Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #51: Black Kiss and Black Kiss 2 by Howard Chaykin

Nearly all of us like sex in our own personal lives. (A few years ago, I would have just said "all of us," but I'm coming to think there's nothing that's true for "all of us." Still, liking sex is about as close as it gets.)

But narrative art about sex is only very rarely as positive as we are in our own lives. Maybe it's because people having sex happily has a tendency to devolve into porn, or because art requires conflict, but the "erotic thriller" is much more common than the "erotic comedy" -- comedies about sex keep the sex as a joke and hidden behind those multiple slamming doors, not front and center. And cautionary stories about sex causing bad things are even more common than that.

Howard Chaykin is no exception: his most famous comics about sex are Black Kiss from 1988 and it's belated prequel/follow-up Black Kiss 2 from 2013, and there's very little happy sex in either of them. Oh, a lot of people get it on, pan-sexually, over and over again, but a lot of that sex is rape, a big chunk of the rest isn't terribly consensual, and a hell of a lot of people get killed during or after getting it on. (There are also serious arguments to be made that the Black Kiss stories are transphobic, or just plain sexist/misogynistic, but I won't make those arguments here. And a lot of that desire mixed with disgust for femininity is baked into the "erotic thriller" concept to begin with -- I don't know if that excuses anything, but it's inherent in the genre.)

Some of that is down to Chaykin, though: the first Black Kiss marks the moment when his early cynicism (as seen in projects like American Flagg!) curdled into sourness and his essential plot for the next several decades solidified into a cliche: the up-for-anything Jewish guy (with a big dick) gets caught up in something horrible, is tormented by at least one blonde vixen, and then generally kills her (and maybe several others) to escape with the brunette girl, who is more eager to follow his lead. In Black Kiss, that guy is Cass Pollack, a small-time jazz musician who we never see actually playing an instrument. (I am studiously avoiding making a joke on "instrument" here.)

Unusually for Chaykin, we don't open with Cass but with Dagmar Laine, a blonde trans* woman who is the lover of (and dead ringer for) faded movie star Beverly Grove. Laine appears to be the smart, organized one of the two, masterminding a complicated plot to get back a scandalous movie of Bev from a priest, while Bev rampages around, usually dead drunk and having dangerous sex with nearly everyone she meets. The plot goes wrong, of course, as a secret society and the usual nasty crooked cops get involved, and the movie is not destroyed as expected. Bev runs into Cass, on the run from those crooked cops for a mostly unrelated reason, and Cass is drawn into the pan-sexual orgy that is Dagmar and Bev's lives. As I said above, a lot of people have sex, occasionally by choice, and some of them even live to enjoy themselves afterward. But it's not the way to bet.

In the end, there's a shocking secret, more death, and anyone who's read a Chaykin story knows who walks out alive in the end.

Black Kiss 2 drops back to 1906 to give the backstory of that shocking secret, moving forward seven to ten years (most of the time) for each of its dozen ten-page chapters. The sex is more explicit here -- Chaykin avoided drawing genitalia and penetration in 1988, but not in 2013 -- but just as dreary and unpleasant, a relentless parade of nasty people doing nasty things to each other and the occasional innocent. We do learn Bev's full history, and Dagmar's -- all of the Dagmars, since there have been several -- and finally the plot catches up to the original Black Kiss and brings it up to the present day, with all of the dreary coercive sex intact.

The two Black Kiss books accomplish the difficult task of making sex seem deeply unpleasant and horrible: giving them to young impressionable people would be one of the best ways I know of making lifelong celibates. From these stories, no one could ever guess that sex is something people do together, or even that human beings are able to feel positive emotions for each other, once in a while. The pictures are well-done, I guess: scratchy noir blondes in expensive lingerie romping in vividly imagined spaces, with gouts of black blood at regular intervals for spice.

I can't actually recommend these books. If you're interested in Chaykin -- and you might well be; he's an interesting and deeply talented comics creator, both as a writer and an artist -- you do need to read them at some point; they channel a pure id Chaykin unlike anything else. But I really hope you don't enjoy them: to do that, I think, you need to identify too much with the sexual predators here.

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