If the title didn’t already give it away, we’re here, folks, to talk about nostalgia: nostalgia in all its truth, in all its lies. So, fair warning for those of you who cringe at fuzzy representations of the past. Everything I’m about to say is merely one man’s perspective and tinged with an unhealthy longing for a lost era. I’m neither historian nor scholar. What I am is a fan. And I was there.
When I think about those cherished childhood memories, the ones wrapped in gauze and tinged a cheerful rose, many of them are me with my face buried in a comic book. Devouring them under the covers weekend mornings before racing to the TV to overdose on cartoons. On road trips, they were essential. I always had a stack of them sitting beside me to pass the time. Because it was the ’70s and corporal punishment was the norm, after a beating they were always there to comfort me with a four-color hug. They were magic then and they’re magic now, and I have never had a real grasp of why, when they’re just lines on paper. Then again, magic doesn’t require an explanation.
My name is Ho Che Anderson. Trust me, I know how weird it is. I didn’t pick it. Blame my dad and his questionable naming skills. I should change it, but it’s my cross to bear in life. I’ve been a cartoonist of middling success since nineteen hundred and ninety, when I published my first comic book, the porno crime classic, I Want to be Your Dog for Eros Comic. The work is absolutely terrible, but I’ll be damned if people don’t still talk to me about it.
A serious rip off of The Empire Strikes Back is the first thing I have an actual memory of writing, but I had been creating little stories as soon as I could hold a pencil and creating drawings to go along with them. When all you do with your time is write stories and draw pictures, maybe something in the universe is telling you that you should be a cartoonist.
It was never something I consciously decided to do. It just seemed like that was always what I was and what I would become. A friend once called me a natural comics making machine. Made sense.
As a creative artist, I’ve had a varied career. It’s been feast or famine. I’ve done book and magazine covers, stamps, illustrations, concept art, storyboards, animatics, postcards, animation character designs, and advertising art. I’ve directed short films and won some festival awards. You make enough short films, eventually they throw an award at you just to get rid of you. One of the high points was my time as a reporter for The Toronto Star, a career to which I look back on and desperately wish I could have been more devoted. I worked in the drama department for CBC Radio. Right now, I’m writing and drawing a comic book called Godhead for publication in 2018 with the mighty Fantagraphics Books entertainment conglomerate. Very excited.
If that weren’t enough, and it is, I’m also a member of the entertainment union IATSEâ€”I crew on film and TV sets in the camera department. I’m the guy running to the camera assistant with a lens, or clapping then running frantically out of the shot. Being a camera assistant isn’t my dream job—not by a long shot. It’s a means to an end. You do what you need to do to survive.
But comics were always the thing. They were that first love, the deepest, purest love. As a reader, they were pure sensation. As a practitioner, they were pure creation. They didn’t require a budget or the cooperation of others. All they required were a pen, a piece of paper, and my imagination.
Here, I want to talk to you about comic books, comic books in the 1980s. Because, in my humble opinion, the greatest decade comics have yet seen occurred during those ten coked-out years. If I sound like an old man with that statement, it’s only because I am old man, old enough to own my bias.
The 1980s were the decade I came of age, not just as a cartoonist, but as a person. It was an era of extreme growth and change in the industry, and the impact of the movement that began then can still be felt in popular culture today. I was a teenager and absorbed the lessons of the time into my DNA. They deeply affected the work I do, from an overall aesthetic POV, as well as in my choice of techniques both narrative and visual. The ’80s were my formative years and, in many ways, define me to this day.
The comic book itself is an American art form, or so it is reported, spawned from newspaper strips that predate comics by decades. For reasons that are less than clear to this writer, The Yellow Kid, for example, was one of the original media stars and a mega-hit in its day, and one of the first modern popular entertainments to affect its surrounding culture.
Max Gaines was a salesman. Like everyone, Max had his ass kicked by the great depression. He was an entrepreneur at heart, a businessman without a business, a king without a kingdom. Sick in bed and reading the funnies one day, he got the bright idea to reprint the Sunday comic strips in pamphlet form, and just like that, the modern comic book was born. He called it Famous Funnies and oh, what an empire it has wrought—look upon its works, ye mighty, and despair.
