Sure, right now the site is just saying: 403: FORBIDDEN. Which is less than ideal, and I think a lot of us can relate. But this isn’t the time to roll over, Savage Critics server, this is the time to stand up and keep, uh, writing self-indulgent “things” about old comics no one cares to remember. That’ll show those Ctrl-Alt-Del Nazis! So, anyway, if you can read this then the site’s no longer 403: FORBIDDEN. Hurrah! Let’s bloviate! Well, I’ll bloviate and you can run out of patience once we hit the bit about Ike.
AMERICAN CENTURY by Laming, Stokes, Chaykin, Tischman, Bruzenak, Rambo and Jamison
AMERICAN CENTURY:SCARS AND STRIPES Penciled by Marc "No Blaming" Laming Inked by John "Doris" Stokes Written by Howard "Victor" Chaykin & David "Tsk" Tischman Lettered by Ken "The Bruise" Bruzenak Coloured by Pam "This Time We Win" Rambo Seperations by Jamison Logo Design by Rian Hughes Original Cover Paintings and Thumbnails by Howard Victor Chaykin Originally published in single magazine form as AMERICAN CENTURY 1-4 DC Comics/Vertigo, $8.95 (2001) American Century Created by Howard Victor Chaykin
Usually I ignore the quotes on books unless it’s from someone whose opinion I respect. Since for comics these are usually sourced from Neil Gaiman, mostly I ignore the quotes on books. (Hee hee!) The TPB of AMERICAN CENTURY: SCARS & STRIPES has a nice, refreshingly non-Gaiman, quote though:
"Now we know what would happen if James Ellroy and Graham Greene hooked up and wrote comics." - Editor's Choice, Entertainment Weekly
Yes, you could dismiss it as glib but it’s actually pretty smart, especially as Graham ‘Brighton Rock’ Greene isn’t the usual point of comparison for Comics’ Greatest Ballroom Dancer, Howard Victor Chaykin. James Ellroy’s name is not so surprising: unpleasant people doing unpleasant things against an unpleasant historical backdrop; the fictional creating literary friction with the factual; ayup, AMERICAN CENTURY is squarely in ‘American Tabloid’ territory. Less liberal-baiting racial slurs than the Demon Dog, though. But, Graham ‘The End of the Affair’ Greene? Yeah, it works. Just as Graham ‘The Human Factor’ Greene’s work took place in Greeneland so does Chaykin’s work take place in Chaykinland; both imaginary lands bearing some resemblance to the real world, but largely defined by the idiosyncrasies of the authors in question. Graham ‘The Power and the Glory’ Greene had Catholicism and Chaykin has Judaism; but whereas Graham ‘The Quiet American’ Greene wore his religion like itchy fetters, Chaykin sports his like a natty hat. Both Graham ‘Our Man in Havana’ Greene & Chaykin evince a healthy interest in the world around them, its history, and how this history affected people and vice versa (emphasis on the vice, alas). As approaches go the whole saying something about the world we all inhabit approach sadly proves, when it comes to comics, to be rare as hen’s teeth. So, despite the eruptions and ructions of the very recent past North American genre comics can be relied upon to continue on their merrily emptyheaded and decompressed way, telling us very little about not very much. Exceptions exist, but I put it to the Court, m’lud, that no one has so stubbornly endeavoured to elevate North American genre comics from insubstantial Pablum to something with some mental traction, than the thermodynamic miracle, Howard Victor Chaykin. (Well, no American anyway.) Of course there are very clear differences between Chaykin and Greene; Graham ‘The Third Man’ Greene definitely wrote ‘Travels With My Aunt’, but let’s face it Chaykin would be more likely to write ‘Travels With My Cock’. Comparisons only go so far, after all.
