Written by Bryan Stroud
Howard Victor Chaykin (born October 7, 1950) is an American comic book artist and writer best known for his American Flagg and Black Kiss comic series. Chaykin was first introduced to comics by his cousin, who gave him a refrigerator box filled with them. After high school, Howard hitchhiked around the country before (at age 19) becoming an assistant to comic artist Gil Kane.
In 1970 he began publishing his art in comics and science-fiction fanzines, and (leaving Kane) started work as an assistant to Wally Wood. In 1972 Chaykin began working with Neal Adams, a move that would lead to his first work at DC Comics.
Howard found steady work with the "Big Two" throughout the seventies, working on projects like the first Star Wars comic adaptation for Marvel or penciling World of Krypton (1979) - the first-ever DC Comics mini-series. In 1983, First Comics launched the American Flagg! series with Chaykin as both writer and artist. The series was successful for First and proved a highly influential mix of Chaykin's ideas and interests — jazz, pulp adventure, science fiction and sex. In 1988, Howard created perhaps his most controversial title: Black Kiss. The 12-issue series (published by Vortex Comics) contained his most explicit depictions of sex and violence, matching a story of sex-obsessed vampires in Hollywood.
Mr. Chaykin's distinct straight-to-inks style set his work apart from that of his contemporaries and through the years he worked on comics from just about every major publisher. He continues his comics career to this day and recently wrote & drew the War Is Hell (2019) one-shot for Marvel Comics.
I got to meet Howard at the Denver Con a few years ago and we chatted for a little bit and I bought a piece of original art from him. I also asked if he'd consider being interviewed and he agreed, giving me his card, an elegant little thing with his e-mail and phone numbers, which I thought was a nice touch. So, I called him up, thinking I'd learn a lot about his time at Continuity, but he explained he wasn't really part of the group - just a guy who would come around to the studio from time to time. Still, we had an enjoyable chat and I look forward to seeing him again.
This interview originally took place over the phone on June 5, 2015.
Bryan Stroud: What led you to Continuity in the first place, Howard?
Howard Chaykin: I didn’t work there. I’d been Neal’s assistant before the studio was open. Many of us had spent time in his office, but I’d never worked for Continuity. For me, Continuity was a place to spend some time before I got on the train to go home to Queens. So if that’s the extent of our relationship, good talking to you. Goodbye.
Chaykin: The fact is, I never had studio space up there, I don’t think I ever did a lick of work in that office, but I was there, almost every day, while I was living in Queens. I’d stick around there and I’d go have drinks with Sergio (Aragones) or Gray (Morrow) or (Alan) Weiss or one of the other guys and kill a little time before I had to get on the train to head back to Queens, but after I moved there was no point in going, so I stopped.
Stroud: Okay. I’d heard before that it began more or less as a hangout because Continuity was located sort of between the Big Two office buildings.
Chaykin: Neal (Adams) and Dick (Giordano) opened Continuity as a place to work and also to have an actual, serious company, which was a really good idea. In retrospect, I think what they were trying to do, consciously or not, was to recreate something like Johnstone & Cushing, a company that used comic strips for advertising back in the 40s and 50s. To a great extent, Neal introduced a lot of the Johnstone & Cushing techniques to comic books. Lou Fine was there and I’m pretty sure the Mr. Coffee stuff that Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff collaborated on were produced for Johnstone & Cushing. I think Neal was looking to recreate that same sensibility. And of course they did enormous amounts of board work. Just endless storyboard stuff.
Stroud: That sounds consistent with some of the other stories I’ve heard. Even though a lot of comic work was cranked out, advertising was the bread and butter.
Chaykin: Pretty much - and you must understand that in those days, comics pay was just awful. Anybody with any skill sets would go out and some would try to become painters while others (like me) who had studied with Neal, turned to storyboards. I loved doing this sort of stuff for him because he was a terrific board man.
