Old Stuff From Today’s Stars Part 1 (of 3): CHAYKIN!

EDIT 4:52 PM: How could I go through my day forgetting LAST WEEK'S REVIEWS!!! Forgive me!

The Couriers 03: The Ballad of Johnny Funwrecker (new bonkers gore outing from AIT/Planet Lar; good shootings)

The Wiggly Reader #1-3, Petey & Pussy: The Strip Collection, Petey & Pussy #1 (a bunch of great stuff from the mighty John Kerschbaum, whose stuff you should check out)

The Intimates #4, Adam Strange #5 (of 8)

Blood Orange #4 (the last stand, a pretty decent one, for this scattershot Fantagraphics anthology)

Continue the lashings! Ah!

*HAHAHAHAHAAAAAA! It’s almost like a theme week here, only with breaks planned out for new comics reviews and regular features and all that.

So actually it’s not a theme week at all.

Just felt like a laugh I suppose.


Howard V. Chaykin is a very gifted artist whose work I have admired for years.”

- George Lucas, from his pull quote on the back of the paperback first edition of “Empire”.

“Empire” is a genuinely fascinating, near-forgotten artifact of comics past, in possession of messages from the comics future. It’s also a fairly decent book, above average, but truly exciting to the modern reader for what it anticipates.

For one thing, it’s an original graphic novel (an excerpt of which was previewed in an early issue of “Heavy Metal”), released in 1978 by Byron Preiss, written by literary sci-fi icon Samuel R. Delany with art by Howard Chaykin, fresh off of his work for Marvel on the comics version of “Star Wars”, a cultural force that exerts much influence over the proceedings here. But obvious influences aside (we’ll get to those soon enough), the packaging of the book, the sale and hype, it all radiates a desire to be taken Seriously, as a trailblazing work. “…his first new novel since ‘Triton’…” declares the back cover, in relation to the book’s writer. No qualifications. Just ‘novel’. And yet, Chaykin’s presence can’t be ignored: later in the same spread the hype corrects itself to dub the work “More than a novel, more than an illustrated story, ‘Empire’ is a dazzling display of new ideas.” The term ‘comics’ is never mentioned. Amusingly, Chaykin’s work on the “Star Wars” comic is dubbed a “graphic story version” of the film. To this campaign, ‘comics’ is like the name of Satan to superstitious village folk of the Dark Ages; we daren’t utter the accursed word, lest its foul magic manifest to damn us all. But that’s precisely what “Empire” is, a comic, and a weirdly precognitive one at that.

The book is oversized (about 12 by 9 inches). Very rarely are there more than three panels per page. Color and action sometimes bleed out into the gutters. Full-page splashes are used for moments of particular impact. Huge battles, massive sweep. Panels are either long and horizontal, or long and vertical. It’s ‘widescreen comics’. Two solid decades before the term was coined, granted, but that’s plainly what it is to the modern eye (curiously, publisher Preiss claims credit for devising the style in his Forward). The only real departure from any like-minded comic of today is the strange handling of the text. There’s no boxes or bubbles or balloons. Captions are written as short descriptive passages from a prose novel, sometimes containing characters’ thoughts, and occasionally describing things we can already see for ourselves. Dialogue is presented in much the same way, only with a thin line trailing from the prose to the speaking character for the sake of clarity. Often, the dialogue hides up in the panel gutters, as if to avoid the taint of looking like a (gah!) comic book by simply staying out of the contamination zone of the panel itself. There is a nervousness to being a comic, which is ironic considering how much the book otherwise resembles comics of today, more so than self-admitted comics of its own time.

