I can remember the first time I ever read anything by Howard Chaykin—somehow, I’d gotten a battered copy of an issue of his American Flagg in my young teen hands and I wondered what kind of brilliant madman could put out this kind of work. The action, the violence, it all seemed to pop of the page in a particularly mad way that the superhero comics I was reading at the time didn’t (or wouldn’t) do. Flash forward to the present, where I’ve finally had a chance to talk to the man himself about his work—he seems less mad but no less impressive in his ability to understand what readers want (his protestations to the contrary) through a 40-year career that has spanned comics, television, and film.
His latest work is Marked Man, an story that will be running through the 25th anniversary relaunch of Dark Horse Presents next week. Here’s what he had to say about the story, his craft, and the industry at large.
MTV Geek: Tell us a little about how your story, Marked Man, ended up as part of DHP.
Howard Chaykin: Basically, Mike called me up about doing a piece for Dark Horse Presents, and I pitched him two crime pieces—one period, one contemporary—and a Western. And he opted for the contemporary crime piece, which I was perfectly happy with—this is a project that I’ve been working on for 15 years.
It’s a very straight-up, contemporary crime thriller involving a criminal protagonist who, in the most basic of terms, lives an utterly and unrepentantly dishonest life. His belief system is shattered by a choice he makes based on the exigencies of the contemporary American economy.
Geek: So there’s a bit of a moral development for the character? Or is he just trying to figure it out as he goes along?
HC: The character has a crushing event in his life, and he goes through a physical, moral, and emotional transformation. At the end of the story, he comes out an entirely different person than when he came in—leaving it open for a sequel. But he solves his problem in the context of our 8-part serial. But he is utterly transformed and changed by his experience.
He is a thief and criminal who has no guilt or shame and ultimately his actions have grave consequences for those around him.
Geek: How long are each of your installments?
HC: Eight parts [at] eight pages [each], and I delivered the first two episodes. The entire series is written, because I’m a great believer in structure and I felt that it was important to write the entire thing first so that I could lay pipe and not have to pull things out of my a**.
One of the reasons—one of my favorite network television shows right now is The Good Wife and they’re doing a very, very well-made episode-by-episode on a season-by-season basis. But there’s still a running arc through the season that feels very well-structured and well-planned as opposed to some of the other serialized shows over the last couple of years that feel to me that they’re making it up as they go along. And I like to know where I’m going before I start my trip.
So, I delivered the artwork on the first two, and the scripts are in for all eight. I’ll probably be starting the art on the third one in probably three weeks.
As you might’ve guessed, I’m ahead of their curve. I’m that guy.
Geek: I’m sure they appreciate it.
HC: I’m going to New York to teach at Marvel as I have four or five times before, so my window of time before then—I’m on a forced march to deliver the finished material that’s on my desk before I go.
Geek: Your fans have come to expect a certain amount of sex and violence in your work. Will Marked Man deliver on that front?
HC: I think there’ll be less sex than violence but there will definitely be an element of sensuality to it. It’s a crime story so yes there will be some violence in it. No need to put a gloss on it.
Geek: I know it sounds like kind of a prurient question, but it’s just great that a lot of recent writers have rediscovered and re-explored cool pulp elements from the past and are bringing them back. Do you have any thoughts on why this resurgence is happening?
HC: I think the fact that comic book writers were drawn from science fiction fans and lately they’ve been drawn from crime fans—that’s where it’s at. You know, most of the guys who are writing comics right now are crime readers as opposed to sf readers, and I think it’s a perfectly valid way to go.
I mean, I was weaned away from science fiction in the mid-70’s by Archie Goodwin, who was much more interested in crime fiction than he was in science fiction. I’ve always included a crime element to everything I’ve done.
This project is actually one I pitched to Disney Italia a couple of years ago when they ended up doing a Western. And I like working in other genres, I really do.
The fact is, I think Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets had a lot to do with it. I don’t think it’s a book that the readers give much of a s*** about, but the professionals might. And there’s usually a big remove between what the professionals like and what the audience likes.
I think Jason [Aaron] is doing amazing work on Scalped—I think it’s just a fantastic book. I really love what Ed [Brubaker] is doing on Criminal with Sean [Phillips]—again, amazing stuff. These are comics that I read. I like the crime stuff.
I’m not much of a pulp guy—I know that sounds strange, but I don’t really give much of a s*** about the private eyes and the molls and dames and all that crap. I’ve never been able to read Mickey Spillane, for example, and I know that puts me at a remove from my fellows. You know, most of the stuff I read, I read a lot of the contemporary guys. I’m always interested in being recommended other guys to read.
Long answer for a quick question.
Geek: What’s the appeal of the genre for you?
HC: From an illustrator’s perspective, I like drawing real things in the real world. When I was a kid, I loved the fantastical. You know, I think I made a reference [to it when] I wrote the introduction to the volume of Rip Kirby books that’s coming from IDW for the Library of American Comics. And as I kid really obsessed with Alex Raymond’s fantastical stuff and as an older guy I look to Kirby with awe. I like that stuff, I love the journalistic quality of the material. Real guns, real cars, real people, in real clothes—just not making s*** up off the top of my head. I really like that reflection of “observed reality.”