I did work for him on storyboards, then I went out and did my own stuff with a partner and on my own as well. Before everything went digital, these jobs were a very nice way to generate some income. Any way you could make between $150.00 and $200.00 a day back in the 70s was really good money.
Stroud: Sure, and the cost of living wasn’t what it is today, either.
Chaykin: No, not at all and I had a good time doing the work. I did a lot of storyboarding and enjoyed the process. It was interesting too to watch what they got right and what they got wrong.
Stroud: That is precisely what Joe Barney was telling me or perhaps it was Steve Mitchell. They said that if you wanted a real insight as to what it was like, go catch a few episodes of Mad Men. It was very, very close.
Chaykin: Very much. It really had that kind of sensibility. The only difference is that in the real world guys like Pete Campbell had hair down to their shoulders like Sonny Bono. The freak look was much more prevalent in advertising than the way the show portrayed it.
Stroud: Based on a few of the photos that Larry Hama and some others have shared, I can see exactly what you’re talking about.
Chaykin: No question.
Stroud: Even Walt Simonson was practically unrecognizable in a couple of those shots.
Chaykin: We were all long-haired freaks at the time.
Stroud: All in all, how long would you say you spent time up there with Neal and company?
Chaykin: Like I said, I never worked there, but during the first two years of its existence I was there frequently. It was just a place to screw around at the end of the working day.
Stroud: Did anyone serve as a mentor or was there someone you learned something from?
Chaykin: Well, of course I worked for Neal directly. I was his assistant in the days before Continuity and it was a good thing. I learned a great deal. I don’t see much of him now, but to tell you the truth he’s one of the five most influential men in my life.
Stroud: I’m assuming the others would be Gil Kane and Woody and…
Chaykin: Gray Morrow and Joe Orlando. Joe was my rabbi at DC my first couple of years in helping me to learn how to work with a corporate client.
Stroud: I’ve heard so many good stories about Joe.
Chaykin: He was one of the best guys ever. Just an absolute prince. A true great man in the business. An unacknowledged giant. What a great guy.
Stroud: Absolutely. Tony DeZuniga couldn’t say enough good about him.
Chaykin: Joe was Tony’s primary contact up there, so that’s right.
Stroud: Someone else was telling me he had a real gift for showing you how to do a layout without making you feel like an idiot.
Chaykin: Joe was a prince. He was also really funny. Just one of the great guys.
Stroud: Another person I enjoyed very much was Nick Cardy.
Chaykin: Nick was one of my favorite artists. A really talented guy that no one seems to remember.
Stroud: He did tell me that when he was working, he felt like he never got a pat on the back from some of the editors he did work for.
Chaykin: Whenever Alex Toth described the way he was treated by Sheldon Mayer it sounded like abuse. I never understood how these guys could continue to function treated that way. There seemed to be this measure of contempt from editorial. I ended up moving to California because I was never going to make enough money in comics to support my lifestyle. I’m grateful for that because if I’d stayed in New York I would have had to work in editorial and I’d be very difficult to work for. I’m not a very nice person. I’m not particularly interested in people’s feelings, but I’m not abusive. I believe that a lot of these guys were abusive.
I’ve heard the stories from some of these older guys and it sounds like it was just awful.
By the way I’m sorry I can’t be much help to you on the Continuity stuff, but it really wasn’t a big part of my life. Again, I was Neal’s assistant before the studio and when Neal opened the shop he had (Alan) Kupperberg and (Steve) Mitchell. Alan and Steve knew each other from high school. They were among the very first along with Larry (Hama), me, Ralph (Reese). These were the guys who were in comics at our age.
Stroud: Not to mention a few Detroit imports like Greg Theakston.
Chaykin: Right, but Rich Buckler was in that Detroit crew first. These were the guys from out of town who became New York émigré’s. So anyway, Neal had Alan and Steve working for him in those days. I hung around more than anything else.
There was a great bookstore downstairs called Scribner’s and a saloon called Nemo’s, which was a great place to pick up stewardesses. There was a coffee shop called Kenby’s where we ate and hung around. That block is now gone, replaced by corporate high-rises.
