By Dean Haspiel
I witnessed Howard Chaykin blush once. Of course, that doesn’t mean anything to people who don’t know Howard. So, it’s good to know a few things about the man. Howard is an upright citizen that leans left and expresses himself with intimidating clarity and authority and is uber-self aware and confident of his virtues and abilities. Throw in some blue humor on top of a shocking catalog of innate smarts and you’ve got the Howard Chaykin that I came to know. However, it’s key to understand that Howard does not blush. He laughs, he sings, he ribs you, and he takes the piss out of anything worth taking the piss out of but he doesn’t blush. Except for that one time.
Please allow me the indulgence to track back a bit.
I grew up in the Upper Westside of Manhattan. The first three comic books I remember consciously choosing and buying from a newsstand with my parents generous allowance money was THE FANTASTIC FOUR, SHAZAM!, and STAR WARS, which was a comic book adaptation of a new science fiction movie that was coming out soon and it was drawn by Howard Chaykin. I was 11-years old. At 12-years old I decided I was going to draw comic books when I grew up.
1985 was my senior year in Music & Art cum La Guardia High School. I was an art’s major who rejected fine art with dreams of one day growing up to pencil THE FANTASTIC FOUR for Marvel Comics. My good friend, Larry O’Neil, was the son of infamous GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW, BATMAN, and IRON MAN comic book writer/editor Denny O’Neil. Denny got Larry hip to the fact that Howard Chaykin needed an assistant at the now legendary Upstart Studios which also hosted the many great talents of Walter Simonson, James Sherman, and, previously, Val Mayerik, Jim Starlin, and Frank Miller. Down the hall in another room was the shared studio of Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Bill Sienkiewicz. Larry was a budding writer/illustrator like me and got the gig assisting Howard. Soon after, Larry told me that Sienkiewicz was looking for an assistant and I applied and scored the gig assisting Sienkiewicz, who was illustrating NEW MUTANTS and an upcoming DAREDEVIL project with Frank Miller called ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN. Simonson was working on his ground-breaking version or THOR for Marvel, and Chaykin was writing and drawing his opus, AMERICAN FLAGG!, for First Comics
After school, five afternoons a week, Larry and I would hop the subway from Lincoln Center to the Garment District in Manhattan, order and eat cheap bean curd Szechuan style from the local Chinese take-out, and work for three-or-more hours with comic book creator legends. Alas, Sienkiewicz used me sparingly and, after awhile, Howard took pity on my desire to grow as a cartoonist. So, he hired me on as a second assistant. Later, I would assist Simonson, too, specifically, the infamous “frog” issues of THOR. Larry and I learned how to draw in perspective, how to erase pencils and fill in the black areas of the page with ink and magic marker, use Pro-white paint to cover up mistakes, and apply Craftint to the special Duoshade illustration boards that Howard drew on to achieve that cool shaded texture effect [this was way before the invention of Photoshop]. We drew in background art; buildings, trees, cars, people, and props. But, most importantly, Chaykin taught me the art of the inset panel, which is a stealthy way to capitalize on a close-up or flex detail and, more importantly, shift direction of the page in a savvy way.
Boasting some of the great New York authorities of pop culture ephemera [this was the room where I discovered Patrick McGoohan’s THE PRISONER, Jim Thompson’s THE KILLER INSIDE ME, and Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA], Upstart Studios was a democratic environment. With its single turntable, everyone was allowed to play from the vinyl records that were stocked in the bent metal shelving. We listened to a lot of classic rock, jazz standards, and blues, including Van Morrison and Warren Zevon. The songs, “Warm Love,” and “Werewolves of London,” comes to mind when I think of a soundtrack for Howard Chaykin. At one point, Howard allowed Larry and I to bring into the studio one record each so, we too, could spin a tune we liked. And, perhaps, maybe Howard wanted to get a bead on what the kids were listening to those days. I think Larry, who was a PINK FLOYD fan, brought in a WALL OF VOODOO record, and I, a big fan of AFRIKA BAMBAATAA & THE SOUL SONIC FORCE, brought in a small, 45 single of PRINCE’S “Little Red Corvette,” which almost always opened up discussion about sex, one of Howard’s favorite subjects, and the high school crush I had on a beautiful bi-sexual black girl named Mira. Howard often reminds me that I coined the phrase, “Lesbionage,” to express my covert dealings with the girl who would later on relieve me of my virginity. Little did I know “Little Red Corvette” would soon become the centerpiece to one of the most anxiety inspiring experiences of my life.
One day, while drawing background art on AMERICAN FLAGG!, Howard suggested I play my PRINCE record. Without hesitation, I proudly lifted and sat my single of “Little Red Corvette” on the record player and gingerly placed the needle over the rim of the vinyl disc and returned to my seat as the music began to play. Prince crooned, “I guess I should’ve known…” and, a few seconds later, I heard a loud slam and a shout. The noise came from behind Walter’s art table as he stood up in a fit of uncharacteristic rage and walked over to the record player, screaming that he “Couldn’t take it anymore!” and scratched the needle across my precious record, lifted it from the record player and crushed it with his bare hands into what looked like one of those paper-made fortune teller origami’s kids used to make and threw its mangled vinyl corpse at my table. I was in such a state of shock at Walter’s act of violence [this, coming from the man who I once claimed was “The Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood of Comics,” that’s how the nice the guy was…and, thankfully, still is], that I slowly turned towards Howard and Larry for support only to find that the both of them had their faces pressed hard against their wooden art tables and were stifling, what appeared to be, uncontrollable bouts of laughter. Alone, morally naked, and appalled, I returned to the background art I was drawing, shaking with adrenalin about to launch an out-of-body experience, when Walter lumbered towards me and continued to yell, repeatedly shouting “I have something for you, Dean!” as he whipped out his portfolio case and pulled a 12-inch maxi-single version of PRINCE’S “Little Red Corvette,” from his portfolio sleeve and handed it to me with that big, bearded smile of his. There was a pregnant pause and, suddenly, the room burst out into laughter and my heart rate returned to normal. I had become the center of a prank; a hazing as it were, by some of the best comic book makers in the world. I was honored and it bonded us.
A short time later, Howard decided to move to California.
For all intents and purposes, AMERICAN FLAGG!, was the first independently produced comic book I had the good fortune to be professionally involved with and is one of my Top Ten Favorite Comix of all time. It probably took less than a month for my dreams of penciling THE FANTASTIC FOUR to diminish considerably and newfound goals of writing and drawing creator-owned characters took firm hold. Two years later I would co-create, THE VERDICT, with Louisville, KY writer, Martin Powell, for an independent publisher. A decade later I would create, BILLY DOGMA, the thug with the velvet mind, a subject that has become my most personal, signature work to date. Two decades later, I would create, ACT-I-VATE, the premier webcomix collective, and that would directly lead to the formation of my own Upstart inspired studio: DEEP6 Studios in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. See, before I could move on and make my own way in comix and before Howard could split for the sunshine and cinema of Hollywood, he wanted to gift Larry and I for helping him fully realize AMERICAN FLAGG! I don’t know how or why it came up but it seemed that, in our discussions of sex and the city and of all things sleazy like Times Square, Howard wanted to treat us to a live sex show at the now defunct Show World on 42nd street and 8th avenue. Howard would chaperon us and pay our way. We were ecstatic. I don’t remember all the details of our salacious trek but I can recall prude moments in glass booths and sad looking janitors carrying around a mop and bucket. My near blackout recollection remembers a sobering journey through an enormous maze of ill repute, which climaxed on the top floor featuring a small stage with dirty red curtains, surrounded by racks of busted elementary school chairs. Almost all the front seats were taken by men of varying ages as Larry and I tiptoed our way to second row seats and Howard elected to sit behind us. The show started and a very unattractive blonde wigged woman staggered out on stage. She must’ve been 60 years old and wore black lace underwear that barely clung to her droopy body and the poor woman started to do things to herself that should have been quite compelling to watch for a hormone engorged teenager like me but, instead, was boring and rote and sad. And, before I could qualify how pathetic this live sex act was going to be, a young stud with sandy hair and a handle bar mustache walked out from behind the red curtains and had sex with her doggy-style while pretending to wipe copious amounts of fake sweat from his brow as if to comment on his diligent work. I think this was the first time I ever felt heartburn.
Unsettled by what was occurring before me, I turned around in my chair towards Howard for support like I did that day Walter Simonson annihilated my Prince record. I turned to my mentor, my guru, my hero, for some sense of gravity, sanity, normalcy, an anchor, hell – a life preserver, and what I saw before me was a 5-year old Howard Chaykin hunched down in his seat, hand cupping his gaping mouth while his bespectacled eyes betrayed and magnified a full blown blush. A combination of horror, hilarity, embarrassment, and regret made rosy by his red cheeks. That may have been the only moment in my shared history with Howard where I was the adult and he was the child. It was sublime. Whenever I hear or see Howard Chaykin’s name, I think about the one time I saw him blush and it always makes me smile.
Thank you, Howard Chaykin, for taking me under your wing and for gracing me with your humor, your intelligence, your wisdom, and for your inset panels. And, even though at an early age I decided I was going to draw comic books for a living when I grew up, I think I can only claim half that mission statement. So, thanks for helping keep our industry smart and thriving and me, a 12-year old boy at heart.
This essay was originally published in The Art of Howard Chaykin, by Robert Greenberger.
Howard Chaykin photograph by Seth Kushner.