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Monday October 19, 2009 3:44 pm

Forgotten Comics: Howard Chaykin’s Cody Starbuck




Posted by Tom Mason Categories: Reviews, Independent

starbuckMike Friedrich was one of the talents of the 1970s and 1980s who changed the comic book business for the better. Dean Mullaney, Phil Seuling, Bud Plant and several others belong on that list as well as several people I’m forgetting. Mike started out as a comic book fan, became a freelance writer for DC and Marvel, transitioned to publishing with his own company (Star*Reach) and later became an agent, turning Star*Reach into an agency representing artists and writers. As a freelancer, he knew well the contracts (and contractual problems) at the major companies. As a publisher he provided an alternative venue for creators to pursue projects DC and Marvel either didn’t want or wouldn’t let the creators own. That may not sound like a big deal, but back in the day if you wanted to tell stories outside of the standard Marvel-DC superhero template, or found yourself on the outs with those two companies, you had almost no alternatives until Star*Reach and Eclipse came along.

When Friedrich became an agent he was able to turn his experience loose on behalf of other creators to negotiate better deals. I’ve read comics Mike wrote, I’ve read comics that he published, and a couple of times I’ve been across the virtual negotiating table from him. [I won’t name names, but at the initial Ultraverse Founders conference in Scottsdale AZ, he quite rightly had his client wait in the hall while he finished negotiating via phone his client’s UV contract. My job at the time was to nod sycophantically and supervise the snack trays for the conference; Dave Olbrich did the actual nuts and bolts negotiating.]

Howard Chaykin was one of the early adopters of the Star*Reach approach to publishing. His creation, Cody Starbuck, debuted the first issue of the anthology Star*Reach. Four years later, in 1978, Starbuck graduated to its own one-shot.

At that time, comics from Friedrich’s imprint cost a lot more than “regular” comics. Cody Starbuck has a $2 cover price at a time when Marvel and DC’s were less than 1/4 of that. But the books had sharp production values and were printed on nice paper, so that the coloring could really shine and the linework was crisp and clean. His comics just plain looked (and felt) better than anyone else’s at the time. And what you found inside was not something you’d see in a Marvel or DC comic. In his introduction to the 1978 Cody Starbuck unnumbered one-shot, Friedrich wrote: “Chaykin not only shakes the tree of traditional space-opera, he pulverizes it. Don’t be fooled by the professional graphics. This is a punk comic.”

I wouldn’t call it punk, but Cody Starbuck is a fun ride. Howard was just coming off a multi-issue run on Marvel’s Star Wars comics and the set-in-space Cody is Howard unfettered by the demands of a licensed corporate property. Starbuck mixes classic Chaykin elements, sex, violence, pop culture and religion, which gets an extra-special poke in the ribs. There’s even a scene in the comic that makes Friedrich’s “stomach turn with its violence,” which prompted the “adults only” label on the front cover. Inside, Starbuck is stranded on a planet where The Vatican “stretches from the North Pole of this temperate world to just south of its equator. A metropolis of wealth and culture, capital of a planetary empire, and holy birthplace of Hadrian, first Pope of the Third Reformation.” The ruling Catholic-based society tries hard to convince Starbuck that he’s a crusader for their cause, but once his memory is jarred back in place, all hell breaks loose. Chaykin plays around with panel layout and sound effects lettering and the muted, pre-digital colors nicely enhance the story. You can see his style is well on its way to his 5-years-later masterpiece, American Flagg!

Thirty years later, Cody Starbuck still holds up. The story and the art aren’t dated at all, and the story-telling is masterful. I finished the issue and wanted to read another. In fact, the only weak part is the front cover—the illustration is not the “grabber” that Chaykin covers have since become, even though it is stylistically different from what Marvel and DC were doing at the time. Plus, and this speaks to Star*Reach, not Howard, the logo is way too small, and the price is way too big and stuck in an oddly intrusive place.

But the best part of Cody Starbuck is the indicia. It says © Howard V. Chaykin, a happy legacy of those whose work was published by Star*Reach.

Steven Grant recently did a thorough examination of Howard’s work in his Permanent Damage column. Part 1 is here and has a lot of great detail about Starbuck.

[Disclosure: I once edited a comic book by Howard, so I’m more than a little biased. Also, I bought Cody Starbuck last week at my LCS. So there.]

[Artwork: cover to Cody Starbuck by Howard Chaykin. © Howard V. Chaykin.]

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