Review by Frank Plowright
Howard Chaykin doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, and would probably be the first to tell you that. Sure, footnotes to dissertations on The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen will acknowledge his American Flagg as an influence, but that’s the best known of his comics and it’s certainly not been continually in print for the past thirty plus years as is the case for the creators it influenced. And Black Kiss is still consigned to some murky back of store top shelf whenever it’s reissued because it features what for the time was explicit sexual content, and we must forever separate sex from mainstream entertainment. Just tell that to the people who lapped up 50 Shades of Grey and are hooked on Banshee. Thirty years after Chaykin produced Black Kiss perhaps we’re finally acknowledging that adults have a sex life, and in a lot of cases the missionary’s more likely to be a costume than a position.
Here’s another thing. Strip out all the sexual content from Black Kiss and you’re still left with a very good noir graphic novel that hits all the right spots. Another reason for Black Kiss being so easily dismissed back in the day is that it’s densely layered, and you have to pay attention, which wasn’t the case for most comics winning awards in 1989. Chaykin was further ahead of the game in not using narrative captions or thought balloons. The entire story is told in dialogue, and as it doesn’t feature a single heroic type you have to make up your own mind if they’re telling the truth.
While no paragon of virtue, Cass Pollack eventually steps into the leading role after his estranged wife and daughter are murdered and he’s named as the prime suspect, news he hears on his car radio. He has an alibi that Chaykin’s cleverly worked into the story, but his alibi is problematical and with concerns of their own. Someone is blackmailing them, and Pollack seems just the resourceful type who can help them out, so while he’d rather be squirrelling himself far away, he’s obliged to be out on the streets asking questions.
When originally produced Black Kiss was a present day story taking place in 1980s California, but Chaykin infused it with so many of the stylish elements he loves about the 1940s that it might as well be set then. The plot is so over the top that it’s hilarious, Chaykin having decided that if he was going to cause controversy by introducing explicit sex to American comics he might as well offend the largest possible segment of the population. It’s as if he’s listed every fetish he can think of and ensured they’re included. He’s always dressed his men in sharp suits and his women in stockings and high heels (with corsets if he can get away with it), and such imagery is abundant, with the dialogue also feeding in. A running joke is constantly changing explicit answerphone messages. Behind all this, however, is a well-thought out plot that swerves away from expectation and contains some great sequences, not least one toward the end where everyone is looking for Pollack and we know exactly where he is.
The most recent edition of Black Kiss from Dyanamite Entertainment in 2010 is described as ‘remastered’ and some of the art has been sharpened considerably. A prequel/sequel was released in 2013.