etragedy's American Flagg! #1 - Hard Times review

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I Gotta Warn Ya...

I was in my mid-teens and over at a friend's house. He was pretty political, into music, but didn't read many comics. One of the ones he did read was American Flagg! It caught my interest where it was haphazardly lying amidst a pile of boots, clothes and records.
'Hey, what's this', I asked.
'Oh yeah, American Flagg!, it's a cyberpunky comic.'
'Cool', cyberpunk was way underground back then, 'Neuromancer' had come out the year before, but the genre was still gaining steam. I picked up the comic and flipped through it, trying to decide if I wanted to read it or not.
'But, I gotta warn ya... American Flagg! is pretty much a soap opera.'
As I flipped through it, one panel caught my eye. 'A talking cat?' I said skeptically, raising an eyebrow. I was disdainful of anything that smacked of Disney-ification.
'Yes, it has a talking cat. Just one. There are no other talking cats in the whole world. They never explain it. Deal with it!'
I was intrigued. I'd heard of Howard Chaykin, of course. He seemed to be a comics-creator's-comic-creator back then. I didn't the, and still don't fully understand the adulation he got, but re-reading American Flagg! more than 25 years later, I have a bit more insight. He was a creator that grew up in the age when superheros were out of favor - the 1950s - and so he wrote stories that were more oriented to other kinds of heroes - action, fantasy, science fiction, crime - which in turn appealed to the devotees of those genres... most notably science fiction and fantasy writers ( Michael Moorcock was a big fan). Additionally, he wrote for publishers that attracted the non-mainstream comic reader, making a name for himself in Heavy Metal and other independents. Chaykin's writing incorporated genre ideas that were being tossed around in SF circles, but wouldn't bubble up into the mainstream until the 1990s, and his art, while not my taste in comic art, was pretty clearly an influence on Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz both of whom would become breakout stars of the late 80s.
The first story arc of American Flagg! deals with the arrival of a new security guard, Reuben Flagg, at Chicago's O'hare spaceport in the year 2031, 35 years after a series of nuclear, environmental, and political disasters completely decimated society, and sent much of the population fleeing for Mars. Flagg is a patriotic guy, trying to do his duty to keep the peace, but he soon begins to suspect that there are high-level forces that don't want to see society recover, that have a vested interest in keeping the former U.S.A. a place of lawlessness and corruption. But that's not going to stop him from trying.
The story is a bit difficult, like a Heavy Metal story of the time, it expects some heavy reader engagement, and doesn't spoon feed things by narration, which is already going to make it rough going for most modern readers. But I remember finding the art a little unpolished and not to my liking at the time - I've grown to appreciate Chaykin's loose iconic style now, but it is definitely an acquired taste - and, I imagine modern readers will find this the hardest thing to swallow about American Flagg! It's definitely not the comic art you're used to.
But then, American Flagg! was never written for the masses. Its story, art... its very message, is inherently challenging of the status quo, both then and now. If you want the slick, factory produced, plastic, mass-produced superhero title of today, you are going to be sorely disappointed. If you're willing to challenge your mind and aesthetics, you might find American Flagg! rewarding.


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