I recently went through a heavy James Ellroy phase after finally tracking down some of his books that I had yet to read. The thing about reading Ellroy in chunks is that his prose is so fluid and readable it takes a while for the full weight of his viciousness to sink in. Burning through the LA Quartet is easy at first because the text has an irresistible rhythm to it. By the time you realize just how dedicated to uncovering the deep bloody dirt of Americana Ellroy is, you’re too fucked up to stop anyway. You put an entry down and feel like you’re coated in slime so you shrug and figure that since you’re so filthy now, what’s the point in not forging ahead?
Howard Chaykin’s work has a similar barbed smoothness to it. You might pick up on it a little sooner since his art, particular over the past decade, is so unapologetically and blatantly hideous. But the flow of his storytelling makes it go down easy until it doesn’t. Both creators get lumped in to genre nostalgia, mining that same immediate post-WWII “golden age” that hid so much brutality. Midnight of the Soul, Chaykin’s newest Image series, is perhaps the closest the artist has yet come to the territory of Ellroy’s LA Quartet, though, mirroring the beats and parallels of The Big Nowhere, except with a Man in the High Castle alternate history meta riff in place of jazz clubs and Hollywood shenanigans. It’s pulp in the gore and gristle sense as much as the paperback sense, rank and grotesque and shocking.
The work also mirrors the LA Quarter in setting. Ellroy has always been a chronicler of LA’s shade but Chaykin is at his best when confined to claustrophobic grime of New York, so naturally Midnight of the Soul is set primarily in the Big Apple, where Joel, a WWII failing at being Philip K. Dick, is confined to a suburban home on the city’s outskirts, trying to reclaim his New York blood and his masculinity. Joel is an archetypal Chaykin man, square jawed, greasily coifed, cuckolded by Patricia, a woman who is better and stronger than him. They live in a home he signed over to her brother, she works as a night court reporter, he does nothing but sulk and drink and hack away at a typewriter. But Joel’s real skill outside of making everyone around him miserable and drinking himself to death is grooving on parallels, like the circles he carves into his lawn that match up to the turntable on the hi-fi:
For Joel, the repetition is symbolic of the shitty patterns of his life, the way he tuned out the horrors of the concentration camps as just another bit of nastiness in war and now he’s tuning out the failures of his post-war life as just what he deserves. There is a question of Chaykin’s intent with the repetition though, as the comic, by its end, is repeating staccato bursts of nastiness and even entire sequences of images. Chaykin clearly wants to communicate that life is a bunch of shitty cycles we can’t escape, but what he wants to communicate with Joel specifically is a little harder to parse out.
Like Ellroy, Chaykin has a tendency to wade so deeply into the waters of hate you’re left wondering which aspects are symbolic and which are a little more indulgent. Joel’s blame of Patricia for his failures and impotence is expected and seems to be a point about the fragility of the ’50s suburban man, but a scene where Patricia fellates a black musician who, in turn, makes some homophobic remarks come across as flatly racist rather than illuminative. LA Confidential, The Big Nowhere and American Tabloid all suffered from the same problem but with those works, Ellroy was at least clearly communicating issues with systemic racism and how police culture thrives on it. At this point, Midnight of the Soul only comes across as indulgent in these scenes, happy to unveil the acidity of an era without making a larger point.
There are similar issues with Chaykin’s art, and the way the parallel framing allows him to indulge in lazy storytelling a little too frequently. Midnight of the Soul is still more visually interesting than Satellite Sam, a relatively disappointing collaboration between Matt Fraction and Chaykin, but it’s worth pointing out that Chaykin’s similarly Americana-deflating epic American Century– which had a few artists working in a Chaykin-influenced style– was more visually dynamic. Chaykin’s blocky characters make sense for this kind of story, but Jesus Aburtov’s garish coloring robs Chaykin’s art of the punch it should have. The colors always look slightly off, and not in the way of the King Vidor melodramas much of Midnight of the Soul’s interior scenes appear to mock.
If Midnight of the Soul turns into a gritty noir roadtrip story, as it seems poised to based on this issue’s ending and that Wild One aping cover, then it would be to its benefit for the coloring and inking to open up and allow the more kinetic elements of Chaykin’s style to reemerge. Even with that in mind, Chaykin’s fearless dedication to exposing the seediest elements of America’s greatest generation makes for tense reading and the parallelism helps ground the material and restrict Chaykin from getting too distracted. It’s not clear what Chayin wants us to think of Joel, or his place in post-war America yet, but the artist’s consistency with this kind of material at least makes it easier to have faith that the work could blossom into a New York twist on Ellroy, and that’s worth sticking around for.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover