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26 January 2016 @ 09:24 am
Mutant X Interviews: Howard Chaykin (9/01 SciFi Weekly)  


Howard Chaykin: 9/24/01 Scifi Weekly

Howard Chaykin supplies the uncanny X-factor that powers Mutant X
By Resa Nelson

H oward Chaykin is the executive consultant and head writer of Mutant X, a new syndicated series that begins the first week in October. Don't mistake Mutant X for a clone of the X-Men franchise—it's a different world and a different cautionary look at what could happen if humankind messes around too much with genetics.

Mutant X is about ordinary people who discover that they have extraordinary powers because they were unknowing and unwilling test subjects of a covert government branch called the Genetic Security Agency. Mutant X is a small group of mutants led by the former chief biogeneticist, who didn't know his work was being tested on humans. Although Chaykin began his career in the comic book industry, he's also contributed to television series such as Earth: Final Conflict.
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How does Mutant X differ from a typical TV series with a comic-book premise?

Chaykin: First and foremost—I believe, in contemporary adventure—the characters that Arnold Schwarzenegger plays, the characters that Bruce Willis plays, are superheroes. They are transcendentally superhuman. In my world, Mutant X is in the grand tradition of all great ensemble shows in television from Mission: Impossible to The A Team, with the added lagniappe of an enhanced genetic ability.

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How did Mutant X come about?

Chaykin: The original idea was conceived by the people at Marvel and the people at Tribune. I was handed a rough idea of where they wanted the material to go. I took that material and began the shaping process of turning it into a television series.

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Will each episode stand alone, or will the episodes build on each other and depend on each other?

Chaykin: It's all part of a greater whole. Serialization is difficult in the world of syndicated television. There's a standalone quality to each episode, but there's also a cumulative nature in the material. In our first year, we have a generalized arc, which will come to a crisis point at the end of the season.

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I've read there's a two-year commitment to this series—is that true?

Chaykin: Yes. It's one of the great reasons to be working on this project.

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I understand that the concept for Mutant X is that mutant heroes aren't superheroes in this world. They aren't flawless. Instead, they're heroic people who are flawed. Can you talk about that and some of the characters?

Chaykin: In a two-dimensional comic book universe, somebody gets bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes a superhero. In our world, somebody discovers he has these abilities and he uses them to make his life easier. One of the things I challenge my writers with is to try to find interesting and clever ways to use our lead characters' abilities in ways that confound expectations—to ground our motivation and our emotional core in convincing and believable reality. We want to constantly surprise the audience with these characters' behavior—when they're expecting zig, we zag.

One of the conceits of this material is a powerful, physically strong figure. In our case, that character is a woman with a profoundly kittenish personality. Shalimar is enormous fun, and confounds the expectations of a musclebound creature. Shalimar was an athlete who found herself completely distraught when these abilities of hers, that she's had since birth, began to ultimately take over and come out of nowhere. She was rescued by Adam, who explained to her what was going on. Shalimar is the comic rock of our show. She's flirtatious, funny, sexy and an ass-kicker at the same time. She frequently gets the last word. Much of the way she deals with situations is with a taunting, mocking sensibility, humiliating her adversaries as much as defeating them. She's an absolute gas.

Jesse's a poor little rich kid, raised by a family that offered him no love, who's found the family he's always needed and wanted in Mutant X. So for the first time in his life, he's in a family unit. It just happens to be four other people, three of whom are as gifted as he is—with a paternal figure in Adam, who gives them a moral direction. It's family drama with a twist. Jesse can become intangible and impermeable, a perfect reflection of a guy who spent so much of his time sort of avoiding the hostilities of a family that never loved him. He grew up in a very restrained background [and is] finally going to let loose and is having a great time.

In our opening two-parter, Emma blurts out that yesterday she was a salesgirl, and now she's sucked into somebody else's paranoid fantasy. And we learn that while she was a salesgirl, she used her abilities to support a career.

In a similar way, Brennan Mulwray used his electrical abilities to short out alarm systems in his career as a thief. The old saw "with great power comes great responsibility" is a wonderful idea if you're 12, but the truth is, if you were given one of these gifts, you'd find a way to use it in your job.

The show has the tone and character of a network show in every way, shape and form. So we are going to confound and, I believe, astonish expectations. The level of action, the physical look that our production department has created is unbelievable. Our set designer is incredible. The shows are turning out far beyond any of our expectations—and we believe the audience will be as delighted as we are.

I can only express my profound delight and excitement to be working on a show as splendid-looking as this. No caveats, no explanations, no apologies—it's just terrific stuff. We think the audience is going to respond in the same way.

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Can you tell me more about Adam?

Chaykin: Adam is motivated by an enormous sense of moral and ethical responsibility for the guilt and shame he feels over the work he did for Genomax. His life's mission is to redeem himself for what he feels were colossal errors in judgment. He's a multimillionaire as a result of early investments in the Internet, and he's translated those investments into building this mountain stronghold called Sanctuary.

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Does he ever struggle with thoughts of revenge?

