Sacrificing Story for Nostalgia in Howard Chaykin's Midnight of the Soul

There are times when a murder mystery isn’t about either the murder or the mystery. The first chapter of Howard Chaykin’s Midnight of the Soul ends with a murder but Chaykin’s interest lies more in the betrayal that frames the killing of a jazz musician. He’s only slightly more interested in the betrayal so that by the time the book ends, you practically forget that there’s even a mystery about who killed the musician. Joel Breakstone, a man more damaged by his time fighting in WWII than he even realizes, discovers that his wife has been leading a whole life away from their home, a more lurid and salacious life. This is a Chaykin comic so of course it also involves blowjobs but in this case, it’s not that many of them. So maybe that’s actually evidence of some personal growth for Chaykin. But maybe more frustrating is that Chaykin, once one of the most vicious and biting cartoonists of his generation, has become an elder statesman exploring nostalgia more than character.

Joel Breakstone is one of Chaykin’s typical leading-man-with-feet-of-clay. Fighting his memories of liberating the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald, Breakstone has spent the five years after the war self-imprisoned in his own home, trying to write a science fiction story about the Nazis winning the war and taking over New York City. Spending all of that time as well looking at the bottom of a bottle, he hasn’t noticed how his life has slipped away from him; he signed his house over to his brother-in-law and his wife has been leading a double life in NYC. One night as his whole life breaks apart around him, the memories of Buchenwald come flooding back as the truth about his life, his drinking, and his marriage takes him on a whirlwind tour through New York trying to find some truth that he can hold onto.

The murder of one of his wife’s lovers means that all kinds of colorful characters cross Joel’s path on that night as he tries to find his wife. It allows Chaykin to write the kind of pulpy story that he loves to do. After the more-Chaykin-than-Chaykin cover-band version of Chaykin in Satellite Sam that he was actually one-half of the creative team of, Midnight of the Soul feels like Chaykin settling back into his comfort zone. There are elements of everything from Time2 to Marked Man in this story. This lost man narrative that he’s exploring here is something that Chaykin does so well but in Midnight of the Soul, it’s barely more than an excuse to be able to visit a New York City that last existed only when he was born.

But by not getting so lost in the vulgarities and carnalities that he clearly loves so much (just see any iteration of Black Kiss for those,) Midnight of the Soul carries a certain charm to it. All of the betrayals, murders and genocide are background noise to a man’s quest. And as those usual elements are more silent than normal, Chaykin spends his time trying to construct an NYC of seedy bars, where you could find Charlie Parker blowing his horn. Jesus Aburtov gives Chaykin’s NYC a lovely luminous glow. So ultimately the book becomes a tour of a city as it may or may not have existed. Midnight of the Soul may be a love letter to the New York City of Chaykin’s own youth, as imagined through the nostalgia-tinged eyes of a 66-year-old cartoonist.

Chaykin never commits to his plot but he’s totally engaged with the tone of the book that he wants. He hasn’t done anything this influenced by its setting since the first Time2 comic (not even the western book he did for Disney Italia, Century West) but over the years, Chaykin’s once sharp, satirical bite has dulled. By not really caring about murder or cuckoldry, Chaykin betrays his story to his nostalgia. The story about Joel Breakstone’s journey to some kind of self-discovery ends up being about the bright lights of the big city. Visually, Chaykin’s vision of a city has never been stronger but that strength robs the comic of any characters who have anything to really contribute to the plot that they stumble through.

Midnight of the Soul
Written and drawn by Howard Chaykin
Colored by Jesus Aburtov
Lettered by Ken Bruzenak
Published by Image Comics