That’s the legend. The truth is a little more layered, but that’s fodder for future exercises in thought.
Soon, original comics were being created. In the beginning, the storytelling could lack a certain degree of sophistication by modern standards. The stories, with their quaint artwork and quainter storylines, might read as less dynamic to readers conditioned by the injury-to-the-eye motifs common to today’s comics. Many of the writers were also pulp writers or failed novelists. Many of the artists were either on their way to or exiled from the advertising world. Others weren’t good enough to do advertising, but here at least was a way to sling a brush and put away some greenbacks. And there were even a handful of creators who wanted to do comics because they liked them, though they were wise to keep that largely to themselves. The great cartoonist Will Eisner said that, in those days, the pervasive mentality was to make it only “good enough”, at least among the folks signing the checks. But, I believe the men and women slinging it out at the drawing boards and separating by hand those colors were serious about their work. Comics were young, and developing the language for a new art form takes time.
Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were sensations, spawning serials, cartoons, merchandizing, and setting the template of superheroes defining what comic books are, a mindset that remains firmly in place today. Those cheap, disposable pamphlets soothed the tortured souls of those enduring the depression, and later those enduring war, both on the frontline and at home. During WWII, comics’ garish, pulpy nature made them perfect propaganda machines.
After V-J Day, comic books exploded: there were crime comics, romance comics, horror comics. There were religious comics, literary adaption comics, educational comics, biographical comics. They had funny animal comics, mystery comics, and monster comics, many of them wonderfully lurid and in an escalating arms race to shock and disturb the reader. And disturb they did.
By far, the best of the bunch were EC Comics, run by Max Gaines’ kid, Bill. Some parents were a little weirded out by what little Jimmy and Janie were reading. And, maybe they had a point because Bill Gaines’ stuff was so potent it almost did make you want to run out and do something psychotic.
A psychologist named Wertham saw those comics and got frazzled. He wrote something called Seduction of the Innocent that, decades later, he felt compelled to apologize for. But, at the time, he raised a stink. He was Tipper Gore before there was Tipper Gore. A senate sub-committee was convened. Comics lead to juvenile delinquency, they said, and they might turn you gay. The big companies got together and created the Comics Code Authority, better known simply as “the code,” simultaneously self-censoring and dealing a deathblow to the smaller companies who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, comply. The biggest casualty of the massacre the code wrought was the mighty EC, who many believe the CCA was specifically designed to destroy. The code precluded words like “crime” or “horror” or “terror” from appearing on comic book covers, words that just happened to appear prominently on the covers of some of EC’s bestselling books.
The code kept American comics as largely a medium directed towards children. No harm in that. But, comics’ dirty little secret is that adults have always read them, and have appreciated when material was also designed with their tastes in mind. Meanwhile, in Europe and Japan, those restrictions didn’t exist, allowing them to create comics for every age group, including more challenging material for adults.
Cracks started to occur in the ’70s. Marvel said screw you to the code in ’71 over the publication of a Spider-Man arc, forming the first cracks in its base of power. Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil set a new standard of realism and maturity on Green Lantern / Green Arrow. The underground, out-there, and oh-so-adult comics of mavericks like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, was like the cocaine bump you’d sampled and couldn’t stop thinking about, but didn’t want anyone to know about.
The comics fan press began emerging as a thing. American cartoonists started to take notice of the work going on overseas. And I guess there was something in the air, some alchemy that made it all come together.
What do you think of when you think of the ’80s? Big hair? Outrageous fashions? Synthesizers? Drum machines? Ghetto blasters, breakdancing, the birth of music videos and pay TV, Terry Fox, acid rain, the Reagan/Mulroney era, the recession, free trade, the introduction of the Loonie? New Coke, Expo 86? Rick Hanson, the Man in Motion? Meech Lake, Ben Johnson testing positive for steroids, the Jim and Tammy Faye fraud scandal, the Jim and Tammy Faye sex scandal? The Challenger explosion, Glasnost, the Soviets invading Afghanistan, Reagan survives an assassination attempt, Iran-Contra, the cold war, the arms race, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation?
