‘American Flagg!’ – Satire is Prophecy

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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.

The opening page of 'American Flagg' #1
The opening page of ‘American Flagg’ #1

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.

Mark Thrust, Sexus Ranger.
Mark Thrust, Sexus Ranger.

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.

'American Flagg' no. 3 Cover
‘American Flagg’ no. 3 Cover

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.

Mananacillin: for The Morning after.
Mananacillin: for The Morning after.

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.

"Poppa Oom Mow Mow." Because sure, why not.
“Papa Oom Mow Mow.” Because sure, why not.

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.

21 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    I remember reading AF back in the day, at least the Chaykin issues, not the latter half.

    It was kind of fun to read, seeing Chaykin push the boundaries of taste where sex is concerned.

    I wonder how Chaykin would think just how much of his works has come true in this day and age?

    Just 2 volumes? Wonder why Image/Dynamic Forces didn’t reprint any more?

  2. Greg Burgas

    I can’t get into American Flagg!, mainly because I think Chaykin just isn’t a very good writer. His art here is absolutely wonderful, but he’s so all over the map with the story that it keeps me at a distance. I’ve always had that problem with Chaykin, unfortunately. I need to re-read this, but I just thought he was far too obvious with the satire and, as you noted, his own fetishes got in the way occasionally. But yeah – beautiful to look at, and Bruzenak’s lettering really is spectacular.

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      Well, Greg, you know I’m a Chaykin fan. i would argue strongly against bad writer; but will say he is an uneven writer. he does tend to go off on tangents and mixes ideas that don’t always sync. His Blackhawk had me scratching my head, working out the timeline. At the beginning, it sounds like it if the post-war era, with talk of Congress and anti-communism; yet, it’s still during the war, with the Blackhawks on the outs with the US and UK and turning to Uncle Joe Stalin for help. Kind of felt he went overboard on cynicism and off topic in that one. He has that to other degrees, elsewhere. i do think, graphically, there aren’t many better pure storytellers and, he has a good handle on the sociological elements of history, when he does period pieces. However, he is also his own worst critic.

      1. frasersherman

        Never read the Blackhawks (limited funds, too many comics available). Picked up the Shadow miniseries. Reread it recently. It sucked both times. Annoyingly sexist, and oversexed (the climax involves a woman wanting to nuke New York so she can climax while the bomb goes off) and generally a dud.

        1. Hal

          It’s interesting, I wouldn’t say Chaykin’s The Shadow is a dud tho’ I think it’s half-good. Howard will try to hammer any non-Big Chayk material into something more to liking even if it doesn’t suit such a transfiguration, that said *you don’t hire Chaykin not to be Chaykin*. (At his peak that is, in later eras he would take on some work to pay the bills, work usually written by others. Something of a shame I feel.) As to it being annoyingly sexist, *two* of the characters openly criticize Chaykin-Shadow and they are both women sooooo… Yes, there’s the sexy nutcase bimbo but that’s part of the absurdist blackly comic take Chaykin is going for, part of the exaggerated (?!) steroidal satire of the ’80s that is part of the miniseries’ make-up. Not to mention there’s the brainless clone of the jackass monster villain who services the aforementioned psycho-bimboid when the villain projects his mind into him until “Junior” begins to independently develop his own skills in that area.
          Part of the point of Mr Chaykin’s version of Kent Allard/The Shadow is he *isn’t very nice* and he embodies an unreconstructed variety of attitudes that a lot of American men of the ’30s would have had; the series isn’t uncritical of him and it doesn’t expect reverence for him (compare/contrast with the expectation that readers of the modern Batman will cheer him on no matter how awful he act/is). Much of the slightly twisted humor is rooted in that while the ridiculous climax involving the oversexed (?) villainess loon wanting to have a megadeath climax is part of that silliness. It isn’t to be taken seriously and it ain’t really The Shadow but it isn’t a failure (even if it isn’t that good). Oversexed? Not really. There’s no real *explicit* sex in it, tho’ sex *is* explicitly part of the story and there’s the usual Chaykin lingerie “shots” tho’ it’s all fairly restrained for him, it is a moot point whether one thinks it belongs in a Shadow story but this is a *Chaykin* Shadow so it fits. I don’t have a problem with it even if I don’t think some of his interests work within that milieu.

          1. frasersherman

            You’re quite right about Chaykin hammering work into his own image. But while Harry’s daughter is indeed quite critical of the Shadow, one bout in the sack is enough to turn her into a panting lackey. And I didn’t really feel we were supposed to disapprove of him (that’s a subjective assessment, of course).

