[Retrospective]Howard Chaykin's American Century

Bobby DerieBobby Derie Registered User regular

Howard Chaykin reminds me a lot of Michael Moorcock. In that, they can tell different stories with different characters, but at the same time it's also the same story with the same character. Even when Howard Chaykin isn't writing a rock-jawed Jewish-American male of Russian descent who is an avowed fan of Jazz...he sort of still is. Or something to that effect. Readers are probably more familiar with him from stuff like American Flagg or the reboots of Blackhawk and The Shadow (both not-to-be-missed!), or even his adult fare with with Black Kiss and Black Kiss II, but hands-down my absolute favorite series written and drawn by Howard Chaykin (David Tischman co-wrote) is American Century, which ran for 27 issues from 2001 to 2003...only the first third of which are collected.

One issue was actually a western flashback to an ancestor of Kraft's. I don't know why, I think Chaykin just wanted to write a western.

American Century starts in the 1950s, where Harry Kraft is an ex-Air Force pilot going through the motions of the American dream, with a frigid wife and surrounded by all the pompous, stuck-up assholes he hates. Kraft is your stereotypical Chaykin protagonist - the kind of guy that might have walked out of a hardboiled detective novel, but they wouldn't let him in the country club because he's Jewish. He's not a bleeding-heart liberal, but he is a liberal in the truest sense of the word - he just wants to be free; has no hang-ups about race or sex, and doesn't like small-minded power-mad assholes living their petty, dickish little lives.

The Korean War is heating up, and the Air Force decides to recall Kraft to active duty...and he gives them the finger. Literally says fuck it to his old life, fakes his death, and high-tales it down to Central America. The rest of the series follows Kraft through some of the seedier sides of American history in the 1950s, from bootleg liquor getting organized to political hijinks and murder in Hollywood; sort of like American Pop if the focus was on sex & crime rather than sex & rock & roll.

You could do worse than have this be the soundtrack to this series.

This was a Vertigo series, so Chaykin and Tischman could really take the gloves off - not going so far as, let us say, Black Kiss II, but it allowed them to show nipples and use dirty language when the story required it, and most especially it let them focus in on some stories that would have made the Comics Code Authority piss themselves. The stories have been described as pulp novels in comic format, and that's not a bad description: they don't fit neatly into any one genre, the plots tend to be complicated and come up with film noir-esque quirks and reveals, and everybody is playing their own game. What really shines, however, are some of the little moments...

One of my favorite little bits is at the beginning of issue #8. Harry has been working as a security guard for a Hollywood firm and gets involved in politics, organized crime, and a kidnapping involving a Mexican Marilyn Monroe look-alike. He's banging the widow he's renting a room from, and her son is spending his nights at gay bars wearing lipstick and accepting drinks, which is where Harry finds him. So Harry's driving him home, and this is the conversation:
Harry: We're almost home--wanna talk about it?

Kid: You gonna tell my mom?

Harry: Nothing to tell.

Kid: Harry--I'm a fairy!

Harry: Like I give a shit. As long as you're happy, Tim, I don't are if you're a Martian.

Kid: Somtimes that's just how I feel.

Harry: It's tough being different--but stop apologizing for who you are. You wanna be a homosexual, fine--but be a man about it.

Tim later uses this to his advantage to blackmail a McCarthy-analogue to get a crooked politician forcibly drafted to serve on the front lines in Korea. Let this be a lesson to you kids! Don't prostitute yourself to politicians - but if you do, make sure you get enough dirt to bury them!

Which is not the series in a nutshell, but it's sort of the spirit of the series. Hell, it might even be the spirit of Chaykin in so many words. Be a man about it. Okay, it's not politically correct. You're never going to mistake Howard Chaykin or one of his characters for a "Social Justice Warrior" (and anybody that uses that phrase unironically or without scare quotes is not to be trusted); because it's an attitude that owes more to old men's adventure magazines and novels than it does to feel-good social progress. It's macho without being a testosterone-poisoning polemic or unrepentantly crude or sophomoric, and it's progressive without being whiny or annoying or apologetic. And American Century isn't a comment on American society as much as it is a story of not holding too many cows sacred. The 50s wasn't some golden era where everybody was living life like an episode of Leave It To Beaver. It wasn't a golden age. It was just a time like any other - where people were trying to get by, and the American dream wasn't the same for everyone, no matter how hard they might all be striving for it.

I like this series because it's smart and clever - which are two different things - and because it's uncensored without feeling the need to be dirty. It's gritty in the way that old issues of Hellblazer and Preacher are gritty, where Constantine might have to think about how to dispose of a murderer or Jesse Custer might have beer with a rapist. That's the world they live in, full of crime and venality. It's a different, harsher world than you get from a Superman comic, where nobody has to worry about Batman drinking too early in the day or Wonder Woman investigating the firebombing of an abortion clinic or woman's shelter or something. They're stories told about people that, however weird the crowds they get mixed up in, are ultimately very human stories.

Also, holy Hanna Barbara but this comic (#8) has an ad for the first season of Smallville.

Raise your hand if you remember this one.

I like superhero comics. I always have. But maybe it's part of growing up, I also got a taste for what comics could be, away from the spandex-and-latex crowd. American Century is a good example of that. It's not for everybody. It's definitely not for kids. But it's got witty dialogue and moves fast, and it doesn't mind leaving the readers to put the pieces together instead of spoon-feeding them the story, and it's one of those series I can read again and again without getting tired of it.

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