Howard Chaykin on his lewd, depraved, banned graphic novels

The trouble started with Diamond, America’s largest comic book distributor. Back in August, they wouldn’t ship Howard Chaykin’s six issues of Black Kiss II to retailers in Canada and the UK due to customs regulations concerns. Now ComiXology, comics’ leading digital distribution platform, won’t sell either that series or the book version of the original series to iPhones and iPads, due to concerns about Apple service guidelines.

BlackKiss_1Apple’s ongoing restrictive iOS policies are well documented; see my own report on a censored underground comix app here. And now, Chaykin’s work is among the 56 forbidden comics which include Guido Crepax’s boldly erotic 1979 graphic novelization of Pauline Reage’s S&M classic, The Story of O. O and Kiss are both in black and white, and both delve into “Shades of Grey” fetish territory.

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Guido Crepax: Story of O

But Chaykin is unfazed. In fact, when I contacted him almost two weeks after the banned app news was publicly announced, he knew nothing about it. He also had no idea what ComiXology was. “Are they blogging shitheads with opinions? If so, I couldn’t care less. If not, I still don’t really give a shit, since this is the first time I’m hearing of this.”

BatmanDarkAllegiances_1BatmanDarkAllegiances_2Chaykin’s not fully out of the comics world loop. On the contrary: his flippancy — and feistiness — is backed by four decades of battle-scarred professional experience. He’s worked with Marvel, DC, and currently, Image Comics. And he’s earned a solid reputation for his sharp, sophisticated graphic style, which draws extensively from the Silver Age of American illustration. His lively, innovative page layouts have also been praised for their mastery of design composition.

Among Chaykin’s many self-generated projects, his most well known is American Flagg!, a groundbreaking, subversive deconstruction of the action-adventure genre. This 50-issue series was created in 1983 and paved the way for Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen three years later. But it was distributed by an independent publisher and was played largely for laughs. Plus, its postmodern anti-hero, Reuben Flagg, was a horny, Jewish everyman rather than a super-character. So it’s only recently begun to receive the recognition it deserves.

AmericanFlagg_1AmericanFlagg_2Flagg! also highlighted Chaykin’s fondness for of rendering glamor girls in bustiers, garters, and stockings, retro pinup-style. And his love of erotica found full flower five years later with Black Kiss, a darkly humorous, sex and violence fueled tale of gangsters, vampires, and the Vatican’s porn collection.

Black Kiss purposefully broke several boundaries of comic book propriety, and it was a huge sales success. It was also one of the most harshly criticized comics of its time, for what Chaykin calls its depictions of “fucking, sucking, filthy language, transgressive behavior, unpunished misbehavior; how dare I?”

BlackKiss_2BlackKiss_3Chaykin has said of that particular book, “it’s like a different person drew it, because I was in a trance.” When I asked for amplification he replied, “As I’ve indicated in a number of places, I didn’t draw a sober breath between August of 1967 and January of 1992. You figure it out.” Still, except for a Hollywood TV show staffer stint, his comics career has continued apace.

Chaykin’s output is currently undergoing an upswing, with three releases lined up for the near future. There’s his retro-styled update of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century for Hermes Press, which he describes as “a colorful action adventure the whole family can enjoy. And I say that without a trace of irony, sarcasm, or malice.” There’s Satellite Sam, created with Matt Fraction, which Image calls “a record of addiction, sex, and depravity,” so you can expect to see more kinkiness wrapped in lacy female underthings.

BuckRogers_1BuckRogers_2SatelliteSam_1SatelliteSam_2And coming this month is the graphic novel version of Black Kiss II. The storyline plunges deeper and more intensely into Chaykin’s original characters, and spans more than a century. And it will, of course, be added to ComiXology’s forbidden comics list.

What follows are Chaykin’s takes on Black Kiss‘s past and present as well as the future of comics.

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BlackKiss2_2On Diamond’s failure to distribute Black Kiss II outside the U.S.

Diamond is a company whose owner is a guy who asked me — and I presume others — to pray for the election of John McCain in 2008. I can’t say I’m particularly shocked that Diamond mounted no protest when the UK and Canada opted to deny Black Kiss II entry into these respective countries.

That said, I was an invited guest at the 2013 Ottawa International Writers’ Festival, as an American who’d been censored in Canada. It was a wonderful experience, except for my conversation with a Canadian poetess.

On advancements in comics erotica following the original Black Kiss

It seems clear to me that, just as American Flagg! introduced an entirely new vocabulary to comics, providing other artists with techniques they didn’t understand, Black Kiss created a market for Fantagraphics’ “Eros” line.

BlackKiss2_3BlackKiss2_4On researching Black Kiss II

My research process was exactly what it looks like: I made a commitment to get each depiction of the twelve decades that I illustrated as close to right as possible. I’d like to think I succeeded for the most part. Many comics, in presenting period material, seem to be either generic, or simply based on stills from movies about this period or that.

Suffice to say my office was a shitstorm of papers, books, and images covering the 120 years of material. It was a pigsty for a year.

On potential reactions to the Black Kiss II book

I’m long past giving a shit what people think about me and my work. As my wife pointed out to me not too long ago, most of these blogging shitheads are anonymous pu**ies who’d kill to have my job and my life.

I have no expectations beyond the material itself. I’ve been pirated and picked over by other comics talent and by elements of the show business for the past 30 years, and I won’t be surprised if that trend continues.

BlackKiss2_7BlackKiss2_8On comics and comics fandom

Mainstream comics, despite any appearance to the contrary, are enormously socially conservative. And it’s clear to me that I’m a bit of an embarrassment to comics in general and comics fans in particular, who seem to be afraid their girlfriends will find out they might have an erotic thought or two.

I’d suggest they talk and listen to their girlfriends a tad more than they do.

On comics as graphic design

When I returned to comics in 1982, after being driven out by the then editor in chief at one of the major companies, I made a conscious decision to apply graphic design techniques hitherto only hinted at in comics.

I looked at everything but comics for six months, and built a playbook of new ways to present information on a page. This new approach was then mixed in with the three strains of comics storytelling – Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner, and Jack Kirby and Stan Lee — and that was where I started.

ChallengersOfTheUnknown_1ChallengersOfTheUnknown_2On Al Parker and illustration

Parker is a god — the man without whom there wouldn’t have been a second Golden Age of American illustration. An influence on everyone from Bob Peak to Richard Amsel, and everyone in between.

I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in contemporary illustration, since I live in a small coastal town in California, where nobody gives a shit about this stuff.

On contemporary comics artists

I’m a huge fan of Jose Garcia Lopez, Eduardo Risso, Leinil Yu, Vittorio Giardino, Sean Murphy, and of course, Dave Johnson, the best cover artist comics has had since Reed Crandall on Blackhawk and Military.

TheStarsMyDestination_1TheStarsMyDestination_2-origOn the growth of digital illustration

I work with and use Photoshop in my comics work. I also believe that web comics are the future of comics, a future with little or no room for me, since I produce a page-designed product, and web comics are aspect-ratio based. An iPad is either portrait or landscape, with zoom and click: a factor that obviates my primary skillset.

On sustaining a career

I’m 62 years old, celebrating 41 years in the comics business. And one of the reasons for that long-lived career is a capacity for growth, an ability to develop, an acceptance of the frequent need for reinvention, and an avoidance of dogmatic thinking.

I’ve changed my mind about a lot of shit in those more than 40 years. And I’d encourage my whinier colleagues to consider doing the same.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. What a great interview, Michael. I love everything that Howard does. I wish him well and look forward to “Satelite Sam,” his new series with Matt Fraction, published by Image Comics, which comes out this Wednesday, July 9!!