          2. Hal

            You, too, are correct, Frase. Mavis does come (pun unintended but apt) under the Shadow’s spell, his sexual magnetism such that she melts under him and starts calling him “Master”. I *don’t* like that aspect of the story but its consistent with a Chaykin sexualized and updated Shadow, uncovering some of the more unsavory elements if the original concept (c’mon, a character with the power to cloud men’s – and women’s – minds whose helpers call him “master”? Great Googly Moogly!), also it’s an example of Chayk being a semi-amusing asshole to get up the noses of Shadow fans while exercising his particular proclivities. As I’ve babbled previously he was offering a skewed and “adult” blackly comic incarnation for the late 1980s but that particular element didn’t sit right with me and *is* I agree with you a sexist and annoying addition (it isn’t the sex it’s the fact that Mavis becomes the Shadow’s thrall and loses something of herself whilst – bleeurgh – calling him “Master”) even within the mocking context and the Shadow being portrayed as a jerk.

          3. frasersherman

            I don’t believe the Shadow’s agents did use “master” in the books. Certainly not on a regular basis. And in the pulps he didn’t have the power to cloud men’s mind (I think it may have been added after the radio show). In the radio show his only henchperson was Margo, and still no “master.”

          4. Hal

            Well, if that is so I can only say that that is Chaykin’s particular version with his harsher, blackly sardonic view. I don’t have to like the “master” stuff and I don’t! As for the power to cloud men’s minds, I think it has become an accepted part of the character – interestingly Chaykin downplays the supernatural aspects to an extent tho’ he retains plenty of absurd elements so I’m not sure what he was going for… I still half-like Blood and Judgment despite those things that rankle!

      2. Greg Burgas

        Jeff: You? A Chaykin fan? I would never have guessed!!! 🙂

        I know we’ve talked about this before, so we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I don’t have a huge problem with Chaykin’s plots, but I don’t like his nuts-and-bolts writing – every character sounds so arch that it’s hard to get into them. I have several Chaykin books, of course, and I’ll re-read them at some point, so maybe I’ll still change my mind!

  3. frasersherman

    I loved AF when I read it back in the 1980s. Found my reaction closer to Greg’s when I reread it this year–so I stopped and decided to try again some time, just to see if I was in an off mood. Which is a compliment because I very rarely think it’s me when I sour on rereading.
    And yeah, the sexism was appalling. First’s comment in one letter column was that this is a future where everyone is sexploited, but for all Flagg’s status as a sex symbol, he never sheds it as much as the women. It’s not so much he foresaw “fetished objectification of women” as he wanted to write that (and it’s not as if women weren’t objectified in the early 1980s anyway).

  4. Simon

    From Chaykin, I think I may have preferred his slightly more focused mini POWER & GLORY? (Maybe an inspiration for Miller & Varley’s style in DK2.)

    – “many of the ideas Chaykin casually tosses around”

    Ah, maybe he was so casual because of taking so much inspiration from his 1960s betters, especially Norman Spinrad’s BUG JACK BARRON and John Brunner’s STAND ON ZANZIBAR?

    – “Papa Oom Mow Mow.”

    Steranko?

    – “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”

    Maybe, but was it so outlandish right after a B-grade cowboy actor had just smoked POTUS?

    – “Back in the 1980s, there were three iconic dystopian comic series”

    Though technically 1990, wouldn’t another forgotten dystopian satire be Miller & Gibbons’s GIVE ME LIBERTY? Even its 2010 omnibus, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MARTHA WASHINGTON, sank without a trace and fell out of print. (Its featuring a black female lead is unrelated, of course. It’s just that Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons aren’t very bankable names.)

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      Actually, the fourth is Scout, by Tim Truman. it features a fractured United States, suffering from major economic and ecological disaster, an ex-pro wrestler as president, criminals and con artists in major government posts, a drug-addled vice president, and an evangelical manipulator pulling all of the strings. Emerging to tear down this government is AWOL Army Ranger Emmanuel Santana, aka Scout. He is of Apache heritage and has visions of the legendary Four Monsters of Apache myth. He is guided by the gahn, a spirit animal, in the form of a prairie dog (I think, or a gopher or similar rodent). Scout kills each of the 4 monsters, before going after the president. He then has to stop a manic cult, led by a damaged young man with mental powers, who mixes the Bible with Lord of the Rings. then, he faces the second American Civil War, even further breakdown, marriage and fatherhood, his ex-love hunting him down and more.

      It’s pure dystopia, part western, tons of action, and fileld with references to blues music.

