Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! is one of those series that occasionally gets mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns – but only by people who know their comics. Unlike the others, it never managed to break into the mainstream, and has spent years out of print, and thus missed out on some of the acclaim it deserved.
Well, now it’s back. This volume collects the first 7 issues by Chaykin, including a special prelude, comprising the first two story arcs. An introduction from Michael Chabon explains the significance of Chaykin’s technical prowess, particularly the density of story ideas and the almost casual inclusion of satirical elements that can now be described as “futurism”, purely because Chaykin got things so right in his depiction of the coming America. Chaykin’s liberal use of trademark symbols reinforces the corporate nature of society, while his depiction of a heavily partisan, populace-numbing media – which includes actors replaced by CGI versions of themselves – seems to match the media trends of today so closely that it’s hard to imagine the story was written 25 years ago.
But enough of the commentary. The series itself centres on Reuben Flagg, a movie star who relocates to Earth to work as a law-enforcing “Plex Ranger” after spending the majority of his life on Mars. In the opening issues, Flagg serves as the reader’s surrogate eyes as we become familiar with a dystopian Earth society, laying down the rules and introducing a sprawling cast that includes all sorts of complicated characters, none more so than Raul, the talking house-cat. Chaykin makes full use of everyone he creates, and keeping track of everyone can be difficult if you’re only familiar with modern, decompressed stories. There’s a lot of information on each page, and you’re expected to keep track of all of it. American Flagg! is certainly not a light read – but that’s a good thing.
The reproduction of the comics is far more vibrant and clean than the series could ever hope to be found individually, and more than does justice to the art. Indeed, given the production techniques available at the time, one can only wonder if American Flagg! has ever looked this good. If there’s any criticism of the collection, it’s that the story arcs themselves are hard to break up, and the volume gives little in the way of closure. All that means, though, is that you’ll want to go out and buy the next volume immediately. A fantastic collection, and an important chapter in the history of comics.
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