I recently re-read the two-volume edition of American Flagg! jointly published by Image and Dynamic Forces in 2008, which reprints issues 1-14, and it holds up surprisingly well. It’s also surprisingly relevant in today’s political climate. Aside from being alarmingly prescient, it’s a perfect illustration of one of my adages, “satire is prophecy.”
Satire is a form of comedic criticism in which one takes a given subject and exaggerates its features to the point of absurdity in order to call attention to its flaws. It can be done lovingly or maliciously, but the key component is exaggeration. Several years ago, I and some friends spent about six months inventing fake websites and putting them up online. The goal was to amuse, confuse, befuddle and mislead. What we learned was, no matter how outlandish our idea for a given site (bonsai cows, manatee recipes, Brutal Truth storybooks), there was always somebody who was into it and wanted to know why we didn’t take it further. This is evidence of two rules: you can’t out-weird the weirdos, and satire is prophecy. If you invent an absurd concept, it’s only a matter of time before reality surpasses it. Idiocracy was a satire once.
In the science-fiction world, satire is often the basis for a utopian or dystopian comedy; an author will focus on a political or societal trend and follow it to its most extreme conclusion, and comedy (or tragedy) ensues. Back in the 1980s, there were three iconic dystopian comic series that garnered acclaim and won many awards; two of them went on to become benchmark classics of the field, while the third never broke through to the mainstream and has now largely been forgotten. These three are, of course, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and the first of them, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!
While Dark Knight and Watchmen were intended as criticisms of trends in comics (as was Mark Waid & Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come a decade later), Flagg was a critique of larger societal and political trends. With the first two, comics the industry quickly accepted their attempted warning as a blueprint, and comics have followed their bleak and cynical trail ever since, Because American Flagg! did not involve superheroes, and because it had a complexity and density that resisted imitation and dilution, it fell off the radar with the demise of First Comics in the 1990s. And that’s a damn shame, because Chaykin was a modern Cassandra. His vision of the future was more accurate than any of the “futurists” who claim to have insight into how things will play out. Granted, his representation is more hyperbolic, more in keeping with the aesthetics of the comic book format, but the principles and trends are for the most part dead-on. Bear in mind that this comic was published in 1982; before the end of the Cold War, before the Berlin Wall came down, before the Internet, barely two years into the Reagan Administration, and yet many of the ideas Chaykin casually tosses around are today major cultural and social issues and milestones. Fortunately, this hugely influential series is available on Comixology, and the two-volume collected edition is easily found on Amazon.
In the far-flung future of 2031, after society has largely collapsed under its own corruption and apathy, a new system has arisen. This isn’t a post-apocalypse story, because the apocalypse never happened; what did happen was the gradual takeover of the major governments by mega-corporations, which eventually merged to from a consumerist oligarchy called The Plex. The Plex has now relocated its operations to Mars and governs Earth from a distance. The major cities of America are now essentially gargantuan shopping malls, with order maintained by a police/military organization called the Plexus Rangers. Outside the cities, the suburbs have been given over to outlaw gangs that are equal parts biker gang and political party. The Genetic Warlords are the extreme version of the Geopragmacrat party (“Manifest is the only destiny we acknowledge”), while the Ethical Mutants are more like the lunatic fringe of the Gotterdammercrat Party. Outside the Plex, the British government has been deposed by the Italo-Brit-Zionist Conspiracy, which is opposed by a Black Nationalist Nazi movement that dominates most of Africa and Germany. Meanwhile, Brazil is buying up the US one state at a time, and the Plex is keeping the population distracted with the “Tricentennial Recovery Act,” even though the tricentennial is still 45 years away.
Our story follows one Rueben Flagg, a martian-born former actor who was fired from his highly-rated TV show, Mark Thrust, Sexus Ranger, when he was replaced by a CGI version of himself. Being unemployed, he was, in an ironic display of life-imitates-art, immediately drafted into the Plexus Rangers and assigned to the Chicago Plex. What follows is a cynical, hilarious, action-packed, erotic (but pretty PG; for all the promiscuous shenanigans and double-entendres, there’s no explicit nudity and very little profanity), and ultimately somewhat darkly hopeful exploration of a future that’s painfully familiar, especially in light of recent US political events.
Rueben would really like very much to keep his head down and his mouth shut, do his job and get out alive, but he’s plagued by a pesky conscience and a deep-rooted belief in the American Promise; he’s as incapable of turning his back on abuse and injustice as he is of keeping his pants on. He finds himself surrounded by people like the corrupt and venal Mayor C.K. Blitz, corrupt and brutal Ranger Chief Hilton “Hammerhead” Krieger, and their respective daughters, the vapid and sociopathic Medea Blitz and the stridently rebellious Mandy Krieger. Then there’s Gretchen Holstrom, the proprietor of the local Love Canal Adult Entertainment Center; Bill Windsor, the soft-spoken manager of the illegal Chatterbox strip joint that serves as a front for a covert information brokerage; and Raul, the talking cat. Oh yeah, the book has a talking cat. He’s great.
Together, and sometimes in opposition to each other, this cast fights the weekly attack on the Plex by the aforementioned gangs, alternately interferes with and secretly operates a pirate TV channel and an underground basketball team (professional sports having been outlawed), prevents the sale of the state of Illinois, deals with a catastrophic climate shift, and stops a neo-Nazi attempt to take over the Plex, engineered by one John Scheiskopf (translation: “shithead”). All of this in a beautifully-rendered world of Art Deco vehicles and buildings, retro-future fashions and the most elegantly designed and perfectly executed lettering and sound effects ever to grace a comic, courtesy of Ken Bruzenak.
The short list of trends that Chaykin correctly called:
* Corporate domination of government.
* Cultural domination by reality TV programming.
* Tribalism and extremism as the dominant attributes of political parties.
* The resurgence of neo-Nazi fascism.
* Rural population as bitter, disenfranchised, politically reactionary, and raising their children to be extremist survivalist warriors.
* The militarization of the police.
* Widespread acceptance of recreational drugs.
* Fetishized objectification of women.
* Constant and ubiquitous bombardment of advertising on every available surface.
* Constant and ubiquitous surveillance of just about everyone.
* General apathy toward the actions of the government, as long as the “bread and circuses” are not interrupted.
And a major plot point involves the unintended creation of a man-made ecological disaster involving altered climate.
For as accurate as American Flagg! was, there are elements of it that may seem dated; most egregiously, the portrayal of women; Chaykin’s personal sensibilities tend toward the pornographic, and it shows. While the women in Flagg’s world are completely equal, have full agency, are as sexually aggressive and adventurous as the men, and can fight, fly zeppelins and tote oversized munitions with the best of them, they also dress from the Victoria’s Secret catalog while doing it. The in-story explanation is that objectification and oversexualized appearance are so entrenched in the society that women routinely wear lingerie in public; an ensemble featuring spike heels, a garter belt, stockings and panties, with no skirt, is typical office wear. The meta-explanation is that Howard Chaykin really enjoys drawing beautiful women in various states of undress. He gets to have it both ways, indulging his fondness for the female form while at the same time constructing a world in which his penchant for voyeuristic illustration contributes to the decadence he condemns. This is also evidenced by the fact that almost all of the women in the comic are drawn to resemble the most famous porn stars of the era, with the notable exception of one; pilot Crystal Gayle Marakova was modeled after Chaykin’s then-wife, the book’s colorist, Leslie Zahler.
In 1982, the notion that a gratuitously vulgar and ill-informed reality-TV star might ascend to the Presidency would have seemed to be sarcastic fantasy, a snide commentary on the former B-movie actor then in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And yet here we are. Satire is prophecy.