Thursday, 23 May 2019

Samuel Delany & Howard Chaykin's Empire

You might want to set yourself some time aside today, as here we go with Byron Preiss, Samuel Delany & Howard Chaykin's epic sci-fi graphic novel Empire.
As I've said before, Preiss was the publisher who spent most of the Bronze Age trying to create the graphic novel, and his productions are always fascinating, if flawed experiments.
He was generally keen to stay as far away from traditional comic book storytelling as possible, meaning that his books never 100% carry their ideas off, being neither fish nor fowl, and Empire does have it's flaws.
Delany tries to meld Star Wars style space opera with more 'serious' sci-fi ideas, and the result is slightly clunky, while Chaykin restricts himself ( or was restricted by Preiss ) into a three panel grid format that can't help but get a little repetitive.
But, it's a good yarn, with interesting characters, and it's Howard in his fully painted era, throwing out amazing design work like it's going out of fashion.
I bought Empire when it came out, in 1978, and have read it a lot in the decades since. It's a flawed masterpiece, I think. See what you think.


  1. Chaykin hadn't quite perfected his painting style yet when EMPIRE was released - he would by the time THE SWORDS OF HEAVEN came out - but it's still a lovely piece of work & far better than his current over-the-top color-enhanced chicken scratchings.

    I know I've said this many times before, but when Chaykin dumped his painted work in favor of making quicker revenue, he took a huge step backwards in the evolution of his growth as an artist.

    1. I'm also more a fan of Chaykin's painted work, circa 1978-1981. EPIC ILLUSTRATED 2, a later beautiful cover for EPIC 8. Dominic Fortune in MARVEL PREVIEW 20, and then continued in HULK magazine issues 21-25, THE SWORDS OF HEAVEN THE FLOWERS OF HELL graphic novel, EMPIRE, a gorgeous cover for MARVEL SUPER SPECIAL (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), and less impressive FOR YOUR EYES ONLY the next issue. Some Red Sonja stories across the scattered Conan magazines.

      For those who don't know, there were to be two issues of THE STARS MY DESTINATION, and I guess for bankruptcy reasons issue 2 wasn't published by Preiss. Marvel/Epic finally published a collected trade in 1992 that collects both issues in a single 8 X 11" trade. And that's one hell of a lot of Chaykin painted art in one book! So glad I stumbled across that one about 15 years after it was published.

      I like all the price books I've purchased. For whatever flaws, they're all beautiful to look at. I'm grateful they were published and are in my collection.

      My favorite of the bunch is THE ILLUSTRATED HARLAN ELLISON.

    2. Yeah, I think that's the best one too.

    3. I don't know if youve seen it, but there's a more common trade paperback ILLUSTRATED HARLAN ELLISON (which has a weak binging and begins to come apart and have loose pages after you've read it a few times. And then there's a limited hardcover of 3,000 copies signed by Ellison. I like the Whelan cover better on the softcover, but the binding is much more solid on the hardcover edition. The cover and bookplate in the hardcover (not clearly credited) is by Don Ivan Punchatz. A book I loved so much I'm glad to have both versions.

      Another Preiss offering I love is the CHANDLER: RED TIDE story by Steranko. First published as issue 3 of Preiss' FICTION ILLUSTRATED in digest size on newsprint paper.
      Then as a separate 8 X 11" graphic novel version of CHANDLER, with offset printing on better paper. I like it in both formats. The first is more akin to the pulps it is tribute to, the second allows you to enjoy the detail more in the larger/better format.

      Of the Byron Preiss publications, the only ones I don't have (as far as I know) are some of the WEIRD HEROES books. I bought volumes 1 and 2 way back, and later found out there were 8 total in the series.

      When I was 9 or 10, I even had his first book, the Electric Company SILENT E's FROM OUTER SPACE. It was rally fun. I loved it back then, but before I treached my teenage years it got lost at some point.

      I agree with your comment: "Preiss was the publisher who spent most of the Bronze Age trying to create the graphic novel, and his productions are always fascinating, if flawed experiments. He was generally keen to stay as far away from traditional comic book storytelling as possible, meaning that his books never 100% carry their ideas off, being neither fish nor fowl"
      His books were text with illustrations, and none ever quite fully made it to being comic book storytelling. I think the most successful in that respect was "The Discarded" in the ILLUSTRATED ELLISON book.
      But as with Repent, Harlequin" by Steranko, or "I'm Looking For Kadak" by Overton Lloyd in the same book, they were beautiful and visually striking experiments, if not fully achieving the words/pictures synthesis of the mainstream comic book form.

      Stories memorable enough that I frequently pull off the shelf and revisit.

    4. I've had the softcover Illustrated Ellison since I was a kid, Dave, and can confirm it fell apart within a day of reading it. ( And as I've mentioned elsewhere, in that Comics Journal interview Ellison did with Gary Groth, he hilariously complains that HIS copy fell apart too, while doing the interview...! )
      Let's see, what else do I have Preiss wise? The Illustrated Roger Zelazny, all the Fiction Illustrated books ( except Ralph Reese's Sherlock Holmes one ) and 1, 4, 6 & 8 of Weird Heroes ( and am working towards getting the set )
      Most of these will find their way onto the blog eventually ( as will at least a snippet of Stars My Destination ), as obviously I agree with everything you say about Preiss' books. I can't get enough of them and wish he'd been able to do more...

