Won’t you please come to Chicago– a review of Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!

Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!An idea that I’ve never been able to get behind is that, as comic fans and readers, we’re experiencing a new golden age. I’m not saying that the comics coming out now aren’t great or aren’t revolutionary but for some reason, I think instead of seeing a grand revival of comics, we’re seeing the culmination of a hugely creative period that began back in the 1970s, matured through the 1980s and maybe lost its way during the 1990s. Writers like Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart introduced an underground mentality to Marvel and DC comics that started the last revolution in mainstream comic books. They opened the door at the large publishers but it was the smaller, more independent publishers that adopted the new sensibilities, combining politics, sex, action, adventure and maybe even a little social activism. First, Comico and Eclipse produced comics that looked and dressed like superheroes but there was something not right about them.

Part of me worries that I’m looking at the 1980s work of Mike Baron, John Ostrander, Tim Truman, Steve Rude, Howard Chaykin, Matt Wagner and a whole mess of other creators through nostalgic eyes. Their work generally took the heroic figure from a Marvel or DC book and twisted him around until he became a more personal, a more broken and a more fascinating character. Baron and Rude’s Nexus looks like a hero but he’s really a serial killer driven on by the voices in his head (or in his case, the voices in the caves below his home.) Baron’s Badger was cool like Wolverine, even down to the patented berserker rage. But Badger tried to rise above being about the violence like Wolverine was as Baron attempted to use the character to explore identity and mental issues. These weren’t heroes as we knew them but they were an attempt to create more real characters. From the offbeat Howard the Duck and Adam Warlock of the seventies, we grew into Grendel and Miracleman in the 80s. Of course, all of that culminated in Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, two books that would go on to be praised for what they did within their pages and criticized for what they would spawn in the comic industry.

The last couple of years has seen a cottage industry grow up around putting that older material back into print in everything from small digest books to oversized deluxe hardcovers that practically tell us what the creator had for breakfast the morning they thought of their brand new character. Here’s where the nostalgia part for me comes in because going back has been a mixed blessing of rediscovering great work or trying to figure out what I ever saw in a particular story, writer or artist. After 20 years, some work that seemed revolutionary and different now looks like the same old thing as we saw before, just with an updated paint job. Part of the problem of getting this older stuff reprinted is that we can now see all the tears and crinkles in the writing and the art.

For years, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! has existed as a book more legend than reality. As he has recently returned to comics, Chaykin’s new work either gets unfavorably compared to his older, more unseen work or is misunderstood with no context in which to place his artwork and storytelling. It’s difficult for new Chaykin readers to see what he’s doing or capable of without having the older stuff to compare it too. So the question is are those of us who remember his old stuff caught up in nostalgia or is American Flagg! truly a revolutionary work that’s influenced comics for the last twenty years?

Reuben Flagg, one time pop star- now Plex officer (think Elvis if he had stayed in the military,) discovers that his new assignment in Chicago isn’t going to be a cushy gig. First off, you need to understand what the Plex is and Chaykin doesn’t make it too easy. The Plex is a mixture of the police and the military turned into big business and politics. The Plex isn’t so much about civil service as it is about turning a profit and being in control. There is no government running Chicago; the Plex is pretty much all there is. Imagine what it would be like if Haliburton was the official security team/peace keeper of both North and South America.

Flagg himself is the quintessential Chaykin hero. He was both physically and characteristically the culmination of a number of characters that Chaykin has written and drawn before American Flagg! and almost every Chaykin leading man since has lived in Flagg’s shadow. Flagg spent a good portion of the 70s and early 80s working on swashbucklers like Iron Wolf, Cody Starbuck and The Scorpion. These characters were larger than life adventurers living in a fantasy world or a world ripped out of a James Bond novel. They were all heroes cut from the same cloth. But Reuben Flagg was something a bit different– he was older and more weary. As a television star playing Mark Sexus, Flagg had lived the swashbuckling life, albeit a fictional life. He was Iron Wolf in another life or at least an actor playing at being Iron Wolf. But thanks to technology, the celebrity life moved faster than Flagg could and eventually he became unnecessary and obsolete. And like we always do to our once favorite celebrities, he was discarded once something new and better came along. The first time we see our “hero,” he’s getting off of an interplanetary transport, tired and somewhat bored looking. Instead of jumping into action, all he wants to do is head off for bed somewhere. Flagg is the swashbuckler after the lights have gone down, everyone’s gone home and there’s no more crowd left to sing his praises.

In the first 14 issues, Chaykin never really explains how Flagg goes from being a television cop to being a real one and it’s not really needed. Chaykin plops Flagg down in the middle of Chicago, a city historically known for it’s corrupt and machine like politics. Chicago provides a solid background for American Flagg!, giving Chaykin’s story a solid, realistic setting and laying down a foundation of corruption and greed. The setting supports the story, adding a bit of color mostly from our associations of Chicago more than presenting any kind of recognizable Chicago. Chicago also grounds Flagg in a blue collar environment of industrious people with a strong work ethic and midwestern drive for survival. Maybe it’s because I’m from Chicago but I can recognize a bit of the real Chicago in Chaykin’s Chicago and I’ve always wondered where he got his portrayal of the city from.

From the wearied and tired beginning, Chaykin throws Flagg into a scheduled small, urban war. Every Saturday night, the local go-gangs go on the rampage at the same time every week, right after their favorite television show. Eventually Flagg discovers that the go-gangs fighting is tied into subliminal messages, pirate television stations, plots to buy Chicago and even the last king of England.

The strength of American Flagg! is how tightly it’s structured, telling a larger story in four smaller segments. Chaykin’s story is not an easy one to get through but it is immensely rewarding. The thing you’ve got to realize in most of Chaykin’s writing is that he’s a pretty smart guy and he doesn’t talk down to anyone. Chaykin is one of those cartoonists who’s only trying to please one person; himself. Luckily his tastes are broad enough that he’s not going to be the only person to enjoy American Flagg! but you may need to work at it a bit. He’s not writing an easy story but he demands a lot from his reader. He demands their attention and their involvement, something that’s rarely demanded of a comic fan. The Chaykin who was writing in the mid eighties was a tight scripter and plotter. There’s almost nothing in American Flagg! that’s a throwaway idea or bit of dialogue. Everything plays into the larger story of a civil revolution, whether it’s basketball in South America or even talking cats who are more on the ball than most of the human characters in the book.

The biggest strength in Chaykin’s storytelling is his ability to create a culture within his books. In the 1980s, all of Chaykin’s stories had a strong sense of time and space. In Flagg!, the idea that we “won” and that American culture is everywhere builds into the sense of unease and disallusionment back at home with that culture. Underground basketball is a huge sport but it’s illegal and persecuted back home where it practically originated. The idea of using popular and violent television to subliminally influence the street gangs creates the authoritarian rule that’s more comfortable with violence than with peace.

Today we still see the storng influence of Howard Chaykin and American Flagg! in books like Brian Wood’s DMZ and Matt Fraction’s Casanova. The influence doesn’t have to include the political and social commentaries that Chaykin was attempting but they do have to include the sheer depth and commitment to storytelling, to creating a immersive experience for the reader. Back in the 1980s, no one did that better than Howard Chaykin. After Flagg!, he’d go on to do the same thing in Blackhawk, The Shadow and Twilight (all for DC) but he pushed it the most in Time2, his First Comics followup. In that shortlived series, he built from the ground up a world where jazz, crime and magic played off of each other. Time2 may be the most Chaykin-esque of Chaykin’s work but it loses a bit of the accessibility and universality that was present in American Flagg! There’s a reason that since Flagg!, you can see a bit of Reuben Flagg in almost every Chaykin leading man; Flagg! defined Chaykin almost as much as Chaykin defined Flagg, the tired protagonist who does his duty because no one else can be bothered to.

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