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On Chaykin And Black Kiss

As you well know Howard Chaykin is making news for his content in the first issue of his Divided States of Hysteria and the fourth issue’s cover. Before going further I think a confession might be in order. I fell in love with Howard Chaykin’s artwork the first time I came across it as a young teen in the pages of DC’s short Sword of Sorcery which featured adaptations by Denny O’Neil of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser characters. This was DC’s short lived response to Robert E Howard’s Conan that Marvel was adapting. While Barry Windsor Smith drawing nipples on Conan caught my eye it was the Gray Mouse who I secretly crushed on as a closeted teen in small town America. When this series ended Chaykin’s art next appeard in the final three issues of Weird World when he and O’Neil teamed up again to create the sci fi fantasy world of Iron-Wolf. I was hooked and followed Chaykin at Marvel where he and Len Wein created Dominic Fortune, the Scorpion for the aborted Atlas Comics upstart which was followed by Cody Starbuck, a more adult oriented character for Star*Reach and then on to his American Flagg series followed by his takes on Blackhawks and The Shadow. Chaykin took a gamble of sorts around this time but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Several matters raised numerous vocal objections to Chaykin’s newest work. Specifically, the depiction of a transgender character and the usage of tropes put upon her character and to a lesser degree (based on a limited reading of a number of responses which may not have been a representative sample) the usage of stereotypes that Muslims are terrorists. The subject of issue four’s cover was a depiction of a lynched Pakistani American man with pulled down pants to expose genital mutilation. A slur is scrawled on his name badge. The noose is strung over a business sign that promises a “free happy ending wih any homestyle meal”. Chaykin’s composition is basic one point perspective with the man’s body to the left of the vanishing point line. Such a basic art technique makes it difficult for the viewer’s eye not to be drawn immediately into the imagined physical as well as emotional spaces of the image. Shades of purple, once the color associated with European royalty and the Popes and also madness though I may be mistaken on this point, dominate the title area and portions of the foreground and midground. You can Google this image if you want. As a result of reactions to the aforementioned, Chaykin and Image agreed to pull this cover and the not yet seen cover for issue #6. An unanticipated consequence to the anger and dismay over issue #1 led to a second printing and possibly more readers buying the remainder of the mini series which seems a bit somewhat like the cliche of people being attracted to a terrible wreck.

Chaykin and Image have issued an explanation and apology for the above mentioned, stating that the story’s purpose is to: “… sound alarms. THE DIVIDED STATES OF HYSTERIA is a comic book about the terrifying future we are heading for if our country remains on its current path. Far from an endorsement of the horrible violence depicted or the ugly language used by many of the characters, Howard’s goal is to give us a glimpse into a society crumbling under the weight of ignorance, hatred, and intolerance. It’s unsettling to be sure, but it’s difficult to convey the horrors of a world gone wrong without also showing what it looks like.” It should be noted that Chaykin issued a separate statement which some people believe hints he wasn’t fully on board with the statement published at the link.

Such glimpses have become more evident on a daily basis since the comic’s original publication date in 2016 was pushed back and the subsequent reactions to a new administration. It is without a doubt that transgender people are aware of an increasing amount of hate incited speech, bigotry laid bare by bathroom bills and evangelical figures decrying trans people as the new moral evil as (cisgender) gays, lesbians, and bisexual people find more broad support following marriage equality. Sophie Lab Transgender people are acutely aware of their employment prospects and that they can rely on employment discrimination laws in less than half of US states. They are just as acutely aware that some people consider them as nothing other than a sexual fetish by which they’d like to transgress the conservative values to which they otherwise adhere. Certainly people of color and people practicing other faiths are aware of the increase of racism and bigotry. Cartoonist Sophie Labelle certainly understands the contempt by which trans people are targeted. Certainly people of color and people practicing faiths other than Christianity are aware of the rise of racism and bigotry in the US. And certainly the greater LGBT community is aware (or should be) that cabinet positions in the current administration are headed by some very anti-LGBT people whose lack of qualifications would otherwise disqualify. Which is only to say that their joint disdain is a bonus for the current White House resident.

As briefly mentioned above, this series was originally scheduled to run starting last year. December may have been the date, but I can’t find anything to corroborate this. The factors that played into the rescheduling are not public knowledge as far as I know. I can imagine Chaykin taking note of events and attitudes in Washington and across the country between December and March being the impetus for adding this comic to Image’s solicitations in Diamond’s April Previews. A cynical attitude leads to me wonder if Chaykin might have been concerned that his Divided States might be overshadowed by real world events. I digress a little.

Now I empathize with every trans person who is sick and tired of how cisgender people burden trans characters with tropes in comics and other media. How is it different from gay men being fed up when gay characters were portrayed as evil or simpering, effeminate buffoons as cruel jokes?

