“It’s my most personal work, my favorite work, and of course, nobody really responded to it
- Howard Chaykin, on Time2
, in an interview from Comic Book Artist
Vol. 2 No. 5, conducted by Jon B. Cooke.
It’s almost comforting to read something like that, to know that writer/artist Howard Chaykin was more than capable of experiencing audience indifference, even in 1986, a time perhaps just past the very height of his influence and power. Chaykin’s tenure as writer/artist on what will probably forever remain his signature book, American Flagg!
, had apparently ended in 1985; it was time for the follow-up, the next grand project from the late First Comics, home of Flagg!, and solace can be taken in the fact that Time2
didn’t quite register, even at the time of its release.
Certainly today Chaykin’s presence in the comics world is less pronounced; granted, we’re currently enjoying a Direct Market where even popular, vocal, prolific name creators like Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis can barely crack 20,000 to 25,000 copies sold of books that don’t involve pre-established superhero franchise characters, but Chaykin’s similarly non-superhero, non-established City of Tomorrow!
moved a scant 9,501 copies of its fourth issue, with little evident prospects as to a bump in circulation to follow. It wasn’t the
lowest-selling non-kids book released in the month of July by a DC-owned entity (it did outsell The Intimates
, for example), but such numbers can’t help but bring a fan’s spirits down.
Thus, it’s perhaps valuable to examine both of these works, the grand follow-up of days past and the recent output; both of them failed to connect in a large way with audiences, and both speak of where their creator stood at the time of each release. The earlier work in particular provides an interesting window into Chaykin’s peculiar imagination. A window with the glass smashed out, and the breeze blowing right in.Time2
Time2 is a hugely
self-indulgent work; that much needs to be disclosed immediately. Chaykin’s design instincts run wild throughout the project’s abridged length; it’s nipped and tucked to the very hilt, perfectly coiffed. In terms of its creator’s interests and obsessions, it’s practically a catalog, sci-fi rubbing against jazz up next to gangsters milling around supernatural forces connected to politics joined at the hip with religion and clad in the most styling fashions of the first half of the 20th century, with lights and pretty girls everywhere, and not a few dark secrets for the heroes to uncover beneath the shimmering surface of society.
And while many of these elements are present and accounted for in Flagg! itself, one at least gets the feeling that the focus was always on adventure and laughs in that one. I can’t quite say the same for Time2, which more often than not feels like an exercise in extended free-associative linkings of Chaykin’s internal iconography. Maybe that's why it didn't do all that well with readers. Proper plots do eventually emerge, more or less, but they are immediately submerged beneath the sheer import of existing in Chaykin’s universe, a pure pop surface cityscape that somehow feels achingly personal, if only through the way its creator lavishes his attention upon it.
Time2 also eschewed the monthly pamphlet format, for the most part, presenting itself as a series of ad-free oversized original graphic novels of 48 pages each; anybody who’s familiar with Marvel’s old graphic novel line will instinctively grasp the dimensions Chaykin had to work with. Not that he had many chances to work; as it stands, only three publications relating to Time2 were published - a pamphlet-format American Flagg! Special
from 1986, Time2: The Epiphany
(aka: First Graphic Novel Number Eight
) from the same year, and 1987’s Time2: The Satisfaction of Black Mariah
. None of these publications have ever been collected; you’ll just have to seek them out, and I’ll tell you up front that crazy Chaykin fans will definitely
want to seek them out. I think Amazon’s used book sellers have a few of them, and they might show up on eBay occasionally. As the focus of these books seems to wax and wane with Chaykin’s own attention span, reacting to certain elements of his catalog of interest seemingly at will, it’ll be best to just examine each one of these things separately.American Flagg! Special #1
A little ways above, I mentioned that Chaykin’s work on Flagg! as a writer/artist had ‘apparently’ ended in 1985 (specifically with Flagg! #26); I had to qualify that statement because this
is technically Chaykin’s final issue-length Flagg! work as a writer and artist, although it’s really not a Flagg! book at all, but an example of that classic new series launch technique - have established, popular characters show up to ease the readers in. Thus, we have this pamphlet format slice of background-filling, even though the elements so carefully built up in this book will immediately retreat into the... well... background
after the proper Time2 series begins.
