Review: ‘Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!’
Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!
By Howard Chaykin
Dynamic Forces, July 2008, $49.99
Science Fiction has never been quite as successful in comics form as it seemed it should have been. Oh, sure, there have been plenty of vaguely SFnal ideas and premises – from [[[Superman]]] to [[[Kamandi]]] to the [[[X-Men]]] to the [[[Ex-Mutants]]] – but they were rarely anything deeper than an end to the sentence “There’s this guy, see? and he’s….” One of the few counterexamples was Howard Chaykin’s [[[American Flagg!]]], starting in 1983 – that series had many of the usual flaws and unlikelihoods of near-future dystopias, but it also had a depth and texture to its world that was rare in comics SF (and never to be expected in even purely prose works, either).
American Flagg! suffered from Chaykin’s waning attention for a while, and then crashed and burned almost immediately after he finally left the series, with a cringe-making overly “sexy” storyline utterly overwritten by Alan Moore. American Flagg! limped from muddled storyline to confused characterization for a couple of years afterward – but the beginning, when Chaykin was fully energized by his new creation and the stories he was telling, is one of the best SF stories in American comics.
The series has never been collected well, though a few slim album-sized reprints were once available, and may be findable through used-book channels. This Dynamic Forces edition, reprinting the first fourteen issues of the series, is quite pricey. (Especially for a book with no page numbers, and one in which the pages are precisely the size of the original comics – not oversized, as those previous album reprints had been.) This book has a strong, thoughtful introduction by Michael Chabon – which has already appeared in his [[[Maps and Legends]]] collection, presumably due to the delay in the American Flagg! book – a gushing afterword by Jim Lee, and a new short story written and drawn by Chaykin.
The new story is minor, and barely a story – yet another battle between militias has gone bad, and requires Plexus Rangers to break it up – and the last two issues reprinted here are purely epilogues and exercises in wheelspinning. Those two issues also show Chaykin beginning to disengage from the book; he only wrote those two, handing the art over to a motley crew – one issue succeeds in looking like Chaykin, but the other completely fails to fit in at all with Chaykin’s established style. This American Flagg! book does at least manage to collect the essential first twelve issues of the series in permanent form. (And those thirteenth and fourteenth issues do show, by their limpness, what we’ve gained over the past twenty-five years: these days, a work like American Flagg! would be owned by its creator, and could go on hiatus after a big storyline ended. The tyranny of having to get out a monthly issue, no matter what, isn’t really a problem anymore.)
American Flagg! is one of those dystopias that seems reasonable on the surface, but can be picked to pieces with a little thought. (Particularly if that’s afterthought.) In 1996 – thirteen years in the future when the first issue hit the stands – everything in the whole world went to hell just about simultaneously. (The US east coast had at least one nuclear mishap, California fell into the ocean, the USSR collapsed under a Muslim insurgency, Canada fell into anarchy, the black plague decimated Asia, London was nuked by Germany, more nukes flew in the Mid-East, and so on.) Essentially, it sounds like every possible disaster scenario happened at once, and nearly every First World government collapsed. Brazil came through OK, and South America in general seems to be the economic motor of this new world. (Chaykin, from the evidence here, subscribes to a zero-sum school of economics; countries only prosper when other countries fail.) And the US government, along with some corporate elements, fled to Mars.
Yes, Mars. In 1996. This makes the least sense of all of the background elements of American Flagg!, so I’ll advise you all to just shrug and move on. There are many, many SF stories with implausibly strong and early space programs, so just add this one to that pile.
Anyway, the renamed “Plex” (I don’t remember if the name was ever explained, but it isn’t in these issues) ruled strongly on Mars and the Moon, but had a more tenuous grasp on its parts of Earth – controlling mostly through television and a small force of Rangers. The laws are a weird mishmash – basketball and all pro sports are illegal, but prostitution and fighting with automatic firearms in the streets are legal (as long as you’re part of a registered paramilitary poli-club) – and corruption is rampant on Earth. (We don’t see what’s going on off-planet in these issues.) There’s clearly been a major human die-off, though we’re never told what the current population of Earth is, nor who the other powers (besides Brazil and the Plex) are.
All of that is unlikely, yes – some of it far worse than unlikely, actually – but Chaykin sells it easily, by immediately immersing the reader in his complicated, detailed world. American Flagg! begins in 2031, when the “Year of the Domino” is history, and Chaykin backfills bits and pieces of the history as he goes (with one big infodump on 1996 in the first issue) and only as necessary. A lot of the background is just implied to begin with; Brazilians and their companies are important, ergo Brazil is a major power.
So we begin with Reuben Flagg, an actor who’s just been replaced by a holographic version of himself as the lead of the extremely popular show [[[Mark Thrust]]], [[[Sexus Ranger]]], arriving in Chicago to be a deputy ranger there. (He apparently was drafted as soon as he was fired, for murky reasons.) He’s young and the Chaykin version of idealistic, so he doesn’t immediately fit in well to the corrupt and decadent Chicago Plexmall. (The geography of Plex-America isn’t completely clear, but there are large “malls,” with shopping and services and apartments – possibly only for people connected with the Plex itself and with major international and –planetary corporations. There also are designated urban firefight zones – honored, in these stories, more in the breach – and some kind of suburbs, in which someone must live.) He does find allies as he goes along, and the supporting cast has mostly reasonable inter-relationships – though there is one soap-opera-level revelation late in this book that strains credulity.
The first twelve issues are divided into four three-part stories, but they also run together into one longer tale, as Flagg deals with problems that keep growing and adding ramifications. Like so many stories of this kind, Flagg keeps taking on more and more responsibility; he’s the one incorruptible man coming to clean up the rotten town. And this “rotten town” is all of North America, if not the entire planet.
Each issue is densely packed with dialogue, characters, story, and bravado layouts – Chaykin’s greatest breakthrough was his assured use of sound effects as art, but he also was unafraid using of big chunks of words as design elements when necessary. His textured, intensely detailed and realistic art and his control of viewpoint send a virtual camera swooping through this world, focusing always on what’s most important.
Chaykin told stories a lot like this over and over again for the next twenty years – big men with easy grins, fast guns, and faster fists, battling corruption and evil in their double-breasted suits and making moves on voluptuous women (always more than one for the hero of any particular story) who wore high heels and sexy lingerie under their various uniforms and odd fashions (which lingerie they always still had on, during those immediately post-coital moments) – but American Flagg! was where it crystallized. This is where Chaykin found his voice, where all of his little tics turned into a style, before it degenerated into self-parody.
If you come to American Flagg! now, you’ll see elements that you were sure were invented by Moore and Gibbons in [[[Watchmen]]] or Miller in [[[The Dark Knight Returns]]]. But remember the dates – both of those stories are from 1986, and American Flagg! began in 1983; much more of the revitalization of genre comics in the late ‘80s came from Chaykin than he gets credit for. This isn’t an ideal book – it would probably be better if it had stopped at that twelfth issue, and certainly it should have page numbers – but it’s a good edition of a great story that’s been criminally out of print for far too long.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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