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CR Sunday Interview: Brannon Costello
posted August 7, 2011

imageI don't read as much work about comics from academics as a I should, but I found myself on a recent trip devouring Howard Chaykin: Conversations, one of the interview compilation books that the University Of Mississippi Press has been publishing for several years now. Howard Chaykin is a uniquely intriguing comics maker, has had a career to match the man, and is one of comics' all-time talkers. I thought there was a chance the book would be worth the read, but it actually exceeded my expectations. A lot of this was due to editor Brannon Costello. He brought a sharp critical sensibility to the book when one was necessary, which isn't always the case with a book like this one. As he describes below, he emphasized interviews that weren't already available in archival form. Perhaps most importantly, Costello did his own interview at volume's end. As I also had no idea how one ends up doing the book like this one, I was interested in speaking to the associate professor for his own story in addition to that of Chaykin's. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: This is a really basic question, but I don't know much of anything about you. Can you describe your life in comics a bit, when you started reading them and how your interest might have intensified or changed over the years?

BRANNON COSTELLO: I can't remember a time when I wasn't reading comics, although the earliest comics that I was aware of being really enthusiastic about were from the J.M. DeMatteis/Mike Zeck run of Captain America -- my parents had gotten me a subscription as part of a school fund-raiser. Those were the comics that made me a fan. I've read mainstream superhero and adventure comics pretty consistently my whole life, though with varying levels of intensity and interest. I gradually started to drift toward other types of comics in a very haphazard and piecemeal way in college. I remember Mike Allred's Madman being an important bridge book for me when I discovered it in the mid-1990s -- something that looked like a superhero book but had other things on its mind and a distinct idiom in which to express them. I'd like to say that it immediately made me hungry to learn about stranger, more ambitious comics, but honesty compels me to admit that I still kept John Byrne's Babe on my pull list.

Probably not until my later twenties did I begin to explore alternative comics, and I didn't begin thinking about comics as a subject for academic study until my time in graduate school. One of my friends in my PhD program at the University of Tennessee was James Bucky Carter, who has since gone on to be a well-known scholar in the field of comics and education, and he was already heading in that direction then. But I mainly thought of comics as a hobby, as pleasure reading, until shortly after I began my job here at LSU. Our special collections library, where my wife is a librarian, decided to mount an exhibit that would feature a large collection of comics they had recently cataloged, and they asked me to help with some of the planning and contribute some text. We also brought James Sturm down to give a keynote lecture, which was a great event -- huge turnout, people standing in the aisles, engineering students who secretly wanted to be cartoonists trying to lure Sturm into an open car trunk so they could drive him to their parents' house and then maybe he could explain things to them so they'd finally understand. The whole experience of the exhibit was a lot of fun, and challenging in all the best ways. It gave me a real sense of how much more there was to know about comics than I already knew and also made me think about ways I could incorporate comics into my scholarly work. I also started blogging about comics more frequently at Pretty Fakes around this period. Unfortunately, I don't have as much time for that anymore, for the usual personal and professional reasons. I do like having the space to occasionally write something less formal, more immediate, about comics when the inspiration strikes.


SPURGEON: At what point did you encounter Howard Chaykin's work? Can you describe your interactions with his comics?

COSTELLO: My first exposure to Chaykin came when I was in high school, via issues of American Flagg! and Blackhawk that I found in the quarter bins at the comics store in Jackson, Mississippi, that I visited whenever I got a chance -- I grew up in a small town without a comics store, so it was always a treat to be able to find books that weren't on the dwindling spinner racks at the convenience stores. This would have been probably 1990, 1991, or thereabouts, when he was less of a presence in the industry. I remember finding the comics enjoyably frustrating, feeling that there was something going on that I hadn't seen before and couldn't immediately make sense of. That was partly because of the complexities of the art and partly just because I didn't know enough to get all the political background or to understand why the things that looked like they must be jokes were funny. Blackhawk was a particular challenge, because I had no way to process the concept "heroic Communist" at the time. It was clear those comics were several orders of magnitude more ambitious than the ones I'd been reading, and they just seemed much more "adult" in a way that made them very appealing to my teenage self.

