All Chaykin Extravaganza!

*Of course, if this were a truly complete summary of Chaykin’s works for the week, I’d also be throwing in a review of his short story in this week’s “The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist” (as if it somehow wouldn’t be overshadowed by the presence of Will Eisner’s final comics story in that same volume), but that book is just way too much money for me right now.

City of Tomorrow! #1 (of 6)

For once, I’m gonna live dangerously and go against the version of the title in the copyright notice, which omits the exclamation point that’s plainly visible on the cover logo. It’s just so much better with that little jolt at the end, and more fitting with the book’s tone.

The story opens with a marvelously stylized suicide bombing in a US mall, demonstrating Chaykin’s formidable grasp of page (or in this case double-page spread) layout right from the start. But this is probably the most vivid use of Chaykin’s page-design prowess to be found; the book instead opt to traffic in a yo-yo timeline, following for a while the faux-idyllic youth of Tucker Foyle, son of a Disney-like visionary who built a fully artificial community on US soil to escape the worsening condition of his nation, then jerking forward to Tucker’s later career as a black ops master outside of his daddy’s magic kingdom.

Both sides of the coin traffic in hyperbole for effect: we see a lot of Tucker’s childhood through commercials (always a Chaykin favorite) that chart the development and success of the artificial Columbia, its kitschy soda shops and robot workers all attuned to serve pure Middle Americana; only later does Tucker rebel, and only then does his father crack down (amusingly, the familial resemblance between the two gives us both a good and bad Chaykin stand-in character design to enjoy).

Likewise, the adult Tucker’s military career is a ludicrous goulash of macho power-play and too-cool resigned bloodletting. He bursts into a villainous hive to rescue his gorgeous commanding officer from sinister intentions; she becomes his scorching lover in gratitude. He blasts through red tape and due process to bring a dirty bomber to justice (and by ‘justice’ I mean he blows his head off right in the middle of The Official Howard Chaykin Blowjob Scene for the Series). “I’ve got no illusions about occupying any moral high ground,” he sneers as his crack team busily plants WMDs all over Some Desert Nation, but Tucker hasn’t counted on powerful interests putting stock in appearing to occupy a moral high ground, and he’s betrayed. Will this event launch him into reviving the two-fisted liberalism of his youth? It’s like asking if my dog will bark at some point today, since this is a Howard Chaykin book.

It’s probably walking on the thinnest ice out of all of Chaykin’s recent projects, since there’s almost no way it’s going to avoid comparison to “American Flagg!” (again with the exclamation points!), what with the rotting sci-fi motif. But “City of Tomorrow!” sticks much closer to the present day in its milieu while riffing off of its present concerns, without much of the futurist world-building that “American Flagg!” sported. The action is also a bit calmer; time-jumps aside, these are some of Chaykin’s most placid pages in a while, from a layout perspective, certainly missing the excellent use of repeating captions and layout that marked his recent “Challengers of the Unknown” as a rousing (albeit flawed) success. But the book doesn’t really need such techniques, at least this early on, as the real story is just beginning. Tucker resurfaces in Columbia, having barely escaped with his life. But it looks like the decay of the outside has scaled the gilded walls of his father’s world, and even the animatronics have turned to low-down living. Silly? Yes, sort of, but the whole book delights is varying flavors of absurdity to make its points, simple as they may be. It’s tough to complain when it’s entertaining in this way.

Solo #4

But perhaps the big book of interest to Chaykin fans will be this one: 48 ad-free pages of stories and art, with a variety of colorists and letterers onboard to help. I mentioned yesterday that this might be the best issue of “Solo” yet; I’ll condition that by mentioning that it’ll probably be the best for established Chaykin fans. While there’s little doubt in my mind that Paul Pope’s issue #3 can be handed to neophyte readers to convert them to fans on the spot, I don’t think that this book has quite the immediate power. It may prove to be ore valuable to established fans, eager to delve into Chaykin’s mind. But one thing can be objectively said: this is far and away the most ‘unified’ issue of “Solo”, with much attention paid to how the six included stories will work as a total package. One might expect no less from structure-mad Howard.

DC’s solicitation wasn’t kidding; actually, it played the truth down a bit. Most of the stories here are crafted in the style of classic EC comics, complete with incessant narrative captions. All of the classic genres are hit: war, weird sci-fi, western (well, maybe this isn’t strictly EC stuff), crime, twist-ending shock suspense-cum-moral lecture, and horror. Except that not all of the genres are quite what they seem. Especially the horror.

All of Chaykin’s pet interests are present: the war story concerns a jazz musician on tour in Europe, who goes on a two-week drunk only to find upon awakening that the Nazis have taken Paris. He needs to somehow escape, but perhaps the power of music will cross the battle-lines without him doing much of anything. The story inaugurates a running these throughout the book’s stories: former foes teaming up to become allies in bizarre circumstances. Most bizarre is the sci-fi story, a crashingly misanthropic piece about a scientist who beats his beloved to death for leaving him for another man, then uses the latest in scientific marvels to not only bring her back to life, but to make her love him (and give her nicer lips and breasts). But this custom-built alliance doesn’t stop her from finding other men more desirable, so he continues to thrash her to death and rebuild her over and over, oblivious to the fact that he’s so much of an ass that no amount of science can keep her with him for long.

Other stories involve a half-breed sheriff battling a bank-robber in his youth, only to face him again as a co-worker on a silent-film movie set, with their races now dictating who will be the angel in front of the camera. Elsewhere, two hi-tech crooks break into the same complex, allowing Chaykin to indulge in some nice symmetrical layouts. And for our moral fiber, we get an ironic tale on neo-nazis so shrill and telegraphed that one can only hope it’s intended as a winking parody of vintage stories with Impact. But it’s the concluding horror story that makes all the difference.

There actually is no horror story. Chaykin himself appears to admit that he’s no good at writing horror comics, which leads into a concluding autobiographical examination of his childhood and early career. Chaykin draws himself as similar to his famous hero-image, but far less idealized. There’s lumps on his face and he needs glasses, and even then he cautions us that what we see is still “a stylized, cartooned version of Howard Chaykin.” But it makes you think. The story is dotted with failure: young Howard can’t even bear to watch scary movies. He’s thrown out of publishers’ offices. He attributes his early success with works like “Ironwolf” to a mix of pure dumb luck and skills he’d gleaned from staring at lingerie ads in the Sunday New York Times. And going over the prior stories, we really see all those Chaykin heroes, all so similar, though some of them have darker skin, some of them have different hair. They’re all him, living different fearless adventures, just in a more explicitly vicarious fashion than with most comics creators. He’s even the villain sometimes, like in that sci-fi story, the details of which are reflected as Chaykin speaks of his early inability to commit to serious relationships. The piece ends with a discussion of how EC comics affected he and his contemporaries. “…but if you think I’m going to take being the Jack Kamen of my generation lying down, you’re crazy - it’s Johnny Craig or nothing.”

It’s a great book for fans, and quite a coherent statement, as earlier issues of this title failed to be. Maybe the statement will be more effective in the ears of established fans, but it’s worth hearing by all, I think.