When I think of the ’80s, I often think of the comics. For me they were the golden years, with the first few years of the ’90s sprinkled in for seasoning. You wouldn’t believe how exciting comics were back in the ’80s. And I’m sure for that seventeen-year-old girl or guy on the verge of breaking in right now, it’s just as exciting a time. But, in the ’80s, we were coming off a long period in the ’70s of declining sales, to the point where some folks earnestly believed that by the ’80s there wouldn’t be a comic book industry anymore.
Mainstream comics publications were choking on tradition. Innovation, which might alienate the audience, was a verboten concept, and the closed nature of the narratives discouraged new readers. Meanwhile, the infantile nature of much of the work discouraged adults from continuing with the form past a certain age. Working conditions favored the publishers, not the creators who built them, with the major companies refusing to pay royalties to their writers and artists, and even refusing to return original art that the underpaid creators could then sell to collectors. Instead, the companies, in an act of both pique and self-sabotage, often chose to shred those beautiful works of art.
On the fringes, things were changing. Independent publishers, generally defined as publishers that weren’t Marvel or DC, started springing up. Publishers like Pacific, Malibu, Fantagraphics, Dark Horse, Eternity, First, Vortex, Comico, Aircel, and Capitol, to name a few, started to gain prominence. Being younger and not yet indoctrinated into codified methods, they were free to try things as their tastes and resources dictated. And, not being dictated by or caring about the censoring forces of their older siblings, they were free to push against the boundaries.
These publishers began to experiment with formats and paper stocks. Rather than sticking with the newsprint pamphlet that had been the standard since the ’30s, they switched from the antiquated letterpress to the photographic modernity of offset printing and tried printing their comics on high quality paper with denser, more vibrant inks. They brought in formats like the trade paperback, magazine, or even the tabloid. Mini-series and graphic novels with a beginning, middle, and end began to appear in contrast to the unending soap operas of most comics of the time.
Taking lessons from their European brethren, these publishers and cartoonists flipped the script on the very way the colors in their comics were created, employing methods with names like “full process color” and the “blue-line method,” which used actual hand-painted colors, gauche, cell-vinyls, acrylics, watercolors, what have you, to color the pages. The artist would paint overtop non-reproducible blue lines printed on illustration board with a black line acetate overlay to use as a guide. It was a beautiful method: challenging but elegant. These coloring techniques produced dynamics and subtleties unavailable to the crude four-color printing methods in vogue with the majors since the beginning, with their arcane system of codes to represent the 64 available colors. Looking at these hand-painted comics was like looking at gallery paintings by great masters thrown onto a page.
A greater understanding of the importance of design evolved, with publishers hiring book designers to enhance the aesthetic appeal of their publications. Typography now graced not only the covers and end papers, but also the pages themselves, becoming a graphic tool as well as a means of conveying information.
Most importantly, the nature of the stories and the narrative tools used to create them was evolving. For decades, the grey areas of life were avoided in comics storytelling; the themes were made blatant and stated repeatedly, and any momentary confusion or misdirection that could potentially delight was carefully explained away by a caption or thought balloon.
Were comics intended for children? Yes, without question. Were comics intended only for children? That point was up for debate. A new wave of publishers and creators weren’t convinced that was true. Some of them were aware of a time in their history when comics were created with a level of sophistication that allowed access by children and by parent.
As the comics started to mature, ambiguity and experimentation appeared. Cartoonists tried weird things, like telling stories backwards or without thought balloons or, in some cases, even without the aid of word balloons. Efforts were made at more realistic representations of character and situation, allowing for stories with a more complex psychological underpinning than your average issue of Devil Dinosaur. This gave rise to mainstream experiments like The Death of Captain Marvel, in which a costumed hero used to saving the universe by lunch has to accept his approaching death by that most human of killers, cancer.
Remembering the diversity of the past, the independent publishers made it their mandate to demolish the notion that comics could be only about superheroes. So these outfits gave us comics like Somerset Holmes, or Love and Rockets, or Sinner, or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a suspense thriller, a soap opera, a private eye series, and a Pulitzer Prize winning Holocaust meditation starring mice and cats, respectively. On the extreme fringe were comics like Raw, a comic book that took new-wave fashion and a taste for the avant-garde to the extreme, telling stories that eschewed narrative and costumes in favor of the bizarre and the inaccessible, and packaging it in the most beautiful, outrageous graphics imaginable.
