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The Over/Under…


I have to assume that most of you who read these screeds are at least marginally aware of my profession and my (also marginal, at best) popular cultural presence, but for those who are not, and for the newcomers among you, let me say that I am a comic book man. For more than a half century, I have produced work for most of those companies in the business of manufacturing mainstream comic books.

Not newspaper comic strips, which exist in an entirely different world, nor gag cartoons, also another universe apart, nor undergrounds—I’m afraid I’m just too helplessly and hopelessly middle class for something quite that outré, despite, of course, the comparatively transgressive (a term I vastly prefer, despite the all too frequent misapplication of those current favorites of the fatuous, “problematic” and “controversial”) nature of a lot of my mainstream (adjacent) comic book product.

My motto in this regard has always been “Too weird for the mainstream, too mainstream for the weird.”

All this notwithstanding, if this description of my career brings to mind the image of a smirky, cashmere sweatered senior citizen mugging shamelessly, taking credit for everything, in particular for his own rescue in which he took only a little part, a reprieve from what at the time seemed likely to be little more than a long and semi miserable life of endless slow motion nothing, no.

If it says to you I must just fucking love my popcorn weekends at the multiplex, digging the aforementioned foxy grandpa’s ridiculous sore thumb adjacent cameos, or having my mind delightedly blown by spaceships, sorceresses, dragons, monsters, mutants and the like on big screens and on what feels like every fucking video platform out there, sorry.

Again, no.

And if the image in your head is of some modern day French suicide poet manque, world wearily bemoaning the tragic morning to night experience, the emotional drain of continuing the adventures of children’s characters grittily and edgily recrafted for the delight of developmentally arrested adults, characters often striking the same comically (risible to me—an unfortunate majority of the audience and talent pool takes this bullshit seriously) solipsistic poses as the talent responsible, allow me to disabuse you of this notion.

That’s not me, either.

At its most basic, the mainstream comic book is defined by a narrative form that owes its kabuki like, all too rarely varied structure, to a template that bears a discomfiting resemblance to Chuck Jones’s ROADRUNNER/COYOTE cartoons. We are talking here about a Moebius strip of endless but willfully obscured and disguised frustration utterly bereft of anything resembling closure.  No beginning, and no real end, either.

This way of doing things is at heart a means to service corporate ownership and maintain trademarks—that’s why they keep publishing WONDER WOMAN, for example—but the moebius mindset has infected product with no corporate needs to speak of.

Even death isn’t permanent in this foolishness. Rather, dying is a marketing ploy for the credulous, who know full well they’re being bamboozled, but mistake that awareness of the swindle for being in on the con, and being in on the joke, as opposed to being taken clean by the con, and being the butt of that joke.

This awareness is, to be sure, not.

This, you should pardon the all too generous expression, narrative framework is populated with what can only by the most equally generous definition of the word be called characters, better described as cyphers, avatars, symbolic archetypes rarely endowed with anything more than a single note, usually a variant on the hero’s wound, with gender identification and sexual choice recently added to pander to and piss off in equal measure.

For all of the progressivist’s insistence on what is a particularly exclusionary foray into inclusivity and diversity, and for all the reactionary protests in the name of self-serving, cherry-picked misremembered tradition, both of these extremes embrace barely one-dimensional characterization, protagonists and antagonists delineated with no more than the sort of paper cup depth associated with the self-designating heroes and heels of professional wrestling.

“You suck!”

“No, you suck!”

The end.


In perpetuity.

Of course, neither extreme in this ongoing tug of war acknowledges, nor likely even recognizes, the all too overt psychosexual encoding in these protagonist/antagonist archetypes, more than tangentially related to the sort of analysis conducted by Bruno Bettelheim in regard to fairy tales, to which, of course, this material bears more than a casual, and to me, to be sure, silly resemblance.

I’d say this emblematic substitute for actual characterization is a variation on a theme of the masks used in Eugene O’Neill’s STRANGE INTERLUDE, but that would presume you know what I’m talking about, not to be too condescending, but hey, I have come to know my audience…a presumption, that would, as I’ll elaborate below, define my position in this recently successfully exploited subcellar of the entertainment industrial complex.

And of course, it’s this nuance free narrative structure, these hand puppet players, that have conquered the world of popular entertainment, bringing to an unprepared world lazily conceived narratives, undermotivated characters, and the explosively violent set pieces of comic books, in lieu of plot, character development and recognizable human conflict. You know, story.