I didn't know how to track down any more of his work than I could find at that particular store, and I was only dimly aware that there was such a thing as organized comics fandom. I certainly didn't conceive of it as something that I might participate in or use as a resource. And until I got to college, I was the only person I knew anywhere near my own age who read comics, so I had no idea how to pursue my interest in his work or in anything else comics-related at the time. I remember buying Power and Glory when it came out, but I didn't start thinking about Chaykin seriously again until American Century started up. That series renewed my interest in his earlier work, and I began to read through it again with enormous pleasure and a much better grasp on what he was up to, but also with a curiosity as to why I didn't hear his work discussed more often.

SPURGEON: How does one go from having an interest in someone's work to doing a book of interviews featuring a creator? How much did the fact that the University of Mississippi Press has been doing these kind of book play into your idea of doing one? For that matter, given your previous published work, how does this book fit into your overall academic efforts? It seems like you could win a prize for most jarring shift between books.

COSTELLO: And I would proudly tout that prize on my c.v., too. But yeah, it does look like quite a leap, doesn't it? Although I'd point out that my first book was about class, and the first question in my interview with Chaykin is about class, so there are some fundamental concerns and interests that unite the two projects. And it may seem less jarring when I tell you that the title of my next book is Comics and the U.S. South, co-edited with the great Qiana Whitted of the University of South Carolina, due out in January from the University Press of Mississippi.

On a practical level, this book began when I signed up to write entries on Chaykin and American Flagg! for the recently published Greenwood Encyclopedia of Comic Books and Graphic Novels. I took on that job mainly because I wanted an excuse to explore Chaykin's work in detail, partly just for fun and partly because I hoped my engagement with the work would result in a deeply informed encyclopedia entry with a distinct perspective. And then, after months of reading, I of course realized that 1500 words wasn't enough space for anything but the broadest outline.

So, I started to think of how I might take this creeping sprawl of comics, fanzines, photocopies, and notebook scribblings that was colonizing my office and turn it into something that would be useful and interesting. I've long admired the UP of Mississippi's scholarly publishing on comics, and I thought of their Conversations series early on. In fact, it wasn't that I wanted to do a book of interviews and thought of them as one potential publisher among many -- from the beginning, I had thought of the project as an entry in that series. Chaykin seemed like a natural fit: he's an aesthetic innovator with a distinct career arc and a great talker, and at that point they hadn't featured anyone from his generation of mainstream comics creators. I was glad they agreed. My editor there, Walter Biggins, was a great help, and I certainly benefited from his experience working on other volumes in the series

On a more general level, I believe I'm like a lot of academic comics scholars in that I started off in a traditional field and then began to do more publishing and teaching about comics as the opportunities presented themselves. But I don't see "comics" and "southern literature" as two different fields that I shuttle back and forth between. I mean, it's true that there are only so many hours in the day, and any time spent writing about Howard Chaykin is time I don't spend writing about Eudora Welty, unless I'm adding another chapter to my Eudora-Welty-as-Lady-Blackhawk fanfic. But I look for ways that these interests can mutually inform one another. That's obviously the case with Comics and the U.S. South, and I've also written a couple of academic articles on contemporary southern novels -- Jack Butler's Jujitsu for Christ (1986) and Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits (1989) -- that consider the ways that the experience of growing up in the South can be productively read through the tropes and themes of superhero comics. In fact, I'm working on a critical afterword for a forthcoming new edition of Jujitsu for Christ right now that will address that topic. And a lot of my thinking on Butler and Kenan is about how we make meaning out of popular culture, which is also a focus of my interest in Chaykin's work, and it's something I talk about when I teach the American Literature survey, and so on and so forth.

