One of the most enlightening panels of last weekend’s Baltimore Comic-Con took place at the back of a hallway around the corner from every other panel, in the intimate “Savage Land” Room 302. There, the smolderingly intellect that is Howard Chaykin, the influential creator behind “American Flagg!,” among other works, interviewed an industry legend in his own right — Adam Hughes. Every year, Chaykin picks one artist to spotlight at the Baltimore convention, someone he admires but does not necessarily know well. The gathering was small, so Chaykin immediately told the audience to move to the front so he could see everyone in attendance.
“Sorry I’m late,” Chaykin told the crowd. “I’m old.” The comment set the tone for the frankness of the discussion. Chaykin said he tries to keep his convention panels different from business as usual. “Usually, it’s just a bunch of jerking off,” Chaykin remarked.
Hughes immediately agreed. “Most panels feel like your soul is being slowly sucked from your eyeballs,” he said. Hughes then confessed that it was Chaykin who helped get him through one of his very first panels. “Keith Giffen said to me — ‘don’t worry, Howard’s here’ and I was like — ‘what?’ Giffen said ‘just watch.’”
Hughes then told the story of a female fan who asked Chaykin why there weren’t more women reading comics. Chaykin made her stand up, turn around and look at the room, which was occupied almost entirely by males, then reportedly told her: “That’s why.”
After this, Chaykin began to talk about what attracted him to Hughes’ work. “There’s no relationship between the work I do today and the work I did thirty years ago,” Chaykin said. “Adam’s work demonstrated a thing that would be evident from word one. Even in his most crude, early drawings.”
Chaykin likewise emphasized that while Hughes’ work — specifically with respect to female subjects -- was provocative, it was never basely so. “His smarts are the great underpinning to his work,” Chaykin observed. “It’s not smug. It’s saucy and clever.” Chaykin went on to say that Hughes’ sense of visuals was unmatched in the industry. “He is arguably the best craftsman working in comics today. Or ever.”
After this monumental introduction, Hughes was visibly uncomfortable. He mentioned that he agreed with a lot of Chaykin’s observations, but never observed his own work in quite so in-depth a manner. “That’s fine,” Chaykin said. “Nobody has to spend that much time examining their fucking navels.”
Hughes explained why he was drawn to comics as opposed to advertising, where his slick artistic style could make him a lot of money. The answer for Hughes? Total creative freedom. “DC asked me for a cover of Supergirl at one point,” Hughes said. “But they didn’t tell me anything else. I was like — any editorial direction, please? Is she in a bikini? A parka? What?” Hughes then said that very cover soon became a poster and a print.
Chaykin then observed that Hughes enjoys that kind of freedom because his artistic style has become a brand. He then asked Hughes if he finds the cover artist style he’s developed for himself constraining. “Is there a way for you to see through your own graphic sensibility to produce a more economical style?” Chaykin asked.
“Yeah, maybe.” Hughes said. “I’m working on what I call the iPod version of my style. It’s not widescreen, it’s not 5.1 surround sound. I don’t think I’m pulling that off on ‘All Star Wonder Woman,’ but it’s a starting point.” Hughes explained that while his style is somewhat pared down for ‘All Star Wonder Woman,’ there are moments where he likes to ramp up the detail to the extreme. He draws a parallel to the old Fleisher Superman cartoons which would occasionally go from traditional cartoon imagery into a fully painted picture, where only small details like Superman’s eyes would be hand-drawn animation. “Whenever there’s a really important panel moment, like a close-up of Wonder Woman’s face, I do it as detailed as my cover. For one panel, in the middle of the story, it suddenly goes high-def on you.”
“What you’re describing is the money-shot,” Chaykin said. “Gil Kane’s idea of the money shot, where you pull back and you have an action sequence, and taking it to the close-up panel.”
Chaykin then asked Hughes who is artistic model was growing up. Hughes said it was always John Byrne. “That’s what I thought I wanted to do,” he said. “Just be that guy who works all the time and draws all the characters and obviously has fun with it.”
Chaykin explained the importance of deadlines in his own work. He drew the example of the famous Harlan Ellison quote, whereby the author would justify endangering deadlines by saying: do you want it brilliant or do you want it Tuesday? “I always thought it was my job to deliver it brilliant and Tuesday,” Chaykin said.
Hughes explained that once he made the decision to be a better artist rather than a quicker artist, the road wasn’t an easy one. “I underwent the next twenty years in comics trying to convince editors to play by my rules,” he said.
“Cool!” Chaykin exclaimed.
The two continued to talk about their contrasting approaches to artwork, when Chaykin arrived at an abrupt question for Hughes. “Are you happy?” he asked.
“No,” Hughes replied, without missing a beat. Chaykin observed that his answer was a quick one. “I have easy, fast answers for two things in life,” Hughes said. “The first is if I’m happy. The second is what is the weirdest thing I was ever asked to draw. The answer to that is Lois Lane in a diaper.”
“Lois Lane in a diaper sounds pretty fucking vanilla to me,” Chaykin remarked.
Hughes explained that unhappiness is an essential part of improving himself as an artist. “Dissatisfaction and intense self-loathing get me through the night,” he said. Hughes drew the parallel that unhappiness was like a polio vaccine. “A lot of polio will kill you, a little polio will make you immune. A little bit of unhappiness is what drives me to the drawing board every day.”
To Hughes, George Perez is a good example of “a happy idiot,” though was clear he didn’t mean that as an insult. “He just loves to draw and that’s so obvious,” Hughes said. “At the exact other end of the spectrum you have Vincent Van Gogh, who just tortures himself to death.”
“By the way, he’s taking over ‘Detective Comics,’” Chaykin joked.
Chaykin explained that he, unlike Hughes, was actually very happy. “I have a reputation for being pissy and cranky, but I’m a very happy man,” he said. “I live in a state of sublime rage because everything pisses me off. But I’m very happy. You should be as old as I am and look this good.”
Both creators agreed that neither was truly happy with their art and that fact was an essential part of being an artist. “I smile at conventions because you don’t want to insult people for not hating your work just because you do.”
Hughes had his own advice for any artist happy with their work. “If you ever get to that point, do me a favor and eat a bullet because you are obviously clinically insane,” he said.
The floor was opened to questions and one fan asked how Chaykin felt about his “Star Wars” adaptation — was he excited about it when he got the job? “Not at all,” Chaykin said. “It was a dreadful experience.”
Hughes, the perfect age for “Star Wars,” had the opposite reaction. He loved “Star Wars” so much, he spent a lot of his childhood re-adapting the movies in comic book form because it annoyed him that the actual comics didn’t have the dialogue right. “I got up to 144 pages and I was only up to the Trash Compactor scene and then ‘Empire Strikes Back’ came out and I realized I was hopelessly behind schedule,” Hughes said.
“Even then!” Chaykin exclaimed.