Howard Chaykin Launches his First Crowdfunder for 'Fargo'
Updated: Oct 23
We chat with Howard Chaykin and Michael Stradford about why it's taken this long to pull Fargo from the shadows.
Welcome to our Creator Corner, our new reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the comics industry. In this entry, we're conversing with Howard Chaykin and Michael Stradford about Fargo: Hell on Wheels. Listen to the unedited audio HERE.
Once upon a time, Howard Chaykin swore off crowdfunding campaigns. They were not for him. Now, he's suddenly got one running on Zoop. Why? What's changed? He fell in love, that's what.
His partner-in-crime and Gizmoe Press publisher, Michael Stradford, put a book in his hand: Fargo: Hell on Wheels by Ben Haas, aka John Benteen. Initially published in 1976, it's the fifteenth book in a series of pulp adventure novels. The title character, Neal Fargo, was visually modeled after Lee Marvin's Henry Fardan, as seen in the classic "Western" The Professionals. It reads like the freight train invoked in the title: fast and hard-hitting. Fargo is all confidence, and the joy comes from seeing how he'll bash through the plot.
After Chaykin let the book percolate in his imagination for a bit, he knew it was ripe for adaptation. He and Stradford got to work, and the comic is almost upon us. All that's left requires a little help from his friends and fans. Chaykin and Stradford join us to discuss their passion for Fargo and why it's taken so long for the character to cling to popular consciousness.
We discuss the man's man appeal and reference about a half dozen novels and movies. Talking to Chaykin is kicking down a gateway. This conversation will send you flying to the library. Every author he mentions and every film he celebrates is worth seeking out and putting before your eyes.
Their Fargo: Hell on Wheels campaign is in full swing at Zoop. Hop on over there and browse through the numerous artists who have joined them in realizing Neal Fargo. You have twenty-one days left (until 11/9) to support the book.
Brad: I just started reading the Fargo novels this morning. I was waiting to chat with you both. And I thought, "Well, let's bring one of these up on the Kindle." And man, I had a great time with it, and I think it'll make a banger of a comic book.
Howard Chaykin: As I said to you earlier before Mike so rudely interrupted us, this stuff has been laying fallow for years, and it is such natural comic book material. It just really jumps to it. Mike, before you got here, Brad made a reference that I've made before in a number of these, that I think you will agree with, that it resonates in that same era as Parker, the Richard Stark stuff. And as I said, it's that Don Pendleton era, the Bond/ Fleming era. Back when paperbacks existed to serve an audience that was taking public transportation back and forth to work. The novels are like four days of a subway trip or two long bus rides, and they were made for that. And I think they're an absolute gas. And when Strad [Michael Stradford] turned me onto these things, my first instinct was to say, "Why has this stuff not been more publicly aware?" And neither of us have an answer. So we made that decision and here we go.
Brad: Well, talk about that connection then. Howard, so, you were not aware of the books until Mike brought them to you?
Howard Chaykin: I mean, Mike and I have known each other for an awfully long time. Both of us had hair when we first met, and he's still really good looking. I was much better looking back then, but I look like an unmade bed now. It's okay. And we've been trading off. We have very, very similar tastes. Where we diverge, we diverge radically. I mean, it's like, "I hate that guy so much." "Oh, no, no, you're wrong." I mean, I remember very fondly, this is not a joke. We were having breakfast at a joint on Ventura Boulevard and we were talking about Stephen Hunter, and he knew Stephen Hunter stuff, but he never heard of heard of Lee Child.
I get up in the morning, there's an email from him at 2:00 AM, "You bastard!" So the two of us read the same stuff, see the same stuff, and love the same stuff to a profound degree. I would say that there's 98% overlap, and where the 2% is, it's like Lebanon. It's a wasteland. So when he recommended this stuff, I took him very seriously. I mean, I listened to him as he listens to me, and I was engaged immediately. I mean, the minute I read the first one and bought all of them at one time, just bought them all. And it never occurred to me to follow through with this professionally. They were basically - they were entertainments, which I really dug. And then we started talking about this, and he started talking about this. And he got in touch to the guy who holds the rights, the son of the guy. His real name was John Haas, is that correct? Mike?
Michael Stradford: Ben Haas, [pseudonym of John Benteen].
Howard Chaykin: Ben Haas.
Michael Stradford: Son, is Joel.
Howard Chaykin: Right. And it gained momentum on its own. And I said yes a number of times. And that was that. Right now, the entire book has been broken down into panel borders, into panels. I work very geometrically. It's panel broken. And it's 40 pages of dialogue script. I've drawn the first five pages, a cover and a number of individual pieces. And as you might've noticed, Mike has been collecting from some of the brightest lights in the comic book business, these individual illustrations, which are absolutely bitching. So let's see what happens. I'm in.
Michael Stradford: And just to be clear, he's done 40 of 96 pages. It's a 96-page graphic novel.
Howard Chaykin: The book as written is 186 pages, but it adapts perfectly into 96 pages of a graphic novel. I am plowing my way through it. Mike has been patient, but I've tested that patience. And you can't yell at old people with nothing to lose. It's really those things. But we're moving forward, and I had a long conversation with my colorist this morning about priorities, and we're rocking and rolling. It's my first crowd funder, which is paranoia making, but I'll keep that to myself.
Brad: But Mike, what was your relationship with Fargo then? When did you come to Fargo and when did you know that okay, Howard's got to get involved on this?
Michael Stradford: Well, I was working on a series of books on a cover model, Steve Holland, he's probably best known as Doc Savage. He posed with James Bama and literally thousands of paperbacks in almost any genre you could imagine. So, while I was doing that research, I came across the Fargo novels of which Steve Holland had posed for the first few books. And when I discovered that Fargo was based on the Lee Marvin character, Henry Fardan from The Professionals, which is one of my favorite westerns.