One thing you have to understand about the ’80s is that it was a period of excess, of one-up-man-ship, of constant, even reckless, experimentation. The ’80s were the epoch of boundary pushing, not just in comics, but in the culture as a whole. Unlike the new millennium, where a conservatism I don’t believe North America has seen since the ’50s rules the day, it was an era of indulgence fueled by the false notion that we were all owed fame in Hollywood and riches on Wall Street. You were encouraged to see how far you could take it. You could offend anybody. You could smoke in planes, in cinemas, in church. You could drink and drive, at the same time.
It was an age of nihilism. But why, you ask? Well, maybe it was the power and influence of the baby boomers reaching its peak and their ultimate rejection of the values of their forbearers. Maybe it was a worldwide embrace of the values espoused by an era obsessed with not only outrageous excess, but also with the overt display of outrageous excess. And, don’t forget, there was a significant chance of at any time being returned to the kingdom, courtesy of the fires of nuclear holocaust. We were scared shitless everyday of being blown straight to hell. Put in that context, maybe the nihilism of the ’80s makes a certain sense.
This “f**k you” attitude filtered its way down into comics and the way they were created, and it’s one of the things that first put the conscious thought in my head of becoming a professional cartoonist. What could these things do? To which crazy extremes could you push a comic book and still have it remain a comic? Looking back, I can feel all of us raging, raging against the nurturing womb, out into oblivion, and all its inherent dangers and pleasures.
These changes in the landscape were an increasing shock to the system of the big companies. Try as they might, they couldn’t ignore what was happening. They couldn’t ignore any longer the demand from the creators for fair treatment, and they couldn’t ignore that the audience was growing more sophisticated. They realized they better do something to keep up, or these upstarts were going to completely change the game on them. It’s not that these smaller companies were competition in sales terms. But, this work was exciting; it was fresh. People were responding to these comics in ways they hadn’t since Lee, Kirby, and Ditko set a fire with Spiderman and the Fantastic Four two decades earlier. The fear of becoming irrelevant after dominating for so long must have been overwhelming.
So, they unchained the gates and moved aside the ramparts. Fresh talent was allowed to enter the big leagues and to run wild with their ambition. Seasoned vets, stifled for years by editorial cowardice, were given opportunities to experiment. And, sometimes, just enough rope to hang themselves.
This is the climate that gave us Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, game changers in their day and still relevant three decades later. Those comics were mega-hits, not just within the industry, but throughout popular culture. It’s interesting to point out that whatever was in the waters back then hit a critical mass in 1986, with both of those comics being released within seven months of each other and altering comics forever. 1986 was also the year that gave us Maus. And those are just the three high-water marks; there were scores of great comics released in those 12 months. Those works set a standard of sophistication in storytelling and graphic mastery that cartoonists have been trying and failing to match for literally 30 years. The fans of these comics would grow up to attempt similar things on television shows like Lost and Deadwood. But Moore, Gibbons, and Miller hit an alchemy that has never been repeated, not even by themselves.
This is the era that gave rise to the superstar creator. Names like the gentlemen we’ve just discussed, but also Howard Chaykin. Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez, Seth, and Bill Sienkiewicz. Or Brian Bolland, Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, and Grant Morrison, all part of a new wave of British creators that were revitalizing comics at the time. You need more? How about John Byrne, Chris Claremont, Mike Grell, Michael Golden, Ted McKeever, and Walter Simonson. There are names I’m missing, mostly male as it was almost exclusively a boys’ club back then. It’s changed a little since then, but not a lot.
The era gave us influential works like American Flagg, Mr. X, Nexus, Elektra: Assassin, The Killing Joke, Batman: Year One, Daredevil: Born Again, Camelot 3000, Thriller, Barney and the Blue Note. It gave us strange experiments like Marvel’s New Universe, an attempt to create an entirely new group of characters in a more grounded and realistic setting, which lasted four years before fizzling out. It gave us blockbuster cross-company superhero events like Secret Wars or Crisis on Infinite Earths. It gave us the speculator’s market. The direct market, where comics were sold only in comics stores, was another link in the ladder toward a more diverse marketplace. It gave us the black and white boom, which saw thousands of cheaply produced comics flooding the market to capitalize on the success of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the black and white bust, which saw those same comics disappear overnight like props in an episode of The Twilight Zone. It gave us the prestige format, the painted comic book, the literary comic book. It witnessed the battle against a comics ratings system. It saw the rise of creators’ rights—a fair page rate, royalties against sales, and ownership over your work, including the right to exploit it in ancillary markets.
