When two giants collide, a reckoning usually occurs. Whether friends or foes, anything that stands between them becomes fodder for their gargantuan appetites. Their presence is undeniable, they seize control of your senses, whether they intend to or not.
Howard Chaykin began his art career under the tutelage of Gil Kane, became an assistant to Wally Wood, two giants of their own time. Chaykin once lived in the same apartment building as Walter Simonson, Bernie Wrightson, and Allen Milgrom. The four of them would see movies together, talk into the night, while sketching what would take over the lion share of our collective imaginations for years to come. Star Wars, Superman, Batman, Conan, Hulk, Woverine, Blade, Chaykin's touched them all, gave them life beyond their own in ways only he could.
Sometime around 1977, Chaykin met a kid in a comic shop in NYC named Joe Jusko, and took him on as an apprentice. Just a few months later, Jusko was pumping out covers for Heavy Metal magazine and the rest is history. Jusko brought his mastery to The Savage Sword of Conan, Marvel masterpieces, gave us some of the most celebrated interpretations of the worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs and a mountain of iconic covers.
The two giants remain lifelong friends, so we decided to see what the two might get out of one another when forced to talk about themselves. They've changed the landscape of our imaginations already, who's to say they won't do it again.
Howard Chaykin: When and where’d you spend your childhood?
Joe Jusko: I was born in 1959 and raised in a tenement building on the Lower East Side of New York City, in an area known as Alphabet City. In a complete juxtaposition to how it is being gentrified and redeveloped today, it was an extremely hostile and dangerous environment from the mid 60’s through the 90’s. Streets that now sport art galleries and gourmet coffee shops I would not have run down as a kid, and while it’s definitely improved since that time it’s still not exactly the Emerald City. That said, while I would never have wanted my kids to grow up there I’m thankful I did as it gifted me a maturity and street smarts well beyond my years.
HC: Where you a fan of comics—either newspaper strips or comic books?
JJ: Both, actually. There were always comics of one kind or another around the home as my father and older brother read them. Cheap, blue collar entertainment for a low income family.
HC: If so, which?
JJ: Early on I read whatever was around the apartment. That consisted of the NY Daily News comics section and various comics like Dr. Solar, Turok, and the occasional issue of Batman or Superman. I can’t say I remember many Marvel books, but I’m sure there were some in the mix. I consumed the Daily News comics, but even at that age gravitated toward the more realistically drawn strips like On Stage by Leonard Starr and The Heart of Juliet Jones by Stan Drake. I still have a huge file folder of strips I cut out of the paper, and actually own the original art to the ON STAGE Sunday page that I favored. The Daily News was my parents paper of choice so I never even heard of Prince Valiant, Secret Agent Corrigan or other strips of that nature until years later, as The News didn’t carried them. I eventually became an avid collector and put together complete runs of almost every Marvel title, as I discovered that I preferred them to everything else being published.
HC: Of pulps—either of the actual thing or the latter-day stuff—paperback originals, as an example?
JJ: Pulps were way before my time and I while I was a voracious reader with college level reading and comprehension aptitudes in grade school (I wrote a book report on A Portrait of T. E. Lawrence in 6th grade, an example of eye catching cover art prompting the read) I was never a fan of science fiction or fantasy prose. As I reached my late teens I found myself dedicating all of my free time to drawing and eventually painting, with reading falling a bit to the side. I’m tunnel visioned and don’t multitask well, at all, but tend to obsessively focus on whatever my interest is at the time.
HC: Again, if so, which?
JJ: Becoming aware of the character due to John Buscema taking over the comic book art chores, in high school I eventually read a couple of Conan novels and found them “okay”. I’ve never read Doc Savage or The Shadow, and as I’ve mentioned, science fiction has never been my thing. I don’t like reading it and actually hate illustrating it, which is why you’ll see very little of it throughout my body of work.
The work of Edgar Rice Burroughs really captivated me, though and does to this day. He wrote in such an organically visceral and descriptive way that one gets totally immersed in the worlds he built. From an artist’s perspective there is barely a page that doesn’t offer at least one image ripe for illustration. For me, ERB is without peer as a genre fiction author.
HC: What movies, music, and television drama informed your growing up years?