Michael Stradford: I decided to take a look at one of the books. And I love the books. I read one and I just wound up reading through all of them. With Howard, some stuff I have to hard sell. And then some stuff, it's nice to just soft sell it and hope that the response that I think I'll get, I actually get.
So, when I told him about Fargo, I didn't do a hard sell. I was surprised that he hadn't heard of the character. And after he read the first book, he was like, "How did I not know about this?" Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And so I was thinking about reaching out to the estate to see what the rights were for film and television. And Howard said, "Well, if the graphic novel rights are available, I'll do the graphic novel." And I was like, holy smoke. And he had done a Fargo for me a number of months before this was even a reality. And it was obvious he just had a clear affinity for the character. And so when I spoke to Joel Haas, who runs the estate, he was really open to it. He loved Howard's initial illustration of Fargo, and we were able to put a deal together pretty quickly.
Brad: I'm a little disappointed in myself for having not ever encountered these books. Because I feel like it is something that I should have come across at some point. And I am a big James Bama fan.
Howard Chaykin: Exactly right. Precisely. That's exactly right.
Brad: So why did we not know about them? Why have these books not come to our attention before?
Michael Stradford: Well, I think that the company that published them, and I'm drawing a blank on the name, they weren't-
Howard Chaykin: Is it Belmont? Was it Belmont?
Michael Stradford: It might've been Belmont.
Howard Chaykin: Yeah, that's your problem right there.
Michael Stradford: Yeah. I mean, they weren't Bantam. They didn't have that kind of marketing muscle to really push these things forward. But for readers of this kind of material, people that know about it, it is a very well regarded series and John Benteen is a very well regarded writer. So I would love for this to be the first step in introducing people to a character that once they start reading, they'll all ask that question, how do we not know about this guy?
Howard Chaykin: I think Mike makes a valid point about the company. I mean, I did paperback covers at the tail end of the original paperback boom in the late 1970s, early 1980s. And I worked for Belmont, I worked for Zebra, and there was no money, there was no distribution. These books were just lost in the shuffle. That's really what it's about. And unless you had a signature plate like Signet or Bantam or even Warner Books back then. I fantasized what Gene Light might have done with these books at Warner books back in the '70s and '80s as that brilliant. And Len Leone, another great art director of paperbacks. But there again, lost in the shuffle. That's really what it's about.
Brad: And even stuff like Parker, which we've mentioned before, which I got to when I was real young, and I've always thought of them as classics. When those Darwyn Cooke adaptations came out, it really did introduce a ton of comics readers to those novels.
Howard Chaykin: Absolutely.
Brad: And so I imagine the same thing could happen here with Fargo.
Howard Chaykin: Let us pray.
Michael Stradford: That's the hope. I think similarly to Darwyn and Parker, that was a great fit. And I think Howard's the ideal guy to interpret this material for today's audience.
Howard Chaykin: Well, I love this period. I really do. I mean, one of the things about the novels is when Mike first recommended, I thought they were westerns, and I like westerns. For me, it's all about Elmer Kelton, Elmore Leonard and Loren Estleman. Those are the three guys, and add Ed Gorman to it as well. Guys who had feet in both parks.
And when I read them, I said, no, this is not those books. This is something else. This goes right to one of my interests, which is that modernity came to be around 1910. That's when the modern world was really invented because the money that financed that modern world had been made by the railroad barons, the guys who had exploited the Civil War. So that early decade, the first 10, 15 years of the 20th century are really pivotal in my historical obsession. And again, The Professionals, The Wild Bunch.
My greatest disappointment, and I've said this to Mike before, is that Fargo has a very, very specific set of weapons. They are character elements. I mean, in the course of this book, we see a page worth of him identifying each of his weapons. They're very specific, they're very consistent. And what drives me nuts is that he's still hung up on a Colt 45 Peacemaker. And I really think this guy should be armed with either a Mauser or a 1911 45. You know what I mean? He was born for an automatic, but he justifies why he doesn't.
And again, it's a lot more fun to draw automatic weapons than revolvers. Revolvers are a pain in the ass. Trust me on this. But again, it's very much like it's Batman's utility built. It's a costume. It's as much a part of his character as that campaign hat and that cigarillo, it just really is. I mean, the weapons are specific. If you know the books, you know the Batanga, the sawed off shotgun, the Winchester and the 45, those are the weapons. And let's not forget the Bandeliers. You got to have them.
Brad: And he was modeled after Lee Marvin. So do you have a shadow of Lee Marvin in your head while you're translating him to the page?
Howard Chaykin: Absolutely not. I made an active decision not to because it would seem to be the obvious place to go. I have an actor, Mike knows who it is that I'm using as a general model, and I won't say it in this public venue.
Howard Chaykin: And when you see the character as I've drawn him, you'll see exactly what I'm talking about. But you'll also see, I believe, the connecting tissue that goes from Neil Fargo to Fardan to this actor with the way I portrayed him. The actor I'm talking about is a modern guy. He's about 10 years, maybe 15 years older than the Fargo character. Fargo is perpetually 34. That's how old he is. And the guy I'm working with that, and again, it's a very generalized, I'm not looking at his photographs, but that's who that would be. He's where I'm looking at. So no to Lee Marvin, other than the most generalized ideas, blue eyes, white hair, weathered face. But, no. If you're really good, I'll whisper the name of the guy so we can move.
Brad: When I hit off, you are going to tell me.
Howard Chaykin: Mike, you're with me on this. You agree that that's a logical choice? Yes.
Michael Stradford: Yeah, absolutely.
[Brad turns off the recorder. Howard tells him the actor. The actor is indeed perfect.]