November 27th, 2008
Well now. Some honest to goodness porn. Or is it?
In the 1970′s, comedian Peter Cook found himself in a rut. Something of a wunderkind upon leaving university, his career had skyrocketed during the 60′s and he found himself with a comedic midas touch. However years of substance abuse and emotional turmoil had tarnished this touch, and Cook found himself somewhat washed up, ravaged and spent. His solution to this creative drought, dragging in his erstwhile but reluctant partner Dudley Moore, was Derek and Clive. Derek and Clive were the flipside of the Pete and Dud personas and their loveably wonky pub conversations. They were their twisted and bilious, rage-filled cousins; angry, obscene and vicious. The double act received instant notoriety, and to a degree, some success. Their record ‘Derek and Clive Get The Horn’ is a landmark in nihilistic comedy, reviled by many, admired by a few. A whole generation of ‘angry’ comedians used it as a template, and it’s brutal, brash nature made it a glove-fit for the emergent punk movement. But it was also a horrible, ugly creative primal scream from an artist teetering dangerously close to self-destruction; it’s deliberately and caustically offensive, with Cook pushing his earlier best friend to the limit, spraying venom and vitriol at anyone and everything. His anguish and self-loathing is painfully apparent. It is, quite frankly, very difficult to listen to.
By fuck, we like a preamble at MO. So, Black Kiss. Black Kiss is Howard Chaykin’s ‘Derek and Clive’ moment. A big bold ‘fuck you’ to an industry he had grown increasingly frustrated with. It is a rude, violent riposte to a notoriously prudish industry, and an indulgent black-hearted fantasia of blowjobs, lingerie, gangsters and vampires. Chaykin unleashes everything he’s got, in an attempt to shock, offend, and presumably titilate his audience. It must have been fairly startling back in ’88 when it was initially released, and it is still an undeniably lurid, exploitative piece of work. Whether it holds up as good comics is another matter.
Chaykin: “I think Black Kiss is one of the funniest things I’ve ever done, a darkly funny comedy, I did at a turning point in my life. I turned the point and now I’m done.”
Even before I knew what it was I always wanted to read Black Kiss. When I was a kid, I remember being struck by the startling iconography of the series- in particular I recall a fantastic T-Shirt which had the bold logo and a blood smeared lipstick imprint. Alongside Mister X, Grendel and Love and Rockets it presented an alluring adult world of unknown comics that were design-heavy, stylish and dangerous. Of course when I found out Black Kiss was jam packed full of explicit sex and violence I wanted to read it even more. But I knew it’s X-rated nature would prevent me from getting hold of it. Thus a Holy Grail, of sorts, was born.
For years it was out of print, unavailable. Whether it was actually banned or not is irrelevent. It felt banned. Then recently I snagged a copy of the Eros reprint, and one of the missing pieces of my comics jigsaw fell into place.
So then: does it live up to it’s notoriety? Well, sort of. It’s certainly a dark and twisted little story, and Chaykin does his best to leave no taboo unruffled. We’ve got necrophilia, ‘chicks with dicks’, threesomes, gang rape, s&m, religious perversion, satanic cults, vampires and endless blowjob scenes. Seriously, if anyone wants to know what floats Howie’s boat, from this it would appear to be platinum blondes swallowing copious buckets of spaff. That and doggie style – there’s hardly any missionary position/cowgirl action in this comic. There’s a distinctly male-orientated slant to all the sexual encounters no doubt, and the comic plays on a number of cliched hetero-male sex fantasies. Yet (and I know this is always the lame defence used when someone’s trying to defend an intrinsically mysoginistic work) there is more than that going on. There’s a distinct sense of subversion running through Black Kiss. For one thing one of the hot blondes who dominate the comic is in fact a guy. Or at least a transexual. This is revealed in one of the most deliciously funny moments in the comic, just after a particularly explicit and prolonged three way between Cass, the notional protagonist, and Dagmar and Beverley the twin-like femme fatales at the heart of the story. This very male fantasy (guy + 2 hot and willing ladies) is detourned when Dagmar is revealed to have a full set of family jewells. The two vamps take a polaroid of Cass at this reveal, and his palpably shocked face in the photo (he has, let’s say, fully indulged in Bev and Dagmar after all) is a nice mirror of the reader’s own bewilderment. And for all the blowjobs in Black Kiss (and as I stated before, there are fucking loads) it’s nice that the majority, are actually performed by a transsexual – and the men love it.
Men are skeezy and corrupt in Black Kiss, make no mistake. Hitmen, movie stars, cops and priests; they’re all assholes. Shit everyone’s an asshole in Black Kiss. It’s a big, horny, nihilistic void of a comic, that takes the noir form and stretches it into an ugly story for the jaded 80′s. I was reminded of two other works as I read Black Kiss, namely David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Secrets of Summer by Bret Easton Ellis. The first well it doesn’t need an introduction. Lynch’s deeply twisted tale of the love, death and madness that lurks behind a suburban facade set the standard for the film-noir of the eighties. It’s sexy and dangerous, but it’s also thoroughly unpleasant and disturbing. Sex and violence are inseparable in both Blue Velvet and Black Kiss. I often feel that Lynch’s work has a voyeuristic porno-vibe. I imagine it’s a form and aesthetic that fascinates him.
