American Flagg! volumes 1 & 2 review
An eighties comic strip turns out to have peculiar resonance for our own era...
One of the most innovative American comic book artists of the 80s, Howard Chaykin revolutionised the world of superheroes alongside contemporaries such as Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons.
After working with the two main companies, Marvel and DC, he was instrumental in initiating a new independent publisher, First, which intended to give support to creator-owned projects and allowed far more creative freedom.
His most enduring series is American Flagg!, a savagely broad satire on modern American media and politics, which also mixes western/ thriller/ sci-fi traditions into a refreshingly original blend.
First launched in 1983, Titan Books have now released the initial 14 groundbreaking issues in two newly-remastered volumes. Even thought it was created at the start of the 80s, its subject seems to be uncomfortably prophetic and poignant in our mass-media, reality TV-obsessed times with cameras intruding on our lives.
Set in 2031, in the wake of global disasters, the US Government has relocated to Mars alongside all the major corporations. Collectively they’ve formed the Plex, which oversees all commerce and government. In their absence the Plexus Rangers have been left on Earth to act as a militia of law enforcers.
Former TV star Reuben Flagg trades his Ranger role for the real thing as he takes on the protection of Chicago, which as become a vast shopping mall with luxury apartments but surrounded by drugs and poverty, with battling against both media and political corruption on all kinds of economic and environmental fronts in need of a military presence to maintain order.
A large cast of characters slide in and out of intrigue, scams or scandals, as well as in and out of bed with each other. Some of them fight for the good guys flawed though they may be. Others appear to be the bad guys but change their allegiances halfway through, and there are individuals who never escape the badge of villainy…
These include Chief Ranger Hilton Krieger and his daughter Mandy, a talking cat called Raul; Mayor Blitz and his wayward daughter, rebel turned ranger, Medea.
Other Rangers include Crystal Gayle Marakova and android deputy, Luthor Ironside. With Love Canal adultentertainment hostess, Gretchen Holstrum, adding a lustful edge to proceedings and ambitiously manipulative Ester de la Cristo offering a more dangerous femme fatale role, we also meet the heir apparent to the British throne, William Windsor Jones, an IT expert with a name uncannily ahead of its time.
What does become clear, however, is that these are fully fleshed-out individuals, more complex than their surface caricatures suggest – no-one is quite who they seem. Flagg, for example, is a Plexus Ranger but was once an actor playing former sexual adventurer Mark Thrust. Medea is a poor little rich girl whose rebellious streak is tempered by a newly granted sense of responsibility but she also turns out to be Mandy’s half-sister. Desiree, the Brazilian ambassador’s daughters leads a double life as strict mistress Veronika, and blousy Gretchen harbours a tragic secret which even she is unaware of.
Whilst the media dominates the life of the Plex and the tone of the comic, there’s a a developed sense of political intrigue to the machinations of the Plex and its corporate domination of the globe, willing to buy and sell States as well as damage Chicago itself with profit in mind. Politically we learn that the nations have forged new super alliances – the Peoples’ Republic of Great Britain and Irish Republican Army, the Brazilian Union of Americas, and Pan-African League.
Names too have become hybrid offspring of Spanish, European and Russian. The globe has become a real cross-gender, multi-racial society.
The first volume reveals Flagg’s initial challenge in Hard Times to bring the gogang violence under control, but the discovery of inciteful subliminals leads to investigating their Brazilian source in Southern Comfort, of the secret of pirate TV station, Q-USA, a threat from paramilitary group, A.S.L.C. (American Survivalist Labor Committee) and reunion with an old college colleague and Nazi sympathiser, Ivor Overholt.
The woes continues in Volume 2 when the effects of a rogue weather satellite wreak wintry havoc in State Of Union before the surprising return of Ranger Scheiskopf, presumed dead in Volume 1, brings threats of revenge to Flagg and betrayal in Solidarity: For Now! with the A.S.L.C. threatening to destabilise the Plex. The story concludes with additionally shocking revelations about Gretchen’s past.
Chaykin has perfectly realised his future world complete with a large, colourful cast. His artwork bursts with information and detail. The variety of panel framing gives the story more energy and vitality, with smaller images overlapping larger ones just like in our busy multi-media world we assimilate whole snatches of sound or vision, allowed creatuve freedom
Considering this was created nearly three decades ago, American Flagg! feels fresher than ever, especially with recent world economic collapse, bankrupt corporations and media intrusion. The stories are filled with cynicism and anger tempered by salacious humour. The complexity of his world is shaped by each subsequent issue, sharpened and elaborated as Flagg gets to grip with his new role, uncorruptible as a lawman but always giving in to his carnal desires.
Chaykin’s deft interweaving of events and characters finds it rewards as the story unfolds over the densely plotted volumes with a visionary adult level to the fantasy in both themes and its narrative with the sex and the violence an integral part of the adventures.
Despite the ironical name, American Flagg! is not concerned with patriotic flag waving but more a intelligent, state of the nation critique that is unnervingly revealing the state of things to come. Saucy and sobering in equal measures. Bojemoi!