Hollywood Babylon.

Babylon 1

I think Hollywood Babylon was the second storyline in the DC Vertigo American Century series, spanning issues #5 through 9. I have the entire American Century series, but it took some doing. I was originally ensnared by a couple random comics, eventually lucking into three shrink-wrapped back issue bundles that equipped me with almost every issue. I’ve since filled in the gaps with trade pb’s.

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Written by Howard Chaykin along with David Tischman, the art was sketched and thumbnailed by Chaykin, then fleshed out and inked by quite a team that included Marc Laming, Warren Pleece, Dick Giordano and Job Stokes. The covers for these five issues of the American Century series were done by John Van Fleet. In the Hollywood Babylon storyline, Chaykin and Tischman’s cynical Korean War era adventurer Harry Kraft lands in Hollywood, wearing a Quality Studios night watchman uniform and shacking up with an L.A. widow and her kid. The writers somehow manage to squeeze in a load of early 1950’s Tinseltown lore under various guises and fake names, including a troubled Martin & Lewis style comedy duo, a Rita Hayworth clone, a vintage television superhero, crooked HUAC politicos, mobsters and more…and all in less than a hundred pages. The trade pb concludes with Harry bidding the glittery So-Cal set goodbye and motorcycling Route 66 into a standalone rural roadside diner story, where “a femme fatale offers him a piece of her pie, if he’ll kill her husband”.

You just gotta love it.

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The American Century series traveled from Central America to Paris, Manhattan to the backwoods bootlegger southern states. It’s an adventurer’s tale, but less Steve Canyon and more Wally Wood’s Cannon…but with a brain. Chaykin and Tischman’s Harry Kraft is a fascinating, bitterly bad-assed rogue “with a gun in one hand and a garter belt in the other”. Someday, I really mean to stack the whole damn collection in a big pile on the writing lair’s endtable, then hunker down to read the entire thing in sequence from start to finish, uninterrupted.

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American Century

American Century Montage

Before I discovered the graphic noir-magic of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, or the dark delight of Joelle Jones and James Rich (Lady Killer, You Have Killed Me, etc.) and other stand-alone comics and graphic novels, I came across American Century, the DC Vertigo series which ran from 2001 to 2003, co-written by Howard Chaykin and David Tischman, with various artists wielding the pencil, brush and mouse, including Marc Laming, Luke Ross and Lan Medina.

American Century Montage - Glen Orbik

American Century is kind of like old Steve Canyon, Terry And The Pirates or even Wally Woods’ Cannon series, dialed up a notch for contemporary tastes and expectations. Former combat pilot Harry Black fakes his death and assumes the identity of Harry Kraft, setting off on a series of adventures, initially in Latin America, then Hollywood, Chicago, New York, Paris and even among the American south’s backroads bootlegging scene. There’s crime, mystery, thrills and sex – but more, the series a guided tour of 1950’s America, probing the good and the bad of postwar culture, with Harry continually forced to confront racism, blacklisting, corruption and violence wherever he winds up.

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Co-writer Howard Chaykin is one of my comics heroes, his Black Kiss and Satellite Sam series particular favorites (more about those at some point). And I owe the American Century series for introducing me to occasional cover artist Glen Orbik (1963 – 2015) who we also see on some Hard Case Crime paperback covers. I think some or all of the American Century series has been collected into one or more trade paperbacks, but I lucked out and snagged the entire run in a couple of used bookstore ‘priced-to-move’ bundles. Which is good since, as I’ve mentioned here before, I rarely brave the comic shops back-issue bins, unwilling, unable or just too intimidated to elbow aside the hard core browsers.

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