In the afterword to Howard Chaykin’s roman a clef about the comics industry, he does his best to explain why he didn’t make it more obvious who the characters were based on -- Stan Lee and Jack Kirby excluded. He essentially says that the point of the story wasn’t to have it be a game of “Who’s that over there?” but “Who did that and why?” That’s fair enough, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that the majority of the characters in his multi-decade story about the comics industry are barely qualify as one-dimensional ciphers. The three main characters are only distinguishable by the fact that they’re The African American, The Woman, and The White Guy Who Is Also A Protagonist. The stand-ins for Stan and Jack only manage to stand out because the connection between their real and fictional personas is easy to make, with all of the personality that you’d expect from them as well.
None of the other members of this 20-person cast can manage that, and Chaykin does them no favors by splitting up his narrative into snippets set in 1945, 1955, 1965, and 2001 in each issue. It’s hard for the miniseries to build up any kind of narrative momentum when the story keeps shifting time periods every six pages. Then again, the fact that there’s no narrative through line to follow between eras beyond the idea that, “Boy the people who created the comics industry sure were jerks/thieves/conmen/morally bankrupt/’all of the above’” doesn’t exactly make for compelling reading. All we’re left with are a bunch of mostly interchangeable talking heads throughout the years giving soundbites about how awful it is to work in comics.
Chaykin could’ve stood to glean more from “Satellite Sam,” his collaboration with writer Matt Fraction about the early days of TV. It covered similar ground, but did so with a lot more focus and a cast that was both smaller and more interesting. You’d better off reading all three volumes of that series than spending any money on the dull, joyless slog that is this one.