And understand, to be completely forthright, when I was a kid and a dumbstruck fan of comics, I loved everything about them unconditionally.  I knew what Jules Feiffer meant, in his book on the subject, when he called this stuff junk, but that understanding had no impact on that deep and profound love.  It wasn’t really until I began to make comic books for a living that any doubt of the inherent value of what I came to identify as adolescent nonsense began to become obvious to me…

…And that’s where my trouble began.

It might be worth noting that the first decade of my career, the time when I was most committed to serving the corporate needs that such work as noted above demanded, is awash in work of often stunningly cringeworthy ineptitude. I will gladly and willingly admit that my inability to do well by this stuff has to have had something to do with the beginning of my indifference to the franchise of mainstream material.

That said, once my skillsets were in place, I could very well have turned myself into a perfectly conventional mainstream talent.  Everybody else—with a few exceptions—was doing precisely that.  Fortunately, or unfortunately—the vote isn’t yet in—I decided that I’d aim higher…

…And that’s where my real trouble began.

To elaborate, a few random bullet points.

In 1982, I participated in a panel presentation to introduce AMERICAN FLAGG!, the book that would make my reputation, for whatever that means in the scheme of things.  I won’t elaborate, but AMERICAN FLAGG! neither looked nor read like the comic books it shared space with on the racks, which would have a naturally negative impact on its commercial value in reaching an audience that had been programmed for three decades to respond to material coded directly to serve the needs it had been programmed to respond to.

When the floor was opened for questions, a fan asked, “What are (Flagg)’s superpowers?” Despite my dismay (entre nous, it was contempt, but that’s what parentheses are for) I neither batted an eye, nor rolled them, and replied that “He can remove his underwear without taking his pants off.  And of course, he can make ice cream.”

I got the laugh I hoped for, but I should have paid attention to the earnestness behind the question.  Not that I should have respected it any more than I had, of course, but in retrospect, the weight of something that might be reckoned with should have registered with me.

TIME2 , an experimental book of which I am deeply proud, followed AMERICAN FLAGG! and commercially tanked—twice.  Two volumes.

Again, here was an opportunity to learn from hubris, evaporating my misbegotten assumptions that there was an audience out there ready, willing and maybe actually wanting to get past that above mentioned moebius strip cardboard wrestling ring mischegas—a lesson that remained unlearned.

I spent the rest of the 1980s alternating between corporate work to some small success, and ended the decade with what turned out to be the first commercially successful mainstream appearing pornographic comic book, which sold reasonably well, but made me no friends.

The book was banned in the UK.  It also brought down righteous fire from a now veteran, then newcomer in comics who introduced me, although the phrase wasn’t yet coined, to the notion of performative morality in a scathing review, shit talking about fellow talent in public, in terms that had previously mostly been reserved for the private.

Another lesson unlearned.

I spent the next few years making my living in low rent television, grateful to be building an economic foundation that might make old age possible—not necessarily all that high a likelihood in a comic book career.  All this notwithstanding, I know everything has a shelf life and an expiration date, so I kept my beak in comics. While working in unwatchable television, I wrote and drew a parody of the sort of misbegotten super dreck that was rampant in that last decade of the 20th century.

In this comic book, I had a particularly loathsome character tell a scurrilous and vile joke, to convey to the reader that this character, despite holding high office, was particularly loathsome, scurrilous and vile.

I was pretty pleased with myself—until more than one reviewer—“critic” seems to carry too much credentialed weight for such an ignorant fluffmacher—took me to task for telling so scurrilous and vile a joke.

Me.  For telling this joke.

It’s worth noting that I never, ever tell jokes.  I am witty.  I am quick. I am clever.  I am not, in any way, in regard to jokes, or comedy, or any similar structurally regulated punchline-based hijinks for that matter, even vaguely funny.  The fact that someone who could type, read and likely use money in exchange for goods and services couldn’t distinguish between the narrative voice of the writer and the voice of a character blindsided the fuck out of me—fool that I was.

I shouldn’t have had to explain this perfectly established narrative tradition.  I ignored the fact that this was an audience that embraced operatic monsters who identified themselves as villains, twirling their mustaches if they had them, dry washing if not, and costumed vigilantes who called themselves heroes, meanwhile striking dramatic poses that would give the renaissance room in the Louvre a run for its Euros.

