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Howard Chaykin: Hell on Wheels, and all things awesome.

It's a bit embarrassing how I've failed to give proper writeups to key contributors over the years, particularly those interviews I filmed as far back as 2017. Shame on me, I know...

HOWARD CHAYKIN is a titan in the comic book industry. He is also a creative force of nature – brilliant, eloquent, fiercely opinionated, and, yes, daringly provocative and controversial at times. Some might even call him irascible. I was certainly intimated by him upon my first impression. Then again, I’ve often been a bit of a wuss.

Let me shift personal perspectives for a moment, and dare to put myself in Howard Chaykin’s shoes – at least, in the pair of shoes he wore back in the summer of 2017. You’re an industry legend with more awards you can count. You have a bibliography over a mile long, with countless classic titles for both DC and Marvel to your credit, including Star Wars, Heavy Metal, American Flagg!, and Divided States of Hysteria. You have accomplished a lifetime of–

Oh, fuck it, just Google or Wiki the guy. There’s too much to write about him in this little blog, and any attempt I make to summarize his career, influence, and achievements would inevitably understate them. And something tells me that Chaykin’s the sort of guy who’s sickened by such pretty flattery; no doubt that if/when he should read this, his eyes would be rolling into the back of his head, his fists tightened and ready to inflict a knuckle sandwich upon my doughy, mortal jaw.

Above: Chaykin's legendary early poster art for STAR WARS.

Suffice to say, when a dorky, middle-aged filmmaker, doing a no-budget documentary on an artist who’s been dead for nearly 32 years, timidly asks Howard Chaykin for an interview, controversial, irascible Howard Chaykin agreed without complaint. And invited said dorky filmmaker into his home. And gave a personal tour of his art collection. And let him film the interview in his studio.

Would I call him an old softie? I'd dare not, as my aging face needs no further bruising. But the guy was gracious with his time, generous with his knowledge...and that's the sort of true kindness I'd gladly accept over any pretty, woke culture words.

If I write about Chaykin as if he was John Wayne, that was surely not my intention. That’s because Howard Chaykin, for lack of a better phrase, is a no-nonsense, no bullshit guy with genuine cajones, while John Wayne was a Hollywood actor who wore a hairpiece.

I like to think of Chaykin more as the Sam Peckinpah of the comic book world. And Jesus, how I love Peckinpah.

Before I go any further, I owe it to Chaykin to give a special shout-out to a crowdfunding campaign he’s just launched, for a graphic novel adaptation of John Benteen's Fargo: Hell on Wheels. It’s the first such campaign Chaykin has undertaken, and it seems to have kicked off very strongly. I wish him the best of luck with it, and hope to contribute to it when I have more money in my bank account. (For more information on Fargo: Hell on Wheels, check out Rob Salkowitz’s excellent article for Forbes.)

To revisit my interview with Chaykin all those years ago is to be reminded of how clearly the man can articulate his creative sensibility – and express sincere admiration towards an artist, even when their sensibilities differed from his own.

Here are some brief Chaykin comments from our lengthy conversation. These are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, as I’m saving all the juicy stuff for the film and book to come.

“The first Amsel piece I remember…" Chaykin said, "I’m aware of remembering is seeing was his poster for The Sting. Most of my generation were steeped in the golden age of illustration because we respected the fact that we stood on the shoulders of giants and I recognized immediately the source material for the poster. … Amsel has … one of those skillsets … which kept me from competing, was an astonishing grasp of pastiche. There were a number of guys back then who I recall were doing pastiches of Leyendecker. He had just been rediscovered. …

“This is clearly a guy who could draw like a son of a bitch and had wit. … There was an enormous wit, self-awareness and an understanding of his job and career in support of the client’s product, be it a magazine cover, movie poster or illustration. His work was just exemplary. …

“Walking into a room and finding Richard Amsel waiting for you had to be incredibly daunting. His work was just clever and smart and he seemed to have a broad range of technique. …

“I think Amsel represented the beginning of a mini-Golden Age of introducing a kind of advertising art that had a flickering moment. It was, you know, 20 years. But, 20 years is nothing in…in…in the end in the world in which we are discussing. In which his idea, his concept of how to make a picture and how to use it use that contrived picture to sell a product be it a magazine or a movie really dominated the culture that was aware of such things.”

“Amsel’s originals just fuckin glow, they really do because of that transparency of color. …

“Do you think there was anything unique that set him apart from his contemporaries and competitors?” I asked.

“The fact that he was better,” Chaykin replied. “I mean, he just…he was…just astonishingly good, you know.”


I want to thank Howard Chaykin for giving the film such an incredible interview, and giving me such an incredible day. My father died shortly after our meeting, which is why I became so distracted and had to put the project on hold for a little while. I should have written about this ages ago.


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