So there are a lot of connections that aren't necessarily apparent from the titles alone. And I'm fortunate to work at an institution where disciplinary boundaries are not strictly policed and this sort of intellectual exploration is encouraged and supported by my colleagues and the administrators I've worked with.


SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about the compiling process? What interviews didn't you know about when you started putting together the book? Was there one in particular that you didn't know about that you think added a lot to the book, and if so, why?

COSTELLO: Let me first say that I am stricken with awe by anyone who assembled a book in this series in the pre-Internet days, or even in the days before you could use Facebook to find people whose only piece of comics journalism was a single fanzine interview in 1978. Almost half of the interviews that eventually made it into the book were ones that I discovered after I had submitted the proposal. I didn't know about the interviews from Whizzard, Arken Sword, Mile High Futures, Reflex, CANAR, Comic Fandom's Forum, Escape... or if I knew about them, I had not yet been able to put my hands on copies and wasn't sure I'd be able to, so I didn't include them in the proposal. The Jerry Bails bibliography pointed me to several, and Randy Duncan at Michigan State University's Comic Arts Collection and Tim Barnes, who is an independent Chaykin fan, were both immensely helpful at helping me find interviews I'd seen referenced and alerting me to others. Some of the interviews I found just by plugging "Chaykin" into the search boxes on used book sites like ABE and Alibris, or looking through the issue content description on sites like A lot of late night eBay queries.

The list of interviews I included in the proposal was always meant to be provisional, so I don't mean to suggest that I discovered these pieces at the very last minute and then crashed into my editor's office shrieking "stop the presses," although I would love an opportunity to do that. But one that I had just about given up all hope of finding was the Rob Hambrecht interview from Reflex. It's the only piece that wasn't for a comics-related periodical, so it isn't necessarily constrained by the same set of unacknowledged assumptions. It doesn't take for granted that what's interesting about Chaykin's work is best articulated primarily through reference to the world of mainstream comics. That's a very rich world, of course, but it can also be insular. So the conversation wanders a little more broadly, especially in terms of Chaykin's interest in crime fiction and porn, and I thought Hambrecht's attempt to situate Chaykin in a kind of hip, postmodern cultural milieu was an interesting angle. I'm also very keen on Ed Bryant's interview from Mile High Futures, because I think it's one of the places where Chaykin speaks most directly about the tensions between his ambitions and the constraints of the marketplace.


SPURGEON: Were there any interviews you weren't able to secure? I have to imagine that Chaykin talked to Gary Groth at some point, but I don't remember seeing one of those in there.

COSTELLO: There are two Chaykin/Groth interviews that I know of: In 1979, Marilyn Bethke interviewed Chaykin for The Comics Journal, and then Groth followed up on some of her questions in the same issue. Groth also did a big interview with Chaykin in 1986. He very politely declined to let his pieces appear. I was disappointed not to be able to use them. But I ended up with far, far more material than I could possibly fit in a single volume, so excluding those interviews meant I had room to include some other, more obscure pieces that might have gotten squeezed out otherwise. Especially now that TCJ is archived online for subscribers and is available in the Underground and Independent Comics database, I think it worked out for the best.

There were a few other pieces I wasn't able to secure for various reasons. Since I had so much material, I ended up excluding some pieces that skewed heavily toward the promotional or some that were just repetitive, and I also decided to exclude anything that was already available in full text online. I regret losing a lot of those pieces -- Ho Che Anderson had consented to have his TCJ interview appear, and I really admire the interview Lisa Fary did for Pink Raygun -- but ultimately it just didn't seem to be a good use of limited resources to reprint something so easily available when so many of these interviews hadn't seen the light of day since their initial publication.

SPURGEON: Were you always set on doing your interview? What did you want to do with your interview in terms of how it would be placed in the context of the ones you compiled?