In many ways AMERICAN CENTURY (the 2001 Vertigo Comics series, of which this TPB collects the first four issues) is a succession of travels with Howard Victor Chaykin’s cock. Or his analogue’s cock at least. This time out that analogue is one Harry Block (later Harry Kraft) by name. Harry’s a Portuguese ginger midget with a wooden leg and halitosis that can stun an ox…oh, okay, Harry’s a tall, handsome, physically fit, dark haired, realistically cynical (or cynically realistic), heterosexual American Jew who might not be too smart, but is pretty wily and kind of self-righteous. That is, it’s the usual Chaykin mix of mensch and schmuck we know and love so much. Harry’s come back from the War and unsuccessfully settled into the suburbs. His wife’s a nag and his life is drab. Then he gets drafted for the Korean “Police (cough!) Action” And like any responsible adult he just ups and fucks off, leaving it all behind and sets out into the…(ta da!) American Century! Because, okay, sure, we have to give America that much; the 20th Century belonged to America. (Sorry, Yanks, the 21st Century is earmarked for Tonga. It’s Tonga’s Century, we’re all just living in it!)
The book is set in the ‘50s which is an interesting period in American history, one when America’s Imperialism, emboldened by the fact everywhere else was just plain tuckered out after WW2, was still a tad heavy handed. The ‘60s of course would force a slicker and quieter approach after Vietnam black America’s eyes (e.g. in 1968: 16,592 American deaths were reported in Vietnam versus, say, in 2014: the first McDonalds was opened in Vietnam. I don’t like McDonald’s, but I’d much rather dead cows than dead people. Sorry, vegetarians.) Of course Howard Victor Chaykin isn’t the only name involved here. Writing wise it’s Chaykin & Tischman, which, well, it’s a gobstopper isn’t it? I was going to go with “C&T”, “Tishkin” or maybe “Chayk-Man” for brevity’s sake. But “C&T” sounds like a cheap cocktail (or a regrettable medical procedure people who respect life but kill doctors want to ban), “Tishkin” sounds like a 19th Century Russian poet (author of ‘The Bronze Cocksman’, perchance) and Chayk-Man sounds like a really bad idea for a superhero (don’t ask). So, I’ll be sticking with Chaykin & Tischman, thanks.
On art there’s Marc Laming, with inks by John Stokes. Laming’s cut quite the rug lately over at Dynamite with his pleasantly solid work on the Kings Features characters, but back in 2001 he was a greenhorn and, alas, it shows. Working from breakdowns by Howard Victor Chaykin, Laming’s work is never less than efficient but hardly more than that either. Problems are apparent on the first page where he fluffs the distance between a coupling couple and a pile of books. The whole point of the scene is their physical infidelity topples the books and causes a crack in a wedding photo (SYMBOLISM!) Yet, the books are either too far away for it to work and the couple appear to throw themselves across the room, or they are comically large books. Perspective, innit. Tricky stuff. (Wittily, one of the books is Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel ‘The Naked and The Dead’, wherein Mailer was swayed into the use of “fug” rather than “fuck”, because, uh, moral decency and all that good stuff. By 2001 Chaykin & Tischman are under no such constraints and revel in it. Swear like fucking sailors they do. Disgraceful fuckers.) Laming’s faces are also less than ideal, tending toward a samey-ness which can confuse. But, hey, that never stopped Jim Lee. And it probably didn’t take Laming 6 months to draw someone’s tear duct. John Stokes’ inks manage to elevate Laming’s art for the most part but, alas, the art is at root the kind of stiff that results from artistic stage fright. Hey, it’s a big gig for someone starting out, and while Laming never excels, he doesn’t disgrace himself either. He’s good on the hardware and environment; cars, houses, offices all have that authentic repressed ‘50s flavour. Racism and homophobia saturated the '50s but they could sure design cars and fridges. Now we stil ahve all the bad stuff but everything looks like cheap crap. Uh, anyway. Fair’s fair, the story gets told; which is more than many can manage first time out. Some established pros still struggle don’t they, Tony S Daniel? Laming and Stokes’ art is given some visual pop via Ken “The Bruise” Bruzenak’s reliably playful lettering, but he struggles to integrate it as smoothly as he can with Howard Victor Chaykin’s art. Luckily with Chaykin & Tischman’s script there’s a surfeit of bawdy energy and surly humour which helps to paper over the artistic cracks somewhat. Unusually for comics then, AMERICAN CENTURY fares better on the writing than the art, with the script retaining the urbane combination of aloof and louche which makes Howard Victor Chaykin’s solo work sparkle so. I don’t know what the actual split on scribing duties were, but if Tischman was just tasked with putting Howard Victor Chaykin into historical scenarios and ensuring the tiny dynamo was waist deep in fighting and fucking, he couldn’t have done a better job. Tischman also writes the introduction to the TPB, and it’s a nice piece of clipped prose, evoking the hard-boiled likes of Cain and Hammett which the series seeks to channel, but also with that undercurrent of self-aware humour characteristic of Chaykin’s work. Even when others are involved.
