Originally published August 02nd 2009

American Flagg Vol. 1

Review written by Rachel Wild

In the works for four years, and out of print for many many more, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg is now available as a trade paperback. Volumes 1 and 2 collect the first 12 issues, lovingly re-packaged and re-mastered for a new comics reading generation who are starting to care about 80s comics again. On the surface, the colours and lineart style will be familiar to those who have read Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns, but look a bit deeper and you’ll see carefully crafted art, typography and a story that is very different and quite literally other-worldly. Even though it’s nearly three decades old, the aesthetic is so futuristic it’s barely aged at all (except for the earrings maybe, always a giveaway in comics of that era).  

The (lengthy and slightly gushing) foreword from Michael Chabon describes Chaykin’s layout to be no less than ‘revolutionary’.

Whilst this is usually a cue for cynicism, the layout and page design in American Flagg really does have tricks you haven’t seen before.

Although you can clearly see its influence on shifting modern comics away from the 9 panel grid, the style itself hasn’t really been replicated since (at least not widely). This is possibly because it has a tendency to pack in so much information that its hard to take it all in at once, but there are so many little details foreshadowing and anticipating future twists that, once you read on a little further, suddenly the ‘Gogang’ countdown makes perfect sense. Looking back again, you realise that there is no other way than pure design that this nugget of story could have been conveyed better.  

So, the story: well, it’s future dystopian, Space opera goodness, much in the vein of Firefly/Serenity or cult anime, Cowboy Bebop. The weird talking cat feels oddly out of place and puts you off your step as you journey into this world, but at least it has the meta-consciousness that the eponymous Flagg acknowledges what we’re all thinking, and before you know it the cat (his name is Raul) has become a remarkably sympathetic key character.

Just like all good space operas, it’s dirty, sexy, vicious, scandalously political but generally with a (questionably) good heart. Our star of the show, (or should that be ex- star, retired from a life of showbiz and dropped into the murky world of reality), Reuben Flagg, is a Captain Mal-type who’ll have sex with anyone who looks at him, uses rampaging warlords to dispose of enemies rather than killing them out right, but somehow remains to be entirely heroic. On a sci-drama  tip you’ve got genetically modified, subliminally-influenced gang warfare, illicit pirate basketball stations and a whole host of corporate corruption, but for the soap fans there are all the family ties and the inevitable complications, history and intrigue. If they made a film of American Flagg (which surely can’t be far off, they must be running out of comics to adapt to the big screen by now) it’d be a) better than Watchmen and b) soundtracked by Muse. Think Dallas crossed with Knights of Cydonia – sounds random but it actually works.

Obligatory health & safety warning: American Flagg can be completely anti-PC at times – despite future forwardness, it’s still stuck back in the days when it was OK for our shiny white protagonist to toe the line of acceptable behaviour when it came to transvestite ladies… or is it? Flagg is obviously on the ball when it comes to race relations – indeed it becomes a plot point in the second story, but maybe we’re supposed to see the less enlightened comments and blatant chauvinism as part of his (un)likeable charm.  

These are comics that take hours to read rather than minutes (value for money in these days of decompressed storytelling). It’s not so much that they’re text heavy, but all the little visual clues that tell you way more than exposition ever could go towards a graphic novel that is story dense and graphically rich. The first three-parter, Hard Times, would be worthy of a trade paperback all of its own, but here it is only half the book. Unfortunately, the rest of the package doesn’t quite live up to initial expectations, despite being put together by the same creative team, but you can never feel cheated out of your hard earned cash after the blinding opening volley. If anything, the second story in the volume will probably take you longer to read out of sheer confusion – there’s perhaps a little too much going on and maybe the exposition would have helped make sense of some of the art – but I think it’s more a case of over-ambition on Chaykin’s part than of using up all the good ideas in the first three issues, or resting on their laurels and trying to rely on a leading character who can be a little bit too aloof as to remain compelling.  

Still, the contrast between the two halves of American Flagg Volume 1 only really serves to highlight how good the first three comics of the collection really are. The latter half might be shown in a better light in the context of the full 12 issue story arc that Chaykin planned for his series from the start. The intrigue alone makes Volume 2 well worth checking out. 

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