COSTELLO: I definitely wanted to do my own interview from the beginning, partly as a way of sounding out some hypotheses I'd been developing while reading and re-reading his work and of drawing connections between his early and more recent work. I was also curious to ask some questions about the evolution of Chaykin's self-conception that seemed evident in the hundreds of pages of interviews from several decades that I'd read in compiling the book. Those are the sorts of questions that someone editing a book like this is in a unique position to ask, although I'm not sure we ultimately did as much of that as I had originally intended -- the conversation just went other places. I also wanted to talk some about how Chaykin saw his work fitting into the contemporary comics landscape, now that our culture seems to be granting comics a greater degree of legitimacy.

imageSPURGEON: You evince a strong critical sensibility in the book, which I don't think is always the case with these kinds of works. For instance, you're pretty quick to point out that the comic books on which Chaykin grew up were mostly non-distinguished except for the occasional art job -- if you believed the opposite, it would be a far different book. How important do you think it was that you bring a critical perspective to bear in making this book?

COSTELLO: In one sense, the opportunities to express a critical sensibility directly in this sort of project are somewhat limited: the introduction and my interview are the only places I get to speak in my own voice. Everything else is indirect -- a matter of selection and emphasis. However, I did think it was important to take those opportunities to articulate why Chaykin's work is worth of attention. I tried to steer away from that idea that readers should care about the book just because the subject has had a career and has enjoyed some popularity.

SPURGEON: In your introduction you ask that Chaykin's tendency to ramble at times be treated not as an inability to make a specific point but as evidence of his capacity to string ideas together. One thing I wondered, however, given the value he places on humor and that fact that he's such a skilled talker is whether you think his answers are always authentic and reflective. Do you think he tends towards thoughtful rumination with all of his answers, or at least takes a stab at some insight or truth, or are there moments when Chaykin plays with interviewer, or is less serious? How can we tell the difference?

COSTELLO: Something that comes across pretty clearly in the book is that Chaykin places a high value on professionalism. And I think that extends to doing interviews, too -- both consenting to them and being willing to take them seriously. Certainly, as with anyone who gets interviewed a great deal, there are some standard answers to standard questions, and I assume that, like anybody, his enthusiasm can wax and wane, but I found him to be forthright and engaged throughout our interview. I suppose there may be times when he enjoys taking a kind of maximalist version of his position. For instance, when I asked him if really thinks the Hernandez brothers are the only exception to his dismissal of most comics as either superhero junk or autobiographical self-indulgence, he first replied "yes." Now, it's possible that had I spent the next 30 minutes listing off other possible exceptions, he might have agreed with some of them. He even later qualifies his answer with "to some extent I think it's true," which indicates that he doesn't necessarily take such a hard line as his initial response would suggest. And he does go on to mention aspects of Dan Clowes' work that he appreciates. But that doesn't mean the initial response is evasive or misleading -- it's still an articulation of his basic position. Overall, I come back to the idea that he sees giving interviews, and engaging with them honestly, as part of the job.

SPURGEON: You make the point that a lot of Chaykin's work has a social satirical element to it, and maybe not just those works that are obviously so. Taking his body of work as whole, can you reverse-engineer a general worldview? Are there recurring values in his work, do you think?

COSTELLO: Chaykin makes no secret about being on the left-liberal side of the political spectrum, although in his work, at least, it has less to do with the daily grind of partisan politics and more to do with a deep hostility to the ways that concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a privileged few warps society. And his particular interest is in how the vast majority of people who don't benefit from such a system have been so thoroughly persuaded that they do, have become complicit in their own oppression. A major aspect of work like Flagg! and Challengers of the Unknown, and Cyberella to an extent, is about depicting societies in which citizens have been convinced that the choices they've been given are the only choices it's possible to make. They're distracted by a spectacular culture in which politics is, at best, just another form of popular culture -- think about the televised poli-club throwdowns in Flagg! And that dazzling spectacle renders other possibilities for making meaning out of the world unthinkable. This is all pretty explicit in the work -- I mean, in Challengers the villains are actually rich white people who run an organization called Hegemony and disseminate propaganda through a thinly disguised Fox News analogue.

