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



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss