Some folks still call WWII “the good war” — but you don’t hear many veterans of the conflict calling it that, do you? No, that term seems to be the exclusive domain of those who either sat it out, or were too young to have fought in it. I might grant you that other euphemisms people use to describe it, such as “the last war where we were clearly on the side of right,” might be a little bit closer to the truth given that the Axis powers, Germany in particular, were clearly in need of stopping, but shit — it’s not like Stalinist Russia was the most noble of allies, and it’s not like we in the US had purely altruistic motives underpinning our involvement in either Europe or the Pacific ourselves. A “good war?” Sorry, but there’s no such thing.
Today, of course, we’ve at least made some minor headway in terms of dealing with the problems returning veterans have re-integrating into purportedly “peaceful” society, but in the aftermath of WWII, most of the guys who were suffering from what we now recognize to be PTSD were just told that they had “shellshock” by Army shrinks, given some morphine, and sent on their way. Many were plagued by vivid nightmares for the rest of their lives, many never did “figure out” how to reconcile the wartime atrocities they’d either witnessed or participated in with family life Stateside, and far too many ended up taking their own lives. Again, a “good war”? Spare me.
And yet explorations of the psychological and physical trauma of WWII vets have been sparse in the popular culture, and remain so even to this day, which is why I’m glad that comics legend Howard Chaykin is delving into that troubled and troubling territory in his new five-parter from Image, Midnight Of The Soul. Oh, sure, many of the standard pulp/noir trappings that have been Chaykin’s stock in trade for the past three decades or more (flawed in the extreme protagonists, dangerous femme fatales, hard-boiled and misogynistic narration, road-to-hell-style alcoholism, etc.) are all on full and flagrant display here, but it seems that the ol’ master is determined to deal with them in a bit more substantive way this time around than he has in previous (and rightly-celebrated) efforts like American Flagg!, The Shadow, or American Century.
And hey, who knows? Maybe — just maybe — Chaykin, who is now in his early 70s, is going to prove to be yet another of those creators (like Kirby, Ditko, and Wood, among others) who saves his most personal and insightful work for the latter stages of his career. Certain projects he’s undertaken in recent years such as his Century West graphic novel and his criminally-overlooked Buck Rogers mini-series provide plenty of top-quality fodder for the notion that this may, in fact, be the case, and while it’s still too early to say whether or not Midnight Of The Soul will follow that pattern, all signs seem to be pointing in that direction — and that’s definitely something worth getting at least a little bit excited about.
Our hard-luck less-than-hero this time around is one Joel Breakstone, who was on hand for the liberation of Auschwitz and in many key respects never really left that behind. He’s been diving to the bottom of every bottle he can find ever since, and in his few moments of clarity is attempting to make it as a pulp sci-fi writer — with no success. His long-suffering wife, Patricia, has been footing the bills for the household while her old man struggles in vain to get his shit together, but she’s clearly and understandably at the end of her rope, and the machinations of her sleazy brother, Steve — such as assuming her and Joel’s mortgage in exchange for a year’s rent — aren’t doing much to help matters. Don’t let the quaint 1950s Long Island setting here fool you in the least — this couple is doomed, and they both know it. Joel never leaves the house, and when Patricia does, well — let’s just say she does what she has to do to in order to get by, but her nocturnal activities are leading her right into a whole mess of trouble, and it’s trouble of the sort that’s only going to be compounded once hubby knows the score. Which, by the end of this issue, he does. And the revelations prove to be enough to finally get him off his drunken ass.
Heading out on your motorcycle with revenge on your mind is never the greatest idea even if you’re sober, of course, but given that Joel is anything but and that his wife, unbeknownst to him, is in a shitload of danger that he actually isn’t the source of, it’s going to be interesting to see how this whole thing plays out. Chaykin’s art has, admittedly, taken a step back in recent years in terms of its fluidity and formerly- tight line control — and the new electronic age isn’t exactly proving to be his ally if the clunky digitally-inserted backgrounds here are any indication — but a “dated” and “past its prime” look actually fits pretty well thematically with the story being presented here, and the man’s scripting chops are still in tip- top form. There’s a definite sense here that we’re watching a consummate pro at work in a genre he clearly knows intimately, even if he’s not terribly comfortable with all the new tools at his disposal.
The same is also and obviously true of his longtime letterer, Ken Bruzenak, whose stylish sound effects have been a mainstay in Chaykin comics for decades, but who doesn’t quite seem to have a firm handle on many of the various digital fonts in vogue in the comic book world of 2016. You can see all the elements of what’s made this such a successful and long-standing partnership on display, but somehow it all feels just a little off — which, again, isn’t even necessarily meant as a criticism in this case since it amps up the book’s inherent “nostalgia value,” even if entirely by accident.
One member of “Team Chaykin” that I’m going to have to give a little bit less of a “free pass” to, though, is his colorist of choice in recent years, Jesus Aburtov. There’s no doubt that he’s an immensely talented creator, but the bright, even garish, computerized hues that he employed with such a high degree of skill on previous projects like the aforementioned Buck Rogers and 2014’s The Shadow: Midnight In Moscow look decidedly out of place here and detract from the overall noir aesthetic that everyone else is clearly going for. With the action in subsequent issues moving into the streets of New York City, my earnest hope is that he’ll tone down his palette somewhat to match his surroundings and their historical context, but as far as this debut installment goes, the sad fact is that the colors stick out like a swollen thumb.
On the whole, though, there’s no reason in the world not to be borderline wildly optimistic about the dark ride down that comics’ most obvious heir to the pulp legacy is taking us on with this book. Maybe I’m just showing my age here, but in my mind a new Howard Chaykin series is still an honest-to-God event, damnit, and Midnight Of The Soul #1 is a fine piece of evidence for the prosecution as to why I feel this to be the case. I hope that young creators with a penchant for all things noir are paying very close and careful attention to what Chaykin’s doing here, because so far he’s putting on a fucking clinic.
Stand aside, kids, your time will come — but for now, let’s all be content to sit back and watch the distinguished veteran do what he does best at least one more time, shall we?