Running alongside that critique is a deep pessimism about whether it's possible to do anything about the corrupt and pernicious system that people are trapped in without the system ultimately co-opting those efforts. The upper limit of his hopefulness, at least as I read the work, seems to be the possibility that characters can achieve a kind of shrewd pragmatism -- knowing the system well enough to game it to their advantage, win some small victories, maintain some human dignity, and maybe help a few other people do the same.

SPURGEON: At one point you suggest very strong that Chaykin's career is unique to comics, but it seems to me there are certainly guys that have generally straddled the commercial and artistic worlds to the extent he has: Krigstein, Kane, and roughly same-age peers like Barry Windsor-Smith and Frank Miller. Can you pinpoint a bit more for me a few specific things you think make Chaykin's career unique?

COSTELLO: In Chaykin's case, it's less a matter of straddling the line between the commercial and artistic than it is of blurring that line. When he hit his stride as a writer/artist in the 1980s, Chaykin was able to use mainstream comics as a vehicle to communicate a distinct, individual perspective in an innovative, idiosyncratic visual style with a high level of formal and narrative sophistication. And he was able to do it over a fairly long stretch of time -- not just as a one-off graphic novel or mini-series. It seems to me that his career is less about splitting his time between commercial and artistic work as it is about making the commercial world a place where you can do a type of personal art. I tend to think of artists like Krigstein and Kane as having struggled to achieve something similar and meeting limited success at best because of the constraints of the industry at the time. With rare exceptions, their achievements in comics were about finding ways to experiment with the form of comics as a visual medium with the fairly generic stories they worked with.

Flagg! is an expression of a particular sensibility in terms of both graphics and story -- but it is also unapologetically aimed at the commercial marketplace. His work on corporate properties like The Shadow and especially Blackhawk is deeply informed by his own political and aesthetic interests, and on the flip side, even Time² was intended to be as much a commercial work as a personal one. I mean, it's funny in retrospect to read Ed Bryant fretting that Time² is going to seem derivative of Grimjack, but in context it's a perfectly valid concern -- they were going to be on the shelf right next to each other.

You could argue that what Chaykin was going for beginning with American Flagg! is closer in spirit (if not in content) to Fourth World-era Jack Kirby. Certainly, some of Chaykin's contemporaries were similarly blurring the commercial work/personal art line. Someone could make a case for Jim Starlin. Miller probably comes closest. But when you look at the work from Miller's most renowned period in the 1980s, it's interesting to note how much of that work is writer/artist collaboration. That's not a knock on the work; I'm not suggesting that Elektra: Assassin or Batman: Year One are any less impressive because they're collaborations. But it is a different type of achievement than producing a fairly extensive body of work which expresses a unified point of view, in which word and image are integrated in the service of a particular vision. I'm not ignoring Ken Bruzenak's contributions, or the contribution of various colorists, but I'd argue that's a different sort of collaboration. Ronin and Dark Knight Returns are Miller's only works from that era that do something similar to what Chaykin does in a thicker stack of material, although Miller has of course gone on to do more work in that vein in the years since. Someone who feels more strongly about Miller's writer/artist run on Daredevil than I do would argue with this assessment, I'm sure.

I'd also argue that Chaykin was the most successful of the design-oriented mainstream artists up until the mid-1980s to use design not just for dramatic effect but also to develop a set of themes or even an ideological worldview. And I think the fact that Chaykin continues to work steadily in the mainstream, using pop comics as a vehicle to explore new angles on his recurring themes and obsessions in his own voice and with a great deal of craft, is remarkable. He's not the only creator of his era still doing that sort of work, but he's one of a few, and certainly one of the most prolific.


SPURGEON: I think a lot of fans find the arc of Chaykin's career intriguing, if not disappointing, in that what seem now like his more ambitious works seem to have come between two periods of mainstream work that don't always show off the entirety of his massive skill-set. It seems to me that if Chaykin really wanted to do work as cutting edge as Time² or American Flagg! were in their time there would be more opportunities for him to do so now than there was even back when they were done. How do you look at Chaykin's renewed plunge into mainstream comics, and how would you suggest that someone that enjoys other segments of Chaykin's career might regard his later efforts?

COSTELLO: That's interesting. Sometimes I think that if Flagg! or Time² were coming out right now, they would be huge hits with a wide readership in comics stores and bookstores alike. And sometimes I think there would be a few dozen people on the internet raving about them and they would sell about as well as they did the first time. Predicting popularity is not a skill of mine.

To answer your question, though: First, I wouldn't assume that Chaykin has abandoned the notion of work that's even more in line with the type of projects you describe. In the latter interviews in the book, he mentions some long-simmering projects -- Midnight of the Soul and Slidestreet -- that may yet see the light of day. I mean, we're getting Black Kiss 2 next year. Who expected that? Anything can happen is the lesson there. Second, I actually don't see such a wide disparity between his earlier work and some of his recent mainstream work. Books like Challengers of the Unknown, City of Tomorrow, Dominic Fortune develop and extend many of the ideas and themes in Flagg!, Blackhawk, and so on. None of those books takes exactly the same approach to design that you see in some of the earlier work, but they're very smart books that are absolutely informed by a similar visual and narrative sensibility, and I think they reward close attention.


SPURGEON: I was interested to hear Chaykin talk about his style explicitly in terms of having to be able to replicate it for commercial considerations -- something I think a lot of artists internalize. I've never had a firm grasp on his style, other than to note the obvious aspects like its sophisticated design. Having looked at so many of his comics and experienced him talking about his art, what are some things you feel he does well as a comics artist?

COSTELLO: Well, I don't think the significance of his use of design can be overstated. That opening dream sequence in Blackhawk is really a tour-de-force in the way that it creates this repeated effect of confinement and escape, the claustrophobia and disorientation of those pages. He's also enormously skilled at using page layout to create a sense of movement and momentum even when the images in particular panels are fairly static. There's a sequence in Time²: The Epiphany that starts on page 8 and runs to page 15. It starts with the three bystanders on the street eulogizing Cosmo Jacobi, and it shifts to Pansy Matthias and Athol Kung in his office and then to a flashback depicting Maxim Glory's flight from the square, then back to Pansy and Athol and finally out to the eulogizers again. It's an amazing passage because while the transition between these disparate settings and story threads could be jarring, instead it's rhythmic, fluid. And that sort of thing is all over his work. You can see the same principle on a smaller scale in the fight scenes of his more recent action-oriented comics.

imageI occasionally see people online lamenting that Chaykin draws the same faces over and over, and I've never understood that complaint. Sure, a lot of his protagonists have a similar (though not to say identical) look, but he's very good about populating the story with a wide array of faces and body types. You can look all the way back to characters like Hammerhead Krieger and C.K. Blitz in Flagg! for that. Or, take one of his most interesting recent art-only jobs, Wolverine #56, written by Jason Aaron. It's almost an EC horror-type story, focusing on the life of a low-level henchman type whose job it is to shoot Wolverine with a machine-gun all day. There aren't any conventional hero-type bodies in it -- it's all about an aging guy who hates his job and his marriage is falling apart and his dad has Alzheimer's and he lives in a crummy house. Chaykin realizes that world in all its dull squalor through a careful attention to texture, pattern, and fashion that is typical of a lot of his work, old and new. He does something similar in the Matt Fraction-written Punisher War Journal #19, a story about the Gibbon's therapy group -- an interesting use of textures to emphasize the seaminess of these once glorious, day-glo lives.

