World Comic Book Review

4th February 2023

Happy 40th birthday, American Flagg!

Creator: Howard Chaykin

First Comics, 1983-1988

The calendar has now slipped over to 2023, which gives us an immediate and overly enthusiastic excuse to look back to 1983 as an anniversary year. By any measure, 1983 was a remarkably creative year for American comic books. For those of us old enough to remember, 1983 saw the following new titles and characters: Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld; the first appearance of the ultimately doomed Jason Todd as Batman’s new sidekick, Robin; Frank Miller’s Ronin; a radically antisocial change for Batman with the launch of Batman and the Outsiders; Walt Simonson’s acclaimed debut on Thor with the introduction of Beta Ray Bill; and Chris Claremont’s disturbing The New Mutants spin-off miniseries entitled Magik: Storm and Illyana. We hope to get to each of these titles in due course throughout the year.

But today we look at the major consequence of the establishment of First Comics in 1983. First Comics was the Image Comics of its day: an outlier featuring popular talent seeking to challenge the incumbent American comic book monoliths, DC Comics and Marvel Comics. (First Comics continues today, albeit with punctuations in business and in a very low profile way.)

In 1983, First Comics began publishing four new titles, E-Man, Jon Sable: Freelance, Warp!, and American Flagg!. This last title, American Flagg! was created by veteran writer and artist Howard Chaykin. It was amazingly popular, given its adult themes and deeply satirical humour. At the 1984 Eagle Awards, the United Kingdom’s pre-eminent comics awards, Mr Chaykin and American Flagg! won seven awards. American Flagg! also won the 1983 Comics Buyer’s Guide Fan Award for Favorite Comic Book, and tied for the 1983 CBG Award for Favorite Character – the lead protagonist, Reuben Flagg.

The title contained many sexual themes, assisted by a plot twist that before becoming a law enforcement officer, Reuben Flagg had been a famous pornography star in a television series called Mark Thrust, Sexus Ranger. American Flagg! in some regards was a springboard for Mr Chaykin’s must more explicit title Black Kiss, published three years later. But whereas Black Kiss was positively X-rated, and contained extremely violent sexual scenes, American Flagg! merely titillated. It was highly suggestive and racy, but never actually crossed the line into the depiction of sex.

American Flagg! was set in a dystopian, consumerist future. Mr Chaykin postulated that in 1993 both the United States and the Soviet Union had imploded and had been smoothly replaced (long before BRICS) by the right-wing Brazilian Union and Communist Pan African League, with Britain as a vassal state, as geopolitical super powers. The US government became the Plex – a merger between government and industry, which cynically relocated to Mars to avoid ecological and civil disintegration back in North America.

Flagg himself had the genial temperament and intelligence of a highly sexed Labrador retriever. He was an opportunistic character, never missing a chance to be seduced by his very many female admirers. He also was not much of a cop, starting his career at Chicago Plexmall as a “deputy ranger” of the police force called the Plexus Rangers.

Perhaps this best explains how Flagg became a politician. By issue 50 (set in the year 2031), Flagg had instigated a coup d’etat over the Plex and installed himself as President of the United States. Flagg thereafter detached the US state of Illinois from the United States to run it as a benevolent tyrant. Flagg’s rule was bland. Incessant messages to members of the public about good behaviour and social mindedness eventually cause a rebellion (lead by his fellow cop, named Medea Blitz). By that stage, Flagg had found himself back in law enforcement but based in Russia.

Other characters were very colourful. Raul was a ginger tomcat inexplicably capable of talking and operating cybernetic gloves, and later becomes the drug addicted Mayor of Chicago. (Raul gets some of the best lines in the series.) Jules “Deathwish” Folquet was the captain of the Skokie Skullcrushers basketball team. By 2031, basketball is a violent sport involving melee and projectile weapons. At the end of the second series (and more on that below), Jules eventually, improbably becomes Pope (replacing a murdered clone of Elvis Presley), and presides over Flagg’s equally improbable wedding. Goofy slapstick comes in the form of robot Plexus Ranger Luther Ironheart (whose head is actually a hologram) and Russian Plexus Ranger Yuri Kholyakov.

The second series which came into existence in March 1988, called Howard Chaykin’s Amerikan Flagg!, in our view was a much tighter and funnier production than the first series. It was limited to twelve issues (something that was not obvious until the last page of the last issue).

American Flagg! was deeply cynical about American society. Like all good science fiction, it projected forward contemporary themes. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States when American Flagg! was published, and the title takes Regan’s uber-patriotism to an extreme – the symbolism of the American flag is hard to avoid throughout the two series. On Reagan’s war on drugs, we have Somnabutol, a recreational drug used by what seems to most of the population of the Plex (“like a wet dream without the hot parts”) and in greater doses used for riot control. On right wing extremism, we have The American Survivalist Labor Committee (ASLC). On violence in society, Firefight All Night is exalted “the highest rated vidshow on three planets” and also Bob Violence (we see some of Bob Violence as a back-up story in Howard Chaykin’s Amerikan Flagg! and it is outrageously funny). On reality TV, we have a series called Interspecies Romances (“Tonight — a man, a woman… and a duck.”) The setting is otherwise characterised by subliminal advertising, militarised police, and constant surveillance (by floating inverted pyramids). It seems positively prophetic with the benefit of hindsight.

Mr Chaykin was not consistently the artist for the series (he left the title for half a year, returning to wrap up the first series and drive the second series). But Mr Chaykin’s art on the title was a draw card. It was highly innovative. Mr Chaykin used a fussy chemical process involving doubletone illustration boards which added graphite/charcoal pattern textures to the art. These could make a landscape scene look gritty, but Mr Chaykin also used it extensively for shadowing. Mr Chaykin also used television screens as panels as narrative, well prior to Frank Miller’s famous use of this technique in The Dark Knight Returns in 1986.

In 2017, Deadline reported https://deadline.com/2017/09/europacorp-acquires-american-flagg-comic-book-series-television-development-1202176052/ that EuropaCorp TV Studios had acquired the rights to turn American Flagg! into a television series. This sadly has never evolved.

In a final wordless scene in the twelfth issue of Howard Chaykin’s Amerikan Flagg!, we witness Flagg’s middle-aged future: an overweight and surly Flagg doing the dishes, being yelled at by his wife, and tormented by his young, completely out-of-control children. Nostalgie de la boue? Happy 40th birthday, American Flagg!