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Trouble with Comics, Guest Reviewer Month - Jamie S. Rich on Howard Chaykin's Time2

Guest Reviewer Month - Jamie S. Rich on Howard Chaykin’s Time2

Jamie S. Rich is one of the first people I got to know in the comics industry. He was Editor-in-Chief of Oni Press, and to my mind, the heart of it. He was generous and kind to a newcomer then, not just with books but time (heck, he made me some CDs, too). As he moved into his current career as full-time freelance writer, I haven’t kept in touch the way I should, but when I have, he’s remained as generous as ever. Funny, talented and possessing impeccable taste, Jamie has enriched every project with which he’s been involved, and helped many searching creators find their voices. I’m fascinated with this review, both as someone finding his appreciation of Howard Chaykin gaining more and more lately, and because Jamie touches on one of the (few?) great things about getting older: if you’re lucky (or maybe just been through a lot of crap), you find you can now see some works of art you didn’t get before, or on a deeper level.—Chris Allen.

Time2: The Epiphany; Time2: The Satisfaction of Black Mariah

Writer/Artist: Howard Chaykin
Additional Art:
Ken Bruzenak, Steve Oliff, John Moore, Richard Ory
Publisher:
First Comics - $7.95 each (though totally out of print)

Time2
is a comic I’ve waited more than twenty years to read a second time. I’m not kidding. Me and this book have a history, but it’s one with a huge gap in it. I bought these Howard Chaykin comics when they came out back in 1986. I had read his Shadow miniseries from DC, and was just discovering American Flagg!. My first issue of that was the Special, the one that introduced Time2, a crossover between Chaykin’s most popular series and his new creative adventure. I remember reading it on a Sunday morning at my mother’s. I was 14 and about to go to my first Creation Convention in Los Angeles. Guests were Jo Duffy, John Romita Jr., and Howard Chaykin. I arrived with my copy of the Shadow TPB and the American Flagg! Special in tow. I talked to Howard about his new book, and he pulled out the entire first graphic novel, a huge stack of art boards. He told me to take a look, said he hadn’t showed it to anybody outside the studio before. I hadn’t yet learned the word “plotz,” but plotz I did.*

There were two Time2 graphic novels, stand-alone stories that also worked together to build a larger narrative. They were published by First Comics in 1986 and 1987, and they are in a format we don’t see that much anymore. 48 pages, squarebound, full color, measuring 8 1/2” by 11”. Costing $7.95 a pop, they’d have eaten up most of my weekly allowance on new comics day. Both my copies are signed, including an inscription from Richard Ory on the second one. “See you in Hell! (But in a nice way of course.)” Today they feel like rare artifacts. When was the last time I even saw these books anywhere? 1987 would have been the year of my first San Diego Comic Con, and if Howard Chaykin wasn’t a special guest that year, he was the next year, because it would have been right around then that I went to a special hour panel spotlighting him. I remember he refused to sit in chairs on the stage, instead sat on the lip of it so he was closer to the audience. He talked about a lot of things, including where Time2 fit in his canon.

He looked out at the crowd — and in my teenaged brain, right at me — and basically said, “I don’t think anyone here is old enough to even understand that book. Time2 is a middle-aged man’s book. You’ve got to have gone through some stuff to really get what it’s about.” And this is why I spent two decades not re-reading Time2. I thought about it from time to time. These books survived many moves, traveled from California to Oregon, often winked at me from my shelves. The cover of the first volume, The Epiphany, is still one of my favorites. But I was waiting. I had to go through some stuff first.

Well, stuff’s been gone through, I’m heading toward the age equator, and now that I’ve spent a couple of hours getting reacquainted with Time2, all I can say is, “Holy geez god what the — WOW!” I know I strain the boundaries of hyperbole here, but these two books are like some kind of lost masterpiece. How is it that these aren’t constantly being talked about? How is fandom not collectively rattling some cages to get these comics reprinted? More people should know about this! Time2 is truly one of the weirdest, craziest, most gonzo pieces of sci-fi pulp fiction you’re ever going to come across. Howard Chaykin has created a unique and fully realized world. It’s the type of thing that the Europeans get a lot of praise for doing in their books, but only a guy born in Newark, NJ, raised in the latter half of the 20th century on comics and jazz and nutso 1960s dreams of a whacked-out future could have come up with Time2.

It’s an American creation the way hardboiled detective novels and film noir are American (despite the latter’s fancy French moniker), the way bebop is American, the way comics have always been American. Not in any flag-waving sense, but in its dirty rebel spirit. Time2is the tale of a future overcrowded with neon lights and advertising. It’s a mash-up of art deco design, the seediness of old-school New York, and a cynicism about the idea of a better tomorrow. It is simultaneously nostalgic for a past Chaykin knows never was and a future that can never be. As with any period of human history, man and woman alike are concerned with eternal youth and living forever. They currently have two options: Deja-Voodoo, which will make you an undead zombie, or Reincarnimation, which transfers everything you are into a robot that looks just like you. Neither is perfect, and both have caused civil rights problems and stirred up the populace that still lives normally. In fact, The Epiphany opens with robot-related deaths. First, there is a killer on the streets, a kind of Jack the Ripper calling himself Mr. Fix-It that is dismantling prostitute robots (the nomenclature for the ’bots is “devoidoid,” and the hookers are called “taxi dancers,” because you pay to take a ride). More important, though, is a has-been saxophone player and nightclub owner named Cosmo Jacobi, who entered into a suspicious suicide pact with his mechanical lover. It’s this death that causes the hero of Time2 to return to town after six years away. Maxim Glory was an artist who mastered in the Kinetic Arts, a metal-and-gears style of sculpture. He was famous for a series called “Prime Narrative” (I love these names). Maxim got himself in trouble with the local Jewish gangsters and had to go on the lam, leaving his girlfriend, a reporter named Pansy Matthias, to nights of loneliness and his main man Cosmo to take the rap. Now that Cosmo is dead, Maxim has returned. He doesn’t believe his buddy would kill himself. It’s a pretty straight-up potboilin’ film noir plot, but Chaykin goes all out with it.

