In Steven Grant’s excellent appreciation of Howard Chaykin’s work last year, he articulated a bit of conventional wisdom that I want to take friendly issue with: That while the first year of Chaykin’s sci-fi satire American Flagg! is essential, the second year isn’t so much. Writes Grant,
Publishers and readers, understandably, like continuing characters. But this has distorted comics, as it has distorted pop fiction in most media: characters have become more important than the stories they’re in. But if any one thing characterizes Howard’s writing, it’s a basic understanding that characters only matter in a context, and that context is what we call story. There are fundamental differences between the first twelve issues—the first story—of AMERICAN FLAGG! and what comes after. The first story is a bravura feat of dazzling concentrated world-building that rivals WATCHMEN and matched by precious little else. It was clearly the AMERICAN FLAGG! story Howard wanted to tell. Later stories are good, easily the equal of anything else of the day, but there’s a remove apparent, as he broadens some characterizations and starts filling in the edges of Flagg’s world, and a sense that he had already said everything with it he was interested in saying.
Grant is right on to characterize the first year of Flagg! as a series of distinct arcs that cohere into a unified story. And yet, I can’t help but feel as though privileging the “12-issue-single-story” misses the point of what Chaykin was attempting with the series. I realize that Grant is privileging the first year because he thinks it’s better, but it does seem fair to say that he’s at least partly basing that judgment on the shape and structure of the narrative. However, as Chaykin remarked in interviews of the era, Flagg! was intended to some extent as a demonstration that a high level of formal and thematic sophistication could be achieved in the serial monthly format—that the monthly comic book didn’t have to be as creatively bankrupt as it usually is, that it could be worthwhile without being a “graphic novel.” I don’t want to argue that the second year of Flagg! is as great as the first year, but I do want to suggest that maybe its greatness is of a different sort, and that relegating it to secondary status because its monthly the-continued-adventures-of format doesn’t fit the One Big Story model means you miss out on some great stuff. For instance:
1. The uniforms of the People’s Range Riders. While the first year of Flagg! chronicled Reuben Flagg’s unsentimental education in the corruption and decadence of his future Chicago, the second year often sent him on the road. After a two-issue arc drawn by Jim Sherman and Pat Broderick, Chaykin’s return as both writer and artist with issue 15 finds Reuben on assignment to the Democratic People’s Prairie, a semi-lawless region in western Canada. Newly affiliated with the Plex, the DPP is still partly under the control of the People’s Range Riders, the private militia of the area’s big man, Karl Bullock—a Stalin-loving Robber Baron who owns the Soviet-themed fast food franchise Karl’s Big Komrade. In his construction of an iconography for a Wild West Soviet Canada, Chaykin demonstrates his gift for world-building through subtle and stylish handling of mise-en-scene—as with the uniforms of the PRR.
I really wish someone would make this shirt for me so I could be Communist Cowboy for Haloween this year. Seriously.
2. Formal Flair. As the series progressed, Chaykin generally eschewed the eye-popping layouts of the early issues, preferring instead a visual style that was still densely layered and design-conscious but was in relative terms more economical. Still, Chaykin introduces some nifty formal features in year two. One favorite is the use of overlapping panels to chronicle the seconds-split evolution of a character’s reaction from “Wha?” to “Whoa!”
Positioning the chronologically latest moment to the right but at the “bottom” of the stack of images is a nice touch: Physically crowding the panel somehow conveys a sense of urgency and panic. I can’t say for sure that Chaykin pioneered this, but I wouldn’t be surprised; in some ways it puts me in mind of Frank Quitely’s innovative We3 page designs.
3. Splash Pages. On the subject of visual flair: Chaykin often used splashes for his title pages in this era of Flagg!, and I’ve always been really taken with this beautifully composed page from issue 16:
The three tiers that form a pyramid, the non-diegetic musical notation for the song that’s playing that separates the first two tiers, the way that the having the boy on the left just out of frame suggests a broader and more expansive scene—just nicely done. This is my favorite, but several of the title splashes are similarly accomplished.