Such “characters” as these exist in that roadrunner/coyote—hero/villain unreality, a convenient and utterly unreal simulacrum of life where no one ever dies, and no one is ever really hurt, neither in body nor feelings.  To be abundantly clear—in comic books, characters who are supposed to be bad know they are bad—and articulate this aspect of their character.  Characters who are supposed to be good know they are good—and never let us forget it.

So, to add to the ROADRUNNER/COYOTE/professional wrestling equation, let’s bring on the Victorian melodrama to round it all out.  For fuck’s sake.

It was around this time that someone showed me a long academic piece on the two volumes of TIME2, the thrust of which was that this material was the perfect illustration of my overestimation of the audience.   I’m grateful the writer of this treatise read the damned books.  At least somebody did.

This was flattering.  To no surprise on the part of anyone who actually knows me, I am by nature fairly condescending, an elitist, and in regard to certain specifics, an outright snob.  But this monograph was deeply sobering as well, in its acknowledgment of the gap that existed then and persists to this day, growing exponentially I fear, between my enthusiasms and those of the enthusiasts.

All this was brought back to the front and center of recollection and experience only a few weeks back, with what is my now equipped with second thoughts Ill-considered decision to use a vintaqe poster for the National Recovery Act—the NRA—as a background on the cover of a comic book with embarrassing sales, of which I am proud—the comic book, not the sales, for fuck’s sake—to convey the late 1930s period nature of the narrative.

Parts of the poster’s graphic were visible—clearly not enough, as I came to realize—but that didn’t stop people from assuming this was a National Rifle Association poster, with all the modern sociopolitical baggage that might imply.

And to be clear, it wasn’t merely that historically ignorant assumption that left me in despair.  Rather, in addition to that, it was the idea, the assertion, that I would be as bludgeoningly obvious in making some sort of bludgeoningly obvious political point—“Comics—they’re just so darned fascistic!  Who knew?” as so many of the quacks, hacks and mountebanks who make up so much of the comic book talent pool do as a matter of course…

…In a nutshell, writing down to the audience.   This was a new one for me, putting me in the class of the vast majority of suppliers of comic book product, for whom nothing is too obvious, no metaphor is sufficiently implicit, and precious little is too on the nose.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, it takes an awful lot to offend me, but I insult easily.  This did the trick.

So, not to sound like a complete twat, and to thus offer suspicions confirmed to so many, I came to understand those years ago, and continue to understand to this very moment, that I have frequently, if not constantly, overestimated the comic book audience, to my commercial detriment.  I have consistently presumed that my barely graduated from high school, three months of barely collegiately matriculating then hitting the road higher education dropout knowledge base was on an equal journeyman plane with the majority of my fellow comics’ people.

Clearly, someone has to come up the “presume” equivalent of the timeless classic “making an ass of you and me” that lights up the circuits of people who regard the witless side eyed shmuckery of “Now tell me what you really think” as the Olympian apex of comedy hijinks.

Not me, though.  As noted above, I don’t know from jokes.

And finally (about fucking time, right?), running in a perverse tandem, not quite parallel but tangential to all the above, is that spate of,“…That you never heard of!” “…That you didn’t know where there!” “…That you’ve never had/tried/eaten/read/seen…” posts and the like, as condescending, insulting and punching down a presumption of ignorance as might be found.

Of course, this “Secret knowledge, If I don’t know it, nobody knows it” stuff is just nonsense, bullshit that says more about the impact of the Dunning-Kruger effect on the smugly crowing ninnies behind these limp dicked gotchas who mistake stumbling over an idea for discovery, or even worse, for invention.

Yes I condescend.  Guilty as charged.

But I never take you for an idiot, nor consider you ignorant enough for those lameassed gotchas, nor regard you as dumbassed enough to have everything spelled out for you.  I work with the forlorn hope that you might know what I’m talking about, and if not, you’ll find out…despite the all too inconvenient truth of the likelihood that you don’t and won’t.

After all, I work in a business in which at one extreme, you’ve got the self-justifying nonsensical sophistry of insisting this adolescent junk is the new mythology, a panoply of modern gods, as if we needed such a thing.

And at the other, perhaps more populist end, although with equally guileless self-regard, the question is raised on social media, “If you were in the X-Men, what would your powers be?”

Underwear and ice cream come to mind.

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin…a Prince—of informed enthusiasm, found wanting by ignorant indifference.


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