Time2: The Epiphany is loaded with characters and concepts and storytelling devices strung together in a delicate narrative that Chaykin pulls as tight as he can, stopping just before the threads snap. In addition to the characters that step in and out of their own story, he drives the exposition with a talk show host named Diogenes Pilgrim, a riff on Walter Winchell who would actually be right at home on the radio and cable news today. (A prescient Chaykin has him on Kineo, a device that appears to be a melding of radio and early TV.) Pilgrim provides a holier-than-thou voiceover to the proceedings, while three strutting hepcats share the gossipy word on the street. The two choruses trade off throughout The Epiphany, and it’s a little disappointing that Chaykin didn’t make these elements as central in the second book, The Satisfaction of Black Mariah. Chaykin had explored a lot of similar storytelling techniques in Flagg!, though most people either really experienced it the first time or felt it was perfected by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns (also published in 1986). Well, they’d be a bit off the mark; Miller used the media commentary and other devices well, but Chaykin had set the precedent. The style was perfected right here in Time2. These books are like ground zero for so much innovation we take for granted today. Open it to any page and just look at how Chaykin lays out his panels, how he constructs each unit. He does so much within the space, hooking the reader’s eye from the first panel and using the art and the balloons to lead him or her down in all manner of patterns, always ending up at the bottom right and kicked up to the next page.

For my money, Ken Bruzenak is the all-time champion of comic book lettering. There are words everywhere in Time2, including panels filled with background effects. I can only assume that this was all done by hand. There’s a reason Brian Michael Bendis was excited to get Bruzenak on Powers, and if you look at the way Ken and Howard arrange their balloons, it’s obvious there would be no Brian Bendis without this book. If you look at the complicated page layouts, you see there would be no J.H. Williams III. The odder Vertigo books, the ones with conspiracy theories and alternate realities and future societies (namely, stuff without superheroes or fairies) now seem like homage. Whether a direct influence or not, he great things those guys are doing — what we’re all doing — started right here. Hell, Maxim’s sculptures even look a hell of a lot like Paul Pope’s Martian Meks in THB! The Satisfaction of Black Mariah takes us deeper into the politics of Time2. Maxim has returned for good, robot rights are at a boil, and some sexed-up androids are violating unsuspecting humans — much to their satisfaction, mind you, but it leaves them dead. The main offender is a police car, the titular Black Mariah, whose front grill is designed for oral pleasure. Mariah is the car of the top cop in the 2, a scary-looking Celtic bog monster named Bon Ton MacHoot. (Didn’t I tell you this book was crazy?) All the while, Cosmo’s “widow” is getting more action than she wants, and Pansy can’t get any, because Maxim keeps getting distracted. Both volumes of Time2 are hormonally charged and ribald.

Though American Flagg! was certainly not for the innocents, Chaykin was clearly using the more expensive format to take this book to areas that the more traditional periodical would not allow. The double entendres and even the more up-front sexual dynamic most definitely went over my head back then. Given that the most steamy relationships I had likely seen in funnybooks prior were in X-Men comics, I wasn’t really ready for a demon masquerading as a robot going down on a gunsel. (And I certainly wasn’t ready for Chaykin’s full-on smut comic, Black Kiss, due for a reprint from Dynamite in May.) In fact, Howard was right. I wasn’t ready for Time2 back then. I needed to take some time away from the 2 the way Maxim did, get myself sorted out before I could come back and set up shop. Perhaps that’s why the series doesn’t get the same action as his other books from the period. American Flagg! was cutting-edge satire and science fiction, Black Kiss was designed to shock and titillate, but Time2 was demanding. The surface style was appealing, but also convoluted and clearly a mask for much deeper themes. There is some heavy-duty stuff going on here. Chaykin is talking about the artistic process and living with one’s mistakes, about the clash of old-world superstition and new-world technology, about learning not to care about the stupid crap and also how to deal with relationships as an adult who actually knows a thing or two—again, heavy-duty stuff you’ve had to live through to appreciate. Is it possible that it went over everyone’s heads? And did Howard take these books away from us as a result? It makes me think of when the Who released “I Can See For Miles” and got so angry at the record-buying public for not getting how good it was, Pete Townshend declared them unworthy**. If this is the case, I hope somewhere down the line Howard Chaykin will give us all a second chance.

* (Digression 1: Years later, when Richard Ory, who worked on the books, and I ran into each other, he made fun of me for still telling the above story. “You’re going to be an old man, drunk in the gutter, clutching your bottle. ‘I was the first person to see Time2!’” Well, guess he was right.)

** (Digression 2: This was repeated years later when Blur got so pissy about “Popscene” not charting, they left it off the UK edition of their best album, Modern Life is Rubbish, which itself could be a subtitle for Time2.)

Jamie S. Rich is the author of many novels and comics. His best known are perhaps his collaborations with artist Joëlle Jones: the romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her and the pulpy detective story You Have Killed Me. The pair are due to release their third Oni Press team-up, the rude teen-witch comedy Spell Checkers, created with artist Nicolas Hitori De. You don’t have to have been through stuff to understand it, except maybe having gone to high school. Follow Jamie at his blog, Confessions of a Pop Fan

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