Sunday, October 2, 2011

Comics Review: American Flagg!: The Definitive Collection, Volume 1, Howard Chaykin

This review was originally published, with minor copy revisions, in The Comics Journal #299.

With American Flagg!, Howard Chaykin created one of the great adventure-comics series. After a long wait, it's back in print--and it reads better than ever.

Sexy, smart and smashingly well executed, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! made just about every other adventure comic in the 1980s look like drivel. Originally intended as a futuristic take-off on the TV series Gunsmoke, Chaykin created a satirical pop dystopia that cut to the heart of the Reagan-era zeitgeist. He exaggerated various cultural trends--the emphasis on style over substance, the feeling of information overload in a media-driven culture, the lionizing of ruthless opportunism for its own sake--and took them to hilarious and sometimes chilling extremes. Unfortunately, due to the original publisher’s bankruptcy, the series has been out of print for close to 20 years. But after innumerable delays, the most recent due to the challenges of restoring the detailed art, the first 14 issues have finally been collected in a handsome hardbound volume. (Two trade paperbacks featuring the same material have also been released.) Rereading it, one finds that Flagg! hasn’t dated at all. If anything, it reads better now than it did in 1983 and ‘84.

The story takes place in 2031. Thirty-five years earlier, after a series of domestic and international calamities, the political and business leadership of the United States relocated to a colony on Mars, reconstituting themselves as a political-corporate-media combine called the Plex. They govern what’s left of the United States—both east and west coasts have been devastated—and provide all legitimate broadcast media. The remaining earth-side communities in the U.S. are centered around massive commercial-residential malls, which also serve as the headquarters for the resident Plexus Rangers, the Plex’s law-enforcement wing. Their principal responsibilities are to maintain the peace in the malls and protect the Plex’s remaining agricultural and industrial operations from the impoverished outside populace, many of whom have reorganized themselves into gangs and militias.

The Rangers’ newest recruit is Reuben Flagg, an actor who was drafted after being replaced by CGI technology on his television series. He’s assigned to the Chicago Plexmall, where he serves as a deputy under Chief Ranger Hilton “Hammerhead” Krieger. It’s the first time he’s ever been to Earth, and he’s disgusted by what he finds. The more benign militias have sold broadcast rights to their turf battles—fought with with rifles, howitzers and tanks—in exchange for weapons and money. The more extreme ones will kill themselves and their families rather than be captured after running afoul of the Plex. The most horrifying moment for Flagg comes when he sees a teenage girl murder her brother and commit suicide rather than face arrest. The more affluent mall residents are appalling in their own way. All that seems to matter to them is casual sex, recreational drugs and vegging out on the steady diet of porno, animated cartoons and reality TV broadcast by the Plex. Flagg was brought up with an idealistic view of America by his parents on Mars, but having his blinders torn off leaves him with little choice but to acquiesce. At least the casual sex is fun. However, after Krieger is murdered, Flagg finds himself promoted to Chief Ranger and made the unexpected heir of a pirate TV station Krieger operated. Armed with his new authority and the station’s resources, he vows to do his modest part to undermine the Plex and return America to something more like the country he imagined.

That final, hopeful note notwithstanding, Flagg! sounds almost unbearably grim, but it’s anything but. The darkness of the milieu is leavened by the irreverently witty atmosphere Chaykin provides. Parodies of advertising and the media abound—absurdist catchphrases like “The Geopragmacrats—manifest is the only destiny we acknowledge” echo across the pages. There's also plenty of promo imagery for the various TV shows, including “White Sluts on Dope,” “Firefight—All Night Live!” and “Interspecies Romances.” (“Tonight—a man, a woman… and a duck.”) The news media specializes in fawning over visiting VIPs, crime-scene sensationalism, and laying odds on the various wars that erupt from the whacked-out geopolitical scenarios Chaykin has dreamed up. A healthy share of the dialogue is smartass banter, and Chaykin thankfully doesn’t handle the sex with dead-earnest seriousness. He likes the humor in flirtatious foreplay, and he certainly gives himself plenty of opportunities to indulge in it—Flagg gets laid in almost every episode, with Chaykin often keeping the reader on the scene up until the bodies hit the bed. One character says that life in 2031 is “like a funhouse—without the fun.” One wouldn’t want to live in Flagg’s world, but when it comes to reading about it, sorry, one can’t agree.

