Comic Book Review – American Flagg! The Definitive Collection

American Flagg! Definitive Collection (2007)
Reprints American Flagg! #1-12
Written & Illustrated by Howard Chaykin

An acceptable madness. That’s what you are pressured to find under our current system. The development of technology & societies certainly has brought much comfort to people’s lives…well, for a minority of us. The comforts you and I experience are actually rarities on this planet. Most humans can’t just walk over, flip a switch on a wall, and have light. They can’t go to bed confident they have enough food to make it through the next week, much less the next day. They can’t turn on a showerhead and easily bathe themselves. They can’t flush their waste away and not think about it again. If you are reading this, more likely than not, you are part of that minority of people who can take comfort in the seeming ever-presence of these amenities. A vast system of propaganda ensures you always take them for granted and never think about the rest of the world. That is the acceptable madness of our times.

In 1996, after a series of global calamities, the United States government and all its corporate owners relocated to a colonized Mars. In 2031, the Earth is in a constant state of chaos, with all corporations & remaining world governments merging into a mega-entity called The Plex. They run things on the planet from their Mars offices using Plexus Rangers as their enforcement arm. One of the most popular television series stars Reuben Flagg as Mark Thrust, a ranger going on highly over-dramatized & pornographic versions of what the officers handle daily. Holo Technology catches up, though, and Reuben learns he’s no longer needed to make the show, so he gets drafted into the real-life Plexus Rangers and stationed in Chicago. He’s a mix of contradictions, the vision of an “All-American hero” while being a Jewish man, an actor forced to play his role in real life. Aided by Raul, the talking cat, and Luther Ironheart, a very stupid Plexus Ranger robot, Flagg is out to take down as much of the evil in his world as possible.

American Flagg! is a prophecy, not that predictions come down from the Heavens or any mythological nonsense. True prophecy is simply taking the absurdity of the present and logically following it to its insane conclusions. Comics creator Howard Chaykin is writing a satire about the present (the 1980s) and thinking about how many ongoing socio-economic strands would play out given no extreme external interference. This is the art of satire; it’s a parody but with a point. One thing my wife and I enjoy doing is putting ourselves in the mind of a moronic Hollywood studio executive and imagining how they might ruin something we enjoy or how they would turn some inane brand into an entire cinematic I.P. We find it hilarious when so often reality plays out in the way we imagined it. That doesn’t mean we have some divine link to an omnipotent being; it’s just using logic & reason based on the repeated behaviors of people whose sole interest is maximizing profit. We honestly overinflate our perceptions surrounding the level of intelligence it takes to get an MBA in America.

While comics in the 1980s became a fruitful place for contemporary satire, most of these commentaries centered on the industry itself. That could be Frank Miller dissecting the concept of Batman across Year One and The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore’s analysis of the superhero as a real-world concept in Watchmen. Chaykin isn’t commenting on comics; he is using comics to take aim at the society he lives in. There are no superheroes here; this is far closer to the genre of pulp heroes, with Reuben Flagg not hesitating to throw a punch or hop into bed with a woman making her intentions known. Despite those seemingly shallow surface-level elements, the text has an impressive density. I’m not surprised that American Flagg! isn’t more widely spoken about as it is not a book that is not interested in talking down to the audience. The expectation is that you climb up to where it is coming from.

American Flagg! began publication in 1982. Ronald Reagan was only a year into his presidency, but artists like Chaykin knew how such an administration operated because they studied history. In the 2031 of this comic, there is no post-apocalypse because capitalism won’t allow it. Instead, society collapsed and was immediately rebuilt to be even more authoritarian and overstimulated than before. The American city is now a glorified mega-mall, soaked in neon and never giving citizens a respite from being advertised to. The suburbs and rural regions have fallen to roving gangs and raiders. Even the regular attacks by these gangs have been turned into a primetime television event for the whole family to watch. There’s never a chance the extremely outgunned fools will win, but watching them get eviscerated is good entertainment. Political ideology has become so twisted & confused that none of it makes sense anymore. There’s no more United Kingdom but the Italo-Brit-Zionist Conspiracy. The Black Nationalist Nazi movement resulted from a strange alliance between most of Africa and the far-right German government. A three-issue story arc focuses on Brazil’s buying up of the cheaper state in The Plex to take over the country. 

Our central character, Reuben Flagg, feels despondent after losing his role on a top-rated show. He figures he can become a pencil pusher with the Rangers, but something won’t be silent inside him. When Reuben sees something wrong, when he sees those in power committing evil against the weak, he can’t help himself. He has to take action; he has to try and help. It doesn’t help that everyone from his boss, Chief Hammerhead Krieger, to Mayor C.K. Blitz, are rotten, corrupt scumbags. They are perfectly comfortable in this system because they are on the top. Many women don’t hesitate to throw themselves at Flagg, a mix of pulp tropes and an exploration of sexual liberation. The women here are often the ones who initiate sex, reflecting the change in gender norms.

Chaykin, because he is a person who reads & listens, was able to pinpoint some of the significant social changes coming down the pike: conservative rural people become so politically disenfranchised they give up on the system and turn their children into jihadists, neo-Nazi fascism returns with a disturbing amount of public support, women are seen as sex objects and not much else, people are advertised to no matter where they go, the government has everyone under surveillance at all times primarily through networks of connected computers, “reality tv” has become one of the dominant forms of media, people are kept constantly distracted through media so the corporately-run governments can commit atrocities, and more.

However, I would be remiss in glossing over one of the things that I didn’t like about this comic: the way Chaykin handles transgender characters. This has been a continuing point of contention even in his more recent work with Image Comics. While Chaykin is far Left, he often portrays transwomen in two ways: as part of a joke or as a victim. The joke instances don’t sit well with me because I don’t find humor in the idea; it is predicated on cis men often being “tricked,” which is a problematic trope. As for transwomen as victims, I think Chaykin comes down firmly on the side that it is wrong to hurt these people, yet he doesn’t show much empathy. I’m not one of those who do the whole “well, they were from another time” bullshit. No, trans people have been with us since the dawn of man; our societies often ignore them. Transwomen, as a part of American Flagg, are not a massive part of the story, so it’s not that the narrative is full of these upsetting moments. There are about two of them, and they did take me out of the story.

I still recommend American Flagg! as one of the great underrated comics. You should know that he isn’t going to handle transpeople with the sensitivity I think I and many others would like to see. Yet, Chaykin presents such an accurate and pointed commentary on what our world has become before we got to the chaotic moment we are in now. He understood that the institutions that hold power were doing everything they could to obscure their actions and turn people into nothing more than laboring consumers. He does it with a very dark sense of humor so that the comic doesn’t read as bleak but more like a two-fisted pulp story with some of the best satire you’re bound to find in funny books. Chaykin’s ability to imagine the States under the leadership of propped-up media figures shows that our present condition was one that the awakened people saw coming from a mile away.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: