American Flagg! is back

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport