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Finally! There’s a smart, insightful book that critically examines the works one of America’s most important comics writer-artists of the past half-century. And deservedly enough, Brannon Costello’s Neon Visions: The Comics of Howard Chaykin has been nominated for an Eisner Award at next month’s San Diego Comic-Con. It’s undeniable that, throughout his checkered career, Howard’s “brand approval” among fans has been, let’s say, mercurial. So it might be difficult to determine if and how this might reflect on voter judgment – in the “Best Academic/Scholarly Work” category – of a monograph that enumerates his abundant yet under-acknowledged accomplishments. Not at all, I can only hope.
Although Neon Visions is the first such serious study in Chaykin’s nearly half-century career, the rabble-rousing contrarian has never been starved for attention, if not proper recognition. In my Print interview with him from five years ago, titled “Howard Chaykin on His Lewd, Depraved, Banned Graphic Novels” – not surprisingly, one of the top comic book features in the history of this site – his Black Kiss 2 had just become one of the country’s most banned graphic novels. And most recently his Divided States of Hysteria series has been pilloried in social media for, let’s say, a number of “politically incorrect” transgressions, which he addresses here. And those are just his cartoons. If you’ve seen him speak at conventions, then you also know about Howard’s reputation as an acerbic critic, not just of comics fans and pros but also of the political left and right. And if you haven’t yet experienced these presentations, just pick up Costello’s earlier Howard Chaykin: Conversations. Indispensable to an understanding of the artist himself, it provides insight into the master raconteur’s astute, no-bullshit opinions, analyses, and growth from 1975 to 2010.
Unbowed and unapologetic to his detractors, Howard Chaykin remains one of the most dynamically exciting practitioners of the action-adventure genre. And Neon Visions stands on its own as a valuable contribution not only to the advancement and expansion of comics scholarship, but also to an appreciation of one of the field’s boldest, most innovative graphic designers.
In his intro Costello investigates the multiple ways in which Chaykin’s work has been fundamentally under-recognized and misinterpreted. For example, there’s Comics Journal editor Gary Groth’s essay for Print magazine’s special issue devoted to comics from 1988, two years after the historic graphic novel revolution. Valuing comics “art” with literary ambitions far above commercial work – which is to say: crap – he naturally elevates Art Spiegelman, the Hernandez Bros, and Harvey Pekar as the key figures in “bringing mature artistic values to the form.” And he goes on to begrudgingly note those “serious” superhero releases “which have gotten so much media coverage lately.” Ahem! Within this context, he devotes a paragraph to dismissively sneering at Chaykin’s sci-fi satire American Flagg!, his Blackhawk series about WWII’s famed fictional aviators, and his original Black Kiss… none of which, by the way, are superhero comics. But never mind. Chaykin’s perspective then was that Groth and the Journal were caught up “in a contempt for the medium combined with an earnest desire for somebody in the medium to do something that looks more important than comics. …It’s hung up on a legitimacy that I don’t feel comics necessarily needs or deserves.” So rather than being weighted down with ponderous aspirations to high literature, Chaykin’s comics output has the delightful benefit of being defiantly unadulterated and often hilarious fun, both visually and viscerally.
Costello, as feisty in his way as Chaykin, goes on to devote 300 densely-packed pages to dismantling the plethora of false premises and assumptions that have been hindering and undermining Chaykin’s rightful status in the comics pantheon. He makes relevant evaluations between Flagg! and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. He then pits Chaykin’s Shadow against Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, to eye-opening effect. He also takes comprehensive looks at the works in themselves, discussing, say, ways in which Time² was influenced not only by a Karel Čapek play and Philip K. Dick’s fiction, but also by Weegee’s street photography. His Blackhawk chapter is a very significant and penetrating exploration of the nature of fascist iconography. And hey: Costello even devotes a chapter to some of Chaykin’s superheroes. The bottom line is that, in his best stories and art, Chaykin isn’t looking to his chosen medium for cultural legitimacy. He’s viewing and treating it with unpretentious, joyous, and devoted love.
We’ll soon find out how Neon Visions fares with the Eisners. The awards will be announced at Comic-Con on Friday, July 20th. And the deadline for those who haven’t yet voted is this coming Friday, June 15th.
If you’re interested in reading more Print features about other 2018 Eisner nominees, here are some links for you.