Reuben Flagg is trying to relax and enjoy the Fourth of July, when a strange figure in a Santa Clause suit up and kidnaps that ever-witty talking cat Raul. A ransom note leads Flagg to a weird manhole, which dumps him into a wintertime urban sprawl, a place of seemingly permanent night, the world of Time2 (which, despite Blogger's and/or my own technical limitations as per webpage text presentation, is pronounced ‘Time Squared’ - I trust the obvious pun has not escaped any of you). I’d like to tell you what Flagg does next, but he doesn’t really do much of anything
; basically he walks around with a bunch of characters and observes things, acclimating the reader with the new universe they and Flagg have tumbled down the rabbit (man)hole into. It’s common knowledge that Chaykin’s lead characters resemble their creator in many ways, physically, politically, etc; here, though Flagg acts as a pretty explicit reader
surrogate, and why shouldn’t he? Time2 has its own
Chaykin-image hero, who doesn’t even show up in this introductory tome; two, perhaps, would be too much.
Elsewhere in that interview I quoted above, Chaykin concedes that Time2 can get “difficult to read
,” and though I suspect that Chaykin was referring to the design-heavy presentation of the later graphic novels, he might as well be talking about the sheer number of characters and concepts introduced in this slim introductory pamphlet. There’s no less than ten
major characters introduced here, their influence crisscrossing the urban sprawl and likely mandating copious re-readings of the material. There’s Fabio DaSilva, the semi-senile patriarch of the eponymous organized crime family that runs the place, and also the host body for The Splendor, an immense (and immensely indistinct) magical force that maintains the clan’s dominance. There’s his relations, domineering Aunt Rose, her sleazy lawyer brother Miskeit, and her sons Azriel and Dani, who also happen to be the ones who catnapped Raul as a means of obtaining information on former jazz great Cosmo Jacobi, at the behest of Shalimar Hussy, Jacobi’s femme-fatale fiancée (and a typical Chaykin ‘evil blond’ character design). But Jacobi himself suspects the subterfuge, and has sent his men, Major Domo and Double Decker, to recruit Flagg, all of them staying one step ahead of Inspector MacHoot, a Celtic bog demon who’s also the city’s top crime fighter, at least when he’s not cutting deals on the side with the DaSilvas.
Needless to say, there’s hardly any
room for Flagg himself to maneuver; the plot pretty much resolves itself with the elder DaSilva croaking (partially through the machinations of Ms. Hussy) and The Splendor inhabiting Aunt Rose, who immediately calls an end to the family’s trade in robot sex and orchestrates Flagg’s return to his own world. I haven’t mentioned the devoidoids (sex robots), have I? That’s ok, I didn’t mention the religious zombie (as in literally undead) shock troopers of the Final Salvation Army or the omnipresence of the R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) Corporation either, and they’re all present too. It’s really almost too much to take in, and Chaykin seems to realize it; often the book’s backgrounds are composed of nothing but free-floating signs and slogans, a mosaic of typography (much credit must go to regular Chaykin letterer Ken Bruzenak, who works on all of the Time2 material), leaving the characters stranded in a labyrinth of fun places to go. Use that as a metaphor for the act of reading this thing, and maybe you’ve got something. It’s worth noting that Flagg seems just as confused leaving the city as he did entering it.
Like I mentioned before, so
much of this stuff is sheer background, perhaps because Chaykin never really got much of a chance to expand on all the ideas he fired out. We’ll never hear more about The Splendor, the Final Salvation Army will pretty much vanish, and a lot of the most vital plot information will simply be reiterated in the first proper graphic novel. But in a ‘casting down the gauntlet’ sense, kicking his Flagg! readership into a new universe head-first, there’s something to be said for this convoluted little prologue. The fact that it simultaneously acts as the end of an era for the popular Flagg! and the beginning of the troubled road for the next new thing - well, for fans, maybe the history of it all is too much to resist.Time2: The Epiphany (First Graphic Novel Number Eight)
This one, the first ‘real’ Time2 story, released shortly after the Flagg! Special, is subtitled ‘a fairy tale of the under city.’ Calling it a ‘fairy tale’ sort of implies that there’ll be a moral, and there’s not much of one on display here. But I will
call this book a minor masterpiece of pure design, unfettered world-building, and careening, conversation-happy pacing. You know you’re in for a visual treat from the title page, mixing the typical corporate credits and legal indicia into something of a jukebox design, though the song selections are actually channels of a radio being cycled through rapidly, the final selection segueing directly into the beginning of the story itself.
And if the American Flagg! Special was somewhat stuffed with information, this book is forty-eight pages of sheer glorious overload, yet so carefully mounted and executed that you'll hardly feel lost, mixed narrations cascading across the page in color-coded captions, sound effects carefully positioned for maximum visual impact, and panels constantly breaking down into smaller boxes to slow crucial movements. The passing of off-screen characters is signified by thick horizontal waves of white word balloons, a jazz saxophonist causes tight, jagged cuts of white notes to issue from his horn, and newscrawls snake their way through the still logo-tight backgrounds. The narrative never settles on one subject for too long; we’re constantly whisked across town, from scene to scene, locale to locale, new characters, some unnamed and minor, some crucial, constantly providing new story info, sometimes indirectly.