Chaykin: In my head, Adam has always struck me as a retired samurai—a guy with both a deeply physical and deeply spiritual side. The Bushido code has room for revenge, but I believe Adam is someone who's made moral adjustments in his own sensibility and psyche that enable him to sidestep those issues. This doesn't mean that we won't find ourselves, down the line somewhere, with Adam behaving in a frighteningly human, self-revealing way, which will be a great deal of fun to play with. John Shea is just sensational. He's managed to find the inherent humor in Adam. There's a wonderful slyness about John that he's found in the character.

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There's a question that must be different for each character who has a special power: Where do you draw that line between what's acceptable behavior and what's going too far?

Chaykin: That's what our opening two-parter is about. It brings Emma and Brennan into the team. In Brennan's case, it's a story of redemption as he puts his criminal life behind him. In Emma's, it's a story of commitment as she finally acknowledges she's a special person.

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How did you get started in comics?

Chaykin: I've been a fanatical comic book fan since I was a little boy. I taught myself to read from comic books. I'm a great believer in comics as a reading tool. In the same way that Tarzan learned to read from his parents' books after he found their cabin, I was reading at a fourth-grade reading level when I entered the kindergarten. And that never stopped. I may not have been able to pronounce "invulnerable" and "indestructible," but they're words I understood. The first time I smelled a box of old comic books, I knew what I wanted to be for the rest of my life. I became an apprentice when I was 19. I ghosted and assisted other artists for a number of years and got my first professional job in '71 or '72.

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I understand that you started as an artist and later became a writer.

Chaykin: I became a writer out of self-defense. For the most part, many of the writers I was working with were failed artists who'd found themselves a niche in the comic book business as writers. And, frankly, I'm better read, more literate, with a wider ranging set of interests than many of the writers I was working with, so I began to write my own stuff and pissed a lot of people off.

Comics is a visual medium, like television, and movies—and much of the writing itself is done in visual imagery. But it also requires ideas, text, context and subtext—and I try to bring all of those things to it.

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It sounds like it was a very organic thing for you.

Chaykin: Pretty much. I started off dreadfully, but I got better—because you're forced to behave in public—to deal with humiliation and embarrassment. And, ultimately, I created challenges that made it necessary for me to rise to those challenges both textually and visually. Things I felt I couldn't do, I would force myself to learn to do, because I was doing them in public.

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For example...?

Chaykin: I had a terrible time drawing horses. So I did an entire four-issue Western arc sequence in a book that made it necessary for me to draw horses—to publicly display my own limitations and either rely on old behavior or develop new skills.

The first 10 years of my comic book career consisted of trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. At the end of that decade, I took on a series of assignments that paid no money, that were very challenging technically and texturally, that ultimately never really paid off financially but changed my worldview—both the way I looked at the world and the way the world looked at me.

There are a number of great American illustrators and musicians who have gone through the same process. Sonny Rollins was going along just fine in the 1950s, then functionally retired for about two years—to go off and relearn the instrument. He would walk to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the night and play the saxophone where no one could hear him but himself. Ultimately he emerged as a different player after that experience. That was a very inspiring story. I decided to totally alter the way I perceived the job.

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How does creating for comics differ from creating for television?

Chaykin: Comics is material for an audience with a catalog of preconceived notions. The language is encoded with certain ideas and expectations. When you confound and contradict those expectations, you either succeed beyond your own wildest expectations or you fail so miserably that your audience is confused. Television, because it's a mass-market medium, is a much flatter audience. The audience doesn't bring the same sort of expectations to the material as a comic-book audience would.

I've only dabbled in superheroes. Most of my work has been science fiction, fantasy and crime, with a heavy dose of erotica. I have a very different attitude, for example, over what Batman means in a mass-market worldview. The comic-book audience accepts Batman's motivations and behavior as a given. From my perspective, Batman is a rich guy who uses his fortune to dress up like a bondage freak, running around with really cool weapons and gadgets, beating the living crap out of people he doesn't know. In the real world, Bruce Wayne would invest his fortune in the private sector or run for office. My job is to find a happy medium between those two sensibilities.

When you do a television series, you're not held down by the baggage of expectations. The expectations that you have in a television series are simply clean narrative and fun.

Rock and roll is an equally encoded language. When you listen to contemporary pop music today, most of what you hear in most venues, with the exception of hip-hop, is pastiche music. A lot of it reminds me of the Beatles between '64 and '68—with an element or two of the Rolling Stones. And the Beatles were borrowing from Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. The only original sound going on right now is hip-hop. Even singers like Christina Aguilera would have been Broadway divas 30 years ago. Pop music is self-referential pastiche—much like comic books. Television is much less self-referential, except when it chooses to be.

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What other television projects have you been involved with?

Chaykin: I spent a year on The Flash, an action-adventure superhero show. I wrote nine episodes. I spent 3 1/2 years on The Viper, and a year on Earth: Final Conflict. The work I've done professionally has all been in the action/hour realm, both in network and in syndication. It's where I belong. It's the kind of sensibility I have. I try to bring a slightly more self-aware attitude without being snide about the material.

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