I've also always liked the way Chaykin draws reaction shots -- there' s an almost silent-movie exaggeration that sometimes nudges at the bounds of the fairly realistic idiom that he usually works in.

SPURGEON: Do you agree with Chaykin's view of the current comics landscape and his potential place within it? Also, do you agree with his assertion that his work is without the self-absorption of creators like Harvey Pekar and Chester Brown? He seems to me to put a lot of himself into certain works.

COSTELLO: I think Time² is an instructive example. (Apologies that I keep going to the Time² well, by the way -- it's on my mind a lot because I'm working on an essay on that material.) It's Chaykin's most avowedly autobiographical work -- in a recent podcast interview, he said that it includes a lot of veiled attacks on his family, which is the most directly I've heard him express that sentiment. Certainly there's a lot of Chaykin in it -- his interest in jazz, in the period setting, and so on. Careful readers of Howard Chaykin: Conversations will recall that Chaykin used to smoke but doesn't anymore, and they may note that Maxim Glory is depicted as smoking in a flashback sequence but does not smoke in the present-day sequences. But while autobiography may structure and shape Time², or may provide some raw material for it, Time² is not ultimately an autobiographical work in the same way that a lot of, say, American Splendor is. Chaykin's work is certainly always about his own obsessions and interests, but it's not explicitly about using his life as an object of scrutiny, of analysis and revelation. His experience informs his work, but it's not the primary frame in which he organizes and engages his ideas in the way it is for Pekar. Chaykin could have written and drawn a memoir about his life in New York in the 1970s, and believe me, I would have bought it. But instead he used that experience for his Die Hard: Year One comic. It is highly unlikely I would have read a Die Hard comic otherwise, but I liked that one pretty well.

In terms of the comparison to Pekar and Brown, I suppose you could argue over whether this is a difference of kind or of degree. It's not as though American Splendor is just Pekar's unfiltered dream journal -- it's a crafted fiction as well, just of a different sort. But like a lot of autobiographical comics, it gets its juice and draws its authority from the illusion of immediacy and intimacy that is part of the genre.

As for Chaykin's oft-repeated line that he's "too mainstream for the weird and too weird for the mainstream," the ground may be shifting a bit, at least in terms of the second half of that equation. He's got his very own Avengers mini-series coming out in the fall, and from what I can tell it looks like it's going to be distinctively Chaykin -- period setting, Dominic Fortune, and so forth. I'm curious to see how Black Kiss 2 is received, and what the response is like to the eventual English-language edition of Century West, which I believe is in the works. From the alternative side of the equation, I don't know. One topic I wish I'd followed up on in our interview is his contention that people who read Joe Sacco aren't likely to read his work, because obviously there are in fact some of us out there. I'm not sure how many, though. We may be over-represented online.

imageSPURGEON:. Given that it's such an important value within his work, and such an important distinguishing in his self-conception of his work, how would you describe Chaykin's sense of humor. What is funny in a Howard Chaykin comic?

COSTELLO: I think of Chaykin's humor as biting, even caustic, but ultimately humane. It's about puncturing illusions and deflating the heroic versions of ourselves that we create. There's a real impatience with self-deception, although also some wry affection for how inevitably we engage in it. It could come off as mean-spirited if he weren't so willing to turn it on his protagonists and ostensible heroes as he is on anyone else. The second year of Flagg! is largely preoccupied with comically deflating Reuben Flagg's outsize notion of himself, and I think it functions as a useful rebuttal to people who found him in the early issues to be an object of unproblematic fantasy for male readers to aspire to. Or I think of a moment in City of Tomorrow where Tucker Foyle admits that his big badass speech at the cliffhanger to the previous issue was just a bunch of bravado nonsense. There's also a sort of lusty, Rabelaisian embrace of the farce that is human sexuality. That's at its finest in Time²: The Satisfaction of Black Mariah, but you can see it in the more recent work as well. I laughed at the sequence in the 2009 Dominic Fortune series where Fortune is on the phone with the husband of the woman he's having sex with at that moment, while the husband is also having sex with someone else on the other end. There's some of that in Power and Glory as well -- Chaykin uses Powell's fondness for scatological humor and horror of being touched to poke fun both at the traditionally asexual figure of the superhero and at the adolescent posturing passing for sex in the comics of the 1990s. He's also adept at approximating a sort of classic screwball comedy style of rapid-fire dialogue. And of course a lot of his social critique is wrapped up in comically exaggerating the ridiculous aspects of our culture.

