In honor of Festivus, a donation has been made in your name to the Human Fund: Money for People. Also, in honor of Russian-Orthodox Festivus (like regular Festivus but 3 weeks later), we’ll be airing some grievances, at least in comic form. Today, we’ll do that by taking a look at Hey Kids! Comics! by Howard Chaykin, which just wrapped up its first five issue run and airs grievances aplenty. Be warned: spoilers ahoy. Hey Kids! looks at comic book history from the golden age of comics through the modern age in a warts-and-even-more-warts style. It also might be where I spent your Human Fund donation this year. The Human Fund: Money for My Comic Shop Guy In Exchange for Comic Books just doesn’t have the same ring, though.
Fair warning, there is language in here not appropriate for kiddos, so be forewarned!
In Hey Kids! the names have been changed, and some real life creators have been conflated into one character for story purposes. Some analogues are very easy to decipher, and some aren’t as clear. For me, another challenge of the series is its foundation in the Golden age of comics, which is a bit of a blind spot for me, personally, but I’m always excited to piece together more backstory about the comics industry.
The basic storyline thread throughout the five issues is that creators are going to get screwed over and cheated because they allow themselves to be screwed over and cheated in an industry full of homophobia, sexism, racism, nepitism, anti-semitism, and several other -isms.. Also, some of your favorite creators are screw-ups and/or cheats. It’s not a pleasant picture.
I can’t say Hey Kids! Comics! is a pleasant reading experience, either, because I really had to work for this one. I will readily warn others of its seemingly impenetrable nature, especially for beginners, but even for folks with some background knowledge. If you’re not willing to work on this one, you’re not going to get much out of it. With that said, in a sick sort of way, I enjoyed it. Once I put the time in to dissect the story and do some googling to figure out who the character analogues were, it was perversely fun to see the dirty laundry of the industry. It encouraged me to dig around and cross-reference things like Sean Howe’s Marvel: The Untold Story or Brian Cronin’s excellent Comic Book Legends Revealed articles in addition to some good old fashion wikipedia-ing. I enjoy comic history, and I feel like if this series focused more on the silver age moving forward, I would have enjoyed it even more.
Still, Chaykin definitely has an interesting perspective, having been around the industry long enough to have directly known and worked with the main players at the beginning of the art form and seen the direction of the industry ever since. He’s part of that second generation with folks like Neal Adams who have been elevated to the elders of the industry at this point. They’ve seen the mistakes of the previous generations and tried to correct the course not only for themselves but for those that have followed–and they definitely have a unique perspective as far as bridging the gap between the golden age until now. Also, they earned their anger as the industry seems real crappy.
In addition to featuring players I’m not super familiar with, Chaykin makes it difficult with his storytelling choices. Chaykin jumps back and forth across the timeline, frequently stopping in or fast forwarding to key moments in 1945, 1955, 1965, 1967, and 2001. You get characters returning from the war to find a shrinking industry as the returning vets weren’t as interested in fantasy any more. You get creators facing the Werthem Seduction on the Innocent bomb that blew up the industry in 1955. Then, by 1965, super-hero comics are on the upswing, as the Marvel analogue reinvigorates the industry and the Superman character takes the starring Broadway performance. Finally, in 2001, as our the main characters are reaching the end of their lines, the comic movie and convention boom begins. The story follows three main artists throughout the timeline, and we get to see the story through the eyes of a black man, a woman, and a white man. While their faces change, Chaykin’s style frequently makes it difficult to figure out which character is which to begin with, let alone when you’re dealing with the same characters over four decades of aging. Even after going through the story and taking notes, there are still plenty of question marks.
The first main protagonist, Ted Whitman, is a black man working to stay ahead in a business filled with racism and aggression. He’s shown to have talent deserving of the best opportunities, in spite of the hatred that’s frequently and more than casually aimed his way. Whitman is said to be representative of Matt Baker, an artist who passed away in 1959, despite his character living into the 2000’s in Chaykin’s story. When Whitman does get opportunities, whether it’s at the big companies, or doing the popular syndicated strips, his race is a continuous factor in his employment or lack thereof. At one point, after having an editor literally stamp “bull—-” on his pages, Whitman gets his revenge by poaching all of that editor’s talent for the competition, who tells Ted that he appreciates having him to add “a bit of color in the bullpen.” Whitman’s continued success in the industry is entirely dependant on him suffering for his race, no matter what position he’s in.
Whitman’s character is continually bumping into the another main character, Ray Clarke, at various points in the timeline, looking for work, whether it’s at the big publishers or doing the Tijuana bibles.
Benita Heindel is the next protagonist, a woman who got her start while the boys were at war and never gave up her spot. She’s the stand-in for Ramona Fradon, apparently, based on her marriage to a New Yorker cartoonist. I’m not as familiar with Fradon’s work, either, but she apparently is known for her work on Aquaman and her co-creation of Metamorpho. Like Whitman, Benita is portrayed as highly competent and strong willed enough to survive in an industry that looks down on her. She doesn’t escape without some salacious accusations, including sleeping around on her husband and using her position to help secure her fellow adulterers jobs.
