by Patrick Keller
Groucho Marx once said, "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member." But if Groucho had to choose between Fight Club or Bite Club, which do you think he (or any sane person) would pick? Let's see: sweaty, half-naked men beating the living hell out of one another in dingy basements, or oversexed vampire mobsters living it up in sun-soaked Miami?
As it happens, the same goes for Howard Chaykin, legendary comics writer/artist of such seminal works as American Flagg!, Black Kiss, Blackhawk, and, more recently, Bite Club, the 6-issue miniseries for DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, starring the aforementioned vampire Mafia. And as if that weren't enough to keep him busy, this summer saw the start of his daring reimagining of Jack Kirby's groundbreaking Challengers of the Unknown. It's been a busy year for a creator who spent the better part of the last two decades away from the printed page while he wrote and produced television shows like Mutant X and Earth: The Final Conflict.
"After all those years of eighty hour work weeks," Chaykin explains, "I decided it was time to take a step back and see if the muscles I use to do comics were still operative — at least for a while. What I discovered was that those skills were still tight, my chops were good — and more importantly, I was emotionally happier, physically healthier, and more spiritually grounded. So here I am."
Chaykin is widely acknowledged as a master of the craft, with a bibliography as impressive as it is long, a feat made more impressive by the fact that he often does nearly all the heavy lifting on his books solo: writing, pencilling, inking. It can be a daunting task for prospective collaborators to work alongside such an accomplished trailblazer. "I often find it difficult to get other artists to work as hard as I do, so I have to be a bit careful in what I ask of talent. My scripts are anally detailed — including, to the dismay of some artists, indication of panel size and scale." This is something Bite Club artist David Hahn, who was hand-selected by Chaykin out of dozens of other potential artists for the project, can personally attest to. "Vertigo editor Shelly Bond and I had been trying to work together on a project for some time," Hahn says. "When Bite Club came along and Howard asked if I was available, well, everything just fell into place.
"I really loved his Flagg stuff and of course Blackhawk. I was nervous when I had my first conference call with Howard and [Bite Club co-writer] David Tischman," continues Hahn, whose "only" major credits prior to Bite are an issue of DC Comics' Robin and his own award-winning Slave Labor Graphics Private Beach series, "but after that everything was fine. The scripts were tight, but I had wiggle room to add panels or changes little things here and there.
"So far," Hahn admits, "the only difference between working with Howard and working with other writers is people always ask me 'What's it like working with Howard Chaykin?' Answer: Fab."
The book itself takes vampires about as far away from Dracula's archetypal Transylvania as one can get. In Bite Club, vampires are just another minority in society, albeit one with unusual abilities and a social mystique not far removed from, say, Paris Hilton. Here, vampirism is less a soul-destroying burden and more a cool accessory, like an Armani suit or Manolo Blahniks. "We simply wanted to step away from the legends and religio-spiritual aspects of vampirism," Chaykin says. "Normalize it, if you will. Vampires are the perfect vessel for metaphoric stories — from AIDS, to addiction, et cetera. David [Tischman] and I were very high on using the concept as a metaphor for the immigrant experience."
Ironically, Leto, the character Chaykin and company crafted to remove vampires from their spiritual baggage, happens to be a priest, albeit a vampire priest, the first of his kind in the Catholic Church. He also happens to be the prodigal son of Miami's notorious Del Toro crime syndicate, and when his father is killed under mysterious circumstances, he is drawn back into the complicated morass of the family business: drugs, murder, extortion, you name it. Can he stay faithful to his oath and keep his hands clean?
Now, really... where would be the fun in that?
Leto is quite a departure (at least initially) from the hard-drinkin', hard-livin' protagonists that populate many of Chaykin's books. Chaykin insists this is a natural outgrowth of the story. "Leto evolved organically, without any conscious thought of making him any more butch than he is. Of course, then there’s Risa…" Risa being Leto's... shall we say, "unusually close" sister, a partygirl/record label president who isn't afraid to step outside the rules to get what she wants, whether that be signing a hot new band or gaining her brother's affection. (One trademark in nearly all of Chaykin's work is attention to sexual appetites of all kinds. "I’m a bit of a voyeur, and a bit adventurous, too," he says by way of explanation.)
The mob angle came naturally, Chaykin says. "David [Tischman] and I are both steeped in crime and organized crime fiction, from The Godfather, to Wiseguys, to The Sopranos."
The Chaykin/Tischman partnership, which has brought the comics world everything from Angel and the Ape to The Secret Society of Superheroes, American Century to Son of Superman, has come to an end with Bite Club, after a long, productive run together that dates back to the early days of Chaykin's time in Hollywood. "David is a comic book fan from way back. We met when he was an executive, and doing comics together simply evolved as our friendship grew. We tend to have different approaches to similar ideas, which made for a nice match, but I will say we’re no longer working together, having gone on to other projects."
