In 1988, a mysterious and intriguing series appeared on comic sho shelves. Titled “Black Kiss,” it was a black-and-white, creator-owned series written and drawn by Howard Chaykin and published by the Toronto-based Vortex Comics. When it hit stores, “Black Kiss” came wrapped in black plastic bags so potential readers had no clue as to what exactly lay inside. Those who did pick up the series were plunged into a twisted, noirish world full of crime, violence, absurd humor and perversion.
Over the years, “Black Kiss” has become legendary for its explicit sexual content. It’s a book with an almost siren-like call to readers who are looking for something different and challenging. It’s also a series that has called out once again to its creator, and next year he’ll return to the fascinating, funny, and appalling world of “Black Kiss” with a new six-issue prequel series published by Image Comics. Comic Book Resources spoke with Chaykin about the series, the relaunch of which was announced Saturday at Comic Con International in San Diego.
The original 12-issue “Black Kiss” series centered on Cass Pollack, a jazz musician and recovering heroin addict on the run from the mafia and the police after being framed for the murder of his wife and child. Pollack’s desperate search for an alibi takes him to transsexual prostitute Dagmar Lane and her lover Beverly Grove, a washed-up movie star who looks remarkably good for having such a long career in film. Grove and Dagmar agree to help Pollack if he steals a pornographic film of Grove that recently resurfaced in a secret Vatican archive. Pollack steals the film and suddenly finds himself contending with corrupt cops, organized crime, an underground cult that practices strange sex rites and the sinister supernatural secret of Grove’s longevity.
“Having reread ‘Black Kiss’ recently, the things that struck me was that it is fairly disgusting, but it’s also funnier than I remembered,” Chaykin related, adding somewhat jokingly, “The book represents the last vestiges of my life before I made some serious shifts in the way I live. It will be challenging to see whether or not I can put myself into the mindset required to be the degenerate, small-minded moral cripple I was back then.
“I was a lot angrier back then,” Chaykin continued. “Now of course I’m utterly serene. That’s the joke of the day, ladies and gentlemen, but I’m certainly a lot less pissed off than I was. So it will be interesting to see how much of it I can get into and how graphically disgusting I can be. And, of course, I hope you readers will be able to help me out with that.”
Chaykin’s return to the world of “Black Kiss” has the working title of “Black Kiss II,” but the series will have a different title when it hits stores and won’t be a sequel in the traditional sense.
“It will have a funnier, darker, scarier and infinitely scummier title,” Chaykin laughed. “That’s who I am, and that’s what I do. This is a prequel. We begin by looking at Beverly and her various Dagmars throughout the 20th century. It’s a history of the 20th century through the history of show business, detailing Beverly’s rise and fall, reinventing herself every couple of years with her familiars. Ultimately we’ll come back around the deep end and answer some of the lingering questions from the original series.
“Among my inspirations for this book are a song by Stephen Sondheim titled ‘I’m Still Here,’ which closes the first act of ‘Follies,’ one of my favorite shows,” Chaykin continued. “And ‘The “Aristocrats’ — both the joke and the movie. I can’t be any more specific than that, but I’m not kidding here. And, of course, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.” Hmmm, what could New York’s deadliest disaster and scandal of the Industrial Age have to do with the book? You’ll have to read to find out…
As readers of the original “Black Kiss” know, the reason Beverly has seen so much of the 20th century is that she’s not entirely human, but she’s not what some readers might assume her to be. “I never really thought of Beverly as a vampire; I believe I described her as a succubus,” Chaykin said. “So basically I’ll be able to deal with some different mythologies and not have to cleave to the kind of mythology that attends to the vampire world.”
Going back to the beginning of the 20th century and Beverly’s history means Chaykin’s “Black Kiss” prequel will be very new-reader friendly. “We’re starting at the beginning, which to quote Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, ‘Is a very good place to start,'” Chaykin said. “And each issue will be two chapters. So it’s a 12-part story done in six issues.”
Since each of the “Black Kiss” prequel’s six issues takes place in a different era, Chaykin will be very busy finding reference material to help bring to life the time periods he’s exploring.
“I enjoy drawing clothes from different time periods, but to be honest, finding this stuff is a serious pain in the ass,” Chaykin joked. “And of course I have to change costumes every issue! What am I doing? OK — I’m over it now.
“Needless to say, I’m very excited about doing this,” Chaykin continued, “because A) it’s an opportunity to do some black-and-white work, which I’ve wanted to do again for some time. And B) it’s an opportunity to figure out how to use my current technology in the service of black-and-white material. These days my black-and-white stuff is designed specifically to be colored on the computer by the incredibly talented guys I work with, who know how to take my material and break it up into shapes and forms. I won’t have that luxury in terms of my material for this book. What I put down on the board is what’s going to be showing up, and I don’t want to do half-tone work. I definitely want to do linear black and white. So it’s another set of tools and experimentation, which I look forward to doing, to dangle a participle.”
The scenes that Chaykin depicts in the “Black Kiss” prequel will be just as sexually explicit as the scenes in the original series. The writer-artist is confident that his new publisher, Image Comics, will support the choices he makes on the project. “I know Erik Larsen and Eric Stephenson and like them both,” Chaykin remarked. “We’re going to be in business with them on a couple of other projects, as well. This came about because we’ve talked about doing something together for some time. So this is long in coming.
“They knew what they were getting into when we agreed to work together,” Chaykin laughed. “Every so often I do something different and weird, but for the most part, if you’re going to buy a prequel to ‘Black Kiss,’ it’s not going to be ‘Black Kiss Adventures.’ Although there is a certain appeal to that, too. Can I get Ty Templeton to write this with Rick Burchett on art?”
It’s been over 20 years since the publication of the original “Black Kiss,” and Chaykin is excited to revisit the strange and twisted world he created in 1988. As a writer he remains fascinated by all forms of human relations, including carnal ones. “I’m a guy who’s been going to the movies since I was old enough to walk, and I read a lot of historical fiction,” Chaykin stated. “One of the things I love about the writers in that genre, like Alan Furst, for example, is that they write stories that take place in the milieu of the movies I grew up watching as a kid, World War II and all, but there’s sex in it.
“I’m coming back to ‘Black Kiss’ assuming I’ll be able to deliver material that will appall and disgust a modern generation,” the writer-artist continued. “I’m lowering the bar here. I want to be staring up from the gutters wondering about the stars.”