Friday, September 25. 4:15 pm.
Watching the minutes pass by while sitting in an endless line of cars, I’m reminded of the downside to living in what The New York Times has crowned the nation’s newest “it” city. It certainly didn’t used to be this hard to get around Nashville. I wonder if traffic is this bad in Portland?
The only thing keeping me sane right now is this audio book of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. It’s really the perfect book for someone heading to a comic book convention. It’s like a prelude, for just as Richard Mayhew encounters all sorts of strange characters in his journey through the London underground, I’ll soon be stepping through a looking glass of my own, leaving behind the world of student papers and mortgages in favor of a showroom full of Batmans, zombies, and even a life-sized walking Lego figure.
This will be the third time Wizard World has brought this traveling pop culture circus to Nashville, though the headliners this year seem a little less exciting. The first year featured Stan Lee, and last year they boasted William Shatner as well as every member of Star Trek: The Next Generation who doesn’t hold a knighthood. This year the highlight is a cast reunion of The Dukes of Hazard.
I’ll let you make up your own joke here.
But I’m not complaining. I grew up in rural Arkansas where the closest thing to a comic book convention was the county fair where, if you looked at it out of the corner of your eye, the prize-winning pig looked a little like Dave Sim’s Cerebus.
I thought it would change the first year I moved to Nashville and saw a flyer for a con (emphasis on the word con). However, any fantasies I might’ve had of bumping into Grant Morrison or Alex Ross were quickly dashed as I pulled into the parking lot of a motel near the airport. The convention “showroom” was just a conference room, and the convention consisted of a half-dozen overpriced longbox vendors and the promise of two celebrity guests, neither of whom was there when I arrived. One was an actor who had played a masked serial killer in some slasher film I’d never heard of, and the other was apparently a porn star who was supposed to sign autographs later that day. At least that’s what I gathered from the Xeroxed flyer the convention organizers had Scotch taped to the wall. It looked a little sad—like one of those “lost puppy” signs you see stapled to a telephone pole by the side of the road.
All of which is why you won’t hear me taking too many shots at the Wizard World conventions. Sure they’re a little generic—like the touring company of a Broadway show—but at least they’re real conventions. And this year that meant I was going to meet Howard Chaykin. That is, if this traffic would ever start to move.
Friday, September 25. 5:00 pm.
Looking across an almost empty room, one thought races through my mind: Can this really be the Howard Chaykin panel? I’ve been to enough of these to know that comics are no longer the main draw at conventions, but I still thought there would be more people than this. After all, this is for Howard Chaykin.
Maybe it’s a generational thing, but Chaykin is one of the giants in the field. American Flagg, The Shadow, Blackhawk … not to mention Star Wars. There are few artists working today with as distinctive a visual style or as great a grasp over composition as Chaykin. He’s one of the masters, in a way that many other popular comics artists really aren’t, and his stories—particularly American Flagg and The Shadow—were among the most groundbreaking mainstream works of the Modern Age.
So for me, Chaykin goes right along with Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Bill Sienkiewicz as one of the principle architects of the modern era. That’s why it’s so disconcerting to see such a small number of people in the audience. How many people are here? It looks like four … five …
“This is what I love. Six #%@ guys who don’t give a *&$#.”
Ah, Howard Chaykin just entered the room. I’ve heard stories about his convention appearances: “Rude;” “Profane;” “Arrogant.” Even the convention program warns potential attendees that Chaykin’s panels are not for the faint of heart. What follows is a fusillade of F-bombs and insults that sound like outtakes from Glengarry Glen Ross. As Chaykin later put it, “I talk like someone on public transportation from 1968.”
But then, as he starts talking about his own career as “the least talented artist of my generation,” and he describes the undercurrent of anger that has fuelled much of his work, all the abrasiveness starts to fall by the wayside. Chaykin is funny—riotously so—and he doesn’t pull punches. I watch poor Danny Fingeroth, who is supposed to be “moderating” this panel but can barely get a word in, as Chaykin pours insults on one of the most legendary and respected cartoonists (whom I won’t name here) in the history of comics: “We were in the same room at a convention for the whole night and never once acknowledged each other’s presence. It was beautiful.” I find myself laughing out loud, uncontrollably, and when he then dismisses the ‘90s as comics “worst decade since the ‘30s” I find myself nodding vigorously. The ‘90s actually drove me out of comics for several years, and Chaykin’s assessment of it strikes me as dead on.
But if he’s hard on some of the more big name artists of the past 25 years, he’s equally hard on himself. He describes growing up as a comics guy but having “no inherent skills.” He’s had to work vigorously to make himself a better draftsman, and that dedication to craft no doubt fuels his distaste for some of the flashier artists who lack the fundamentals of good storytelling.
Chaykin also has incredible enthusiasm for work that he likes, and he frequently pays tribute to the artists who most influenced him, particularly Gil Kane. Chaykin also displays extraordinary command over comics history, and he rarely talks down to us in the audience. With references to Lynd Ward, Reed Crandall, and Lou Fine, it’s clear that he expects us to know our history, and if we don’t, well then we can just go—
Um … well, let’s just say look it up.
When Fingeroth suddenly announces that the 45 minutes are up, it feels like the panel has just begun. This is easily the most entertaining session I’ve attended in three years of convention-going.
But just as we prepare to leave, Chaykin announces that he’s going to sing, “because that’s what I do.” And he proceeds to deliver a pitch-perfect, a capella rendition of the old standard, “I Could Write a Book” from the musical, Pal Joey. If you don’t know, Pal Joey was famous for focusing on a protagonist who was not very loveable. Throughout the story, Joey often treats people badly, but somehow, despite all his personal flaws, he still keeps our dramatic sympathy.
I’m sure it was just a random choice.
[Note: Next week I’ll report on day two, including a panel about writing comics and two craft-oriented sessions with Michael Golden and Howard Chaykin.]