The plot, as best as it can be summarized, centers on the aforementioned Cosmo Jacobi, who has apparently committed suicide whilst intestate, leaving Ms. Hussy the secret shares of R.U.R. stock that she learned about back in the Flagg! Special. We blast our way through the clubs and boardrooms and penthouses of Time2, getting introduced to Mr. Kung, a mysterious executive of R.U.R., and crusading reporter Pansy Matthias, and finally our typical Chaykinesque hero-type, Maxim Glory, who loved Pansy but years ago disappeared to a place called Sanctuary with a woman named Felicia to escape the DaSilva clan, and is only returning years later as executor of Jacobi’s estate, armed with a secret will, which naturally puts Ms. Hussy’s plans in jeopardy. He’s a changed man, but don’t get too
excited - we’ll never find out what any of it all means, or who Felicia was, or where Glory went to. Just take it as a boilerplate heroic origin, and it’ll do. Another sign in the background. You don't need
all the answers.
But a mere plot description doesn’t at all do justice to the immense feeling
that you get from this book. Maybe it’s Steve Oliff’s rich, painterly colors, or Chaykin’s adamant refusal to slow the hell down for two seconds, but this is a uniquely immersive
experience, with tons of little details to ponder. For instance, how does the obviously Jewish DaSilva clan relate to the oddly militaristic theocratic atmosphere that permiates the streets? Is The Splendor really the power of the old traditions, the old cultures, the immigrant ways, coursing through a command of the city, the streets? There’s a lot of street traffic in here, like a crazed devoidoid-hating screwdriver slasher, star of his own little subplot involving a pungent anti-robot talk radio personality and a shape-shifting demon hired by the DaSilvas at the request of the Robo-Zomboid B’nai Brith, which appears once and is never mentioned again. This particular melodrama eventually crashes into the main plotline as Glory faces off with a spurned suitor of Ms. Hussy’s, desperate to prove himself a man. And what about the wordplay? Deja-Voodoo. Reincarnimation. A newspaper called the Post Modern (*groan
*). All pieces of a puzzle.
And all of it relates to something, to Chaykin. It’s his internal bibliography - you can tell. Ripped from his mind and splashed across the page in as attractive a fashion as he can, this book resounds with nothing more potent than the joy of a creator who knows that he’s now in a successful enough position that he can do damn near anything he wants. And he does. Had Chaykin’s visual acumen not been so engorged, this could have been an intolerable work. As it is, it’s a gently dizzy, but eminently coherent statement of interest, if not purpose. It tells a story, or at least the beginning of one, but it’s about more than storytelling.
This might be why this book should only be recommended to experienced Chaykin fans (beyond the fact that it’s long out-of-print and you’ll have to do some hunting for it): it’s too thick
. You’ve got to know
the creator before you can dig this material. And even then, there’s more layers. Chaykin spoke in that same above interview about how the work was intended as “a magic realist-fantasy fiction version of my life
.” Aunt Rose is apparently based on his mother, and Azriel and Dani on his brothers, whom he was estranged from for a while. And while I didn’t catch any revelations in the work itself as to Max Glory being a blood relation to the DaSilvas, well, wouldn’t it make sense? It’s just another line of typography prancing amidst the billboards and neon of the square.Time2: The Satisfaction of Black Mariah
The second, and ultimately final Time2 book, released the following year, 1987. It’s subtitled ‘A charm to soothe the savage beast,’ and this one’s a bit more apt. It’s a ‘charm,’ certainly, a bit of oddness and whimsy, and less substantial than its immediate predecessor. It does manage to be far more direct, which is perhaps the problem. There’s less a sense of getting lost in Chaykin’s city of personality, a lack of absorption. It’s still beautifully presented, a bravura jazz sequence in particular showing off Chaykin’s page layout chops, but there’s just less to do in town this time.
Basically, the DaSilva brothers get into trouble when a demonic prostitute of theirs infects her john with evil power. Inspector MacHoot, no stranger to demonic power himself, winds up getting bathed in infernal pus, which puts him into a deep slumber. Shortly thereafter, a mystery devoidoid begins terrorizing the city, sexing citizens unto the threshold of death. Glory is quickly on the case, which leads him to the dirty secret of the R.U.R. Corporation: a Very Important Lever called the Oversoul, that controls the desires of all robots - Glory intends to use it to trigger an all-robot sex event called the Mass Conk, in a desperate bid to satisfy the mystery devoidoid, Black Mariah. However, such an implicit admission of the lack of robot free will shall doubtlessly set back the interests of those who demand devoidoid suffrage. And despite all of this high-minded talk of individual freedom and ghosts in the machine, the resolution (and the connection to Inspector MacHoot) proves to be remarkably silly, even in the context of this particular universe. But hey, it does lead into a last-second oral sex sequence, another mandatory Chaykin interest slipped in under the wire.