Back then 48th street was filled with the 5-story office buildings that were so prevalent in New York from the end of the 20th century. A lot of them were remade in condominiums.
Stroud: It seems a lot of your peers spent time with Wally Wood. Did he just have a rotating cast of assistants?
Chaykin: I was there, Larry and Ralph preceded me. There was also John Darryl Smith, a guy who got out of comics early and is now an antique weapons designer in Boston. He was there very briefly. Kupperberg was there for a while as well. Paul Kirchner, too.
These days I live in a small town outside Los Angeles, so I’m not really in the loop. In fact at this stage, my career is functionally done because the commercial stuff has reached a point where I’m too old school for this shit. I can live with that. I’ve done enough.
Stroud: You’ve had a pretty long career…
Chaykin: That’s true, but I speak a language that contemporary comic books don’t understand or care about. One thing in particular that has happened to comic books in general with the diminution of narrative is that the concept of actual consistent continuity seems to be fading. You take a television show like Glee, a series filled with contradictions and that sort of narrative inconsistency has spilled over into comics where a specific continuity, which should be a valid form of narrative, is no longer being used.
Stroud: Well here we are in the age of texting and tweeting and I sometimes think that attention spans have diminished.
Chaykin: I think you’re mistaking that for stupidity and willful ignorance.
Chaykin: But I sometimes sound like the cranky old man in the corner. It wasn’t really different when I was a kid. It just seems different.
Stroud: You’re a quadruple threat, Howard, between penciling, inking, scripting and painting.
Chaykin: I don’t paint anymore and there’s no difference between penciling and inking for me because I draw in ink. I never learned how to ink the way comic book inkers ink and it kept me out of the big time for a long time until I realized it wasn’t necessary. I could find a stream to lead right to finished artwork. It didn’t necessarily look like anyone else’s work and that was an eye-opening experience for me and a very valid one.
I spent a lot of time just trying to turn my liabilities into assets. I suck in a lot of ways and I’ve had to learn how not to suck. So learning how not to suck has been a very valuable lesson.
Stroud: What can you tell me about being Gil Kane’s assistant?
Chaykin: I met Gil when I was thirteen. He was one of my heroes as a cartoonist and later I got word through the grapevine that his assistant had died, so I got in contact and became his assistant around the age of 18. He was one of the most influential men in my life. He was a liar a cheat and a thief in many ways, but I learned a great deal from him about how to do what I do.
All too often I open my mouth to speak these days and I feel I can hear Gil speaking from beyond the grave. Some of the things that he believed in and talked about inculcated themselves into my beliefs as well. He was a hugely influential figure and I’m glad I got to be part of his memorial. As morose and moribund as most memorials are, the fact is he was great and fun to be with and yet a difficult piece of work. He was no walk in the park.
Stroud: Clem Robins told me that if he liked you, you had a lifetime relationship, but if he didn’t it was all over.
Chaykin: I couldn’t have put it better myself. Quite right.
Stroud: He also said he could never figure out the Kane/Toth feud.
Chaykin: Oh, I can help with that. Toth was a Jew-baiter, another only child of that generation. They knew each other from the time they were kids. They met when they were 14 or 15 and they hated each other from the minute they met. Gil, to his credit, was able to put aside his personal loathing for Alex to describe him as the greatest cartoonist of his generation.
Alex, on the other hand, was a miserable f*** who couldn’t see past his own prejudices and small-mindedness. I believe that Alex Toth was the finest cartoonist of his generation. He was insanely influential. But an absolutely impossible person. An unbearable guy. To describe him as difficult would be to diminish the meaning of difficult. He was just impossible, but again, an astonishing talent. His genius has taken my breath away at times. Yet for all that he was just a complete wreckage of a human being.
Stroud: To wrap things up, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Chaykin: I live a pretty boring life. I’m a movie-goer, a reader and I hang out with my wife. She is my boon companion and we travel quite a lot, which we enjoy.