As is customary many ill-judged words will now follow…
MIDNIGHT MEN Story and art by Howard Victor Chaykin Colouring by Tom Vincent Lettering by John Workman, Jim Novak (Epic Comics/Heavy Hitters/Marvel, $1.95ea, 1993)
Handsome Jewish schmuck Barnett Pasternak returns to L.A. to attend the funeral of his father. But Barnett’s father died no ordinary death – his thyroid was removed! And L.A. is no ordinary city - protected as it is by a seemingly ageless protector who to the wider world remains an urban legend. In short order Barnett finds himself reunited with an old flame, an accessory to murder, on the outs with ex-KGB in cahoots with a Hollywood Player who just might hold the key to his father’s death and all the while Barnett Pasternak is unknowingly on a collision course with his Destiny. Barnett Pasternak is about to discover that you should never mistake honour for weakness and that you can’t kill…THE MIDNIGHT MEN!
For the sake of everyone’s sanity Howard Victor Chaykin shall, mostly, be referred to throughout as HVC. Although it strikes me now that that sounds like some kind of Home Shopping Channel. One that specialises in marital aids and Mai-Tai mix, maybe. Oh, well too late now. HVC it is.
Here’s a couple of facts before we even crack the covers of these beauties:
Fact One: MIDNIGHT MEN is © Howard Chaykin, so it ain't work for hire. I believe all the original titles released under the Heavy Hitters banner from Epic (Marvel) were creator owned. Imagine that. And it wasn't some kind of sop to creators already working at Marvel where they could pursue more personal and ambitious works (i.e. TV pitches). No, MIDNIGHT MEN was published by Marvel but is owned by Howard Chaykin. That’s because HVC is many things but one thing he isn’t is daft enough to end his days rooting through bins like some kind of rakish urban fox.
Fact Two: This may not actually be a fact but the way I understand it is that MIDNIGHT MEN is a retooling of HVC’s original pitch to DC when they decided they were going to mess up Batman big time. HVC didn't get the gig as it seems DC probably weren't really receptive to the idea of Batman dying as a result of an alcohol enabled intersection with a broken flag pole. So they went with the whole spinal injury/crack addict wrestler thing. The success of that would lead to a string of such bloat as BRUCE WAYNE: COCKKNOCKER! and GOTHAM: POOR ROAD SURFACE MAINTENANCE! Events have continued to emit from The Big Two with such decreasing returns that by this stage such events enhance the North American genre comics scene in the same way that injecting chicken meat with water enhances that particular product. Tasty!
It’s a mark of how far Events have lost the plot (and the pacing, characterisation, etc.) that I look back on KNIGHTFALL with a certain level of fondness. As indeed in all probability do DC. This year their Big Thing (i.e. short term sales spike!) looks like being, maybe, WATCHMEN 2. Crack those bones, there’s marrow inside! It’s okay though, comics are saved because Marvel have got AVENGERS Vs. X-MEN. This is a series which will take a bus load of men to produce a story of two groups of people with magic powers hitting each other for REASONS! So special, sophisticated, insightful and nuanced will this prove to be that all the fight scenes are actually going to be in another series. Yes, DC and Marvel are going to save comics by pretty much acting like they are trying to help someone whose hair is on fire by stamping on their head. I guess these series could be great, I guess that could happen. I guess the audience might not react exactly as they have every time one of these things has ended i.e. like James Spader on the grass verge at the end of Cronenberg’s CRASH: “Maybe the next time, Darling. Maybe the next time.” Sweet Mercy, I am now actually more jaded than James Spader in CRASH. A big round of applause for mainstream North American genre comics, people! Time to put those pennies on your eyes, Big Two! Going on a boat trip! In fact the best result of KNIGHTFALL is that MIDNIGHT MEN exists. I suppose I should stop mouthing off like a jackass and talk about that now.
The biggest problem with MIDNIGHT MEN is that it is a HVC comic. This means that people who don’t like HVC comics won’t like it (it is very HVC) but that’s their loss. For people who like HVC comics the fact that it is very much a HVC comic is also a problem. Because this means it is incredibly slick with every one of the elements under the author’s control working to the sweet end of entertaining the audience. It is so good at doing this that it is easy to overlook how clever it is. It’s ultimately too good for its own good.
By 1993 HVC had pretty much nailed down all the techniques that worked in order for him to produce a quality piece of work. Following his development through the stumbles and mis-steps of the ‘70s through to his glorious moment(s) of clarity in the ‘80s and ‘90s with AMERICAN FLAGG!, BLACKHAWK, TIME2, BLACK KISS and MIDNIGHT MEN it's clear that with AMERICAN FLAGG! he finally consolidated all his (hard) work and learning to create a new comics grammar and that everything after represented honing. By MIDNIGHT MEN his comics “voice” is so fluent and captivating it’s easy to miss what he’s saying and how well he's saying it.
A lot of what HVC is saying in MIDNIGHT MEN is what HVC is often saying in his comics. Foremost is the fact that in a HVC comic it would be totally dreamy to be HVC. (I imagine it ain't too shabby being HVC in real life either.) All HVC’s heroes are HVC to some extent or other. If you had all his characters team-up in one book not only would I soil my pants with glee but it would also resemble THE SAILOR ON THE SEAS OF FATE but with louche chiseled jawed Jews being witty and quick with their fists and good with the ladies. So, yes, Barnett Pasternak is a HVC hero. And like all HVC’s latter day heroes he follows the usual HVC character path.
