When Words Collide

Mon, December 6th, 2010 at 1:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
4

IRONWOLF AND CODY STARBUCK: ROGUES FROM THE FUTURE

"Weird Worlds" #8

Howard Chaykin was, what, 22 or 23 when he started making his run at comic book greatness? It was early in his career, certainly.

He'd done a few small stories here and there, some "Sword and Sorcery" comics for DC Comics, and before anyone knew it, he was writing and drawing his own characters, in a comic that once featured the likes of John Carter of Mars. By late 1973, Chaykin had begun the "Ironwolf" serial in the pages of "Weird Worlds" and the Chaykin era had begun, even if barely anyone recognized it at the time.

The comic only lasted two more issues before folding. Then resurfacing with a late-round gasp, a final, third part to the "Ironwolf" saga, nearly a year after the comic had been originally cancelled. But it was too late by then. Chaykin had moved on, and brought his character with him. Sort of.

Let me back up and talk about those first few "Ironwolf" stories first, though.

If you know your Chaykin, and I'm sure you do, because the guy has done some astonishingly impressive work over the past four decades, then you know what you might find in a Chaykin comic book. A handsome rascal. With more than a little bit of hubris. A scandalous situation, involving religion or theatrics or politics or all three. Sexy women who can hold their own. Human drama in the midst of the machinery of life.

You might read a Chaykin comic – from any era – and see the work of a cynic. Someone who rejects the common goodness of humanity and revels in the extremes to which people will go to debase themselves and others. That would be a misreading. Chaykin is, and has ever been, not a fallen romantic, but an actual Romantic, with a capital "R." He may flirt with fascist iconography (see "Hawk, Black") and grotesque corruption (see "Flagg, American") and pornography (see "Kiss, Black") but those are merely the modes through which is Romanticism operates. Romanticism isn't chastity and purity. It's not Puritanical. It's a rejection of the conventional, the industrial, the orderly. It's an embrace of the sloppy, messy, glorious truth of the individual, striving through a universe that tries to chop it down into clean, easily digestible bits.

Chaykin's been doing that story forever. But he does it in his own way, using his art to propel his ideas into the world, and using his ideas to try on new artistic garb. He's never been one to stick with a single approach, even if his approach is a singular one. It's Chaykin, no matter how it looks. And how it looks is why it matters.

Denny O'Neil is credited with the scripts for the "Ironwolf" stories from "Weird Worlds" #8-10 (1973-1974ish), but Chaykin gets the "Created, Plotted and Drawn by" credits on the very first page of the very first story. And it's so eminently Chaykin from the opening image: a regal scoundrel (you can tell, because he's dressed in a uniform, but he has long hair and sideburns) smacking away a floating robot and telling the queen to go to hell.

Ironwolf Defiant

It's a space queen, Erika Klein-Hernandez, to be specific, of the Empire Galaktika. She's all steely, icy calm, and Lord Ironwolf moves like a dancer with barely bottled-up rage. She uses her sexuality to control him, he slaps her away, then pulls his sword to fend off the monstrous bodyguards.

It's an Alexandre Dumas tale in some far-flung future, or Errol Flynn in space. Take your pick. And its Romantic to the core.

It's early Chaykin and that's obvious in every aspect of the story, except the art. 1970s Chaykin was all scratchy lines and sinewy characters. His current work may be blocky and his characters thick-waisted, but in the younger days, his characters were lithe, acrobatic types, nine or ten heads tall, in the mold of early Walt Simonson. The art in the three original "Ironwolf" stories (really, just one story told in three parts) looks drawn by a furious pen, as if Chaykin didn't look back at a single panel to check for consistency but moved forward, carving the nib into each panel with furious insistence, propelling the story ahead with passionate energy. That can't be true, though, because each page features such obvious attempts at design and structure. Inset panels balance the larger frames of action. The reader gets, at least twice, a recursive, slow-motion triptych of battle, as Ironwolf fends off attackers with a flourish.

It's a measured sloppiness, as if Chaykin's energetic line was barely contained by the constraints of page design and visual storytelling. Sometimes the panels overlap awkwardly, but most of the time the design accentuates the action of the sequences, as Ironwolf races to free himself from the oppression of the Empire Galaktika only to find that the other side of the conflict is just as bad. Ultimately, "Ironwolf" is the story of a man disillusioned by empire and rebellion. A man who, as Denny O'Neil's script phrases it, finds himself "caught in the middle." "A pirate," says the final panel of the final issue of "Weird Worlds," "…an outlaw, hunted, hated…And a dreamer who can fight! This noble man is Ironwolf!"

Did I mention he wears a highland tartan and flies a spaceship made of anti-gravity wood called "The Limerick Rake"? Well, he does. 100% Romantic, through and through.

But it's the artistry in "Ironwolf" that has the most to offer the reader. The schism between what Chaykin seems like he's trying to do and what he actually can do. There's no discounting the energy on the page, but as I mentioned above, the pages can barely contain the compositions Chaykin carves into them. And it's not just that, it's the balance – or repeated imbalance – between Chaykin's desire to make each panel expressive and his need to render each detail. Some pages offer clean poses with bold linework, while other pages show exaggerated forms covered with shading and crosshatching that freeze the movement of the characters. In the climactic scene in the first story, a Jack Cole-style action moment is contrasted with a close-up of Ironwolf in which you can count every hair on his sideburns and see every rippling sinew of his neck. Later, on the opening splash page of the final story, foreground and background rendering slam into one another, and the crosshatching looks like it spewed from the inky fingers of a 2000AD-era Steve Pugh.

"Star Reach" #1

It's a gorgeous mess, but that only adds to the passionate Romanticism of the whole story. This is a space hippy, sexed-up action festival (with a production of "Hamlet" in which the ghost of the prince's father is played by a robot, seriously) and it's Howard Chaykin, in his early 20s, making comics.

Yeah, it's pretty spectacular.

But it gets better, because even before that final, resurrected "Ironwolf" story hit the stands, Chaykin had answered the clarion call of Mike Friedrich and "Star*Reach."

I'm no expert on pre-Direct Market comic book distribution, but I do understand the significance of Mike Friedrich's "Star*Reach," even if we ignore the role it plays in our discussion of Howard Chaykin's further adventures. "Star*Reach" was an anthology comic that couldn't possibly have even a tiny fraction of the market penetration of a Marvel or DC title (from what I understand, it was only sold through mail order or in the remnants of the underground distribution set up through head shops). But if there's a precursor to the Modern Age of comics, a precursor beyond "Warrior" magazine and earlier, then it's surely "Star*Reach." The first issue alone featured Jim Starlin, Walt Simonson, and, yes, Howard Chaykin. Not at the height of their powers, but in their formative years. Simonson hadn't even done "Metal Men," yet, never mind "Thor." Starlin hadn't done "Warlock," but he was about to. And Chaykin? He had just left "Ironwolf" and forgot to leave the character behind.

Because what we get in "Star*Reach" #1 is Cody Starbuck, space pirate, an outlaw, hunted, a dreamer who can fight, a captain of the Limerick Rake. Yes, though Chaykin changed the character's name and ditched the tartan and shaggy hair, it's still basically the same character flying, literally, the same ship.

Chaykin would do this again with the Scorpion at Atlas, who would become Dominic Fortune at Marvel, but while those stories are pulpy fun (and certainly fit into the Chaykin mold that we've come to know and love), Cody Starbuck may be the apotheosis of the formative Chaykin. "American Flagg!" is the ultimate Chaykin. It's fully-formed and fully-realized, particularly in its first year. But he was never so wildly experimental as he was on "Cody Starbuck," a series that practically reinvents itself every time it appears.

Chaykin's work looks immediately more polished on the opening pages of the first Cody Starbuck story, from "Star*Reach" #1, even though it couldn't have been written and drawn much later than the final "Ironwolf" story (and, as I mentioned, the publication dates actually show that Cody Starbuck debuted before readers saw the end of "Ironwolf"). It's more recognizable as Modern Chaykin, from the cleaner lines of the fashion to the square jaw of the hero. It's black-and-white, and clearly designed for black-and-white, which means that Chaykin practically avoids crosshatching in favor of solid lacks and expressive, yet tight, lines. There's also unrepentant nudity and profanity. It's a comic for adults, and young Howard Chaykin doesn't let that opportunity pass him by.

The dialogue is mostly declarative, and Chaykin gives us, in this first Cody Starbuck tale, an "origin" for the protagonist that shows that he's totally not that other guy he just wrote and drew for this other company, even though he acts the same and flies the exact same space ship. In Chaykin's retelling, this isn't a nobleman who has run afoul of an intergalactic empire. It's space commander who has run afoul of an intergalactic papal empire. Totally different.

Cody Starbuck Unleashed

Actually, although I mock, and though the "Cody Starbuck" serial is clearly Chaykin carrying on the same fundamental story engine from "Ironwolf," it is a reinvention of sorts. And that's the hallmark of all the Cody Starbuck stories that follow. It's a continuation of what has come before, but it is so radically redefined by its art each time, that it might as well be a different story. It's the idea machine around which Chaykin plies his trade, and experiments with form. If "American Flagg!" is about Chaykin aligning his themes with his techniques (and Ken Bruzenak's typography), then "Cody Starbuck" is about Chaykin sampling from the world around him, trying out various guises, and delivering his message in the fashion of the day, as filtered through his sensibility. Because Chaykin's sense of fashion has always been forward-thinking, and I'm not just talking about the clothes his characters wear.

In "Star*Reach" #1, Chaykin seems to be working, if I had to guess, and I do, in an Alex Raymond mode. Though there's clearly more to it than that, because the influence of his peers seems evident as well. Certainly a post-Neal Adams approach to figure drawing, and an occasional rendering technique out of Bernie Wrightson (not on the heroes faces this time, but on some monstrous assassin character). Chaykin's attention to textures – still central to his style today – can be seen in ornate backdrops, marbled walls, tiny stones on the flooring. His interest in American illustration surely influenced this violent, adult take on Flash-Gordon-by-way-of-Ironwolf.

The story doesn't matter much. Something about the hypocrisy of religion. It's just another machine from which the hero must escape. A unyielding force which the hero must lash out against, if he's to maintain his integrity.

But what makes this first Cody Starbuck story so impressive is that Chaykin uses every page to tell. It's not the seemingly improvised, rapid-fire approach of his just-completed "Ironwolf." It's Chaykin confident, even as he's playing with form and line. He's using negative space to balance out the action scenes, he's staggering the panel size to lure the reader in, and then giving us a sliver of white as a silhouette falls along the side of the page, plummeting to his doom. And he ends the story with a four-part rhythm. The panels shrinking as Starbuck and the rescued princess (or naïf, or whatever she is), gather into the escape ship and fly off into the glowing sunset over the ruins of the city.

And that's end of Cody Starbuck, until he's reimagined three issues later. And Alex Raymond gives way to Alex Toth.

NEXT WEEK: Cody Starbuck gets his own graphic novel and hangs out with Jim Steranko, Richard Corben and Enki Bilal.

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

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