Beyond the humor, a reader is also carried along by the dynamism of Chaykin’s storytelling. He plays words and images off each other like no one else. He’ll use a panel as a static tableau for the dialogue, which he breaks up into strings of alternating balloons in an extremely successful rendering of the rhythms of human speech. The dialogue is often used to lead one’s eye across the page to where it joins with an emphatically visual element—examples include a close-up of a character’s face, a full-page action pose, or even a logo, sound-effects banner or some other kind of advertising-style graphics. Chaykin’s pages don’t look like anyone else’s, either. Most cartoonists’ pages, no matter how sophisticated the construction, rarely look like more than collections of panels. Chaykin’s pages often resemble posters, with the panels and other visual elements layered in a way that creates a coherent design whole. He makes everything he puts on a page function both dramatically and decoratively, creating a balance between storytelling and visual flash in which the sum is greater than the parts.

Chaykin’s style, ahead of its time in the 1980s, may have finally found its moment. When Flagg! was first published, a number of people complained that it was too difficult to read. Chaykin was fond of beginning dialogue scenes with the speakers off-panel or buried in the background of a panoramic drawing, and he often mixed the conversations with background chatter from the TV broadcasts. People have since become far more used to multi-tasking in their experience of the media, and the layering of unrelated information in a single space has become so common that it’s now the standard in television news programming. One no longer has to point to Robert Altman movies and their use of overlapping sound to explain what Chaykin is doing; all that’s needed is to turn on cable news.

Chaykin’s influence on other creators is also being recognized. In his introduction to this collection, author Michael Chabon rightly mentions Flagg!’s contribution to cyberpunk style, and he takes care to note how much landmark adventure comics like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen and Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns are indebted to Flagg!’s concepts and tone. If one is making a list, the film RoboCop definitely belongs, as it appropriated a great deal of Chaykin’s satirical vision and flourishes. (The film’s producers apparently agree; they included Chaykin in the film’s acknowledgements.) There’s also Miller and Gibbons’ Martha Washington series, which is unimaginable without Flagg! It features a similar mix of dystopian adventure and political and media satire, with the most conspicuous debt being the character of Martha herself. She’s a dead ringer for Flagg! supporting character Medea Blitz, and despite the superficial differences in their backgrounds, their personalities are virtually the same.

Flagg! falters at times. Its most conspicuous weakness is Chaykin’s handling of the women. Male characters like Flagg and Hammerhead have distinctive personalities from the get-go, but Chaykin can’t manage a memorable female character unless, like Hammerhead’s daughter Mandy and the businesswoman Ester Maria de la Cristo, she’s a manipulative, opportunistic bitch. Chaykin tries to give the women some complexity to counterpoint his cheesecake visual treatment, but he can’t seem to flesh out the outlines. Several female characters, such as Medea Blitz and the Jewish Nazi Titania Weis, behave one way when they’re introduced and another way during later episodes. The shifts are deliberate, but Chaykin can’t reconcile the contrasts. Medea goes from being an incorrigible bad-girl brat to a straight-arrow, take-charge leader, but one can’t see the seeds of the later character in the earlier one or feel the remnants of her old self after she’s changed. Chaykin’s superficial handling of another female character also undermines a significant plot twist in the later episodes. A woman the others thought had left their lives years earlier turns out, thanks to amnesia and a case of mistaken identity, to have been living among them for some time. Chaykin doesn’t seem particularly interested in the character in the early episodes, so he neglects to give the twist much foreshadowing. The other members of the cast show no signs of being even unconsciously aware of the truth, and so, when the revelation comes, it carries no punch.

However, flaws aside, Flagg! is an exhilarating piece of pop entertainment. At the top of his game while working on the feature, Chaykin poured more into it than any reader expected, and sometimes more than they wanted. He left us with a dense, witty rollercoaster ride that carved out its own stylistic niche and then saw the rest of the media to catch up with it years later. The excesses of ‘80s culture that he satirized have only become more pronounced as time has gone by, so his satirical touches, which one might expect to have become dated, seem more relevant than ever. It’s good to finally have American Flagg! back in print, and here’s hoping it takes its rightful place as a comics classic.

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