It was a glorious time: comics were being featured in glossy magazines, they were being talked about on the news, reviewed in papers. And in something approaching a respectful manner. You couldn’t go to the comics store without running across something ground-breaking. As a teenaged aspiring cartoonist, it was equal parts inspiring and upsetting because the standards were being raised so often.
No discussion of comics in the ’80s is complete without discussing the work of certain luminaries of the era. And, if you’ll permit me, this is where things become a tiny bit more personal. I want to talk about the work of Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Howard Chaykin. This isn’t a scholarly list. Obviously, at three long, it’s by no means exhaustive or objective. It is a sketch of three personal icons and the effects their work had on our industry and on myself.
This was a more innocent time before cellphones and GPS and the World Wide Web. It was a time when you could be as casually sexist and racist and homophobic as you chose without fear of reprisal through social media.
I’m 13. I already knew I was going to be an artist of some sort. My parents supported it. We lived in a place called Scarborough—deep suburbs, idyllic in its way. Blocks of malls and condos and row houses both detached and semi-detached juxtaposed with fields, rolling hills, woods, and creeks. The cracks in our family are starting to form. Within a few years we’ll be split apart, but right now we’re still hanging on. I escape into the fantasy world of my drawings. I’m good, but not great. My friends, Phil Brown and Adam Duckworth, can draw circles around me and, no matter how hard I try, I can’t catch up. Phil and I both loved comics. There were these places called comics shops where they sold nothing but … wait for it … comics. I’d never seen one, but my boy knew of a shop downtown. Bravely, we hopped on a train and ventured into the big city.
I walked in and stood in a trance at the sight of Nirvana: racks and racks of brightly covered comics waiting for me to claim them. I went to the back of the store and saw a book called Frank Miller’s Ronin sitting on the shelf. I flipped through it. It was expensive—and it looked weird as hell. But, I put down my three bucks and took it home anyway.
Ronin went on to blow my adolescent mind. It completely redefined for me what a comic book could be. It broke fresh ground in subject matter, with its blend of science fiction and period fantasy, and its use of a Japanese man and an African-American woman as leads. It was ground-breaking in its design, format, and technique. It was six 48-page volumes on glossy paper utilizing the finest inks and printing methods available, and no ads. No Sea Monkeys, no X-Ray Spex, no Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac. It had hand-painted colors by the great Lynn Varley; it was the first time I had ever seen the method used on a mainstream North American comic book.
And it was ground breaking in the way it told its story. There was a way you did comics back then. You explained things to the reader. Gently. You took their hand and you led them through the story. And, at the end, everything dutifully went back to the status quo. Ronin said forget that noise. It didn’t lead you by the hand. It swatted your hand away. It played with the form. Miller would drop you into a scenario, in this case feudal Japan, only to transport you into a post-apocalyptic future without explaining what he was up to. The effect was disorienting. He tried bold experiments such as designing an entire two-page spread composed almost entirely of black, creating a sense of total immersion into a bizarre environment. He started with a graphic style heavily inspired by manga like Lonewolf and Cub and subtly morphed it issue by issue so that by the end, he had gone through a Mobius phase and Hugo Pratt phase and had somehow keyed the shifts to the story he was telling. The comic wasn’t afraid to be weird or obtuse, and it didn’t care if you were still in the dark at the end of the issue. Ronin confounded me, enthralled and aggravated me, and it energized me in a way no other comic book ever has or probably ever will. It was a revelation of the true potential that comics could possess because, if they could be warped into this strange beast, what else could they be warped into? I had to know the answer.
The comic also set an ideal for me that I have followed to this day, that of the creator as a single person, a writer slash artist, the two halves of the job morphing to create a whole greater than its composite parts. Well, that’s the goal anyway.
