I’ve been thinking some more about Howard Chaykin since that post about the forthcoming reprint of his Blackhawk. In the course of my ramblings, I ran across this excellent essay on Chaykin’s Time2 graphic novels and his more recent City of Tomorrow mini-series by Jog, a piece which I highly recommend to everyone.* I was pleased to see Jog’s tying vintage and contemporary Chaykin works together; I get the idea that sometimes when we talk about his work, there’s a sense that the 1980s books he’s best known for are a thing apart from his later output. The 1990s, in particular, are often seen as a kind of “lost decade” for Chaykin; but although it’s true that he published a relatively small handful of works during that era (and even fewer that were graced by his pencils), there’s quite a bit of fascinating material in there—including a pair of highly idiosyncratic takes on Batman that I haven’t seen much discussed on the comics blogosphere (which enjoys talking about Batman but which also has a kind of presentist orientation): Batman: Dark Allegiances (1996) and Thrillkiller (1997).
In addition to being pretty great works on their own, these comics are intriguing in terms of Chaykin’s evolution as a writer, in particular as regards his attitude toward conventional superhero fare. Chaykin began his career in the mainstream comic book industry in an era when pulp adventure genres other than the superhero were common, if not dominant, and it’s always been clear that his interests lie pretty firmly in those other genres—and that maybe his political sympathies do, too. In a 1988 Amazing Heroes interview, Chaykin expresses his ambivalence about the fascist-vigilante aspect of the superhero myth, and he notes in particular that he wouldn’t be interested in doing Batman because
“The subject of Batman is that the poor need someone to protect them from themselves. And to someone like me with very poor welfare parents, of a socialist orientation, brrrr [shivers with disgust], that whole idea is horrible. Because Batman goes around and beats up the bad guys, and he’s got a right do it, because he thinks he does. No. No. Uh-uh. Not for me. I can’t even think in those terms. A character that I would write who could do that would be so confused by his own options that he would never do anything.”
One of the interesting things about Chaykin’s Batman stories, then, is how he takes that tension and makes it a significant, sometimes even central, aspect of his take on the character.
1. Dark Allegiances
In Dark Allegiances, Chaykin revisits the immediately pre-World War II setting of his Blackhawk series, and with some of the same aims in mind: Highlighting the unfortunately healthy tradition of fascism in the United States and the role of lefties of various stripes in combating it. Unlike Blackhawk, Chaykin’s Batman is not a Communist or even a socialist—he’s an earnest liberal (and unapologetic capitalist and individualist) who has realized that beating up muggers and pickpockets is an insufficient response to the moral rot infecting America. As he thinks to himself when he wades into a mob of police who are attacking unarmed factory workers, “So maybe I’m a egomaniac. A dangerous lunatic. A complete idiot. Maybe even a psychopath. Fine. Better a madman with a mission than a plutocrat hiding behind the walls of privilege.” Chaykin tweaks Batman’s origin, too, to better fit his “It Can Happen Here” premise: Rather than Bruce Wayne’s parents being shot to death by a random mugger, they are instead killed by a mob angry that they gave medical treatment to an anarchist wanted (perhaps unjustly) for murder.
Of course, just because Batman has come up with a convenient justification for his vigilantism doesn’t necessarily mean that Chaykin has to buy it, at least not unreservedly. The book functions as a rumination on the problematics of superheroism, from the (as Chaykin puts it elsewhere) “fascists for us” aspects of the superhero myth—it’s no accident that Chaykin’s Batman dresses in a brown costume that recalls Hitler’s brownshirts—and its roots in adolescent fantasies.
There’s also a tantalizing bit in which Batman realizes that one of the many moving parts of the conspiracy he’s investigating involves a corrupt movie producer’s desire to
“steal Batman’s costume for a fascist Saturday serial hero. Can Batman watches be far behind? I’m certain [his] interest in the Batman franchise centers on my dark creature of the night persona, so I doubt that the films he intends to make will . . . address my academic interest in slapstick comedy.”
On one level I think we can read that as a dig at the grim avenger version of Batman popularized by Frank Miller and adopted by legions of his followers, a version that often embraces the brutal and violent aspects of the character and excludes the more outrageous elements—the giant typewriters and animal sidekicks—that are only now being rehabilitated thanks to Grant Morrison.** In another, though, it’s part of Chaykin’s well established distrust of mass culture as a force which offers only conformity and banality, offers a diminished understanding of the world’s complexities and so makes its audiences easier to manipulate, easy pickings for a totalitarian state (or corporate-governmental complex). Batman, Chaykin seems to be saying, doesn’t have to be a fascist-leaning vigilante, but Batman™ will inevitably be.
Also, you know, it’s beautifully drawn, funny, and exciting. And being a Howard Chaykin comic, the MacGuffin is a stag film starring Catwoman and a dog. So, there’s that.
Thrilkiller is set in 1961, a year which Chaykin characterizes as a time of transition, when the rumblings of the political upheavals to come are just beginning to unsettle the optimism of the 1950s. The series follows the adventures of Batgirl and Robin as they tangle with corrupt cops in defense of student protestors, gays, bohemians, and pretty much any one else classified as a “best mind of my generation” in Ginbserg’s “Howl.” With gorgeous painted art by Dan Brereton, Thrillkiller is one of the few Chaykin-written comics that does not cry out for his pencils: Every page looks like it was pieced together from a treasure trove of lost classic juvenile delinquent paperback covers:
And Brereton does a lovely job of creating a glowing Gotham that blends graceful old-world decadence with mid-century modernism’s awkward (but appealing) futurism:
The key change in the Batman status quo here is that Batgirl and Robin are active with agendas of their own long well before Batman comes on the scene. In this series, it’s Barbara Gordon who is the wealthy socialite, scampering across rooftops late at night with her Elvis-inspired boyfriend Robin. Bruce Wayne isn’t a millionaire playboy—he’s the Next To Last Honest Cop in Gotham, and though he can’t abide his department’s corruption, he also doesn’t much care for the young rabble-rousers and sign-wavers who are appearing with greater frequency and shouting with greater urgency. I like the idea of Batgirl and Robin preceding Batman, inspiring and giving birth to him rather than the other way around—a nice tweak on the paternal structure of the Bat-mythos, and one that works well with this series’ focus on youth culture.
The overstuffed follow-up one-shot, Thrillkiller ’62, isn’t quite the success as the main series. Chaykin introduces analogues for a variety of Bat-allies and -villains, but few of them are clearly connected to the themes and ideas that drove the first series. Brereton’s art is gorgeous as ever, and it’s nice to see Roy Harper, aka Speedy, I guess, but it also seems a little arbitrary. The sequel is a perfectly fine adventure set in the Thrillkiller world; it’s also a little generic. Still, I wish DC would republish their now out of print Thrillkiller TPB with this story included. (I see DC reissued it in 2006—maybe with this story?—but Amazon says it’s out of print again. Bummer.)
These aren’t all the Batman stories by Chaykin; there’s a story in Batman: Black and White that I haven’t read, and there’s “Flyer,” Chaykin’s three-issue arc on Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight (issues 24-26). It’s not as politically charged as the other two stories, but it’s an engaging diversion nonetheless. Set in Miller’s Year One continuity, “Flyer” stars a young Batman learning the painful costs of his new vocation. Two things make this arc stand out: First, it features beautiful pencils by Chaykin’s mentor Gil Kane. And second, its villain is an insane Nazi super-scientist who becomes smitten with Batman and wants to bear his children as the first step toward creating a glorious new master race. Finally, her once-heroic son, now turned into a monster by her experiments, becomes so impressed with Batman as an embodiment of perfect manhood that he turns against his mother in order to prevent her from sullying his nobility. So, in other words, it’s only a slight twist of the dial away from Miller’s gleeful All-Star Batman and Robin insanity. The story remains grounded in more traditional representations of the character mainly in that Bats at least realizes the Nazi lady is crazy, but still, I can’t help but think that Chaykin is having a little fun with the sex-averse, pre-pubertal ideal of masculinity that so often characterizes superheroes.
More Chaykin talk to come, as this week sees the release of the first issue of his new Dominic Fortune mini-series . . .
* Jog’s essay on Chaykin’s Challengers of the Unknown is really great as well. Ian Brill’s three “Talkin’ Chaykin” columns are worth reading too, though the formatting seems to have suffered during the transfer from Blogger to Brill’s own domain.