Today marks the end of superhero month here at Screenage Wasteland, and I gotta admit: I’m not the biggest fan of the genre. If superheroes were sex—on second thought, let’s not use that analogy. In fact, never mind the analogies. Let’s just say I like my superhero stuff weird.
Batman is cool. Iron Man and Spider-Man are fun. But eventually that shit gets repetitive. I don’t mind when art fails to be good, but I have no patience for boring.
So when I stumble onto something in the genre that strays from the formula, I give it a chance. Sometimes that pays off, sometimes if doesn’t.
I’m not sure if Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! pays off necessarily, but I feel pretty confident in saying that it wasn’t a waste of time.
According to the introduction of the 2008 Image reprint by novelist Michael Chabon, readers should be very impressed by Howard Chaykin’s pedigree. According to Chabon, American Flagg! influenced Dave Gibbons’ and Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
I have to be honest here: when I found American Flagg! at my local used book store, I had never heard of it. The cover and the name grabbed me. I figured it was either pro-American propaganda or anti-American propaganda. I was interested either way, and after a quick look at the art, I was sold.
Chabon’s point is obvious within the first few pages. I got my copy of TDKR out and compared the two books side by side. Chaykin’s experimentation with page design and panel layout clearly inspired Miller’s book, and both Watchmen and TDKR share clear thematic elements with Flagg!, which predates both books by three years.
The story follows the exploits of Reuben Flagg, a former actor who has been drafted into the Plexus Rangers (the police force of what’s left of the corporatized American government on Earth) and transferred to the Chicago Plexmall to replace existing head Ranger Hammerhead Krieger’s fallen partner. Flagg is an idealist. He believes in the American dream, and despite some clear initial misgivings, he throws himself into his new work with zeal and earnestness. He quickly finds out how corrupt earthside America in 2031 is, but he’s undeterred.
Flagg spends the bulk of the book trying to uncover a conspiracy to embed subliminal messages into television programming that he believes is causing rival factions of gangs to attack the Plexmall at exactly the same day and time each week.
That’s the basic plot.
First and foremost, American Flagg! is a dystopia. The consumerist, corporate-dominated, drug-addled, and hyper-sexualized future it depicts is thematically similar to the fictional futures of both Watchmen and TDKR (not to mention the novel Neuromancer and the film Blade Runner). But where the settings of these other, more well-known works are dark and gritty, visually representing the rot eating away at their respective fictional societies, Flagg! presents a brightly lit, boldly colored world that is a stark contrast to the dreary aesthetic that would eventually come to define the dystopia in popular culture.
Flagg!’s more showy setting feels incongruous at first. We know things are fucked up (not the least of which because Chabon tells us they are in the introduction), but it’s less obvious why they’re fucked up. Characters are selfish and lack any kind of moral compass, but the world itself doesn’t seem overtly dystopian in the way that we have been conditioned to understand dystopias. Aside from glimpses of the inner city where the rival gangs operate, there’s no obvious urban decay. No poverty. No disease. Even most of the violence seems to have no real consequences. The Rangers use rubber bullets on the marauding gangs, with Krieger quipping that the gang members “are taxpayers”.
If anything, what ails the 2031 America of American Flagg! more than anything is apathy and boredom (sounds familiar). The characters seem to have few real worries. They are seemingly motivated only by greed and their most base desires. Reuben Flagg is, of course, the exception to this.
In my first read through, I wasn’t sure what to take away from the book. What was the point? What’s it saying about the world it postulates?
I reread the book for this review, and after thinking about it some more, I think I was missing the obvious.
American Flagg! is a book set in the future, but it’s not a prediction. It’s a reflection. Specifically of the 1980s. Which is impressive when you consider that its initial run began in 1983. It’s easy for culture critics to look back from 2021 and deem the 1980s a culture hollowed out by greed and superficiality, but at the beginning of that decade, it would have been less obvious to anyone experiencing it. The earliest example I can think of that portrayed a similar future dystopia that was also a commentary on the 1980s is Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop. But that film came out in 1987. The decade was almost over, and the zeitgeist pretty firmly established at that point.
American Flagg!’s got quirkiness to spare. The illustrations are crisp. The colors, vivid 80s pop. The page design inventive. The combined effect creates the impression of motion and depth. The plotting and pacing are clumsy at times, and it’s not always clear where Chaykin wants it all to go, but the book is packed with interesting ideas. There’s some meat on the bones for the world-weary adult who has aged out of the villain-of-the-week formula.
I can honestly say that I’m glad I gave this a second read. I knew I would. I don’t keep books I don’t think I’ll reread. But I still don’t love it. And that’s actually ok with me. I can see the value in the book. In its ideas. In the ground it broke. It’s not perfect and I’m not sure if its narrative issues are what have relegated the book to near obscurity or if it was the fact that the book wasn’t published by one of the big two comics publishers at the time. Which in and of itself is interesting, because I can’t help but wonder if DC would have taken the risk of publishing books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns if First Comics hadn’t taken a risk on Chaykin and American Flagg! first.
So, should you read American Flagg!? Yes. Without a doubt, you should read the book. Not the least of which because, if you are a regular reader here, you obviously have the refined tastes to appreciate a book like this (heh), but also because, whether you end up loving it or hating it, I honestly don’t think you’ll be bored by it, and it will only enrich your understanding of other, more well-known cultural touchstones.
Besides, the next time you’re at a party and overhear some nerd going on about the importance of Watchmen or TDKR, you can stroll over, push up your glasses and say “Yeah, but have you heard of American Flagg!?”
Who am I kidding? Nerds don’t go to parties.