Sunday, January 8, 2012

Comics Review: American Flagg!: Lustbusters, Alan Moore, Don Lomax, and Larry Stroman

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alan Moore's guest storyline for Howard Chaykin's '80s cyberpunk adventure feature is marred by substandard art, but it compensates with cleverness and wit.

Alan Moore is best known as the scriptwriter of, among other works, the graphic-novel masterpieces Watchmen and From Hell. The fame of those books and their grim tone often obscures that he is also a first-rate humor writer. A good example is his 1985 guest serial for Howard Chaykin’s cyberpunk adventure comic American Flagg!. (The story was featured in issues 21 through 27 of the series. I’ve taken the liberty of calling it Lustbusters after the final episode’s cover copy. The storyline doesn’t have an overarching title.) Moore manages a neat trick: he does a hilarious job of lampooning Chaykin’s work, but he also manages to make the story a comfortable fit with the feature. He has such a strong feel for Chaykin’s characters, themes, and milieu that he can extend his parody for laughs at the feature’s expense yet snap it back when necessary to keep the story on track. He isn’t quite able to duplicate Chaykin’s tone; the hard-boiled edge of Chaykin’s work is gone. But Moore often manages to outdo Chaykin in terms of wit and cleverness. American Flagg! is notorious for being an adventure feature that no one but Chaykin could handle properly, but Moore almost pulls it off. The only thing holding it back is the inept, unimaginative art by Don Lomax and Larry Stroman.

American Flagg!, for those not familiar with it, is set in the America of 2031. A series of international calamities has led the political and business elites of the U. S. to relocate to a colony on Mars. Calling themselves the Plex, they control the country’s remaining communities through the Plexus Rangers, their law-enforcement wing. Additionally, they provide all legitimate television programming, which is mostly comprised of porn, animated cartoons, and reality shows. The feature’s hero, Reuben Flagg, is a former TV star turned Plexus Ranger who oversees the Chicago area. Disgusted by the corruption of the Plex, he both keeps the peace and gradually works to undermine their authority. Chaykin keeps things lively with effective adventure plotting, stunning visual design, and an often hilarious mix of political and media satire.

Moore, stepping into Chaykin’s shoes as scriptwriter, starts by making explicit what was only implied in Chaykin’s episodes. Mark Thrust, the adventure show Flagg used to star in, is also pornography. Part of its formula is to have cliffhanger moments turn into sex scenes. Moore's plot centers on what happens in Kansas when the porno moments are followed by ad breaks. The commercials for dishwashing soap contain some unfortunate subliminal messages. These prompt a run on the product, and it quickly becomes apparent that consumers are, shall we say, finding other uses for it than washing their dishes. Things are complicated when a porn tycoon realizes the connection between the subliminals, the soap sales, and the rise of the aberrant activity. He arranges for the subliminals to be broadcast 24/7, and soon the entire population of Kansas is in the throes of rampant erotomania. The members of the series’ supporting cast come one-by-one to investigate, but they all fall victim to the sex-crazed populace. It's ultimately up to Flagg to save the day.

Moore’s satirical eye doesn’t miss a single aspect of the series. The porny atmosphere of Chaykin’s milieu is taken to its limits. The episodes all star a specific American Flagg! character, and Moore does a delightful job of lampooning their idiosyncrasies. He has a grand time dreaming up the various sex scenarios, whether it’s the assorted Mark Thrust clips, or the multitude of depravities the people of Kansas concoct for themselves. (They get a good deal more imaginative than questionable uses of dish detergent.) But Moore never loses sight of the adventure elements of the story, and he even finds space for extended send-ups of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. His sense of timing never fails him; the story is hilarious throughout.

The only letdown is Lomax and Stroman's artwork. (Stroman penciled the first three installments, with Lomax inking. Lomax penciled and inked the remaining four.) They make no effort to lampoon Chaykin’s design-heavy visual style or the posterish look of his pages. It may be for the best; their artwork is below what one would like to think is a professional standard. The figures are incompetently drawn, everything is over-rendered, and none of the visuals are especially convincing. The wit of Moore’s scripting is the only thing that saves the story. One comes to accept the inept artwork as approximations of his ideas, and gives it the benefit of the doubt.

What may be most impressive about this lark at Chaykin’s expense is that it really isn’t a departure from Moore’s usual style. He has always analyzed existing story material in terms of its discourses and absurdities, ultimately rebuilding it in ways that captures the heart of the material while managing to improve on it. The major difference here is that he doesn’t minimize the absurdities in Chaykin’s work; he plays them to the hilt. It's a shame the artwork wasn't worthy of his script. This might have been seen as one of the great comics parodies.

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