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American Flagg! #1-3
By Howard Chaykin
Originally published by First Comics
Trade Paperback (collecting #1-6) published by Image Comics and Dynamic Forces; $19.95 USD

My first exposure to Howard Chaykin was the Epic Graphic Novel adaptation of Alfred Bester's classic sci-fi novel, The Stars, My Destination. This outstanding book, originally started in 1979 but not fully completed and released as a complete edition until 1992, used innovative page layouts to seamlessly intersperse Chaykin's exquisitely detailed, fully painted artwork with lengthy prose passages. The sophisticated design, a trademark of Chaykin's best work (and a credit in no small part to Byron Preiss, who handled the adaptation) opened my eyes to the potential for a true graphic novel, one that uses the strengths of both the literary artform and the sequential storytelling techniques of the traditional comic book. To this day, Stars remains one of my very favorite graphic novels.

So it's a little surprising to me that until a few weeks ago, I had never read American Flagg!, Chaykin's landmark comic series from the early '80s. Fishing around in my parents' basement, I discovered that I owned, but had never read, the first three issues of Flagg, originally released by First Comics in 1983. With the impending re-release of the series by Dynamic Forces and Image Comics (the first collection is due out in November), I decided to give these issues a read.

The story follows Rueben Flagg, an ex-porn star from the popular show Mark Thrust, Sexus Ranger (a porn/drama that might seem at home on Cinemax) as he embarks on a new career as a "Plexus Ranger," a law enforcement officer on the mean streets of Chicago in 2031. However this is a very different Chicago than the one we know. Following the collapse of Western civilization, which included a meltdown of the international banking system, food riots in Europe and a nuclear holocaust in the Middle East, the United States federal government, along with the heads of most major corporations, abandoned the Earth and established new headquarters on Mars called the Plexus. In their absence, the two-party political system crumbled, and was replaced with over 75 different parties, many ultra-violent extremist factions such as the "Militant Hassidim" who violently oppose all intermarriage, vying for control of an increasingly apathetic society.

This setting, a dark political satire of modern America, is very much a main character in this initial story arc. Chaykin successfully creates a society so lost in excess, indulgence and media overexposure, that even gang warfare has become little more than reality TV fodder. This undercurrent of satire pervades the entire story, showing up in the most insignificant of details, and adds immensely to the realization of the unique world in which Chaykin tells his tale.

The supporting cast of characters in this initial arc, save for the talking cat, Raul, who provides both a comic outlet and seems at times to be the most intelligent character in the story, features mostly forgettable female characters who serve as little more than plot devices for Flagg to have sex with. Flagg, a true comic book alpha male, sleeps with no less than three women in this first story arc. At first I felt slightly disgusted at the seemingly meaningless sex scenes sprinkled into the story, but upon further reflection, I believe this was an intentional character trait by Chaykin to demonstrate that Flagg is a man who has lost touch with reality, and is unable to distinguish between himself and his fictional counterpart, whom he no longer plays on TV but is still very much in character.

Chaykin's distinctive art style is instantly recognizable. From the square-jawed protagonist, to the scantily clad women, Chaykin's artwork reminds me of Frank Miller's classic Dark Knight Returns (helped in no small part by the fact that the first 2 issues were colored by DKR colorist Lynn Varley) though it predated it by three years. At other times I can see similarities to Kyle Baker's work, particularly his Shadow issues, while occasionally I am even reminded of Walter Simonson. Yet there is an originality to his pages, largely due to the creative page layouts, that give these issues the stylistic flare that make them stand out from his peers.

Chaykin also uses a textured inking style, like shadows done with a dot-matrix printer, which enhances some panels, adding depth and character to the typical shading techniques used in most comics of that era, but makes some panels difficult to determine exactly what is happening.

Where Chaykin really excels, however, is his use of non-traditional sequential storytelling techniques for mixing text with images. His page layouts are visually interesting, creative and original. From the Gogang countdown clocks, which pepper the opening sequence with an impending, Hitchcockian sense of dread to the recap sequence in the second issue where the text literally surrounds the panels, Chaykin repeatedly demonstrates an interest in breaking free of the corporate notion of the grid panel (of course there are still many grid pages, but their monotony is broken up). Chaykin's portrayal of the subliminal messages embedded within the reality TV show, Bob Violence, also must have seemed innovative at the time, though it seems less so 21 years later in the digital age of Photoshop and Illustrator. Still, Chaykin's obvious understanding of sound effects, panel borders, coloring and perspective, and their role in the overall reader's experience, are put to great use in conveying the subtleties of the story.

The re-released American Flagg! collections will be offered as either a set of two trade paperbacks, collecting issues #1-6 and #7-12 respectively, each for $19.95, or as a single hardcover "absolute" edition, collecting all twelve issues for $49.95. Like most DVDs, the re-released versions come with the requisite "bonus features" that will satisfy only the hard core fans. The collected hardcover edition features a new 12 page story, written and drawn by Chaykin. The trade paperbacks unfortunately exclude this story. There is also an introduction by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Michael Chabon included in the first trade, and an afterword by Jim Lee in the second. Again with the hardcover, you get both essays. Although I'm sure the paper stock and print quality will be much improved in the collected editions, I wonder if the price ($19.95) for a collection of only six issues is a little steep. I can't help but notice that the first six issues, back in 1983, would have cost a total of $6.00. Talk about inflation! As with all re-released material, it may be worth a quick glance in the back issue boxes or online before splashing out for the full priced collections.

Many in the industry consider American Flagg! an essential title, the creative peak of an artist who was not afraid to expand the definition of what comics can be. The story certainly assumes a higher level of intelligence in its readers, offering both a well-rounded, interesting central character and a complex, visionary setting as its backdrop, but it is Chaykin's clear understanding of the artform, and full use of its toolkit, that makes this title stand apart from many of its competitors, both then and now. While I hesitate to call it essential, American Flagg! is definitely a title that holds up to the test of time, and its thematic overtones of defiant patriotism in the face of rampant dysfunction in modern society, and in particular the obsession with reality TV, rings eerily true 21 years after its initial publication. Grade: 4/5

-- Marc Sobel



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