Among the first projects on the newly solo Chaykin's plate is the relaunch of Challengers, a comic that has allowed him to return to his roots, in more ways than one. "I’d wanted to be a comics artist since I was four years old," he reminisces, "when a slightly older cousin gave me a refrigerator packing crate filled with comics. I loved everything about them — the look, the feel, the smell — and ultimately, I taught myself to read, parsing out the words.
"I got my actual start in the field as an assistant to four giants — Gil Kane, Wallace Wood, Gray Morrow, and Neal Adams — first as gofer, then filling in blacks, then ghost penciling." From there, he made the leap to full-fledged creator in his own right on titles like Ironwolf and Cody Starbuck (the latter appearing in Heavy Metal magazine), before being chosen to draw the comics adaptation for Star Wars. For many readers, however, Chaykin truly came into his own with the tour-de-force that was American Flagg!, an eerily prescient series that foretold everything from reality television to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resultant chaos in the territories that it dominated.
And, as it happens, much of the groundwork for Chaykin's Challengers series was laid in the pages of Flagg. "The television elements in Challengers of the Unknown derive from Flagg!" (For those who may have missed Flagg the first time around, or perhaps misplaced their issues long ago, Chaykin helpfully points out, will be reprinted soon by Dynamic Forces in "a new deluxe edition that will be out in November 2004 — check it out.") As in Flagg!, the media has an oppressive presence that goes well beyond merely reporting and into the realm of outright manipulation. Readers should have no trouble connecting KnowNowNet News channel in Challengers to its real life counterpart. And Chaykin is fine with this... to a point. "It’s certainly satirical — but when I consider the state of the union these days, it’s far from an exaggeration. I make no secret of my political leanings, but at the same time, I am not necessarily my characters. The audience frequently and mistakenly makes that stretch."
Still, he cautions, the book's message is very much one he supports: "Don’t believe what you hear or see — and get to know who your friends and enemies are."
There is a lot going on in Chaykin's Challengers. The book opens with a horrific botched assassination attempt (or... was it?), an event broadcast again and again by smirking anchors ("I thought starting the book with a woman having her head turned into red mist was hitting the ground running," Chaykin says with aplomb), and turned into political capital before the body is even cold. Into this quagmire come our protagonists: A junkie, an extreme athlete, a hip-hop recording artist, an industrial saboteur, and a muckraker. Before they can get their bearings, Long Beach, California, is turned into a smoking crater. Somehow, the five of them survive, and a mystery is afoot.
Sharp readers will recall the connection to the original iteration of the Challengers, who survived a plane crash together, and realized they were living on borrowed time. But where the original found the team turning to exploration and adventure, Chaykin instead focuses on political intrigue, conspiracies, and manipulation. "I was asked by Dan DiDio to take a radical whack at the material," he reveals. "I felt that to a profound extent, much of the original series had been obviated by The X-Files, so I felt it was imperative to find a new agenda and a new approach." Taking a "new approach" with a beloved (albeit neglected) property can be risky, but Chaykin saw it as a challenge, pardon the pun. "I’m always concerned about [doing a radical revamp], but it’s never stopped me from leaping off the cliff — with the hope that the audience will follow me for the ride."
And besides, nothing in his book attempts to invalidate those that have gone before. "As you read the series, you’ll note that one doesn’t eliminate the other, and that they can exist side-by-side."
Chaykin has high hopes for the book. "The Challengers of the Unknown might very likely go on as a monthly," he says. Not that he will want for things to do. "Once Challengers is finished, I’ll start City of Tomorrow, a creator owned science fiction action adventure for Wildstorm, an issue of Solo for Mark Chiarello, as well as a couple of projects I can’t go into right now."
And more Bite Club seems likely. "The sales figures are much, much higher than anyone expected," Hahn reveals. "Issue four sold more copies than was projected for issue number one! Bite Club had very strong numbers for any book, let alone a creator-owned, Vertigo mini-series with unknown characters. I would love to see a sequel, and there is plenty of room for one when issue six ends. I think a sequel would be even more fun to draw than the first mini-series."
Chaykin is open to the idea as well, but he's not waiting for that to happen to work with Hahn again. "We’re talking about other projects, and as I write, he’s about to start the artwork on a story for The Escapist at Dark Horse."
He also has a dream project lurking in his drawer. "I’ve got a very personal book entitled Midnight of the Soul, a period crime book that I’ll do someday."
With any luck, we will get to see that dream come true soon, along with much, much more.