I think Jeffrey O’Brien coined that phrase to describe—I’m paraphrasing here—but O’Brien said that, “Crime fiction was just as fantastical as science fiction, but that was based on an observed reality.” That observed reality appeal to me the most, I really like that.
And I don’t watch much action/adventure, sf hitting stuff, on TV—I get that in the movies and books. Most of the stuff I watch on television is more soapy drama. The stuff I read—I read Stephen Hunter, Lee Childs, Thomas Perry, Dennis Lehane, George Pellicanos—the great contemporary guys.
Geek: The conventional wisdom is that anthologies struggle in the industry. What do you think the publishers need to do to get these anthologies into the hands of the audience?
HC: I don’t have a clue. I mean, I have absolutely no idea about how to sell comic books to an audience. I’m in the waning sunset days of my career—I’ve been doing this for nearly 40 years. And when people ask me how to get into the comic book business, I’m like “What the f***? I haven’t got a clue!” I don’t know what anyone wants or how. I simply know what I deliver and when Mike asked me about doing a serial, I jumped because it was an opportunity to do something I really loved doing. It’s realistically-drawn, straight stuff.
It’s not to say that I don’t enjoy doing the other stuff, I mean right now I seem to be the go-to guy at Marvel for period material. Everything I’ve got lined up for Marvel right now is period-based. And to the guys at DC I still live in the 1970s. So, I’m stuck in a barrel there—I do what I can.
At this point, I’m simply interested in holding onto my career as long as I’m floating. That may sound banal and arch and glib, but it’s true.
But when Mike asked me to do this for DHP I was delighted he was coming back with it. I have no clue who’s going to be buying this book, and I’m hoping to Christ someone does.
Geek: Well, what’s your dream project?
HC: I have no dream project. I have a whole bunch of s*** in my book that I’d love to do; I’ve got a period crime piece that I’d like to do. I’ve got a Western to do about Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show that I’d really kill to do—stuff like that. You know, a couple of autobiographical pieces that no one cares about or would even be vaguely interested in reading.
You know, my dream project is sitting on my fat a**, eating pepperoni and being paid for it.
Geek: What that we could all find that job.
HC: No s***!
Geek: In a recent interview about DHP and Marked Man you mentioned that you loved solving the problem of a short serial like this.
HC: It’s a different structure, yes.
Geek: What is it about this format—how do you approach breaking the story over an eight-installment structure?
HC: One of the things I learned from working in television is the servicing of character and the servicing of narrative. You can’t have characters that are important to the story disappear. You have to basically service the elements of your story. And when you’re doing them in eight-page increments you’re dealing with a different kind of narrative pattern than say 22 or 96-page graphic novel or whatever. In eight-page chunks, you’re addressing and servicing characters in short pieces. It’s just another way of thinking about it.
You have to come up with reasonable endings—I mean, I don’t believe we have to deal with these things in terms of cliffhangers with that “dun dun dun!” kind of nonsense, because I think if you [as a reader] are in for a penny, you’re in for a pound. I mean, for example, there’s action in the first episode of this thing but not much action in the second. It’s more a matter of telling a specific story and maintaining character.
I also don’t think we’re dealing with the kind of narrative structure that we were dealing with when I got into the comic book business which [was] a fight scene every four pages—things are different now, you’re selling to a different audience.
So I think it’s a matter of my taking those eight-page chunks and figuring out the most effective way to lay out the information. And it worked out pretty well, I’m pretty happy with it.
I mean, I structure stories in comics the same way I did in television: I work in index cards with each card representing a unit. In the context of comics, the unit is a page. You know, this is what I’ll be teaching at Marvel in two weeks. When I go by the seminars at Marvel, my job is to talk about graphic design in the service of narrative, because that’s really what comics are.
And as a guy who considers himself a cartoonist, as opposed to a comic book artist or writer—because I do both jobs—I’m pretty lucky in that I understand how much of the writing of a comic book is done by the artist. The delivery of character and the delivery of nuance and ambience.
And [Marked Man] takes place in California. It takes place as far north as San Francisco to as far south as Dana Point—actually San Diego. And one of the things I wanted to make clear was that the geography worked—why is this guy driving, how long does it take from here to there, that sort of thing. And what it’s like to be on the freeway in Los Angeles at rush hour and commit a crime—how that works.
Weird answer to a shorter question.
Geek: Who do you feel is really doing the knockout work in the industry right now?
HC: Eduardo Risso remains just an absolutely astonishing talent—kicks my a***. I look at his stuff and I’m in awe. Lenil Yu—I’m in love with this guy’s stuff, it’s fantastic. I love what Jason is doing on Scalped, as I said. I like that John Paul Leon guy—I’ve been trying to get something working with him for quite some time. And of course, Dave Johnson, who is, I think the best comic book artist in the business. I told Dave about a year ago that I wished that I had the time, energy, and money to indenture myself to him for a year to learn his craft. He’s just that good.
Geek: Is there anything you’d like to say to the fans before we go?
HC: Just buy the book, love me, and pay no attention to my personality, just go for my principles.