Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Midnight of the Soul by Howard Chaykin

I had no idea what this would be. I hadn't heard of it when it came out in comics form, and got it from the library while trawling randomly through their comics collection online -- I just saw that Chaykin had a new standalone story in 2016, noted that it was available, and so I grabbed it.

If I'd been more prescient, I would have made some standard-Chaykin predictions before even seeing the book, to see how correct they would be. I could do that now, of course, but I've already read the book -- my predictions would be self-servingly correct.

I'd like to think I would have expected Midnight of the Soul to be a historical story, set in the mid-20th century. I know I would have said the hero would look like Dominic Fortune and a thousand others, because that's a given with Chaykin. I probably would have called for a blonde bad girl who does the hero wrong and a dark-haired good girl who does him right, and some nasty types doing nasty things to keep the plot moving. I'm sure I would have remembered garter belts -- it's just not a Chaykin story without garter belts peeking out from under billowing skirts or worn with matching lacy lingerie for the obligatory sleazy bedroom scene. I likely would have expected a healthy serving of sex that's not nearly as much fun for anyone as it probably should be, along with some potentially offensive gay characters -- who get to be fey and bitchy on-page but not have any depicted sex, unlike the hets.

I don't think I would have said the hero would be as damaged or self-loathing as he is. And I don't think I would have remembered to mention the undercurrent of misogyny, since I usually just remember that while reading a Chaykin book. And I might have expected some level of nihilism, but I never would have expected Chaykin would have tried for a moral point -- something about WWII and survivor's guilt -- and utterly muddled it with the usual Chaykin ending of shooting dead as many people as possible to clean up the plot's loose ends.

But those are the main elements of Midnight of the Soul, as written and drawn by Chaykin (and colored by Jesus Aburtov in a crisply modern style that works well for Chaykin's detailed art): one damaged man on his motorcycle, chasing across Manhattan one night in the very early 1950s, following the wife who did him wrong (while at the same time entirely supporting him for several years, partially by that wrong-doing) and the gangsters she got caught up with during the wrong-doing. The people we're supposed to sympathize with come out well, and the people we're not supposed to sympathize with -- guess where that wife falls? should I mention she's blonde? -- end very badly.

My sympathies didn't entirely fall the ways Chaykin intended -- or, rather, they were spread more widely than his plan, since I didn't have to spare as much for his grumpy, whiny, tediously macho hero (who doesn't manage to accomplish much, either) as he intended. Joel Breakstone has had some bad breaks, yes, but he's also an alcoholic anti-social prick who thinks wanting to be a writer forgives all of his horribleness. (Though that was a common literary excuse around that time, cf. Bukowski and Miller.)

Midnight is a solid Chaykin story, delivering well the things we've expected from Chaykin for thirty years or so. There's no reason to think he'll ever metamorphosize those elements into something that transcends them again, as he did with American Flagg!, but getting just one masterwork is still a huge achievement. As usual, I expect women will find less to like here than men, and realists less than romantics.

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