American Flagg! is back

Sci-fi mixed with social comment made American Flagg! one of the most influential comic books of the Eighties. As it is republished, Rob Sharp salutes the returning heroes

The chisel-jawed action man climbs aboard a gleaming flying machine, a cross between a souped-up Honda Gold Wing motorcycle and a 1950s US fighter jet. He blasts off, leaving a trail of cutting-edge typography, subtle shading, and colour in his wake, and makes his way to battle against a dystopian, grim vision of lawless bikers wreaking havoc across what used to be North America.

You would be forgiven for being ignorant about the exploits of Reuben Flagg, an actor-turned-lawmaker living in the year 2031. But to comic-book enthusiasts, his adventures, first outlined in 1983 comic book American Flagg!, are every bit as significant as those of Doctor Manhattan in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen (1986) or the Joker in Batman: the Killing Joke (1988), two of the most ground-breaking comic books of the 1980s.

Now, the first 12 volumes of American Flagg!, written by author and artist Howard Chaykin, are republished together for the first time. Talking to Chaykin – as wisecracking an East Coast wordsmith as Jay McInerney or Michael Chabon – you realise how important the New York neighbourhood in which he worked at the time of the comics' first publication was in fuelling his creativity.

"Most of my friends used to hang out around the Lower East Side of New York," says Chaykin, who now lives in southern California. "I used to hang around with the likes of Frank Miller and the cartoonist Archie Goodwin. We socialised like this oddly bohemian bunch who acted in a middle class kind of way. It was funny because New York at that time was a shithole. But it was a gas. I was a fairly heavy drinker and we drank in the saloons around the 20s. We didn't eat at home, it was a lot cheaper to eat out. So that's what it was like – us basically hanging out together and eating out five nights a week. I lived a nocturnal life; at that point I was having a really good time."

The nihilism that Chaykin saw in New York at that time informed American Flagg!. In the novel, the artist paints a world in which people's desires are instantly realised, a landscape in which commercialism dominates civilisation at the expense of everything else. American Flagg! is set after 1996, or the "Year of the Domino"(the equivalent of the Terminator franchises' Judgement Day), a nuclear holocaust. The disaster results in the US government relocating to Mars, and in the resulting power vacuum, governmental alliances comprising pan-African and South American administrations rule over what is left of civilisation – a brand-obsessed, neo-punk medley of Mad-Max-style gangs. However, unlike the Mad Max films, there are still major centres of civilisation, taking the form of what are essentially shopping malls (think Paul Verhoeven's 1990 Total Recall, which in turn was based on Philip K Dick's 1966 short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale).

If that wasn't brain-scrambling enough, in the graphic novel, the US attempts to assert its authority over those still on Earth via "the Plex", a giant, interplanetary conglomerate that interacts with the human race most visibly through its monopoly of the globe's television networks. To cite another Schwarzenegger movie, these television shows are of the Running Man variety – ultra-violent versions of the reality television we see today. To make matters worse, the Plex attempts to control people through subliminal messages that encourage violence; this contributes to the fractious nature of this future society (and helps boost ratings).

Confused yet? That is, partly the point. Chaykin's art inundates the reader with huge quantities of raw, unfiltered information. Characters talk over television screens, advertisements and sound effects, to the extent that the reader does not know what to read first. Think about the multi-layered sound of Steven Spielberg's 2002 sci-fi film Minority Report and you get the picture.

"I came to believe there was real bread-and-circuses element to the future. I thought people would become more easily distracted by all of this over-stimulation," says Chaykin. "Obviously I couldn't mimic the aural element but I wanted it to come across like you couldn't get your bearings because it was all was so loud and in your face. There's that feeling that you can't concentrate because of all that is happening around you."

Politically, you can see the influence of a Republican administration. "It was 1982, we were in the middle of the Reagan era," he continues. "The country was going to hell. I had been away from comics for two years. I had an offer that would have a positive effect on my income and I went for it. At the time, I described it as a screwball comedy told as a dystopia." Chaykin says the inspiration for Flagg came from a "1950s James Garner, a phenomenal leading man, a sidewinder, Henry Fonda, William Holden-type character."

For the look of the ensemble, he says he looked towards vintage comic strips like the 1930s' Terry and the Pirates, and "a lot of Victoria's Secret catalogues". The latter informed much of the comics' bawdier elements: sex is a frequent punctuation mark for Flagg's progress. "I was 31 in 1982 and I was into my own sexuality and having a good time," he explains. "Sexuality was a much bigger part of people's day-to-day lives than it is today. I had a much better time than I have since. I did a real kitchen-sink presentation to the publisher. I couldn't see a reason why a post-Holocaust dystopia could not be funny. A lot of the sexuality impact came from Woody Allen films, where Woody gets to sleep with all the good-looking women in the world. It seemed like a television thing to do; women love television stars, and that's what Reuben Flagg was, this big star." It all feeds from early-1980s, pre-Aidsdisco culture. "I was a womaniser back in those days," adds Chaykin.

Another distinctive part of the comics is Ken Bruzenak's lettering. A car doesn't just whoosh by, you see the "whoosh" as the car's slipstream, disappearing into the middle distance. "He and I have always been the twin sons of different mothers, both always been massive fans of [comic-book artist] Wallace Wood," says Chaykin. "Ken invented many of the tropes which have become accepted in modern comic- book lettering."

And what of Watchmen? Like Moore's novel, Flagg's characters are neither good nor bad, which wasn't all too common in the comics until the mid-1980s (though Watchmen seems to have taken all the credit for that in recent months). "I don't think I was an influence on the comic but I remember going out for a dinner a year before it came out with Alan Moore and Frank Miller and Alan telling us about all the different characters and it just sounded nuts," Chaykin says. "I loved it. I am not massively enamoured with how he ends it, I don't think he ended it in an interesting way, but I am normally a huge fan of what he does."

'American Flagg! Vols 1 and 2, Collectors' Edition' is out now, published by Titan