The post-WW2 period when America was still King Shit of Cock Mountain, all swagger and unreflecting self-righteousness, unsurprisingly provides plenty of grist for AMERICAN CENTURY’s revisionist mill. The book starts off with a swift precis of ‘50s suburban Hell; people living the American Dream, but finding dreams are just fantasies which reality rides roughshod over. These people don’t just play charades at dinner parties, you hear me? People being piss poor fits for perfection, AMERICAN CENTURY shows how everyone is unhappy in a different way despite the air-con, fridges, autos and rictus grins. But the book isn’t interested in everyone; it’s interested in Harry Block/Kraft. A lot of the characters get short shrift because of this, but only in comparison. (And the series swings back in later issues to see how most of them are doing.) Character-wise, considering the set-up takes place in one issue it’s an impressive piece of compression. The book’s cast is swiftly delineated as being an All-American rainbow of racists, repressed homosexuals, sexists, dipsos, adulterers, anti-Semites, moral cripples, physical cripples, and probably a few other things I forgot; all swiftly and ably done in less than one issue to boot. It’s a lot to take in in a short span of pages. But the key here is to read the book slow. Seriously, you can’t breeze your way through AMERICAN CENTURY like most comics; you have to take your time. AMERICAN CENTURY assumes you want to spend time with it and operates accordingly. If you just zip through the book like it’s a chore to be done rather than a pleasure to be savoured you’ll think it’s a jumbled mess. It ain’t. Having done all that scene setting spade work AMERICAN CENTURY then throws it all out of the window as Harry absconds in an aeroplane, and Chaykin & Tischman drop Harry into a fantastical scenario where America is sticking its oar into another country’s business. What utter nonsense! Ah, well, unfortunately it isn’t. For the rest of the book Harry has to fictionally negotiate the factual US backed Guatemalan coup of 1954 in a tale which is both lurid and educational, both fiction and fact, with not a little Howard Victor Chaykin sexual wish-fulfilment on the side. Yes, all the Ladies Love Cool Howard, from the dirt poor hooker to the Eva Perón-a-like. It’s a curse, I imagine. Hang on, John, the US backed Guatemalan Coup of 1954? The US backed What of The When?
Remember Ike, whom buttons proclaim we all like? Well, in 1952 people liked Ike enough that Eisenhower became President of America on the back of a campaign, within which was snugly nestled a promise to actively combat, rather than inertly contain, communism (N.B. America is not a big fan of communism. Just so you know. They hide it well, but they can’t fool me.) The prior Truman administration had been increasingly wary of communist influence in Guatemala but had played largely fair, using only economic and diplomatic pressures. (PBFORTUNE its one attempt at covert action was quickly shelved once it became somewhat less than covert. Oops!) Fairness was off the board post-Truman as McCarthyism (i.e. the hysterical self-aggrandising scaremongering of Senator Joseph McCarthy, not an outbreak of impressions of Edgar Bergen’s ventriloquist doll Charlie McCarthy) was rife within Eisenhower’s Government, the Cold War was escalating and Russia was a totalitarian shitshow giving socialism a bad name (link to Bon Jovi: “BAD NAME!”); all in all things were looking bleak for Guatemala on the non-intervention front. Geopolitically speaking America was cracking its knuckles in an alley waiting for someone to distract Guatemala’s attention. But why? Guatemala? Bizarrely the culprit was a fruit company with its nose bent out of shape. I didn’t even know they had noses!
