completely mind-boggling, baffling, and stupefying to me - get the recognition he deserves. I have a lot of comics-reading friends who don't like his work much at all, and there seems to be a certain age which divides the Chaykin-lovers from the Chaykin-haters. Most readers over 30 seem to get it. Those under 30 tend not to. They refer to his work as "blocky" or "stiff" or "ugly." The older readers just look at it, any of it, and smile.
Chaykin >talked with Ho Che Anderson in the final print edition of "The Comics Journal" about his lack of appeal for current mainstream readers, and there's plenty of other good stuff in that interview as well, including a tour through Chaykin's bibliography as he talks about his own hard-living ways and his experience in comics and Hollywood.
It's the Hollywood period that causes the separation between younger Chaykin readers and older ones. Chaykin had stopped doing comics for a while, and for all the readers that grew up on 1990s comics, he just wasn't much around. When he came back, he did stuff like "Mighty Love" and "Challengers of the Unknown" and let's face it, the work wasn't up to the caliber of his earlier comics, even if it looked damned good for those of us who knew what we were looking at.
Just to be clear: I can look at a Chaykin page from any decade and find a lot to love. In a world in which I adore J. H. Williams and Frank Quitely, Steve Rude and David Mazzucchelli, Howard Chaykin is possibly my favorite artist of all time. He certainly has that title this week. I'm lost inside a comic that came out in 1976. A comic he wrote and drew that hit the spinner racks of the mom and pop stores and left barely an impact.
Jules Feiffer, somewhere, talks about how he developed his signature drawing style by inking with a wooden skewer. Chaykin's thick lines in "Marvel Premiere" #32 don't look anything like Feiffer's loose, improvisational drawings, but if you told me he inked these pages with a stick, I wouldn't be surprised. The ink is slathered on. Gorgeously.
I suppose I should talk about the story. Except I don't care much about it. The impact of Monark Starstalker - and how great is that name? A year before "Star Wars" hit theaters, too - is in its art, and its hard-edged dialogue. It's a comic-as-aesthetic-statement, and, sure Chaykin was probably working on his more personal Cody Starbuck serial at the time, but here's a throwaway single issue from Marvel that looks like a declaration of form and intent. Chaykin saying, with pen and ink (and stick), "this is what comics should look like, should feel like. So try harder, everyone else in the world."
Monark Starstalker is a bounty hunter with a robot falcon telepathically linked to his nervous system. He's pursuing his quarry. That's about it. But, man, does it look amazing.
It's Chaykin, so the character archetypes aren't surprising. Tough-guy loner hero - even if he's surrounded by people, he's alone - in a post-Hemingway style. Beautiful women - almost parodies of sexual objectification, except you get the sense that Chaykin isn't kidding so much as celebrating. Idiocy - in the form of bureaucracy or the mindlessness of the masses, or both. Arrogance and posing - enough to go around. Distilled essence of Chaykin, in space, with pirate boots.
Chaykin had already done his brief stint on "Iron Wolf" for DC a couple of years earlier, but for all the superficial trappings that Scottish Space Epic may have in common with Monark Starstalker - and it doesn't really even have that many - Iron Wolf looks like proto-Chaykin. Wobblier. With less edge, in every way.
This Monark Starstalker stuff is visibly the same Chaykin who would go on to create the amazing "American Flagg!" and redefine "The Shadow" and "Blackhawk" for the Modern age. It would be a lost classic, except everyone I know who appreciated Chaykin seems to know about it, and everyone who doesn't like Chaykin doesn't care.
But that doesn't stop me from being obsessed with this issue. From the second-page splash - with its almost Toth-ian shapes and heavy blackness - to the angular images on the final page, with the blobs of ink for tombstones on a snow covered landscape, this is a comic for art-lovers. For anyone who gets excited about the way lines are layered atop each other to create a potent visual effect. For anyone who ignores the captions to spend time looking at the weird latticework in the background of a panel. Maybe that's not you, but sometimes I wonder why people read comics if they aren't fascinated by artistic details - and, more importantly, artistic boldness.
Page three has a four-panel fight scene that turns into a borderless panel that looks like Sienkiewicz a half dozen years before Sienkiewicz was Sienkiewicz. And, beneath that, on the very same page Chaykin includes a strip of illustration, one-fourth of a page high, that includes a shot of the local sheriff, a sequence of several different men blinded by Starstalker's "vortex pistol," a geometric design of the pistol blasting colors and duo-tone, an insert of Starstalker's fierce gaze, a close-up of a finger on the trigger, and Starstalker and his robot Falcon, posing with dignity.
It's the kind of sequential art that immediately ends the debate about comic books being like movies on paper. No, not here. Not from Chaykin. There's nothing cinematic about that series of images. It's fragmentary, disorienting, designed. Did I mention that most of the images in that bottom tier are also embedded within the shape of a sleeve that has the trigger on the pistol? Because they are. It's an ambitious page of artwork, and it's only page three of the story.
Page three of "Marvel Premiere" #32. We aren't talking about a comic that will get a remastered Absolute edition or Omnibus any time soon. Though maybe it should, even if the "Monark Starstalker Omnibus" would be the slimmest volume yet.
Other highlights from the issue? Page 11, with tiny stone texture on the wall in panel two, negative space close-ups and full-figure silhouettes, extreme foreshortening and almost abstract black smears to represent a spaceship interior, ending it all with a black-and-white headshot, as Ulysses - the falcon - merges with the mind of Starstalker.
Page 14, where the insert panel, with the close-up of the beautiful Robin Goodfriend, overlapped by an image of the vaulting Starstalker which leads the eye down the panel from foreground to background as we, like the hero, pursue the young lady into the building. And the final series of panels at the bottom, a Chaykin seduction scene abbreviated into four images, with the textures of the room carrying the emotional weight as the reader's eyeline is blocked by a robot falcon wing in the foreground.
Or Page 27 (all of the story pages in the comic are actually numbered, but the ad pages, count, so the story isn't as long as you might suspect from the numbering alone), with, in order, a close-up, an avalanche, a still scene, a nearly full-black foreground image of the smug bad guy, with his assistant in the background, and then a three-image scene with a repeated background as we see Starstalker reach up through the snow to ambush his opponent. First there's just white snow, then some arms burst through, then Starstalker rises out of the whiteness.
This isn't a comic that I would use as a textbook on how to tell a comic book story visually, because I'm not sure that many artists besides Chaykin could pull this stuff off. But I would use it as an example of why comics - even throwaway, forgotten comics from Bronze Age Marvel - can be so exciting. I suppose I am using it as an example of that. Although even that isn't completely fair, since there aren't a whole lot of comics that do this. There's just Chaykin, cutting lose. On a project that may have meant something at the time but led nowhere.
Yet that's its glory. It is unapologetically a Monark Starstalker story, and that means nothing more than what Chaykin carves within its pages. The character may have popped up in current Marvel continuity, but that's meaningless. The only thing that matters is the work in this "Marvel Premiere" comic from 1976. If you can appreciate great comic book art, those images - those pages - matter a lot.
In addition to writing WHEN WORDS COLLIDE for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan