Turned on to this first collection of Howard Chaykin’s indie comic from the mid 1980s by Warren Ellis’s Orbital Operations newsletter — a weekly periodical which you might enjoy subscribing to, I should aside, if you enjoy reading this blog. Ellis named American Flagg! as a personally formative comic, and with that in mind one definitely can read it as a direct progenitor of Ellis’s own Transmetropolitan, following the adventures of a cranky man and his pretty-lady sidekicks pushing back against a searingly corrupt science-fictional America.
I loved, loved Chaykin’s use of the full page in this book, over and over. I wrote last month of my appreciation for creative page layouts and panel shapes in the webcomic Drop-Out, and I re-apply that praise here, multiplied a hundredfold. Nearly every page serves as a fresh lesson in what a comics artist can do with a rectangular sheet besides laying down a grid of lesser rectangles to lawnmower through.
Chaykin seems especially drawn to the technique of repetition, punching in a lot of little near-identical images side-by-side for a variety of purposes, here emphasizing a tiny change in detail over time or over subject, there literally depicting a bank of TV monitors all showing the same leering face in duplicate. Despite its very nature, the technique doesn’t feel overused here, but rather fits in quite nicely with the setting’s particular sort of worn-out electronic dystopia, a world suffering from terminal phosphor burn-in.*
And the text effects! Chaykin makes it a living thing within the artwork. There’s a bit where a bad guy reminds Flagg of a hands-off bribe by winking at him, with the sound effect WINK!. This offends Flagg, who glares back with silent fury as he makes a snap decision to invalidate their agreement, and this generates the text NO! in big red letters with Flagg’s burning eye in the O. (This doubles as a full-stop to a row of Chaykin-style film-strip panels to its left reading STATUS QUO repeatedly.) This sort of thing happens all throughout the collection and I love it.
The art within those layouts and among that text is pretty good, with plenty of features that can’t escape seeming archaic today. Chaykin shades everything with Very Eighties Stippling — hand-rendered dot-fields poked into every fold of skin or dark corner. I didn’t realize how deeply this technique bespeaks a very specific time-and-place within American comics until seeing it again here. (It makes me think of a big cache of late-80s fanzines I somehow obtained in college, their Xeroxed content all from kids trying to better understand the weird indie comics they loved by slavishly imitating them, and: stippling, everywhere.) The coloring, flat and garish, often seems to disagree with the shading, and this too may look familiar to any modern comics reader perusing older work.
Chaykin also shows here a strange hesitancy to draw any internal structures of womens’ mouths. That may sound like a strange thing for me to pick out, and indeed it took me several pages before I noticed how it bothered me. All his male characters get detailed teeth and tongues when they speak, but all his women tend to have only blank white fields between their (invariably lushly drawn) lips. I recognize that’s a known visual trope suggesting glamour, especially in older comics, but it still looks kinda weird. By the same token, though, I note that all the men wear pointed dress-shoes with their suspendered trousers cinched up to their ribcages, so from where I stand it’s hard to tell whether all this involves intentional callbacks to visual styles already considered vintage in the 1980s.
If the story of American Flagg! didn’t necessarily make much of an impression on me, it may be due to the overabundance of fallen-America comics that came in its wake, including Transmetropolitan and The Dark Knight Returns. Beyond that, so much feels a bit rushed, and I feel unsure how much comes from Chaykin’s practicing an admirable level of self-restraint against over-exposition, and how much comes from the artist’s drive to draw his own American dystopia overcoming any patience for fully fleshing out all its ideas. I picked up the book expecting some good ol’ Regan-era social critque, and it talks a good talk, with its main character serving in a corporate-owned nationalized army protecting a shopping mall in the middle of a ceaseless terrorist uprising. But we end up seeing so little of the world beyond the speaking-role characters and their immediate surroundings that none of that background really gets a chance to define itself properly.
Ellis warned that much the book would seem problematic to a modern audience, and even the collection’s contemporary preface, written by Michael Moorcock, winced parenthetically at its sexism. I lowered my expectation-goggles accordingly. For all that, though, the story struck me with its unrelenting sex-positivity, even if within its narrow band of male-fantasy heteronormativity. Ladies young and old fling themselves at Flagg — himself a retired porn star — and he tends to cheerfully and immediately agree to every such proposal, making no larger fuss than if someone offered him half their sandwich. Nobody acts particularly suave in these exchanges, and one gets the impression Flagg goes along with it out more out of politeness than anything else. Other clues in the text suggest that Chaykin meant in part to portray this promiscuity as widespread and symptomatic of a decadent culture, Brave New World-style, but the consistent lack of regrets shown by all parties (combined with the ill-defined background) just make this whole aspect just seem far more optimistic than ironic or dreadful.
Honestly, I felt truly uncomfortable only during a scene that established the titular hero’s no-bullshit creds with the reader by having him assault a nosy reporter and beat him unconscious. I can imagine that such fantasies had a certain appeal to readers in the depths of the Reagan years that don’t at all resemble the heart palpitations they bring to one teetering within Trump’s reality. This is not the fault of the comic book.
* Now that I write this out, I also think of Chris Ware’s work in Jimmy Corrigan starting in the 1990s — using very much the same trick to describe his characters’ static, pathetic worlds, and also very much informed by a 20th century culture delivered to everyone at 25 frames per second.