Originally published August 16th 2009
American Flagg! Vol.2
Review written by Mark Richards
Bojemoi! Reuben Flagg is back! Expanding the saga that began with Volume 1, Volume 2 of Howard Chaykin’s classic sci-fi comic book American Flagg! marks the return of its titular hero for another anarchic adventure. Collecting issues 8-14 of the original 1983 series, this story sees Plexus Ranger Flagg continue in his crusade against his off-world government’s apathetic corruption. Whilst Flagg attempts to keep the peace between the rival gangs of the Chicago Plexmall, and bring justice to the displaced masses, an old enemy conspires to kill our hero and bring about a New World Order.
Packed with more of the same satire and vibrant artwork that influenced a generation of writers and artists, American Flagg! Volume 2 has a certain free-flowing style that seems indicative of Chaykin’s own jazz-loving background.
A breath of fresh air for its legion of fans, the original run explored adult themes that were none too common in comic books of the era; Chaykin producing stories that bristled with energy and enthusiasm, and unexpected plot twists that led on just the right side of the absurd. Perhaps because it comes so close to being OTT, it allowed Chaykin a safety net to push these themes. Whilst there is a wealth of violence and provocative dialogue, plus unashamed references to rough sex, it seems more appropriate (even necessary) when read in context. That sense of breaking with convention, that anything could happen, is also what brings a genuine sense of freedom to the art and the writing style (both Chaykin). Because he is presenting a world where everything is raw and extreme, we are more than willing ourselves to go with it.
Volume 2 in particular reads like a cheerfully subversive Boys Own Adventure. Set in a post-modern, self-destructive society with a blasé approach to both sex and death, where gang-related violence is not only tolerated but televised for mass entertainment, we find ourselves not entirely sure who to root for. Much of the characterisation is a grey area; with self-serving, bickering “heroes” and quasi-principled “villains”, this gives the story a richer sense of realism that adds weight to the drama. Not even Flagg is perfect. Chaykin’s artwork portrays him as the square-jawed, straight-talking sheriff taking care of business, but he is also something of a departure. Whilst it is true that he is all masculine bravura, performing daredevil feats and shooting from the hip, Chaykin’s prose shows us a flawed idealist with human insecurity and a weakness for the ladies.
Therefore it’s extremely refreshing to root for a cast that is desensitised to a lifestyle we’d find frighteningly chaotic; each side using questionable methods in pursuit of a greater good, fighting to assert their precious ideals. And there is no doubt in our minds about Chaykin’s prolific imagination. The proof of the pudding is in Raul – Flagg’s faithful kitty-cat. Only Chaykin could invent a character so narcissistic, sharp and caustic, and wrap it all up in the body of a cute ginger tom - with cybernetic arms and the ability to fly a helicopter no less! And he talks! A special mention is made for Raul because he perfectly demonstrates Chaykin’s originality, and the fact that Raul’s abilities aren’t explained is also appreciated; because the author doesn’t feel the need to validate some of the oddities in his universe we readily accept them for what they are.
That this comic book is now 25 years old is certainly telling; some of the plotting grates and the artwork, though inarguably groundbreaking, might seem dated to a new generation of comic fans. To us, though, this only serves as a reminder of how simple pen and ink sometimes does more for the feel of a story than the glossy, CG finished stuff we get nowadays. As a matter of fact, Flagg’s world wouldn’t feel the same had it been drawn so cleanly. The new story, “I Want My Empty Vee”, written and drawn by Chaykin for Volume 2, has all of the new-style elements we’re used to today, but jars in comparison with the original artwork. Whilst it cannot be denied this artwork is gorgeous, it lacks the futuristic, new-frontier style that suited the older comic; think of it as something like witnessing a battle from behind safety glass rather than being on the front line.
But whichever way you approach the material, you can agree that both plotting and artwork are full of passion and originality. If we do have one criticism of Volume 2, it would be that it assumes too much familiarity with Volume 1. Rather than a completely stand-alone story, instead it seems more a continuation of events. Although it’s easy enough to follow Flagg’s journey as he investigates a series of murders, eventually leading to forced exile and a rag-tag revolt, there is so much going on that assumes prior knowledge that you find yourself back-tracking in order to figure things out. The simple solution is to buy Volume 1, of course, but forgive us for saying that, in some ways, the plot isn’t as important as the freedom of expression. Very much like a piece of jazz, when you think about it…
For existing fans, this is a must-buy collector’s item that will serve as a nostalgic trip through time to when comics were still raw as well as innovative. For newcomers, there is much to be gained from getting perspective on what has come before, and how it relates to some of the greatest minds working today (see Alan Moore’s Top Ten and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns for nods in Chaykin’s direction). Most importantly though, American Flagg! is as pleasurable an adventure to read as it is fascinating, which is what the best comic books are all about. Give it pride of place in your most serious collection, but read it as a fan – you won’t be disappointed.
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