The second is one of the short stories that makes up Ellis’ The Informers a bleakly funny jaded picture of then-contemporary LA. Secrets of Summer a vampire story that for me is one of the nastiest things the author has ever penned. His vision of bored, blank modern day vamps fucking and sucking their way across the neon bleached sprawl of Los Angeles is chilling stuff. It absolutely pisses on Anne Rice’s new romantic vision of the undead. No stranger to a bit of quasi-pornography, Ellis again seems to relish the outrage and disrepute that his black-hearted wank fantasies invoke. Whilst he’s guilty of juvenile shock tactics in extremis he’s also one of the best satirists modern literature has produced, and his balls-out attacks on the vapidity of the rich, bored, white uber-class of modern day America still retain the power to shock.
“..looking into her face when I’m coming and, like always, she freaks out when she sees my eyes, shiny black, and she sees the horrible teeth, the ruptured mouth (what Dirk thinks looks like ‘the anus of an octopus’), and I’m screaming on top of her..”
The Secrets of Summer
Black Kiss shares some of those qualities, although it’s a shame it doesn’t go further. Chaykin’s revelation of Beverley’s true natureat the end, for example, lacks the sucker-punch quality it should have. In truth it’s all a bit silly, but part of the comic’s dubious charm is the fact that it absolutely doesn’t take itself seriously. The sequence where a bondage clad movie star chases Cass out of a Satanic pervert party is a scene straight out of a Russ Meyer movie. Nonetheless it does feel slightly flat and uninspired, as if Chaykin had worked out all of his frothing creativity in the endless parade of black stockings, corsets and three-ways. Black Kiss is at heart a relatively straight tale done up with lashings of s&m and violence. It’s interesting to note that it predates Sin City by a good few years, and it surely must have had a certain amount of influence on Miller’s granite hard ultra-noir style. Indeed the key crime comics of the last 20 years (Stray Bullets, Criminal, 100 Bullets for example) all owe something of a debt to Black Kiss. It proved that crime comics were still viable, and more importantly they play to the comic form incredibly well. The stark, angular artwork of Black Kiss fits wonderfully with it’s depraved story. Like the classic film noir of the 50′s the back and white masks the seething, morally grey world beneath the surface. The twisted world of Aldrich’s gonzo noir Kiss Me Deadly could quite feasibly contain the characters of Black Kiss.
Chaykin is also undoubtedly one of the form’s great innovators. Alongside Walt Simonson and Frank Miller, he brought a heavy sense of graphic design to his work, incorporating communist and fascist iconography, classical illustration, and a love of the 1950′s into his dense and considered pages. He experimented with layout and incorporating sound effects into his comics. Chaykin is a conniseur of pulp illustration, as well as an accomplished commercial illustrator in his own right:
His work on ‘The Shadow’ and ‘Blackhawk’ was exemplary stuff. Sadly Black Kiss is not actually his finest work. It’s a little scratchy and cluttered, compared to, say, American Flagg. The covers on the original series though, were beautiful pieces of graphic design. The cover of the Eros collection at the top of this post is a wonderful image – teasing, racy, stark and subversive (once you’ve read the comic). But nonetheless it’s something of a shame that it’s not more adventurous in it’s execution as a comic. At the end of the day it’s not really a formal experiment, or a statement about anything. It’s a porno with a plot. Or a crime story with loads of shagging. which is not such a bad thing. Mainstream comics are notoriously frigid affairs, where sexuality is smothered beneath layers of spandex and repression. At least Black Kiss is upfront about what it is – the work of a man who really likes blowjobs.
And it is enjoyable, in a sleazy way. Certain scenes made me feel uncomfortable, but fuck it, is it really anything worse than the gratuitous shock tactics employed by Identity Crisis? There’s a telling scene near the end, where Dagmar has been assaulted and abused by her sometime lover Eric, and his sadistic colleagues. It’s nasty stuff, and leaves a sour taste. Yet after Beverley arrives and enacts a suitably bloody vengeance, Dagmar confesses that “..confidentially, it might have been the key sexual experience of my life..” Considering the preceding sequence it’s about as crass and tasteless a comment as one could imagine. Yet…it’s kind of funny. Chaykin is literally daring you to be offended. The whole thing’s ridiculous…preposterous. The climax of Black Kiss almost feels like the culmination of a farce, far from the sex and violence we have just witnessed. That’s ultimately what Black Kiss is: a sick joke. Funny, rude and offensive. A jet-black taste-free wankfest noir from a creator frustrated at the limits of a medium he’d been pushing against for the best part of 15 years. It’s not great art, not even close. But it’s an enjoyably rude two fingers to good taste and repression. 20 years on, there’s still not much like it.
Addendum – my girlfriend glanced through Black Kiss while I was writing this. “It’s all just sucking off and poundings, isn’t it?” she stated matter of factly. Me, sheepishly: “well, yes. But there’s more to it than that..”
But perhaps there isn’t really.