There’s a number of comics out there in the history of comic land which have slipped down the back of history’s sofa to be lost, or at the very least, not having the place in history they deserve. So That’s Not Current and myself have conjoined to bring to light those comics which should be sitting on your shelves or your long boxes. First up is what I’d consider to be one of the all-time greats.
Ask people what was a transformational, influential comic from the 1980’s they’ll mention Frank Miller’s Dark Knight or Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen. They’ll possibly throw in Art Spiegleman’s Maus, maybe at a push Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil, but very, very few will mention Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! Published by First Comics in 1983.
Chaykin was an artist who back in 1983, and even today is best known for his work on drawing the Star Wars comic for Marvel Comics, which is a pity as it really isn’t his best work, and certainly isn’t of the quality of American Flagg!. By 1983 Chaykin was an interesting creator but nothing spectacular which Flagg! certainly was as from the very first issue. But this wasn’t what a comic fan of the time would expect.
Centred round Reuben Flagg, a Plexus Ranger (part of future America’s corporate police force) in the year 2031 where the USA is a dystopia: corporations govern, democracy is worthless, and the country has retreated into Plexmalls, giant cities run by the government in absence, The Plex, who are now governing from Mars yet are still able to control the people thanks to their Plexus Rangers, as well as how they manipulate the media which they control 100%. Thrown into this mix was Flagg, the son of a TV star who starred in the semi-pornographic Mark Thrust: Sexus Ranger who was rendered redundant thanks to computer technology, hence him becoming a Ranger.
From the first issue Chaykin had built up a realistic future world of corporate governments, technology only dreamed of in 1983 but eventually common place, street gangs, and conspiracy with a good dose of satire, violence and sex – lots and lots of sex. Astonishing amounts if you’d been brought up on the Comics Code approved Marvel or DC titles where it seemed characters only barely had genitals, and a sex drive was unthinkable.
American Flagg! was utterly unlike anything published at the time outwith of strips in say, Heavy Metal or the then nascent alternative comics scene of which First Comics made themselves the leaders very quickly. With a roster of comics consisting of titles Marvel or DC would even think of publishing, and with a market of readers who were perhaps ageing or outgrowing superhero comics, First Comics found their market quickly with American Flagg! being their biggest critical and commercial hit.
The first twelve issues form a single story in which Chaykin, as well as letter Ken Bruzenak and colourist Lynn Varley (who’d go on to work with Frank Miller on The Dark Knight) used the medium like no comic really had published in the American mainstream until then. The use of colour as well as page design was astonishing and is still ahead of its time.
These were science fiction comics without any giant monsters, spaceships (well, one or two maybe) or the trappings of comic book science fiction whose rules had been set in stone by EC Comics three decades previously. This was a comic dripping with contemporary satire which took on Ronald Reagan’s America and the increasingly commercialised, corporate society Regan was building – as well as carving out a bloody great story with a cast of often bizarre characters (Raul the talking hyper-intelligent cat remains a personal favourite) who also sounded like human beings rather than comic characters.
If some of this sounds familiar then you’ve probably seen Robocop, which owes much to American Flagg!, especially in it’s use of the media as a tool to satirise as much as driving on the narrative.
The first 12 issues of American Flagg! are as good as Watchmen, Dark Knight or anything published in the 1980’s. In terms of breaking new ground with comic book design, if it’d not existed Miller’s work post-Daredevil would look vastly different. Watchmen wouldn’t look the same, there would be no Robocop, Warren Ellis wouldn’t be writing smart SF comics a decade later and multiple artists wouldn’t have something to rip off. This is a comic that’s vitally important.
After the twelfth issue Chaykin carried on, but the stories didn’t have the same energy or bite, plus the sex and violence just seemed to be there for the sake of it rather than driving on a speeding narrative. After issue 30 Chaykin left and the series declined rapidly into a pale shadow of what it once was, and although Chaykin returned in issue 46, it wasn’t quite the same.
American Flagg! was finally cancelled in 1989. First Comics themselves went out of business in 1991, no longer the leader in alternative comics having seen the market boom in the late 80’s. Although they printed some astonishing work, much of it is barely remembered by readers today. However, American Flagg! in those first dozen issues are some of the most important, and essential comics you will own or read. Popular culture and the world of comics would look very different without Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!.
Getting hold of the comic though is easier than it used to be. There are collected editions as well as digital editions on Comixology, or if you want that authentic comic smell, back issues aren’t that hard or expensive to get. I do recommend spending the time and money to sit down and read one of the best runs of a comic book in the history of the medium. You will not be disappointed, and you owe it to yourself as a fan to discover one of the most important comic book runs of its era.