Emanata: Howard Chaykin, Time and Time Again

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In a 1987 conversation with Kim Thompson, the exceptional cartoonist Howard Chaykin declared that he wanted to get out of comics: “I would like very much to stop drawing, because I don’t do it out of love, I do it out of labor. I don’t want to continue making my living from motor skills.”

He did eventually get out, if only for a few years; he spent some time working in TV, then returned to comics–mostly the mainstream kind, where he’d never quite fit in before. But Chaykin likes to claim that he’s never particularly fit in anywhere. The new book Howard Chaykin: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi) begins with a fanzine interview by a very young Dave Sim in 1975, and proceeds chronologically through Chaykin’s career, ending with a long interview by the book’s editor Brannon Costello; one point Chaykin hits over and over is that he’s committed to entertainment and craft as principles, but feels detached from and dissatisfied with almost all the new comics he sees.

So it’s a bit surprising that he’s not only back on the motor-skills treadmill, he’s been incredibly productive lately. Chaykin’s drawn half of each issue of New Avengers for the past few months (a flashback to 1959, involving Nick Fury). He wrote and drew a story in Captain America #616 a couple of weeks ago (a flashback to the World War II era, in which Cap poses for one “Kerwin Stockwell,” i.e. Norman Rockwell); he drew a one-page J. Jonah Jameson item in Fear Itself: The Home Front #1; he’s drawn a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents sequence (another flashback), a Batman/Catwoman one-shot called Follow the Money that came out a few months back, a Deadpool story, some G.I. Joe material (pictured above), a Rawhide Kid miniseries. Next week’s Justice Society of America includes a Chaykin-drawn sequence that I’m guessing is going to be a ’50s-era flashback.

(More on TIME.com: The Comic Book Club: Deadpool and Daredevil: Black & White)

This week’s comics actually include two pieces from Chaykin. Dark Horse Presents #1 includes the first chapter of Marked Man, a crime story Chaykin’s apparently been mulling over for 15 years. (It actually appears to be set in the present day, or close enough to it that men don’t wear hats.) And this week’s Invincible Iron Man #503 includes a little eight-page backup story–set sometime during the era in which men wore suits, how’d you guess–written by Matt Fraction in a convincing impression of Chaykin’s vintage style, up to and including a preponderance of panels whose dialogue breaks off mid-sentence. “Right now I seem to be the go-to guy at Marvel for period material,” Chaykin noted in a February interview. “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.”

To be fair, Chaykin’s better at evoking the real-world past than nearly anyone else working in mainstream comics, far beyond the men in suits and women in bustiers he tends to be called on to draw. He’s got a comprehensive knowledge of a whole lot of kinds of art made between the ’20s through the ’70s or so, along with the conviction that the older stuff is generally better, and he understands how art and fashion and design connect to the broader cultural and political landscape. His most fondly remembered series, the mid-’80s lightning bolt American Flagg!, extrapolated that into science fiction: it imagined the future as a nonstop, uncontrollable, uncontrolled barrage of media chatter, advertising and fake outrage. It was distinctly ahead of its time, but it eventually fell out of the wider conversation about comics, in part because it disappeared from print for many years. (A collection of the first dozen issues finally staggered back into print in 2008.) Chaykin offers a particularly bitter sound bite about Flagg in a 1994 interview in Conversations: “It gave an enormous number of second degree talents a lot of material to pick over and use in various contexts.”

(More on TIME.com: The Comic Book Club: Dark Horse Presents and Hate Annual)

Chaykin’s ’80s comics are the work of an artist pushing himself savagely hard–especially Time2, an ambitious, densely packed 1986-1987 project that encompassed a one-shot comic book and a pair of slim graphic novels before vanishing. His more recent comics are much more relaxed, and visually more of a piece: lots of Photoshop effects, shading and backgrounds with non-black line colors, little inset panels with close-ups of facial expressions.

But it’s also not hard to tell when Chaykin’s heart is in what he’s doing and when he’s just maintaining his rep for hitting his deadlines. On one page of his recent Captain America story, Cap and a redhead are walking through a city. The cars and suits and buildings and her hairdo are all clearly drawn from reference–Chaykin’s always been good about getting that stuff right. Over the course of the page’s four large panels, though, the two main characters in the scene appear in two poses, slapped onto alternating backgrounds like they were Colorforms. They don’t really seem to be in the space they’re inhabiting, they’re just on top of it: verisimilitude betrayed by a lazy shortcut.

There’s an interview with Chaykin from 2008 that’s not in Conversations, in which he says he’s proudest of the Time2 books: “I did them in utter acts of arrogance and hubris because I should have recognized at the time that my obsessions and interests weren’t shared by the audience. I wish there was a way to make them a more commercial property, but that seems irrelevant now.” That might be the case, but what makes them meaningful–and makes them hold up better over time than a lot of Chaykin’s work–is that his obsessions and interests bring his art to life, and that he doesn’t let concerns of whether or not that makes for “a commercial property” get in the way of letting them function as entertainment.