The final main protagonist, Ray Clarke, is supposedly an analogue for Gil Kane. Of the three protagonists, I’m most familiar with Kane’s work on Green Lantern and Spider-man. I was not familiar with the seedier side of Gil Kane shown in the story, however. Chaykin portrays him as never quite good enough, swiping pages both on a professional level where he would take poses or layouts, and on a physical level, when he would steal actual pages from the printer. Then, he was off to sell those pages to convention vendors for cash. Then of course, he is filled with righteous indignation in the 2000’s at Tom Hollenbeck, the stand-in for the Image era creators in the 90’s, for swiping pages. In real life, Chaykin got his start working as a gopher for Kane, and credits him as his “greatest influence.” Uh oh. He’s not very kind to Gil Kane in this series. Whether it’s the stealing or the adultery or the gambling debts or the generally turning in work that just isn’t good enough, Hey Kids! Comics! Seems designed to settle some grudges Chaykin has with Kane. Even when Kane faces adversity when his drawing style isn’t what the Marvel stand-in is looking for, you still don’t feel too bad because in the next scene, he’s browbeating the younger generation for doing the stuff he did to others.
While not main characters, Jess Mayberg, a stand-in for Mort Weisman, and Bob Rose, the Stan Lee representative, both come across as vile leaders in the industry. Mayberg is shown in scenes hating on black men and women. He’s also shown mailing out his Christmas list to freelancers looking to pick up work. The Stan Lee stand-in is shown assuring the Jack Kirby analogue that he’ll get royalties for comic creations settled as soon as they figure things out—and then walking into a board room meeting where he assures his cronies that the work is great for merchandising potential because it’s already bought and paid for.
Then, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, and the heads of DC join together in a restaurant to fix prices and collude on the direction of the industry.
The rest of the series is filled with moments I’ve read about previously but are nonetheless interesting (and heartbreaking) to see play out. Siegel and Shuster (Irwin Glaser and Ira Gelbert) analogues are screwed out of royalties and are nearly destitute, taking handouts while the executives at Yankee (National/DC) comics are attending Superman events in tuxedos with beautiful women on their arms. Stan Lee’s right hand man and the only artist not let go in one of the big talent purges, Joe Maneely (Brian Callanan), steps out in front of an oncoming vehicle (here it’s a cab instead of a train) and the history of Marvel comics is forever rewritten. Pete Sawyer is there as Milt Canniff testifying against the comic industry to Congress; Alfie Kessler is there to represent the anti-gay Al Williamson, and Alex Toth’s stand-in Lazlo Fabian dangles his editor out of a window when he doesn’t get his check. The Bob Kane character Ron Fogel has a doll burned in effigy in his honor, and Mike Dunn, who I think but I’m not sure represents Bob Wood, pushes his wife out the window.
The airing of grievances continues throughout the series, and whether it’s creators reflecting on the work that Gil Kane drew and Ted Whitman inked that Bob Kane got credit for, or when the main characters watch a movie in the 2000’s and reflect on the scenes taken shot for shot from their work (but they get no credit for), it all serves to drive home the point that the people who created the industry were used up and disposed of with little thought or dispensation. They get to stand aside and watch the executives reap the rewards and the credit. What we value as fans and what they value as creators was monetized by folks who saw no value in sharing the wealth–and still don’t for the most part.
I’m hoping Chaykin enjoyed getting his feelings out to the masses, as it was definitely interesting to see the dirty laundry of the industry aired in this manner. I can’t tell if Chaykin felt guilty about airing the laundry and that’s why he made the series a bit of a challenge. Or, he really was excited about the history he didn’t have time to get to, and wanted to send his readers on a chase to discover more information. Either way, it’s a guilty pleasure I wouldn’t recommend for everyone. I enjoyed the historical goose chase. Lots of folks will be driven away by the awful photo covers meant to illustrate how comic creators are exploited. I much rather would have had more Chaykin art instead myself, but it couldn’t keep me away.
Final Grade: B. Only for those willing to put the work in and interested in the behind the scenes look of the early comic industry. I liked it, but I freely recognize this is not for your average bear–or comic book reader for that matter. You have to appreciate that comics are according to a Wordballoon interview with Chaykin, “a calling and an emotional trap” for its creators, and the prices paid show up here.
Oh, one last thing this book has that I love: fake parody ads! From movie posters to fruit pie ads to back page adverts for the Tijuana bibles–they’re here and really fun. They more than make up for the dehumanizing but really bland photo covers.
Until next time, I’ll be taking copious notes for my future salacious behind the scenes look at Ghosts of the Stratosphere: Ghosts from the Closets of Ghosts! They don’t even need to be true as long as they’re fun and drawn by Howard Chaykin!