This recurring character development lurking in HVC’s work can clearly be identified as originating in the phrase “overcame a youthful attitude problem”. Now this phrase occurs often in HVC’s blurbs and interviews. It really does, you can take my word as I’m sure you've got better things to do than check. That porn don’t watch itself, kids! Clearly HVC reached a point in his life when (Jewish literary reference ahoy!) something happened. I don’t know what all but whatever it was HVC clearly thinks that at one point he was a schmuck and then he was a mensch and ever since he’s felt glad all over. Which is precisely what happens to Barnett Pasternak. Although I imagine the real biographical details don’t involve HVC donning the mantle of an urban legend vigilante who lost his life saving him. But then who knows what HVC does at the weekend? (Ladies do!) MIDNIGHT MEN is the story of Barnett Pasternak (HVC?) learning to man up and develop some moral balls. If I were a blunt man I’d say that HVC feels that it’s a crucial part in becoming an adult to stop wanking and start fucking. Ethically speaking, of course. Aren’t you glad I’m not a blunt man.
Usually this Hero’s Journey is contrasted with a Villain who has failed to make this course correction. Here we have Noble Youngblood and he is what is known in the Chaykinverse as a Moral Cripple. It’s a pretty self explanatory term, I feel. Now all the hoo-ha in MIDNIGHT MEN is caused by Youngblood’s desire to get his hands on an anti-aging formula. The only problem is that for it to work it requires thyroid glands and the natural habitat of the thyroid gland is the human being. Luckily Youngblood can get round this by having his ex-KGB chums harvest them from the worthless. To people like Youngblood anyone who isn’t as rich or powerful as him is worthless (because they didn't try hard enough, they weren't hungry enough probably.) For, as we all know, being poor and fucked up is obviously a conscious choice. The fact that Youngblood is an ex-movie star is another Chaykin favourite, for HVC never tires of pointing out the differences between the heroes on the silver screen and the failings of the individuals portraying them (even today; see the John Wayne comments by Nick Fury in AVENGERS 1959). Humour is always present in a HVC book and the stuff outlined in the previous sentences make the fact that Youngblood is killing people who won’t contribute as much as he will to the world a real yucker. C’mon you might take a bullet for the guy working on a cancer cure but Robert Pattinson can invest in his own damned bullet proof jacket. I get the impression the fact that such importance is placed on an anti-aging formula is also amusing to HVC. Finally in possession of the formula Pasternak solves the humongous moral quandary it presents by just eating it. I like to believe HVC believes that it isn't how long you live but how big you live that matters. Mind you, I also like to believe you are still reading this far in despite the paltry return on the investment of your attention.
HVC does add a new wrinkle with his emphasis on sons and fathers. It isn't often a HVC hero weeps so I think the fact that this one does is notable. And who does he weep for? His father. Pasternak is initially involved via the death of his father, a career criminal who we are led to believe was a better criminal than he was a father. Youngblood has an illegitimate son who is a tubby fucknut. HVC’s not too interested in the fathering part of the equation though it’s probable that the scenes in which Youngblood verbally and physically abuses his nutty son shouldn't be taken as examples of How To Bring Up A Kid. Unless you are a shithead. I’d say it seems like these fathers have failed as men but that doesn't mean their kids have to. And in the end one of them doesn't. I guess HVC is saying, if you’re an asshole it might not be your Dad’s fault you’re an asshole? Maybe. I guess MIDNIGHT MEN is the old Nature vs Nurture debate but with better dressed people doing more exciting things than anyone in my Sociology classes ever did. Although I was pretty dapper truth be told. It’s a shame for my endless need to put meaning where there is none that it was some years after this series that HVC discovered he was in fact adopted (your ChaykinFact for the day! No charge!). That’s right, Abhay fans, EVERYTHING HOWARD VICTOR CHAYKIN KNEW ABOUT HIS DAD WAS WRONG!
Visually MIDNIGHT MEN looks like a HVC comic but the familiarity of the elements does tend to obscure the fact that it isn't repetition it’s refinement. In the first issue HVC kicks off with a first page that incorporates photographs and silent movies. Static pictures and moving pictures presented on the immobile page. But you still know which part is the moving picture. It’s easy to miss that it's very clever. The same issue sees HVC splash out on two pages of 4x3 grids to illustrate a safecracking which reveals much about the three characters present, is convincing in its safe crackery details and has time to include a fat man’s hand inadvertently touching a statue’s penis. Throughout the series there’s also a recurring vertical panel layout tracking the motion of a body through the panels. This striking and effective visual also foreshadows the final act in which Pasternak’s ethical nuts swell and provides contrast with the scene in which Pasternak meets and kind-of kills the man whose role he will ultimately fill. It’s great stuff and it’s HVC all the way. It’s never a one man show though and John Workman and Jim Novak’s sound FX are great throughout ( particularly when suggesting the aural smog of traffic) despite the multiple fonts and creative placing they never jar the attention and only serve to accentuate the reading experience. When I read MIDNIGHT MEN I just enjoyed it but when I flicked through it and looked at the pages in isolation I realized what a great service HVC had done the reader. Visually it is an eminently subtle work and rewards close examination on a technical level but is so good at its job that it stops the reader realising how good at its job it is. Which is a mistake people often make with HVC himself I feel.
So, MIDNIGHT MEN is every bit as good as all the good HVC comics but not quite as good as the best. Which makes MIDNIGHT MEN, for me, GOOD!
CHAYKINMANIAC NOTE: This series remains uncollected despite DYNAMITE threatening to do so.
I thank you for your attentions.
Have a smashing weekend with some COMICS!
NEXT TIME: Not Howard Victor Chaykin! Not War Comics! (Unless I have to fall back on those, otherwise my word is my bond!)