Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #42: Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!

Sometimes, with comics, we forget the value of density. Particularly these days, when the needle has swung far in the direction of deconstruction and the popular models are from manga, with endless pages of the wind blowing evocatively over some landscape or other, we forget the power of a page full of things happening and messages assaulting our eyeballs.

Well, we live in a world like that now, so maybe we don't want it in our comics all that often. But there are comics that told us this world was coming, that said that random ethnic violence and lowest-common-denominator reality TV would numb our viewing eyes, that media barons would take over politics and make a profit off of it, that we can and will be seduced by bread and circuses.

They also said we'd get to Mars by then, but that's the besetting sin of SF, isn't it? Assuming that some big impressive things will happen to offset or backdrop the day-to-day shittiness. The real future is always more banal than the SF version, with all of the kipple and none of the electric sheep.

One of the densest, and most horribly prescient, SF comics of all time is Howard Chaykin's American Flagg! It wasn't all consistent -- in those days, comics came out regularly, so when Chaykin needed a rest, other people sharecropped his fields to much less effect, including a shockingly horrible Alan Moore story about sex cops -- but the best of it, meaning the all-Chaykin storylines, was electric and real in a way little in the comics was when it came out and still shockingly powerful today.

The first three storylines (each three jam-packed issues long) of Chaykin's masterwork were collected in the 2008 hardcover Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!, Vol. 1, along with the next two semi-fill-in issues -- done-in-one stories with other artists -- and an all-Chaykin short story that I think originally appeared in an earlier collection of the first story, Hard Times. This isn't the whole of the pure Chaykin product -- as I recall, all of his multi-part stories from the original 1983 run were strong, and the rest of those would fill up another book about this size.

That book doesn't exist: the 2008 reprinting project got as far as two paperbacks, each with one half of this hardcover, and this book itself, and then petered out. That's unfortunate: American Flagg! does have dated elements (the clothes, the hair, the timeline), but Chaykin was never better than in this series. There's a hair-on-fire energy on every page, a damn-the-torpedoes headlong power to his plotting, and his art was super-detailed in a way then entirely futuristic and now still pretty damn impressive.

This book, though, is out there, if you can find it. It's set in 2031, in a US that collapsed in the mid-90s and has never come back. But the big corporations and rich folks got off-planet to the Moon and then Mars -- this is the most SFnal and unrealistic piece of the set-up, and not really necessary -- and a police-force-cum-broadcaster, the Plex, runs what's left of North America. What's left of the bourgeoisie live in giant "malls" near the old cities, and the rest of the country is a rabble of ethnic gangs, whose economic activity, as far as we see it, is entirely of the illegal kind. Thrown into this corrupt and profoundly cynical snakepit is Reuben Flagg, who recently was the lead actor in a Plex-promoting soft-core-porn TV show until technology advanced enough to eliminate actors entirely. (And, to be honest, as far as we can tell, all entertainment is at least soft-core porn in this future -- it's bread and circuses all the way down.)

Flagg is honest, as such things go. And, even more, he's got a great survival instinct and a desire to fix whatever is in front of him and broken. This world has a lot that's broken, so Flagg has his work cut out for him. It's still a thrill to experience this world along with him, to see one of the two great comics dystopias of the '80s (along with Tim Truman's Scout) again, and to wish there was more of it, or a decent collection or what else is already out there.

No comments:

Post a Comment