Miller’s new association with DC led, three years later, to the aforementioned The Dark Knight Returns. It tells the story of Batman, ten years retired, returning to a crime-ridden Gotham city that just happened to strongly resemble the world Miller saw when he looked out the window of his New York City apartment. So effective was the tale and Miller’s telling of it, the book would set a trend of dark, grim comics, a tone many creators continue to strive for. It singlehandedly brought a national spotlight to the growing renaissance in American comics with feature articles in Rolling Stone and Spin, an unprecedented achievement at the time. Frank Miller had arrived as the greatest superstar artist of the era, a position of power he managed to maintain well into the 2000s, with culture defining works like Sin City and 300.
As if that wasn’t enough, Dark Knight introduced the world to the prestige format that went on to become the premiere format of that time period. Combining the production values of a trade paperback with the dimensions of a comic book, the format was a smash. You knew you had made it to the big time as a creator if they trotted out the prestige format for one of your comics. That the format would become so standardized by the end of the decade is a testament to the overwhelming change it represented in its time.
1986 was an extraordinary year for Frank Miller with four major works released that year as either a writer or a writer/artist. One of those works, Elektra: Assassin, is significant to the theme of this special volume because of the painted art of Bill Sienkiewicz.
Sienkiewicz is quite simply one of comics’ greatest artists, not only of the ’80s, but of all time. He is a craftsman of astonishing power whose work sent shockwaves throughout comics, launching a million imitators. Sienkiewicz started as an imitator himself, aping the great Neal Adams for years before going to places I don’t believe Neal could have ever followed. He remains a master of all media—acrylics, oils, watercolor, pen and ink, cut paper, pencil, crayon, charcoal, photocopies, and Photostats—mixing and matching his incredible skill set to maximize the psychological impact of each scene. Taking new inspiration from commercial illustrators, like Bob Peak and Bernie Fuchs, and fusing them through his personal theater of obsession, Sienkiewicz overwhelmed with his sheer technical mastery and his ability to pull images straight from the most fractured parts of our collective psyche.
I remember seeing his images throughout the ’80s and going into convulsions. I so badly wanted to possess his skills. It was always the artists who could draw traditional pen and ink images AND create paintings that inspired me the most. Sienkiewicz was the undisputed king. He dominated throughout the ’80s, churning out hundreds of covers and thousands of pages, always maintaining a high level of excellence.
Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who wanted to be Bill Sienkiewicz, because I believe it was his work that sparked the rise of the painted comic book in the ’80s. After Elektra: Assassin, painted comics started popping up everywhere, often published in the venerated prestige format Dark Knight pioneered. It was a place for the best artists to flex their muscles and show off for the pack. Artists like Kyle Baker, John Bolton, George Pratt, Matt Wagner, Kent Williams, and the great Dave McKean, an extraordinary genius of an artist who came to prominence in the ’80s with works like Black Orchid and Arkham Asylum. Those comics reflected influences that weren’t just other comics. Artists sought inspiration from advertising art, the great masters, and movie posters. The writers of those books sometimes tried to meet the challenge by making their words more literary. Those comics were so pretentious and so full of themselves and so incredible and exciting and inspiring.
They were a challenge. Did you have the technical facility it took to create one of these comics? A lot of people thought they did, only to discover they didn’t. I was one of them. Sienkiewicz’s work was of such force that I had no choice but to pick up a brush and start attempting to create images in color. I sucked. I had no idea what I was doing. But, I’d look at another one of his over-the-top-awesome covers and give it another go. His work made me determined to achieve a complete technical mastery over my work. I wanted to have the same kind of technical grounding that would allow me to pull out the correct tool at the correct moment to create the maximum impact through my images. I wanted to know when to use red as a backdrop to create excitement, or to juxtapose a black and white image next to a color one next to a photograph that has been painted over to denote, what, perhaps the passage of time or the shift from one mental state to another. Or to alleviate boredom or simply to show off, going from a pen and ink drawing on Monday to an oil painting on Tuesday. To have fun and play are two of the main reasons to do this kind of work. In the end, it’s all about the communication of ideas.
I met Sienkiewicz in Barcelona in 2006. I told him how much his work had meant to me. He said he liked my work too. I appreciated the lie. He drew a quick sketch of Elektra for me and spelled my name wrong. I’ll love the guy forever.
