Sunday, 17 February 2013

Chaykin Up the Comic World: American Flagg!

One of my best friends in the world is named Steve.

I have known Steve since I was in Grade Eight, when I was invited by another friend (Rob) to join a weekly roleplaying group across the road at the high school. Steve was there, as was his brother Greg and their friend Randy. (My memory is faulty on whether our friend Chris McKinnon was part of that group or not.) We played D&D in the English room and had a lot of laughs. And the one who made me laugh more than anyone was this short guy with a thick black beard and a wicked sense of humour.

The beard comes and goes these days, but Steve still has the wicked sense of humour.

Anyway, I enjoyed Steve's company but I didn't know we were soul mates until we both happened to be on the same long bus ride - an English trip to Stratford the following year, when I'd finally made the jump from interloping grade schooler to "Minor Niner". Steve had brought a backpack full of comics, the likes of which I'd never seen before. This was my introduction to the world of Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!

Cover to Issue #1.
AF! was one of the most important titles coming out of First Comics in the early eighties (it rattled a lot more cages than The Badger, which I've written of elsewhere) when a lot of the superstars of 70's comics were seeking greener pastures outside the mainstream publishers. Howard Chaykin was probably best known at the time for his work on the Marvel adaptation of Star Wars, in addition to stuff like Ironwolf (DC), a Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser adaptation called Sword of Sorcery, Cody Starbuck, Dominic Fortune, and graphic novel adaptations of Samuel Delaney (EMPIRE) and Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination, through Heavy Metal magazine).

Chaykin was looking to do more adult stuff than he would be allowed to at the mainstream publishers, and the material he brought to First perfectly synthesized some of the personal obsessions that drive his work. It also introduced a few of the elements that would go on to characterize the cyberpunk literary movement that was just in its infancy.

AF! is set in a world of the near future where a global economic and political collapse in 1996 has motivated the ruling elite to relocate to Mars. Now three worlds -- Mars, Luna, and what's left of the Earth -- are ruled by a fascist corporation called The Plex and their star-spangled police force, the Plexus Rangers. What's left of society on earth exists in heavily-fortified shopping malls called Metroplexes, bombarded by Plex video programming from omnipresent vid-screens, and beseiged by crazed motorcycle Go-Gangs that go nuts every Saturday night when their favourite show (a cartoon called Bob Violence) ends.

Cover to Issue #2. Note "jukebox" design.
The well-and-truly Plexed remains of Chicago are where we meet Reuben Flagg, the washed-up Martian star of a racy vid show called Mark Thrust! Flagg has been replaced by a computer-generated lookalike, and decided (out of a perhaps naive sense of patriotism) to volunteer as a Plexus Ranger on Earth. Flagg immediately butts heads with the thoroughly corrupt and mean Chief Ranger Hilton "Hammerhead" Krieger. Flagg is barely off the shuttle when a rifle is pressed into his hands and he's fighting off the Saturday night Go-gang attack.

(Aside: the crowd control drug they use to take down the Go-gangs is called Somnambutol, a sleep drug that makes a distinctive sound like a doo-wop band: PAPAPAPAPAPAOOOOOOMOW!MOW! Chaykin and letterer/logo designer Ken Bruzenak have a lot of fun with little gags like this slipped in at the margins of the panel, in Chaykin's highly-designed style, such as slightly absurd sound effects and over-the-top names of vid shows playing in the background like Interspecies Romance and White Sluts on Dope.)

Flagg survives the Go-gang attack, and discovers that he has a visitor waiting for him in his new apartment -- Gretchen Holstrum, the madam of the local Love Canal brothel. Gretchen insists on giving Flagg a warmer welcome than the Go-gangs, introducing another important element of Chaykin's future world: sex. Unlike other comic book characters of the era, Chaykin's hero is frequently shown engaging in that most human of pursuits, something that was almost unheard-of in the early 1980s. (Flagg, of course, learns the next day that Gretchen was sent to greet him by "Hammerhead" -- who taped the whole thing. Krieger offers him the Plex's universal contraceptive and antibiotic -- Mananacillin -- "kills all VD on contact.")

"So begins the first week of Ranger Flagg's five-year tour of duty, a week of unending banality, and mind-numbing vulgarity, punctuated by frequent outbursts of senseless violence." Flagg also makes the acquaintance of Chicago's mayor, C.K. Blitz (who has a pair of robot bodyguards named Bert and Ernie) and Krieger's firebrand daughter, Mandy.

What really kicks the series into high gear is Flagg's discovery that Bob Violence -- the cartoon that the drugged-up Go-gangs love so much -- is filled with subliminal messages of violence. Krieger doesn't believe him, though, and accuses Flagg of trying to get out of the Rangers as a "Section 8". Only one other seems able to see the subliminals -- Krieger's cat Raul, an unforgettable character who can talk and think like most humans, even though he's a cat. (As far as I know, no explanation for this is ever given.) Raul says that it must be something in Flagg's Martian physiology that lets him see the subliminals, but warns him not to mess with them. Bob Violence comes from the Plex, you see, "and nobody screws with the Plex."

When Mandy helps Flagg jam the Bob Violence signal, it sets off a chain of events that leads to Hammerhead's murder, the discovery of just how far Plex corruption goes, and ultimately a revolution.

Cover to Issue #12, the end of the first story arc.
So what makes AF! so seminal and unusual for its time, or any other time?

It's probably not an accident that Reuben Flagg -- and by extension, a lot of Chaykin's square-jawed main characters over the years -- resembles an idealized version of his creator. Flagg is a character with a lot more complexity than comics were accustomed to in the early 80's (and pretty much since then too), a Jewish hero that struggles with idealism and cynicism, has a number of lovers (but few long-term relationships), knows how to cook, and likes old jazz and swing music. Flagg often finds himself struggling to find the right course of action in a world that's filled with corruption, and loves his country despite that corruption. Steve once summed up Flagg's complexity thus: "He's the only character in comics with a middle name."

Although the violence and media-saturation of AF! that make it a formative cyberpunk text are prominent, so is the constant presence of satirical humour (such as the many media clips seen in the background and the various trademarked product names). The closest analogy to the world that Chaykin creates in AF! is probably Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, which embraces the same heady mix of satire and brutal violence (but perhaps lacks the subtlety of Chaykin's characterizations and the depth of his world).

Chaykin's visuals are sharp and heavily-designed, with characters rendered in great detail (with costumes that often change) using pointillism to create texture. His covers and splash pages are swingin' bursts of energy, and his page layouts are complex.

Flagg and female cast. Note Raul at bottom of frame.
Although Chaykin is often remembered (rightly) as a great artist, he's an underrated and talented writer. His scripts on AF! crackle with sharp dialogue, intrigue, and comedy. His characters are lively and sometimes indelible, in the case of Raul the cat, and later additions to the AF! cast like the grifter Sam Luis Obispo and blackmarket basketball player Jules "Deathwish" Folquet, not to mention the rightful King of England.

It should be noted that Chaykin's work is certainly chauvanist, if not actually misogynist. Chaykin's female characters are complex and interesting, for the most part, and are always the intellectual equal of the main character. Of course, he still usually manages to get most of them into bed.

The good news is that American Flagg! has recently come back into print in both softcover and hardcover collections from Image. Check it out.

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