4. Reuben Flagg, Adequate Lover. Flagg gets laid a lot. The fact that he and all the other characters in the series have active sex lives was something that set the series apart from its mainstream contemporaries. The book took some heat in its first year for this: It seemed that every woman in the series wanted to throw herself at Flagg, a trend that some readers found unrealistic and others found offensive. But Flagg’s desirability wasn’t just macho wish-fulfillment; it was a central part of the story and of his characterization. Flagg was, after all, a hugely popular TV star on a racy action soap who suddenly found himself amongst ordinary mortals: of course people are going to want to jump his bones. In the second year of the series, Chaykin pushed this concept to its logical next step: As the novelty of Flagg’s presence wore off, some women no longer saw sex with him as an end but as a means. Ken Bruzenak’s playful word balloons are key to the humor in this scene from issue 19 between Flagg and Mandy Krieger. Earlier in the series, Mandy was so overcome with lust that she had to take a break from her father’s murder investigation to climb into the sack with Flagg; now she wants his endorsement in her bid for Chicago mayor and thinks the quickest way to his mouth is through his pants.
In issue 20, Chaykin further deflates Flagg’s sex-symbol status when his tryst with fellow ranger Bullets Kisco draws a merely positive, as opposed to thoroughly ecstatic, review. Flagg’s insecurity and petulance here is key to keeping his character grounded in reality:
5. Stagolee DeLyons. So . . . the antagonist of the “Bullets and Ballots” arc (issues 19-22) is a black pimp named Stagolee who runs a brothel of white women? Really, Chaykin? Man, doesn’t that just affirm every racist cliche in the book? Well, yes it does: Because Stagolee DeLyons is really a white fugitive named Roy Magruder using holographic technology to lie low and live out his sexual fantasies by remaking himself into the cartoonish stereotype of his sweaty and shameful dreams. It’s a smart and funny take on the ways in which images of blackness function in popular culture and the role that fantasies of blackness play in constructions of white masculinity.
(It’s probably worth taking some time to think about Flagg! and race at some point: Strategically exploiting stereotypes of blackness is a motif running throughout the second year of the series. For instance, one of the antagonists of the Democratic People’s Prairie storyline is Claude/Colonel Saitoti, who poses as Karl Bullock’s servile and ignorant butler but is in reality an operative for the Pan-African League. In the future of American Flagg!, most African nations have come together under the banner of international communism.)
6. “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” Chaykin’s final arc on the book (#23-26) as writer and artist is an overstuffed gem, veering crazily from humor to sentiment to action but never letting off the gas. It’s also a good example of how the long-running serial format allowed Chaykin to accumulate a rich store of material that could be deployed and referenced in complex ways to add depth and resonance to the immediate plot. Characters from the early issues return (or seem to) in surprising ways, as does one of the series’ central themes: Authenticity and the blurry line between simulation and reality. Issues 15-26 of Flagg! don’t read as a single unified story the way that issues 1-12 do, and this final arc wouldn’t make much sense if you hadn’t read the whole series thus far. It doesn’t get its juice from being One Big Story; rather, it gets it from pulling together and improvising on and adding to bits and pieces of other stories, refashioning them into something new with the understanding that someone else is going to come along and pull them apart and put them back together again in yet again another form.
Finally, I love this cover for issue 26. Although it’s not the last cover Chaykin would do for the series, it’s clearly a “farewell” cover, nodding to Casablanca and, I’d be willing to bet, Milton Caniff’s final installment of Terry and the Pirates before leaving the strip to other hands:
So far only the first twelve issues of American Flagg! have been collected. (No surprise, you can either buy them in two volumes for $20 apiece or in one volume for $50. Sigh.) Get them, read them, and then head over to your local store or someplace like mycomicshop.com, where you can get the whole second year for about a dollar an issue if you’re not picky about condition. Well worth it.