The plot is pretty decent. Those expecting the longform comics equivalent of Delany’s “Dhalgren” will be awfully disappointed. It’s certainly not “Hogg” either; sex is kept to a PG-13 minimum (I guess that would be PG at the time though), confined to a scene of interracial lovemaking and the suggestion that the young ruler of a certain planet enjoys the physical favors of her own clones; wittily, this character is drawn by Chaykin as a doppelganger of Princess Leia, complete with buns on her royal temples. Delany would be far more sexually frank in his later comics outing, 1999’s “Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York”, with art by Mia Wolff. Here, it’s that Carrie Fisher hairdo that carries the day, as the need to hew close to the “Star Wars” style is a necessity, likely a key force behind the book having been greenlit (after all, we have “Star Wars“ illustrator extraordinaire Howard V. Chaykin at the helm). But Delany is a bit too clever for mere emulation in comics form. Sure, the plot is dead on formula: university student Wryn (bearing a striking resemblance to the illustrator himself, as coincidence would have it) is caught up in a rebellion against the wicked Kunduke Empire, teaming up with the lovely rebel leader Qrelon to confront the foul General Loiptix within his fortress cum ultimate weapon, his brooding, heavily armored enforcer Lord Akbrum at his side. Did I mention the psychic communication with a wizened figure with crucial ties to the Empire’s past? Stone cold knockoff, right? Even the title “Empire” screams out for comparison.

But Delany looks beyond the surface attention-grabbing element of the title and expends a bit of space wondering how exactly an Empire sustains itself. He arrives at the concept of information control as a probable answer. But it’s not just propaganda here, not just state-operated news sources and crackdowns on dissenting voices. Rather, Delany pushes the affair straight into the realm of political allegory by providing the titular sprawl with not a Death Star but a supercomputer homebase called Ice that uses obscure quantum physics to synthesize and freeze the information flow of indigenous cultures, physically binding them to the rhetoric and philosophy of the conquering civilization. Only a demon-shaped crystal of primary meta information, shattered into seven scattered pieces, each fragment representing one of the seven elementary catastrophe surfaces (the topographical representations of 'violent change'), can revolutionize the piss out of Ice and free the repressed forces of cultural diversity from the quantum grip of the Kunduke. This involves lots of questing around and fighting over pretty bits of crystal, with the reconstituted Item tossed into the proverbial fires of Mount Doom. It’s kicky pulp mania. Vintage forward-thinking sophisticated Mad Ideas in comics. Only introduced while Alan Moore was still working an office job with the Northampton gas board, Grant Morrison was illustrating his own scripts for “Near Myths”, and Warren Ellis was, er, 10.

And the story’s thrust can even be seen as a vision of the future for the book’s artist, Howard V. himself, who’d be no stranger to action and politics in short order. Those used to the tightly laid out panels and blocky lines that Chaykin is largely know for will be just as disappointed as those hopeful Delany fans, but they’ll be greeted with different, unexpected pleasures. Chaykin adapts quite marvelously to widescreen action, aided on the watercolor and marker hues by an uncredited Joe Jusko (according to Chaykin’s recent interview in “Comic Book Artist”). It’s a lush look, packed with perfect thin circles to mark off points of impact, flickers and speckles of light and glitter everywhere. There’s even some collage; Chaykin claims Baron Storey as an influence in his bio in the back, but I found the use of the technique to be reminiscent of Steranko too. Chaykin would next move on to a comics adaptation of “The Stars My Destination”, the Alfred Bester classic, also for Preiss. I’m itching to see it.

I hope I’m not overselling “Empire” as some grand lost masterwork of comics art. The story is interesting in its themes and smartly executed, but it really can’t avoid the tractor beam of “Star Wars” that much. The core plot is about as predictable as such things can be, with the climax coming off as particularly forced and the villain acting like a total imbecile, allowing Our Heroes to triumph. None of the characters have a lot of depth (young Wryn in particular remains a total blank slate throughout), and there’s clichés aplenty. But it’s a fun, clever book, and endlessly novel in its accidental anticipation of a more modern action comics style, loathe as I’m sure it would be to know it. I found my copy, slightly worn, very dusty, in a dark corner of a small comics shop for $4. I hope you can find a way to check this work out yourself, however you can.