JJ: Universal monsters (any monster or horror film, actually) ruled my early years. Historical spectacles and adventure films like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Spartacus, Ben-Hur and The Vikings were repeated viewings, as were most police, detective and James Bond films. TV show sitcoms and variety shows ruled back then and I watched every one, but detective and police procedurals like Adam-12, Hawaii 5-0 and Mannix captivated me to an extreme.
My musical tastes, as you discovered when I worked as your assistant, are much more diverse. I grew up listening to my parents collection of Artie Shaw, Glen Miller and especially Tony Bennett records. To this day I know the words to every cut from Tony Bennett’s Greatest Hits. I’m well versed in what is now considered 60’s Classic Rock, thanks to my older brother constantly exposing me to the likes of The Doors, The Who, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. At around 13 years old I discovered NYC’s oldies station, WCBS FM and became obsessed with 60’s AM Top 40 music. Motown, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, any One Hit Wonder you can name and especially the British Invasion have been my ‘go to’ listening preference ever since. Unapologetically, I might add. Now excuse me while I put on Red Rubber Ball by The Cyrkle.
HC: In that time in every boy’s life between FIREMAN/POLICEMAN/COWBOY, what was an early ambition that consumed you before you became who you are?
JJ: That early obsession with TV police shows which I mentioned had a profound impact on me, as did the night two police officers were shot and killed on my street in 1975. When the city finally lifted it’s NYPD hiring freeze in 1979 a few of my friends and I took the test. I was already working in comics, but felt that if I let this opportunity pass by I’d regret it 20 years down the line. I was hired in 1983. While I loved the job, I eventually realized my true passion was art and returned to it full time.
HC: What and when did you first seriously entertain the idea that you could do the job for which you’ve become justly well regarded?
JJ: I first realized I could draw when I copied a pretty dead on Fred Flintstone head off the TV when I was 5 or 6. From that point on I drew obsessively and when I discovered John Buscema’s work in an early Avengers comic I knew that was what I wanted to do. I’m sure it was less ego and more the naiveté of youth, but I never considered the possibility that I wouldn’t work in comics. I’ve been unsure (and continue to be) about a great many things in my life but that was never one. That being said, I’ve also never been totally happy with my work and was always very honest with myself about how much I didn’t know so I absorbed as much as I could from those around me who knew more. I still remember things you taught me that I’m sure you wouldn’t remember because they were much more revelatory to me than to you. Once you helped me get through the door I was determined to stay, so I never took the opportunity for granted. Over 40 years later, here I am.
HC: Whose career did you first want to supplant?
JJ: I don’t know that supplant would be the right word. When I made the decision to transition from my ambition to draw comics to painting because it better suited my capabilities (I’m not the fastest draftsman and get bored easily, so a monthly book was not something in which I would have excelled), I just wanted to work in the same field as the guys I grew up admiring or who had influenced me. That alone made me feel like I had made it.
HC: In that regard, can you point to an artist who was an early inspiration who remains of interest…?
JJ: John Buscema, without a doubt. Not to say that he was better than many of his contemporaries or those that came before, but everyone has that one artist that strikes a chord in them that resonates with their own artistic aesthetic. I became serious about learning to draw upon discovering his work and it still informs much of how I approach my own art today. I can still look at his work and marvel at his mastery of hand gestures and facial expressions. His DELL Four Color work is a master class where that is concerned.
HC: In that same regard, can you point to an artist you once held in high regard in whom you’ve lost interest?
JJ: There are several, but I think it would be tactless to name them, especially since a few are still alive.
HC: Is there a genre of fiction that you loathe?
JJ: Teen horror & sci fi, because, you know, I’m 60.
HC: Is there a genre that your fans would be surprised you dig?
JJ: I think my preference for crime fiction is pretty well known and that’s all I tend to read these days.
HC: Is there a book you hate that everyone loves?
JJ: Anything by Tolkien. Numerous attempts and I just can’t get through them.
HC: That you love that everyone hates?
JJ: Can’t think of one. That’s a tough one.
HC: What are your five favorite movies since the birth of film.
JJ: King Kong ‘33, The Maltese Falcon, Rear Window, Spartacus, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I’ll sneak in West Side Story as a sixth choice because I’m a rebel.
HC: What are your five favorite television series since anybody started actually caring about the medium.
JJ: The Twilight Zone, The Naked City, All In The Family, Wiseguy, Absolutely Fabulous