SPURGEON: Did the project turn out the way you wanted? Was there anything that surprised you by journey's end? What would you have people take away, both in terms of Chaykin specifically and what we might learn through him about the art form and industry?

COSTELLO: Overall, I was pleased with how the book came out. I had originally thought this would be the culmination of my work on Chaykin and then I'd move on to other things, but I found that the more time I spent thinking about his work the more interested I am in it, so I'm doing some academic writing on Chaykin now that I'd like to develop into a book-length critical study.

I hope readers will come away with a notion of Chaykin as a much more central player in the development of mainstream comics as a vehicle for work of formal and narrative complexity than has usually been recognized. Chaykin was able to realize a vision of comics as lurid pulp fun and meticulously crafted and politically engaged and informed by an individual point of view more fully than anyone else had before. It would be nice if the book offered the opportunity for a fresh reappraisal of his advances and a good reminder of what the industry was like when he was trying to make them. I'm not sure why his considerable achievements are so often overlooked. I suspect it's mostly because so much of his work from that era is out of print and so little of it has to do with superheroes.

Looking at the arc of Chaykin's career -- his early graphic novels in the late 1970s, the work he did for Heavy Metal, his departure from comics for a while before roaring back with Flagg! and everything that followed -- makes clear what an uphill battle it has been for creators to find a mass-media outlet to do ambitious, sophisticated, and even personal work within popular genres. It's also an indication of the fragility of the current status quo -- where Dark Horse and the new Image can build brands around creator-driven adventure fare, where Ed Brubaker can do Captain America and so Marvel will support Criminal. Not that the current situation is ideal. Pessimistically, you could look at the careers of Chaykin and some few of his peers not as the vanguard of a new sophistication but as aberrations that point to persistent structural limitations in the industry that that may only go away when the direct market as we know it eventually crumbles. I try not to be so pessimistic, though. The state of mainstream comics may be pretty dire, but to the extent that it's possible to walk into a comics store and find genre work with wit, visual flair, and some sophistication of thought, Chaykin deserves a good deal of credit.

Lest this case for Chaykin's historic importance make him sound like a figure receding into the mists of time, I also hope the book will offer a useful primer for understanding his newer work. I sometimes get the sense that many contemporary readers think of Chaykin as someone who is defined by a handful of standout works from years ago, but I'd argue that Chaykin is still a vital and evolving creator. His current work as writer/artist continues to be thorny and provocative and engaging, and while he does frequently return to a familiar set of ideas and motifs, those returns usually aren't repetitions -- they're reconsiderations, developments, extensions, maybe even rejections. I don't think Conversations will help us predict exactly what he does next, but I do think it can help us evaluate and understand it.


* Howard Chaykin: Conversations, University Of Mississippi Press, hardcover, 304 pages, 9781604739756, 2011, $40.


* cover to this book
* covers to the Blackhawk series that perplexed young Mr. Costello
* cover to the next book
* Chaykin draws the Hellfire Club, I think from a card set
* image from an American Flagg! comic
* early work featuring the Cody Starbuck character
* an amazing-looking page from the first American Flagg!
* two pages from the Time² scene that Costello discusses
* from the Jason Aaron-scripted issue of Wolverine Costello mentions
* an amusing page
* one more page from that Time² sequence, beautiful all on its own (below)