Chaykin has stated his trans woman Chrissy is the moral center of the story and her back story is based on “several real people that I have known and continue to know”.  After reading the first issue I can’t say that I necessarily disagree with Chaykin on Chrissy being the moral center. This may be the case, but it seems a matter of damning with faint praise as the other characters are more flawed and more reprehensible than she. True, Chrissy (who is unnamed till the last page of her scene and then is dead named) survives the violence that infects all the Iraqi businessmen when one of them freaks out upon seeing her till then concealed genitals. She survives by murdering them with a gun as an act of self defence, an act which many Americans would be reluctant to believe. What is Chaykin saying when he makes a trans character kill in order to live when by and large trans people want to live happy, at least treated with scorn and retribution. Every trans woman of whom I know even surperficially is trying her best not to be clocked and put in a potentially dangerous situation.

Rather than revisit the points made recently by trans and cis people critical of Chaykin’s handling of Chrissy, which I am starting to do, I thought I would examine another of Chaykin’s oeuvre — the infamous The Black Kiss.

Another confession. I sporadically bought several issues of Black Kiss back then. I did so because I was following Chaykin and while I don’t recall being upset but I did think it was a mess of a story. I also was unaware of knowing any trans people at this point in my life. I say “unaware” because several years ago I learned a former boyfriend had begun transitioning and my reaction to this development was “oh, this makes sense now.” Seven to ten years ago I became aware of Black Kiss again, having read something about it being exploitative. After it arrived in the mail I looked through it and immediately closed it, suppressing my urge to throw it across the room. I was content to keep it filed away, not wanting to give or sell or burn it, until the first issue of Divided States appeared. Here it is a month later and Divided is still eliciting reactions. And so I decided to read and examine Black Kiss as a way to gauge Chaykin and his handling of trans characters.

The cover of the Black Kiss trade (Eros 2000 edition) depicts the supple nude body of a woman. Her hair is above shoulder length. Her eyes are blindfolded. Another woman’s hands wearing opera gloves reaches from behind her to grab her ample breasts. The expression on her face is one of anticipation. It’s a scenario, with or without the gloves, that has probably played out numerous times in the privacy of homes. The blindfolded woman is named Dagmar Laine. She is the lover, acolyte, devotee, and willing thrall of Beverly Grove. It is Beverly’s gloved hands which we see. Dagmar is a queer trans woman while Beverly is bisexual. Beverly’s current line of work is being a madam who employs a select number of young women including Dagmar. Set in 1980s Los Angeles, the plot consists of Beverly trying to obtain the last copy of a privately made film which is damning proof of Beverly’s secret past; this same copy having been in the Vatican’s pornography collection until it was smuggled out. Enter lead male character Cass Pollack, jazz musician, former heroin addict, and all around asshole of a husband on the verge of a divorce. He’s also on the run from the Mafia who decide to kill his wife and young daughter when they tire of him not appearing at the motel where they’re secretly holed up. Not that Pollack doesn’t intend to make it back to his family. He just gets delayed when he picks up Beverly who appears from nowhere on the side of a highway begging Pollack to take her home and as payment she gives him the best road head he’s ever had. Later that day Pollack learns of his wife and daughter’s murders and believing himself to be a prime suspect tries to hide from the police. When his efforts prove futile he returns to Beverly’s home in the hopes of convincing Dagmar to provide his alibi. Dagmar agrees on the condition that Pollack gets back the film for the two women. And so the plot, such as it is, is set in motion.

In addition to Chaykin’s trio here he gives us a corrupt narcotics police captain and Eric. Ricky his trusted lieutenant/ mobster who’s a repeat client of Dagmar who just loves having rough anal sex with her. There’s a Catholic priest with a subscription to Bondage Bride Monthly and a fetish for young, blind prostitutes. We have a woman disguised as a nun wearing CFM pumps (another fetish!) who’s also a member of a secret Satanic cult that reaches back to the early days of Hollywood. A blackmailer who purposely lisps when leaving messages on Dagmar’s answering machine. Lorenzo Varadi owns a record store where his daughter Rosemary also works. Both are friends with Pollack. Pollack enlists Rosemary to be his sidekick. She enjoys having sex with Pollack in the record store. Her fetish is the fantasy of having sex with black men but is too scared by the prospect and instead settles on Jewish men. Hence Pollack. And on page 68 there’s a cuckolding scene in a funeral home that heavily implies said cuckolded husband having sex with the body of a 23 year old born again virgin Christian woman.

