Sunday, May 03, 2009

Out of the Vault - Black Kiss

Black Kiss #1In the late 80's, Howard Chaykin was a hot property in comics, known first (at least by me and lots of other 70's kids) as the artist on Marvel's adaptation of Star Wars (which suffered from his teaming with a horribly incompatible inker named Steve Leialoha). Things got much better with Chaykin's successful independent comic American Flagg! as well as controversial reboots of The Shadow and Blackhawk for DC Comics.

But in 1988, Chaykin created huge controversy in the comics world when he released Black Kiss, a noir story of sex, murder, celebrity Satanists and vampires (although the word itself is never used). The 12-part miniseries, published by Canadian company Vortex Comics, was shipped in clear plastic wrappers, like porn mags. And for good reason.

The story revolves around Dagmar Laine and Beverly Grove, who look as if they could be twin sisters, even though one is much older and the other is a guy (well, pre-op transsexual, I guess). Beverly is being blackmailed by a mysterious someone who claims to have a very damning film reel, and Dagmar is responsible for getting it back. Beverly and Dagmar end up crossing paths with Cass Pollack, a two-bit gangster on the run from some very bad men (including Dagmar's john/boyfriend). They decide to use Cass as a fall guy to track down the film.

It all ends very badly for everyone.

Black Kiss was a strange experience for me, because on the one hand, I liked Chaykin's American Flagg! quite a lot. And I like old black-and-white suspense films, which this story takes after in some ways. And it was obvious that a lot of storytelling skill had gone into making the comic.

The only panel I could stand to scanBut like Faust or Ralph Bakshi's films, every aspect of Black Kiss was just so unpleasant. The characters are all, every one, cynical and bitter and foul-mouthed. It's practically a relief when they die. Every issue features either sex or bloody murder or both, and even the sex is unpleasant--a prostitute dressed as a blind schoolgirl having sex with a priest, for example, or the gangsters/cops chasing Pollack (I never really figured out who the hell they were supposed to be) raping their way through the story until they meet their unhappy (and very messy) ends.

The story sold well, though, and generated a lot of publicity, including a mini-feud between editor Lou Stathis and Gary Groth, publisher of The Comics Journal, over an editorial in Print magazine by Groth criticizing the story. In issue eight of Black Kiss, Stathis wrote an editorial condemning Groth as a prude. Ironically, Black Kiss would later be reprinted as a trade paperback collection by Eros Comix (NSFW link), an imprint of Fantagraphics Books, founded by Groth.

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