American Flagg! 1-6
Medium: comic
Year: 1983
Writer/artist: Howard Chaykin
Format: 6 issues + 1 prologue = 192 pages
Website category: Comics
Review date: 26 July 2021
American Flagg! was important and award-winning in the 1980s, but today it feels like a bit of a historical artefact. I read it. I wasn't sure what it was looking at. I wouldn't call it bad, but it's a bit baffling and it's unclear what it's trying to do. I'm not reviewing the full 50-issue saga, incidentally, but only the 2008 graphic novel with the start of the series.
It's set in 2031 (which today has become only ten years in the future) and its hero is a former TV star called Reuben Flagg. After being replaced by a hologram in his signature role as Mark Thrust Sexus Ranger, he's joined the Plexus Rangers and emigrated to Chicago, Earth. Here, he works as a cop, has lots of sex and gets involved in sleazy cases.
What comes across most strongly is Chaykin's view of the future. It's very 1980s and cyberpunk, with perhaps a dash of Vengeance on Varos and/or RoboCop. (But it predates both of them.) There's lots of vapid, dirty media. Lots of screens, with content that speaks of a sick society. Sports are illegal, but daily riots are televised and there's a lottery for betting on today's body count. There's lots of porn and sex, yet apparently children aren't being born. (Dunno why. Maybe it's explained later in the series?)
There are prostitutes, politicians, Nazis, the IRA, Brazil, basketball, illegal video tapes (not discs), etc. It's a pungent world. The cynicism is through the roof, with a near-Orwellian dictatorship (the Plex) running America for its own profit. It's still a vivid setting even today, hitting close to home despite having become (for us) a near-future series. (In this universe, 1996 was the "year of dominos" where everything went to hell.) Being set in a real city (Chicago) also adds punch.
Flagg himself isn't heroic, but he has some idealism and he doesn't like the Plex. Inheriting Q-USA is where things get interesting. Overthrowing the government is an option that crosses his mind, although of course that's for the future, he reflects.
The plot's direction is unclear. Flagg's just doing his job and having sex, mostly. This collection makes more narrative sense if you keep telling yourself that it's just six issues of a monthly series. Grimy stuff happens. Flagg shows a cockroach-like talent for survival. We're exploring the world, really, not following a hero's journey.
The art's distracting. Chaykin uses lots of pixelation shading, which is a technique you just don't see today. It looks odd, frankly, not even resembling other comics that theoretically used a similar technique. Chaykin's also a good penciller and a bold designer, with unconventional page and panel compositions. The colouring, though, is crude and very 1983.
It's full of ideas, playing with SF, sleaze and social parody. There's a talking cat called Raul and a war between the Judeo-Christian moralists and the Lesion Legion, because they both want to be on TV. There's also some explosive dialogue. It's a dense, high-impact series and I'm not surprised that Chaykin says it knocked him sideways. "I was still a smoker and a drinker at the time. And [the output was such that] I'd never done anything like that before, and it was insane. It just devoured my life [and] I had no assistants. I didn't know how to work with an assistant at that point, and it was a very difficult process... I was trying to do a fairly high-quality product and I didn't want to slough it off."
It stands out, but I don't know if I'd recommend it. It's a curiosity. Something to dip into, perhaps, instead of reading in one sitting.
UPDATE
This review got some replies, e.g.
"It was such a shock when it came out. It was part of this wave that included Elfquest, Cerebus, Nexus, and the like. It's really hard to describe how big a deal it was if you weren't there."
I can easily imagine that. Flagg feels like something from another planet compared with 1983 Marvel or DC. I was thinking of reviewing some 1980s Marvel on Friday. Claremont writes Wolverine. I like both Claremont and Wolverine, but it barely even feels like the same medium as Flagg. Standard Marvel art, family-friendly content (and their idea of pushing the envelope is revealing in itself), Claremont's "choked to death with thought balloons" style, etc.
For the 1980s North American comics industry, the titles you cite would have been revolutionary. (Well, I haven't read Nexus. But I know the others.)
For me with these reviews, though, I've been hopping around different continents and eras a lot. I'm aware of that specific context, but breaking it doesn't have the same impact for me.