It’s the summer of ’86. I’m in the basement studio at Vortex comics, publishers of ’80s classic Mr. X, getting an art critique from the editor. She shows me how I could have inked a panel better. Her husband, the publisher, comes down and shows me some original art. Among them are pieces by an artist named Howard Chaykin. Switches are flipped in my mind that can never be unflipped. I start collecting Chaykin comics hardcore and have physical reactions looking at his stuff. Looking at his art is like getting a hit of a drug. I won’t experience sensations like that until years later when I start doing actual drugs.
After a journeyman career in the ’70s, Chaykin hit the zeitgeist in 1983 with his sci-fi cop of the future action satire, American Flagg. Not only influential, Flagg was prescient, forecasting the rise of mall culture, surveillance as a way of life, and the rise and subsequent fracturing of the media into niche segments, the more prurient the better. Chaykin was a pioneer in design throughout the ’80s, utilizing a unique and far ranging set of influences from American illustration of the ’30, ’40s, and ’50s, science fiction literature, cutting edge book design, ’50s bebop and ’60s pop; Hollywood of the 1930s, and a wicked, Brooklyn-bred sense of humor. Chaykin delighted in embroidering his stories with dense layers of meta-textural meaning. A highly distinctive stylist and craftsman as both a writer and an artist, Chaykin’s in-your-face sensibility, his devotion to big hair, big costumes, and big personalities perfectly reflected the mood of the ’80s, and in 1986, sitting alongside Watchmen and Dark Knight, you would have seen The Shadow, one of the biggest hits of Chaykin’s career and the book that made me a devotee of his for life. Of the artist’s here, Chaykin is the one I took the deepest into my heart, the one who shaped my work on the most visceral level during those formative years. Chaykin was an innovator in page design, unique and unmatched during that era, and his work along with frequent collaborator, letterer, and designer Ken Bruzenak, set a standard in the use of typography as a graphic element I saw ripped off to diminishing returns endlessly through those years, an influence that, I should point out, was seldom acknowledged. Today, while his peers are having their work adapted into movies and TV, Chaykin has had to be satisfied with the knowledge of the cinema his work silently inspired (I’m talking to you, Robocop).
That dopamine hit I got from Chaykin made it impossible for me not to start copying him. For a couple of years, I based my entire style on his work. Eventually, I realized I needed to back away and develop my own methods. But, even today, I can still see his work’s DNA in the pages I create.
In 1988, Chaykin created his vampire crime erotic thriller, Black Kiss, his middle finger to all your self-satisfied political correctness and your enlightened, yoga-loving, vegan smoothie sensitivities. Black Kiss was such a success that porn was covertly added to the list of viable genres. Black Kiss begat Eros Comix in late-1989, early-1990, where I got my start.
It was so weird, finally getting my own comics into print. I’d been trying to get my stuff published for five or six years at that point and suddenly that goal had been achieved. And I realized that part had really only been the beginning of the journey, the warm up before the race. Now, I had to deliver. Now, I had to prove that I was worthy in the ’90s of the legacy established by the ’80s.
Today, I’m working on a science fiction book called Godhead. A company creates a machine that allows the user to talk to God. When the Vatican gets wind of the existence of the machine, rather than championing its existence, they are instead threatened by it, and send in a group of commandos to destroy it. It is military sci-fi mixed with ’70s blaxploitation mixed with a Boys Own adventure/men on a mission tale, with a sprinkle of philosophy. It’s about water lore and robotics, architecture and mega-cities. It’s about the search for faith and the price faith extols. As always, the ’80s are informing a lot of what I’m doing. For example, the project started life as a fully painted comic in homage to the old greats before more practical concerns forced it into traditional black and white line art. But, the spirit of adventure and discovery that existed during those glorious ten years is still in there if you know to look.
Today, the people who grew up on ’80s comics are the ones creating the film and TV and, yes, even comics we’re all devouring. The experiments that were begun in that era are coming to fruition today, with the rise of serialized storytelling and the comic book movie. Those Netflix superhero shows are adapting material, a significant portion of which was created between 1979 and 1989. You have these books to celebrate and deride for the rise and dominance of the nerd.
This has been both eulogy and mythology dedicated to a bygone era, an era that exists not just in memory, but also on those immortal lines on paper. Once and forever, magic.