Because I am largely docile I have spent a large part of my life thinking the United Fruit Company (UFC) was just some kind of CIA front with a typically silly code name, and while the CIA and the UFC were indeed linked, it turns out the UFC was actually and primarily a fruit company, probably a united one to boot. Yeah, fruit; Bananas and that. I find it odd to this day that a fruit company (!) could have such an effect on history as this one. Well, any effect on history besides providing people with fruit. Now, because unrestrained capitalism is just great, just absolutely fantastic, this US based company had basically ended up running a private fiefdom within Guatemala; true this was via concessions from various Guatemalan rulers who liked money rather more than their people. Hold on though, fruit isn’t the only fall guy in this scenario as these bad practices had their root in the 19th Century and the concessions made to plantation owners when coffee demand blossomed. So the humble coffee bean has to shoulder some of the blame. Yes, History makes even breakfast a guilt trip! What larks. In clear violation of anything even remotely close to human decency, land was sold from under the (poorly shod, I imagine) feet of the Guatemalan population to the plantation owners and, acting like monopoly is just a board game, the UFC ended up being the only banana game in town, with control over the communication and distribution infrastructure required by such a business. You know, little things like roads and rail tracks. Things were pretty awesome for the UFC all told, but less so for the average Guatemalan. I don’t know, but I imagine they were controlled by repression and violence, which are all okay obviously as long as they are happening out of the customers’ sight and people get their iPads, I mean, bananas. In 1929 the Great Depression happened and, boy, that was what historians call “a doozy”, there are books about it and everything. Surprisingly though, The Great Depression didn’t just affect America; everywhere was a bit down in the mouth. In Guatemala it was all getting a bit much; life was shit and now this? Finally, the Guatemalan people rose up (hurrah!)…and were pushed back down (boo!). Actually they were pushed even further back and even further down by Jorge Ubico’s (US Supported) regime, for which the word repressive is probably soft soaping it. The important thing here though is Jolly Jorge Ubico not only gave the UFC massive amounts of public land, but also exempted it from all taxes.
Taxes! People fucking hate paying taxes don’t they? I just want to make this point here because currently people seem to think paying tax is some kind of cheeky imposition, some kind of theft. Look, tax puts the money back. Not all of it; you can keep some for being successful, because there’s nothing wrong with success and the rewarding thereof. (Despite what they tell you Socialism doesn’t punish success.) Hey, I’m no economist (SPOILER!) but here’s a clue about trickle-down economics – if you divert all the money into bank accounts in Panama it isn’t going to trickle anyfuckingwhere, certainly not back into society where it is needed. It’s really cute that you can afford someone to cook your books so you avoid paying what you should, but don’t expect us peons who have to pay full whack or face going to prison to be cheering you on. If you are paying someone to get creative with your taxes I’m not sure you should do that. It’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” It’s not “From each as little as you can fucking get away with, to each none of mine if at all possible.” Squirrelling your money away off-shore is as Left Wing as Enoch Powell’s arse. Yeah, I do know the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance. And, yeah, I know one’s not illegal, but I also know it is still immoral. So, yeah, my names JohnK, and I think my shit don’t stink or whatever you think will shut me up, but, hey, pay your taxes. It’s not a little game between your accountant and the gubbermint; people die due to lack of adequate funding. You know - human beings. Die. And they don’t come back like in the comics. But of course you’ll never see them die and you’ve got your bananas, right? You’ve got aaaaaaaaaaaalllllll the bananas. Well done you. Hang onto those bananas. Like a big fucking chimp. Man, 2016’s really soured my mood. Sorry about that. No, no I’m not. Scratch that.