Chaykin resorted to the trope of the transgender trap not once but twice. A little less than half way through the story crooked cop mobster Eric/ Ricky threatens Dagmar that his trysts with her had better remain a secret from Nunzio after and he have dinner with the femmes fatales. But Nunzio does find out and there’s only one thing Eric can do to keep his fragile masculinity intact. On page 97 Eric, Nunzio, and another mobster arrive at Dagmar’s home and proceed to beat and rape her orally and anally. As Eric forces himself on Dagmar he relates how he felt she tricked and manipulated him into having sex with her multiple times before he discovered she’s trans. Earlier in chapter four Chaykin has Pollack seduced into a three way with Beverly and Dagmar. He takes Beverly from behind while she burys her face in Dagmar’s crotch. Just as they all climax Beverly pulls back her head so Pollack can be shocked by Dagmar’s penis — just as Dagmar herself captures his reaction with a camera. It’s their way of literally trapping him into stealing the film reel for them – an act which despite all their cunning, skills, and resources seem unable to do on their own and so must rely on blackmailing this jazz musician and former heroin addict who they’ve never encountered before because Jesus! He’s such a bloody stud so damn the glaring plot hole, okay!

Drawing Dagmar’s penis once wasn’t enough for Chaykin. He managed to draw her penis another 17 (possibly more) times before the last page.

Oh, right. There’s something else to mention. SPOILERS! Who cares? Are you going to read this graphic novel now? What isn’t clear at the beginning of the story is that Beverly is a vampire. Because of course why shouldn’t she be? No, seriously. And some of the Satanic cult members are as well. That’s why there’s a dead body at the Tanas Funeral Home to sexually abuse. It’s why Nunzio briefly mentions the discovery of a mutilated and bloodless body in a car trunk. And Beverly has planned to drain a hostage Pollack after he successfully steals the film from the thieves’ clutches while Dagmar simultaneously penetrates her before culminating the orgiastic frenzy by turning Dagmar into a vampire so their love can live forever.

Except best laid plans don’t always work out, right? Especially when you’re a bisexual vampire and a sexually insatiable trans woman and you have to suffer the consequences because god forbid Chaykin doing something progressive for the time instead of transgressive.

Here are a few words Chaykin had to say about Black Kiss in a CBR piece from 2010:
“The book was done at a time when there was serious talk about trying to create a rating’s system for comics, and the idea was that I would do a book that would be appalling and offensive…and funny.”

“I still feel the book has a broad comic tone – black, but funny. I protected myself from what I perceived as the serious danger of nobody buying the book by taking a large advance against royalties. At this point, the book has always made money for me. It’s been, probably on a per-page basis, the most profitable book I’ve ever done. Back then, there were issues, and I’m sure there will still be issues today. I bet I’ll take heat for it, but I’m glad Nicky [Barrucci of Dynamite] is publishing it.”
– The “it” Chaykin refers to in the last sentence is a new edition of Black Kiss that Dynamite had agreed to publish.

“To a great extent, I think one of the things I’ve done all my life is throw a lot of different material from different genres into the mix and see what eventually evolves from it.”

“That’s been a part of my M.O. I’m a big kitchen sink guy; I like throwing a bunch of shit at the wall to see what sticks. In that regard, I think ‘Black Kiss’ is an opportunity to do that in black and white. You can’t overstate the fact of doing a back and white book of that sort.”

Chaykin found he had more story to tell with these characters and revisited them in a follow up that included a six part mini and a special. You have one guess as to which publisher printed this or you could just click for confirmation.

The creator had this repsonse in a Printmag interview when he learned Comixology had refused to carry the series: “Are they blogging shitheads with opinions? If so, I couldn’t care less. If not, I still don’t really give a shit, since this is the first time I’m hearing of this.”

And from the same interview Chaykin was blunt on potential reactions to the Black Kiss II book:

“I’m long past giving a shit what people think about me and my work. As my wife pointed out to me not too long ago, most of these blogging shitheads are anonymous pu**ies who’d kill to have my job and my life.”

“I have no expectations beyond the material itself. I’ve been pirated and picked over by other comics talent and by elements of the show business for the past 30 years, and I won’t be surprised if that trend continues.”

I understand Chaykin used a transgender character in one issue of American Flagg!. One day I’ll have to look for that issue in my full run but the box those comics are in isn’t easy to reach. Chaykin did write two sympathetic and flawed queer characters, one lesbian and one gay man, in American Century, a series that unflinchingly focused on the hypocrisy of 1950s America. I’ve been told by two sources I respect that Chaykin wrote two interesting (and flawed) gay or bisexual gangsters in Midnight of the Soul which Image also published. I may never read it to know since my library does not own a copy and I have been disinclined to read any new work by Chaykin since American Century.

I’d like to think that Chaykin will transcend the tropes we’ve seen in Chrissy’s scene to date, that he’s moved beyond the exploitation and tropes on display in Black Kiss but I remain skeptical. After learning that Chaykin’s motivation for Black Kiss was an angry fuck you to the possibility of a comics rating system and that Black Kiss was, at least up to one point, his most lucrative project I can’t help but begin to think we’re all being exploited for money, even if indirectly by raising objections that spur demand for a second printing. I know in Chaykin’s eyes I may be just another “blogging shithead”, an “anonymous pussy” who doesn’t give a shit what I think about his work.

That’s okay. I think I’ll get by just fine without his life.

July 7, 2017
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