One of my favorite comic book creators is Howard Chaykin. I was actually a little surprised to realize that I hadn’t written about him before on this blog, not even in passing. So today I am looking at his most recent project, the noir miniseries Midnight of the Soul. Published last year by Image Comics, the five issue Midnight of the Soul was collected into a trade paperback in December.
Midnight of the Soul is set in 1950. The protagonist is Joel Breakstone, a World War II veteran. Injured during the war, Joel has spent the last five years as an alcoholic shut-in with severe PTSD. During this time he was been attempting to start a career as a sci fi writer, but not a single one of his stories has sold. All the while Joel blots out flashbacks of the war by staying inebriated around the clock. His wife Patricia, now the sole source of income, has lost all respect for him. Joel has even had to sign the deed of his house in Long Island to his smug brother-in-law Steve. In short, Joel is stuck in a self-destructive rut, and he knows it.
Then one evening, while both Patricia and Steve are out, Joel is searching the house, trying to find where he stashed his bottles. Instead what he discovers are photographs that reveal Patricia is working as a prostitute, along with a spare key to her apartment in Manhattan. Still half-drunk, consumed by resentment, Joel digs out a gun and hops on his motorcycle, heading into the city in search of his wife.
Meanwhile, Patricia is meeting with her main client, a jazz musician named Cooley. Before their session can get too far along, Cooley is murdered by an intruder, with Patricia barely escaping. She is soon being pursued, not only by the killer, but by thugs working for the gangster who owned Cooley’s contract, since they mistakenly believe that she is the murderer. Joel finds himself attempting to locate his wife before they do.
Chaykin does an excellent job at developing Joel Breakstone. The alcoholic veteran is very much a flawed, damaged, selfish asshole. And yet Chaykin succeeds in rendering him as somewhat sympathetic, his actions and motivations understandable. Even towards the end, when Joel does something pretty awful, offering up a rather self-serving justification, he remains a character who, even if you don’t like him, neither do you really hate him.
On the opening page Joel is reflecting on his lifelong obsession with parallels. Midnight of the Soul is very much a story of parallels. Joel and Patricia, once a couple, are now living separate, parallel lives. Joel’s search through Manhattan for Patricia is paralleled by the mobsters’ pursuit of her. Joel and the lovely Dierdre O’Shaughnessey also are traveling in parallel, with the two of them continually crossing paths across the length and width of Manhattan.
As he gradually begins to sober up and the fog in his head slowly starts to dissipate, Joel’s very memories begin to work in parallel. Different versions of his near-death experience during the war begin to emerge, each one slightly different from the other, leaving Joel finally questioning what really did happen half a decade before. Even the fiction that Joel is attempting to write is concerned with parallels, set in an alternate world where the Axis won the war.
Chaykin is more concerned here with character introspection, with the creation of a mood and the establishment of an atmosphere, than he is with the mechanics of a sophisticated plot. Joel’s discovery of Patricia’s secret life is primarily intended by Chaykin to force his protagonist out of his alcoholic self-pity, to nudge him back into reality, and to confront not his wife but the mental baggage he carries.
Likewise the murder of Cooley is almost incidental, the identity of the killer revealed soon after, the motivation for the crime mentioned almost in passing. Cooley’s death serves primarily to send Patricia running for her life, extending Joel’s search for her, resulting in him spending the night bouncing from one odd situation after another.
Chaykin also offers up his characteristic black humor. At one point I literally burst out laughing, which given that I was reading the book on the M Train earned me a few odd looks.
Chaykin has a genuine fondness for mid Twentieth Century American society. He has set many of his stories during this time, or transposed the trappings and elements of the period to other eras. Midnight of the Soul sees him returning to explore the post war period, with its good and its bad and its numerous contradictions.
Chaykin does an amazing job at rendering Manhattan of 1950 via his highly detailed artwork. The fashions, the architecture, the music; all are vividly brought to life. That tangible mood and atmosphere I cited before is as much the product of Chaykin’s art as they are his plotting, dialogue and narration.
Also impressive is Chaykin’s storytelling. He expertly lays out his artwork, creating an effective, dramatic flow to the narrative. As I have observed before, storytelling in comic books is a somewhat underrated skill. Most really good pencilers are so effectively subtle with their layouts that you don’t really appreciate the talent and thought that is on display in causing the story to flow from one panel to another, one page to the next. There is a really cinematic quality to Chaykin’s artwork. He is equally adept at action sequences and quieter passages of dialogue.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chaykin’s talent for rendering beautiful women. Midnight of the Soul is nowhere near as erotic as some of his past works such as American Flagg!, Black Kiss and Satellite Sam. Nevertheless, both Patricia and Dierdre are very attractive, stunning to look at yet also tangible as flash and blood human beings.
The coloring on Midnight of the Soul is by Jesus Aburtov. He does an excellent job here, his coloring complementing Chaykin’s art, a key element in the evocation of the story’s tone. Chaykin and Aburtov have worked together on several projects, and they make an effective team.
Chaykin has been working in the comic book biz for over four decades now. Over time he’s consistently grown as both a writer and artist. I’m glad that he’s still active as a creator, crafting striking, unusual, provocative stories such as Midnight of the Soul. His next project, The Divided States of Hysteria, is also coming out this year through Image. I’m certainly looking forward to it.