  2. It pains me to say it, but you're absolutely right, k.

  3. I haven't reread EMPIRE in a long time and so don't have a strong opinion about its level of artistry.

    However, I would rate the first 12 issues of AMERICAN FLAGG way above anything he'd done previous to that.

    To each his own, of course.

    1. I was late to the game with Flagg, but I'd say, yes, it's Ultimate Chaykin.

    2. I think American Flagg worked more for the quality writing & overall design than for the actual art itself. Still, the first two dozen issues belong in every serious comic reader's library as one of the high points in graphics history.

      The sad part about Flagg is that Chaykin stopped evolving after that point - even regressing to an earlier, simpler style & then staying there. He honestly hasn't done anything of note since then - and that's kind of heartbreaking.

    3. Especially when you look at Empire, Cody Starbuck, Swords Of Heaven, Stars My Destination et al...

  4. So sad that Byron Preiss died in a car accident not too many years ago. I loved his Weird Heroes paperbacks and own Steranko's Chandler which Preiss published in 1976.

    Gene Poole

  5. He was great, although he didn't produce a lot, what he did do was always top notch, even when they didn't quite work.

  6. Aside from Alex Toth, Moebius, & Steranko, Howard Chaykin & Walt Simonson were my favourite designers in '70s comics.

    Chris A.

  7. No disagreement from these quarters...

  8. Boy! What a great surprise!!

    I love Empire. I think that Swords from Heaven,Flowers from hell and Stars my destination (perhaps his best goal in the 70s) are steps forward. But I love these 3.

    And I can't agree with him going backwards when changing of style. I mean: it's not just Flagg (btw, issues 15 to 26 are fantastic too. Everybody who praise the first 12 should read the second half, with fantastic issues like Reuben does England, moving homages to Terry and the pirates in issue 26 and more!!).

    Is there a more classy and gorgeous looking graphic novel in the 80s than the Time2 diptic? And what about his arresting bye bye to color in Black Kiss or Satellite Sam?

    Chaykin is a God. Much like Bacchus, the horny roman god of booze and women.

    Wonderful post, Pete. Thanks a lot.
    Manuel Ruiz

  9. Wow, talk about blasts from the past. You really went for it with this post Pete.
    Chaykin's work is a bit rushed in places - hardly surprising and understandable given the length - but its Delany who let the side down.
    The geezer who wrote Dhalgren couldn't do better than this?
    Still, its a better read than some dopey Marvel or DC superhero comic. Thanks.


  10. "The geezer who wrote Dhalgren couldn't do better than this?"

    I suspect that Empire was actually written early in Delany's career - around the time when he was doing straight-up SF like Babel-17 or The Einstein Intersection. At least, I hope so.

    1. Empire was written after Dhalgren kiyote, appearing three years later.

      Actually, that was a bit of a rhetorical question. Delany pretty much explained why his comic work was disappointing in his introduction to the Eclipse collected Miracleman: Golden Age.
      I don't have a copy to hand, but basically he admits that for all his interest in comics he hadn't really taken the form seriously til reading Moore and then Gaiman's work on the series, as they'd come up with a fresh, involving approach that it hadn't even occurred to him was possible.

      Fair enough really - his mind was elsewhere, having rethought sf. Not to knock him, but probably something similar was going on with Moorcock and Swords of Heaven.


  11. "Is there a more classy and gorgeous looking graphic novel in the 80s than the Time2 diptic?"

    You're absolutely right about Flagg #15-26 being just as good as the first dozen issues - but Time2 was... not all that great, in my opinion. The writing was very choppy & sub-par - as if Chaykin knew his subject matter well, but forgot to let the rest of us in on it. The art seemed rushed & sloppy in many places, made even more obvious by the lovely painted covers.

    I also recall Chaykin saying once that he made more money from Black Kiss than any other comic he's ever done. Make of that what you will.

  12. I think him not letting the rest of us on it is the main reason I struggle with his later stuff. Sometimes it's quite difficult to keep track of who's who. The Shadow and Hey Kids, Comics! are certainly guilty of that.

  13. Is there a more quintessentially Chaykin work than Time2?
    Personally, I'm with Manuel and thought it was great. You have to let it wash over you, and become attuned to Chaykin's visual approach to the narrative... But different strokes for different folks I suppose. Some people don't like jazz.

    Agree that Chaykin could put a bit more time into his artwork these days. He uses a lot of visual cues in his storytelling, and better execution would help with letting the reader in on whats happening.


  14. For my, his page design, drawings an colors in Time2 were the peak of his work in the 80s. It succesfully blends the 2 pages narrative formula of his Heavy Metal's Cody Starbuck, with the classy new drawings in American Flagg, plus Bruzenak's op art lettering.

    About the script, this is selfish, yes, hermetic, sure, but as personal, self indulgent as fascinating as, let's say, Miles Davis in "Bitches Brew".

    I can't recall anything not even remotely close in comics. I mean, just please compare this biographical work with others in the comic medium.

    While Harvey Pekar choose to write about his life through mundane things,

    What Chaykin did was something radical: to talk about his life but skipping the facts and going instead to his fetishism and philias, letting those alone to be the pillars of the work.

    That's why the scripts, characters or plot seems to be non existent. In its place we got a open window into Chaykin life and mind at that time.

    And, boy, he had a lot of fun!

    That's why I think that Time2 is his best artistic goal. A biographical tale using as narrative mcgufin his tastes alone. Wow! I only remember Umberto Eco doing something close in "La misteriosa llama de la reina Loana". And it was years after.

    Manuel Ruiz