“The why is anybody’s guess.”
Those are the words of Howard Chaykin, creator of indie trailblazer American Flagg! and noted purveyor of pulp. The man is a comic auteur, with a long history of expertly crafting tales of action and adventure with a hardboiled slant. His work often skirts the edge of what’s acceptable in comics, and has courted controversy for its adult content.
This brings us to Black Kiss, in which Chaykin takes the “adult content” label right over the edge at 80 miles-an-hour without so much as a tap on the brakes. The latest entry, this month’s Black Kiss XXXmas in July Special, is no exception to the book’s established format.
Sex has played a role in most of Chaykin’s work, even weaving its way into mainstream projects like his take on Blackhawk for DC. His depiction of men and women is visceral if nothing else, angular and meaty forms of human anatomy that carry the energy of the real world but filtered through the funky lens of comics.
With the Black Kiss series, first published in the late ‘80s, Chaykin throws off any governors holding his restraint in check and produces what could only diplomatically be called “adult.” More straightforward descriptions are pornography, erotica or plain old smut.
The why, as stated, is anybody’s guess. Here’s mine.
Here, to me, is the vision of a kid who grew up listening to grown-ups in the next room laughing loudly over ribald stories, hung out with gangs of teenagers in the neighborhood talking about who did what with so-and-so in the woods of Connecticut one time, saw Times Square in its pre-Applebee’s porno theater heyday.
That vision of an artist showing us his take on the world is present in this issue. There’s a real story propelling the pages of the Black Kiss XXXmas in July Special, a story of dark happenings on the outskirts of town and a multi-decade quest for revenge. There are scenes of gang rapes and prison rapes entwined with a hitlist of inventive, gruesome murder. It’s clear that if Howard Chaykin wanted to be obscene for the sake of being obscene, there are much easier ways for him to accomplish that.
There’s a subset of humanity who will buy Black Kiss because of the sex and the sex alone, and I feel Chaykin is almost trolling that pervo demographic as he simultaneously courts them. The book has the feel of a Faustian bargain–“Yeah, fanboy/girl, you’ll get your T&A, but it’s going to be fused with some of the most depraved violence you’ve ever seen.” It’s also going to tackle class warfare, wealth disparity, racism, the KKK, law enforcement corruption and child-molesting televangelists. Turned on yet, sicko? An issue of Playboy this is not.
The smut is there in full force and won’t be for everyone. It shocks. It slaps the reader in the face with its crudeness. Its juxtaposition with extreme violence is disturbing. Some would say wantonly so, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Through the panels of depravity, Chaykin shows a fascinating and twisted take on justice, parlayed working class style, one sexual-violent strike at a time.
It’s telling that the villains of the July Special are a quartet of affluent Yale graduates. They rise to the top of society, where in the United State we’re taught by lecture and osmosis that the very best end up. The smartest. The hardest working. The dreamers. The leaders.
Chaykin destroys the notion of the rich as superior beings one hypocritical pillar at a time. His story is a human one, of the seedy folly that fills history books. Businessmen turned lynching Klan members. Murderers who skip past death row greasing palms with cash and citing “affluenza” defenses. Spiritual leaders who are anything but pure and noble. Department store Santas turned serial rapists.
The heroes of the story come from the opposite side of the spectrum. A woman and her transvestite partner, marginalized and downright abused by the square-jawed WASPs running 20th century America. The duo is buoyed by a career in show business, the last refuge of the outcast class. Through luck, pluck and determination they embark on a quest of vengeance. The revenge is reaped in gory, disturbing fashion that’s hard to cheer on, but equally hard to hate. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, but sometimes it is what it is. From the Bible to Kill Bill, there’s a reason why revenge stories never go out of style.
The end result of the oversized Black Kiss XXXmas in July Special is dark, dirty, and brilliant. To be sure, Chaykin’s intense Black Kiss is not for everyone, certainly not for the faint of heart or sensitive of spirit. The word “enjoy” doesn’t come to mind as something that should be held in tandem with this book. Experience is the better descriptor, and Howard Chaykin delivers that in a special rife with darkness, shocking violence, and a subversive street-level look at the reality of American society. Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals!