THE CODY STARBUCK EXPERIENCE: HOWARD CHAYKIN GOES METAL
Last week, I traced the early work of Howard Chaykin – and the development of his prototypical rogue – from “Weird Worlds” to “Star*Reach” as Ironwolf gave way to Cody Starbuck.
But Chaykin stayed with Starbuck for a while, sending the character on a series of unorthodox adventures for years before settling into First Comics with the then-and-also-now-revolutionary “American Flagg!” series. But while “American Flagg!” was a groundbreaking mash-up of text and image, an accretion of information that added a sophisticated complexity to what was a relatively straightforward genre story, Chaykin’s work on Cody Starbuck continued to show an unrestrained playfulness right up until its demise. With the Starbuck serials, Chaykin was pushing at the boundaries of his talent, trying out new visual styles, using the framework of a swashbuckling space adventure to see what comics could do – what he could do with comics.
It’s telling that the short-lived, though variously-formed, Cody Starbuck saga has, as its centerpiece, a 1980 collection of “Portfolio” prints. The whole story, chopped up as it is over many years and three different publications, is an artistic showcase. A formative one for Chaykin, but no less fascinating because of its rawness. (And, as an aside, I suspect raw Chaykin is the stuff most artists wish they could pump directly into their veins.)
When we last left our discussion of Chaykin’s Romantic rogue Cody Starbuck, he flew off the page in the final panels of his story in April 1974’s “Star*Reach” #1, a rescued princess in tow. He didn’t reappear for nearly two years, though it was only three more issues in Mike Friedrich time. “Star*Reach” #4, from March 1976, featured a fully-painted Chaykin cover in blues and oranges, with the practically unrecognizable Cody Starbuck now sporting friendly mutton chops and flowery embroidery on his gloves, boots, and tunic.
The Cody Starbuck story inside features a bold new style for Chaykin. Less the post-Alex Raymond swashbuckling adventure, this story, titled simply “Starbuck,” gives us a Howard Chaykin in Alex Toth mode. Bold blacks, thick brush-lines and sharp delineations with pen and ink resemble the most famous of Toth’s work. There’s even a character named “Diego,” and while it might be a stretch to assume that such a name references “Don Diego” a.k.a. Zorro, there’s certainly something about the look of this Chaykin story that recalls Toth’s work on that sword-wielding Spaniard.
Chaykin’s story in “Star*Reach” #4 is eleven pages long, and not all the pages look as Toth-ian as the opening, but the artistic approach is clearly different that what we’d seen from him before. His interests as a storyteller may have been the same – beautiful girls, danger, stoic heroes, theatrics – but his tools had changed. This looked quite dissimilar to what he’d done with Ironwolf or the previous Cody Starbuck tale, from the layouts through to the inky rendering.
And though the plot featured Chaykin’s typical Romanticism, with his hero dashing around the galaxy looking for the key to operate a much-prized hyperspace drive (even dressing in disguise as a harlequin in a cosmic Commedia Dell’arte to get closer to the goal), the ending turns out to be doubly ironic. The key to the hyperspace engine, the key which turned out to be the handprints of the designer, ends up lost. The designer dies in the end, but his hands were unusable anyway, since some vicious officer had chopped off his hands years ago and replaced them with robot puppets.
It’s metaphor for the manipulation of Cody Starbuck himself perhaps, but Chaykin doesn’t dwell on the thematic underpinnings of his story. “I, for one, need a drink,” says Starbuck, as he walks away in the final panel.
Some say that George Lucas took the character of Han Solo from Chaykin’s Cody Starbuck, and the resemblance (at least in attitude) is unmistakable, but whether it’s a direct connection or not, they both draw from the same source – the swashbuckling hero of the early day of cinema. The Douglas Fairbanks or Tyrone Power or Errol Flynn type. But with a bit of a post-Watergate edge.
And once again, Cody Starbuck would disappear from the world of comics for two years, with Chaykin moving on, ironically enough (or maybe it’s “appropriately enough”), to draw Han Solo and company in Marvel’s adaptation of the George Lucas film. He didn’t ink himself on most of those pages, but even when he did, Chaykin’s “Star Wars” art showed nothing of the Cody Starbuck experimentation. “Star Wars” was his paying gig and “Cody Starbuck” was his vanity project, but in the way that all vanity projects should be – half sketchbook workout, half aspiring to something transcendent.
When Cody Starbuck returned, in 1978, it was in the form of Chaykin’s biggest artistic breakthrough yet.
“Cody Starbuck” #1 (the first and only issue, and it reads more like what would have later been called a graphic novel than a first installment of a series), published by Star*Reach Productions, features an “Adults Only” label right beneath the title. As Mike Friedrich writes on the inside front cover, it was the first time the label had been used on any Star*Reach comic, even though the comics had nudity and profanity and extreme violence since “Star*Reach” #1. But as Friedrich writes, “this notice indicates that you’re gonna have to bring some considered judgement to this comic. Chaykin not only shakes the tree of traditional space-opera, he pulverizes it. Don’t be fooled by the professional graphics, this is a punk comic.”
Raw. Loud. Angry. Powerful.
Yeah, if that’s punk, then “Cody Starbuck” #1 is a punk comic, but it has far more control than you might normally ascribe to punk rock. It’s still raw Chaykin in 1978, but this single issue shows a Chaykin much more in control of his capabilities as an artist, even as he pushes against those boundaries (and the boundaries of what was acceptable in American comics in 1978, or even today). There’s a scene in this issue that…well, I’ll get to it in a minute.
Because what’s remarkable about this comic isn’t that one horrifyingly shocking scene, but the restraint Chaykin shows in the way he tell this story overall. Here’s a comic, drawn and colored by Chaykin (in what looks like watercolors, or colored ink wash), a comic entitled “Cody Starbuck” and the title character doesn’t even appear until page 20.
Well, he technically appears on page 1 and almost every page that follows, but he looks nothing like the Cody Starbuck we’ve seen in the previous two stories (this guy has a parka, a full beard, and a visor only Scott Summers, or maybe Devo, could love), he acts nothing like the Cody Starbuck we’ve seen in the previous two stories (this guy is a timid man of faith), and he has no memory of the fact that he is, actually, Cody Starbuck.
But he is, and it all comes flooding back on page 20, when he’s recognized, and he recognizes someone from his past, and Chaykin gives us a montage of overlapping memories on page 21 that look like quintessential Howard Chaykin images. It’s like the trigger of memories compresses all of Chaykin’s stylistic experimentation into a pinpoint artistic explosion, and modern Chaykin is born.
How much time has passed between each of these first three Cody Starbuck stories? Years, definitely, but continuity from one story to the next is hardly relevant. That Starbuck snapped to awareness because he saw someone from a previous story is tangential to the plot, really. But it is quite an astonishing act of narrative control to hide the protagonist in plain sight (as a neutered man of religion) for so long before unleashing him, in all his swashbuckling glory, on the world. The comic ends with Starbuck blowing up a sun. He lives up to his name.
Oh, and that shocking scene that warranted the “Adults Only” label? Halfway into the comic, before Starbuck is revealed to be Starbuck, we witness a “celebration” in which the Emperor (genetically altered to resemble his own mother, as a beautiful young woman) rides a mutated minotaur (who was a human, and enemy of the state, recently), while the minotaur, with a genetically engorged member, rapes his own wife to death right before the Emperor slices off the minotaur’s head and holds it in triumph. You probably haven’t seen that sequence of events (or accompanying visuals) in any comic before or since.
That’s punk rock Howard Chaykin, even if Romanticism wins in the end.
And then, other than the Portfolio of original color prints, Cody Starbuck goes back into hibernation, at least as far as readers are concerned. He doesn’t reappear again until 1981, after Star*Reach Productions folded. This time, Cody Starbuck’s adventures – or, I should say, his final adventure – is serialized over several months. In the pages of “Heavy Metal” magazine. Right along with Richard Corben’s “Den”, and Enki Bilal’s “The Immortals’ Fete,” and Jim Steranko’s adaptation of “Outland.”
This time, Chaykin provided fully-painted artwork of the kind we might see on his paperback book covers of the period. Steely, design-oriented images with cut-out heads and overlapping textures. Unmistakably Chaykin, fully-formed, in a way no other Cody Starbuck story ever was. And though the five-part serial looks amazing (running in “Heavy Metal” from May of 1981 through September of that year), it feels a bit more traditional than the previous tales. It’s Chaykin settling into a groove. It’s still a hard-edged, vibrant, passionate groove, but the rawness of the earlier Cody Starbuck work is missing. The “Heavy Metal” serialization is all slickness and control, and without the hyper-dense layers of information he would soon stack in front of the reader in “American Flagg!” the story feels a bit lifeless.
It’s Cody Starbuck’s final mission, or so it has turned out to be, and it emphasizes the twin evils of the church and the state (with the Romantic Starbuck in the middle, playing both sides, though ultimately being played just as much, like those puppets grafted onto the hands of the designer in the story from “Star*Reach” #4), but the ending is hollow, the energy depleted. Starbuck drops a false messiah into the arms of the people and drifts away into space. Echoing the final panels of the first Cody Starbuck story, the protagonist flies away in a ship.
Only this time, we don’t see the distant silhouette of our hero’s departure. Instead, Chaykin gives us a long shot of the weary Starbuck, slumping in his captain’s chair. “Where to?” asks the pilot. “Somewhere tawdry and cheap. I feel like wallowing,” says Starbuck. “Let’s go.”
It’s not a “let’s go” that seems like a cheer for further adventures.
Maybe Chaykin had more planned for Starbuck. Perhaps in his notebooks and sketchbooks he has unfinished Cody Starbuck epics. But probably not. Starbuck, in his brief glory, concludes his tale in “Heavy Metal,” September 1981. And we haven’t heard from him since.
It’s better that way. Cody Starbuck was a vehicle for exploring the shape and form and function of comics. Chaykin figured it out, and “American Flagg!” and “The Shadow” and “Blackhawk” and “Black Kiss” and “Power and Glory” were the result. But Cody Starbuck was the crucible in which Chaykin poured his talent, and what emerged was different every time, and always worth examining.
In addition to writing WHEN WORDS COLLIDE for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
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