So, uh, where were we? (Christ, who was that guy? “Immoral”? Dude, it ain’t the 16th Century. What a fucking “snowflake”. Hurr.) Right, so, if history has shown us anything it’s that The People will put up with far too much shit before kicking back. But eventually kick back they do, and in 1954 the Guatemalan people did so and Ubico valiantly ran off, leaving a Junta in his place which continued his charming policies. This being a less than ideal outcome, the Guatemalan people had another crack at it. Persistence paid off as The October Revolution threw the Junta out. A real kick in the Juntas there and, miracle of miracles, there was a free election. Like, uh, democracy and that. Democracy, which America loves; unless it gets in the way of its bananas. Juan José Arévalo won the election and while he was by no means a communist, he was certainly an improvement and sensibly pragmatic. He shook things up, but not enough to shake them to pieces. Education, health and the labour code all improved, and there was even a minimum wage. Civilised stuff, I trust you agree. Keeping America sweet he was openly anti-communist (America still had its doubts about him, because being anti-communist would be perfect cover for a communist wouldn’t it? Yes, America. Keep taking the pills, America.) Human nature being what it is, for improving the lot of the Guatemalan people Arévalo’s reward was around 25 attempted coups. Over here Jeremy Corbyn (who also only wants to improve people’s lot) has only had one attempted coup so far, but there’s time yet. Jacobo Árbenz was elected next and he started to step on some UFC toes. (Uh oh.) He began to roll back some of the ridiculous concessions granted under Ubico and, worse (i.e. better), his 1952 Agrarian Reform Law (sexy stuff! Batman? Pah! Agrarian Reform Law, that’s the sexy business.) confiscated 100s of 1000s of acres of uncultivated land from the UFC, with compensation based (get this, this is truly excellent, I like this bit:) on the valuation used by the company for its tax payments. I adore the chutzpah of that. Let’s see, who thinks the valuation the UFC used for its tax payments was anywhere in the region of the real worth of that land? Hmmm. Anyone? I’m not seeing any hands. Good, so we all know how the world works. So, hoo boy, that pissed the UFC off. Big mistake. I know; it’s a fruit company (bananas and that) so how come the CIA would help it stage a coup? How precisely do you get from bananas to blood in the street?
Unfortunately, I don’t know. I doubt anyone knows. To this day the reasons why the Eisenhower administration backed a coup in Guatemala due to the discomfort of a fruit company forced to exhibit the barest modicum of decency are shrouded in eerie wisps of mystery. While it is true that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles had both arranged several deals for the UFC while previously working in Law, and it is true also that Undersecretary of State Bedell Smith later became a UFC Director, and it is additionally true that the wife of the UFC Public Relations Director was personal assistant to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the President of The United States of America, surely to suggest any inappropriate conflation of interests is tantamount to an act of treason, sir. I mean, good luck trying to join those dots, huh? Paging Woodward and Bernstein! Geraldo, even! It’s a two-pipe problem and no mistake, Sherlock. Golly, I guess we’ll just never know. Unless you read about the Guatemalan coup on Wikipedia, where there is also a handy cut out and keep list of all the regime changes America has had a hand in (although it misses off the Australian coup Britain also had a hand in. (Sorry, Australia; poor form on our part there.)) Coups always make for good reading, as there are always unbelievable bits like that part where a force of 60 (US supported) insurgents were arrested by a single policeman before they even crossed the border from Ecuador. Coups also make for sad reading, because they mean something’s gone wrong. In the end the US Sponsored Guatemalan coup won, not because it was well planned, efficient, or in any way professional, but because everyone knew America was behind it (America wanted everyone to know for precisely this reason), and knowing that once you’ve got rid of the "rebels" America is going to start swinging its nuclear powered fists takes the wind out of most country’s sails. Or maybe it succeeded because America is the Hand of God working upon this Earth. Yeah, if you’re a stone cold lunatic, that’s certainly another explanation you could go with. In 1999 the renowned woman botherer and then President of the United States of America Bill Clinton apologised for all the US shenanigans in Guatemala, which made everything okay, and America never messed in other countries’ affairs again, the wicked stepmother recanted, the dish ran away with the spoon and we all lived happily ever after.
Aren’t you all glad I didn’t go all the way back to The Monroe Doctrine? I know I am. Obviously you don’t need to know all that up there to enjoy AMERICAN CENTURY. I didn’t know all that. I had to go and look it up on Wikipedia; it’s not like I carry around ‘Ye True and Fplendide Hiftory of Guatemala’ in my head. But the point (yes there is one) is that Howard Victor Chaykin and David Erasmus Tischman had to know it, and the fact that they succeeded in spinning it into an entertainingly racy tale is even further to their credit. The value of fiction in giving us tools by which to apprehend the nature of the world we live in seems to have been forgotten by most comic creators. Stick your head in the sand too long and history will kick you in the arse. This year History’s been kicking far too many arses, and it might be beneficial if comics remembered there was a world beyond their borders, and helped push our heads out of the sand. Just a thought.
In case you were wondering, AMERICAN CENTURY was VERY GOOD!
NEXT TIME: Less strident half-witted recapping of Wikipedia and more COMICS!!!