By Vernon Miles
Howard Chaykin is honest—often brutally so. If any writer or artist currently working in comics today is positioned to write an honest account of the industry and all of its realpolitik ramifications, it’s Chaykin.
The writer and artist started his career at 19, working for comics legend and Amazing Spider-Man artist Gil Kane. Since that period, Chaykin has both produced a number of medium-defining works as well as collaborated with a stable of writers and artists who are now household names. And throughout those eras, Chaykin has remained a consistent mainstay of the industry since the 1970s. His past work, from the political American Flagg! to the erotic Black Kiss, solidified him as one of the preeminent trailblazers into mature, and often provocative, works that would redefine what a comic could be. And with that experience, Chaykin holds a singular perspective.
These accumulative decades fuel his latest venture, Hey Kids! Comics!, and it works damn well in light of that expertise. The new series tells the story of comics across a half century, highlighting the biographies of the men and women who shaped the industry, albeit working under an analogous mask of historical fiction.
“I opted to do a book in which this first arc covers the transition from the so-called Golden Age to the Silver Age, with a nod at the Bronze Age,” Chaykin says. “The real-life inspirations for many of these characters were men and women I knew at the beginning of my career. My generation of talent, and every generation that follows, owes a huge debt to these pioneers. We all stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Each issue features six-page sequences taking place in 1945, 1955, 1965, and 2001. These stories spotlight the wide-eyed innovators in the post-war era and the adversity that shapes them in the following decades. It begins in 1945, as recent military discharges Ted Whitman and Ray Clarke attempt to reenter the burgeoning world of comics creation. They both did some work before the draft, and now meet again in New York City as they pivot their careers at Yankee Comics Publications, Inc. Within, they reconnect with Benita Heindel, a woman with no intention of leaving her job at the publishing house now that the returning men are looking for the jobs women filled during the war. But at least for the moment, the world of tights and superheroes has seen its day, and the creators who survive the cutthroat medium will be tasked with discovering “the next big thing.”
“Ted, Ray, and Benita are amalgams of men and women who did comics from the ’40s on—the decade when the language itself was codified,” Chaykin says. “All the characters are combinations and conflations of the colorful men and women who made up the business before I was born, and who handed it over, sometimes kicking and screaming, to my generation. Like every man and woman who works in comics today, I owe my career to these all too easily forgotten and dismissed artists, writers, and editors.”
Though Chaykin expresses reverence for these figures, Hey Kids! Comics! doesn’t fall on a crutch of saccharine sentimentality. Ted, Ray, and Benita aren’t caricatures; they’re people facing real obstacles and failings. A black man, Ted faces a segregated industry eager to relegate him to niche publishing, while Benita similarly navigates a field that holds to its “boys’ club” roots.
“Like everybody, [Ted] ends up on the short end of the stick,” Chaykin explains. “But talent will out, and getting pigeonholed is only a tiny part of his story. As for Ray, his struggle is more basic—he’s got no skills and no ideas. And Benita, the smartest of the three, has the fact that she’s a woman in a business made up of boy men and mobbed-up sharks to deal with.”
Chaykin’s commitment to an unvarnished telling of the industry’s evolution is even coded into the artwork. In a medium populated by characters with, as Ray sarcastically calls them, “men in tights and dames...,” everyone in Hey Kids! Comics! adheres to a realism that defies airbrushed models and testosterone-addled strongmen. The sweeping cityscapes are beautiful, but its denizens sport receding hairlines and patchy facial hair. Chaykin has no illusions about these figures as the gods they once wrote and drew; they’re people trying to make ends meet and are infinitely more relatable via their rendering.
The dismissal of valuable writers and artists and hiring of hacks doesn’t end in the ’40s, though. As the story moves into the ’50s, creators who’ve worked in the industry for over a decade still find themselves on the razor’s edge.
“What does time on the job turning out horseshit have to do with it?” exclaims one producer. “It’s just junk for idiots and children, and every one of you is replaceable without a moment’s hesitation.”
Chaykin has seen this tragedy in his own lifetime, and it carries through to today where comic franchises form the backbone of American pop culture.
“Comic books are dying a slow and painful death… as, at the same time, Hollywood is banking billions on movies based on material that 99.99.99 percent of those ticket buyers are utterly unaware exists… and if they find out, they don’t care,” Chaykin laments. “So we’re not talking about a tail that wags the dog—this is a flea that makes the tail of a massive dog twitch.”