It’s at this point where you have to wonder where the future might have taken this material. Even at its somewhat constricted scope, this book expands nicely on ideas fronted in the prior volume. I wonder if this one was meant as something of a lighter tome, a breather on the way to the next big dip into the fantastic urban ocean. It’s not as kaleidoscopic a work, but maybe, if planned as a lengthy series of graphic novels, certain zones of rest would be necessary to maintain the flow of the total experience. I don’t know. Whatever the intent, this was the final Time2 book, with much left unresolved.
And perhaps now it can never
be resolved. As Chaykin has said in regards to continuing the work, “I’m a different person, and that was the way I felt at the time
.” Very true. Indeed, that’s the real appeal of Time2; not its story as much as its state of being. Rarely in comics has a creator’s secret library of influences been projected so thoroughly to his readership, under the auspices of a mainstream comics series. One can believe that Chaykin wanted everything
for this series, he wanted all
of himself to go into it, tiny imprints of DNA on each and every disparate entertainment element. And it can stand today as a living record of the person who let it all loose.City of Tomorrow! #1-6 (of 6)
But who is Chaykin today? He once referred to Time2 as “the underworld of the city of tomorrow as visualized in the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair
.” And look at that - his latest, just recently completed work is even titled
City of Tomorrow! It also deals with the sex trade among robots, and gangsters in period style, and a Chaykinesque hero returning from a world far away to a specific, garish place from his past. The surface similarities are really quite striking (granted, there’s also similarities to other past Chaykin works, Flagg! foremost among them).
But City of Tomorrow! cannot afford to be as fevered and pinball-rolling in its vision; this is no lavish graphic novel series from a man fresh off a major hit, it’s a built-for-thrills Wildstorm miniseries, serving up action and politics in an eminently straightforward manner. Which isn’t to say there aren’t pleasures; while restrained in design flourish (even compared to the series’ immediate predecessor, Chaykin’s sly, gorgeously-composed, largely underappreciated satiric revamp of that old DCU property, Challengers of the Unknown
) there’s still some great visuals, like a gorgeously stylized suicide bombing at the top of issue #1. That first issue in general might temporarily fool the reader into expecting a little bit more, with its time-jumping display of hero Tucker Foyle’s boyhood-as-television-advertisement past contrasted with his ludicrously macho present-day adventures as a cynically content tool of corrupt government interests. But when he’s betrayed by his military masters in the process of planting WMDs in A Certain Desert Nation, he returns home to his Walt Disney-as-mad-scientist father’s robot-loaded closed-off perfect American community, which has unfortunately experienced a nasty virus, freeing the automaton workforce from the boundaries of morality. Gangs and drugs and sex now control the streets, and Tucker’s quest becomes unfortunately one-track.
The most entertaining moments of this series after that slam-bang introduction all come courtesy of Chaykin’s typically rueful glimpses at current politics; naturally, the White House has taken a special interest in that titular city. The rest of it is pretty by-the-numbers, which Tucker falling for a sassy robot chick and discovering that maybe robot morality is kind of overrated. He runs afoul of gangs (amusingly, many of their goons are humans lured in via the robot sex trade), and many a shot is fired. Even the seemingly arbitrary final issue semi-twist sort of makes sense: go back to issue #1, and note how all of Tucker’s happy childhood memories are presented as advertisements - now think about what exactly is being sold, if only implicitly. The only serious downside (and its not too
serious) is Chaykin’s decision to leave some half-hearted room open for a sequel, which probably isn’t going to happen with these sales numbers.
But other than that, it’s a perfectly serviceable action thing, good-looking and reasonably witty, if a bit familiar. It suffers most seriously only when it’s compared directly to the earlier works it evokes. As I mentioned earlier, the time was no longer ripe for something like Time2 to reappear, but you can’t help but look at the depth and sweep of that earlier series, and see City of Tomorrow! as evidence of constraint. Chaykin’s is a bibliography that overflows with personality; it’s impossible to mistake his art for anyone else’s, and his strata of interests is highly individual, and highly specialized. Most of his works reveal pieces of him.
But it takes a sprawling, ill-fated thing like Time2 to turn the puzzle box upside-down, scattering all of the pieces everywhere. And putting them together is almost beside the point. It's enough to gaze into the jumbled mess, and find your own pictures forming in the back of your head.