After a stretch of time working with Matt Fraction on their period-piece murder mystery, Satellite Sam, Howard Chaykin is back to writing, drawing, and the present-day (for the most part) in Midnight of the Soul. It follows Joel: he’s a writer, a veteran, a drunk, and a sweeping failure. He lives in his brother-in-law’s house with his wife, who pretty much hates him. All he has to his name are failed manuscripts, a motorcycle, and a classic Chaykin look. He also has a gun that has reason to come out of storage.
Chaykin’s illustration is in rare form here. Satellite Sam saw some of his finest work; there comes a point where you wonder what a guy with as storied a career as Howard Chaykin, at his age, can really do to keep things going. In Midnight of the Soul, we see exactly that. Chaykin throws everything at the wall: repetition tricks; flat-out genius non-sequitur panels (the hardest to use, if you ask Scott McCloud); more classic Chaykin blood-splatter than recent memory can provide. To see an illustrator of Chaykin’s age and pedigree turn in work like this is a joy.
Midnight of the Soul also reminds us of Chaykin’s greatest strengths and weaknesses, both of which are found in his writing. His narration is often, if not always, fantastic. He’s a big fan of pulp prose and non-fiction, and this comes out in his narration; “just the facts, ma’am” done at a downright delightful level. The problem comes with his dialogue. Here in Midnight of the Soul, we see Chaykin’s worst traits as a writer on full display; some of it isn’t so bad, but the soap opera elements are over-the-top at their best and full-speed obnoxious at their worst.
Jesus Aburtov has been coloring Chaykin’s work for years, and he returns on Midnight of the Soul. Normally, this would be a reason to wretch, cry, and stab yourself all over the face: his coloring tends to be too plastic, too shiny, and simply useless, especially over Chaykin’s earthen, sketchy work. For once, Aburtov nails it. The earthen tones that Chaykin’s work begs for are finally present; the characters don’t look like they’re covered in Saran wrap. To match Chaykin’s tight art, Aburtov’s coloring helps it breathe.
No Howard Chaykin book is complete without Ken Bruzenak on lettering duties. His style can vary from quite traditional to a little experimental; in Satellite Sam, he used straight, stark lines instead of traditional tails. This was a little harder to follow against the black and white art in Satellite Sam, but here in Midnight of the Soul, over Jesus Aburtov’s colors, it really works.
An overarching theme here, even with the book’s creator, is a veteran learning new tricks. In some ways, through Midnight of the Soul, we see the classic Howard Chaykin on display; in others, we see something new. In matching degrees of frequency, this is a good thing and a bad thing. More often than not, this book is a lot of fun to read. For a casual reader, it might be a bit of a jump to get used to Chaykin’s writing style, to say nothing of his eternally-polarizing art. For the Chaykin die-hards in the crowd, Midnight of the Soul is going to scratch the itch Chaykin’s been giving you for decades now.