  5. Hal

    Yes, the all-Chaykin scripted/drawn American Flagg! is excellent both as absurdist satire and quirky spiky SF Adventure. I also think find it amusing that Chaykin can get up the noses of different kinds of people (even if he is clearly not on the side of the scary or corrupt); frankly I am a little mystified and annoyed by those who appear to have certain stringent requirements before certain creations are considered sufficiently “enlightened”; a series could have ticks in all the right places but *bam!* there’s *one* flaw and the gnashing of teeth, rending of robes begins followed by a dismissal and and exile to the outer darkness. I just don’t find that helpful (or, I don’t know, mature/sensible) as it turns everyone who doesn’t tick every box into an “enemy”, putting them on a level with those who are really unpleasant, vile, ignorant, dangerous, et cetera.
    Sure, Howard Victor likes his sexy ladies and, sure, he has his cake and eats it too with the erotic/porn imagery (tho’ as Jim points out there is nothing really explicit in AF!) but… so what?! I don’t think that it is precisely correct to see the women in Flagg! (or who Flagg is in… Oops, bad dubious pun!) as objectified due to them having *personalities* (I’m not going to use the modern term “agency” as I’m kind of sick of it being banded around, too often by people who seem over-concerned with using the latest buzzwords, in a way they are as bad – despite being wel-intentioned – and alienating as those who fear and hate and dismiss any kind of progressivism), yep, there’s lingerie-a-go-go and it is designed to stimulate Chaykinish libidos but it is also harmlessly silly. I don’t think it invalidates the work and I fear that being too vociferous or self-righteous about it is a little bit like treating any fantasy sex as beyond the pale or misogynistic (Chaykin isn’t a misogynist, he could be considered sexist if one considers any heterosexual man who uses sexualized imagery of some women at any time sexist tho’ if one does then any straight woman who uses sexualized imagery of men sexist as well, or gay men of men and lesbian women of women…and down the rabbit hole we go…! Everyone would be guilty! There’s *real* sexism – women being paid less than men in the fricking 21st Century, commercials in which women are portrayed as make-up obsessed grinning idiots, sick men controlling women – and then there’s “sexism”, it is sensible to maintain a clear vision and not topple into sex-fearing self-righteousness, in my ‘umble…) which is dubious at best.
    American Flagg! is a well-written snappy book with much of Chaykin’s best writing, the “obviousness” or not of the satire is beside the point, it is often fun in ways in which TDKR and Watchmen (a woman is viciously beaten in attempted rape and goes on to have a child with that man?! Urgh) aren’t, and I’d argue that the satire is much more expansive and entertaining than TDKR’s as well and it is very much part of the mosaic, part of a brilliantly conceived future world. Not to mention that even if one is put off by the writing American Flagg! as a piece of thrilling comic book art and an inspired post-modern artifact it is great. Chaykin and Bruzenak have never received enough praise for it. It isn’t for conservatives – of any stripe – but it is fantastic.

  6. We do live in a world where women like Kim Kardashian are world famous and fabulously wealthy for having no appreciable talent other than an ability to drop their towel, where their photos are asserted to “break the Internet”; given the costumes worn by Lady Gaga, Nikki Minaj and most other pop stars, is Chaykin’s “Frederick’s of Hollywood”-inspired future fashion trend entirely his sexist fantasy, or is it a realistic and fairly accurate guess at future trends? Considering that two years after his comic saw print, Madonna made bras into fashionable outerwear, it’s not such a stretch. Sure, it’s a self-serving prediction for him. but it does work in the story.

  7. Edo Bosnar

    I found these two reprint volumes a few years ago, used, really cheap from two different online booksellers in the UK and snapped them right up … aaaaand they’re still sitting on my shelf of shame. Thanks for reminding of just how much stuff I have laying around that’s begging to be read. 😛
    By the way, those fake websites are friggin’ hilarious! Did you ever get contacted by anyone who took them seriously?

  8. Jeff Nettleton

    Part of the reason only those issues have been collected is that they form one big story (more or less). That was what Chaykin had conceived and executed. He hadn’t really planned much beyond it. he stuck around for a bit, taking Reuben into Canada and recreating Bettie Page photos on one of the covers, then dumped it in other hands and took off for DC, to do the Shadow and Blackhawk (and Twilight). Most fans tend to agree that non-Chaykin wasn’t very good. he did come back for a few issues at the end, to bring it back on track, then restarted the series as Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg, with Mike Vosburg doing his best Chaykin, under Chaykin’s guidance. It didn’t last long.

    Me, I loved the thing the moment I set eyes on the house ad, within Jon Sable, Freelance and bought the first issue off the stand. i missed the next two; but, got the graphic novel version, when it was released (First did three graphic novel collections: Hard Times, Southern Comfort and State of the Union). It featured an expanded beginning and an intro from Michael Moorcock, who had worked with Chaykin on Swords of Heaven, Flowers of Hell, and who also pointed out how much Han Solo’s wardrobe owed to Cody Starbuck (vests and pants with stripes down the side).

    Some of my favorite elements were the product names and puns, like Somnambutol, “The Tender Riot Ender!” and Manacillin, as well as Jerry Rigg, Custom Firearms.

    As to the sexualized women; yeah, it’s there, though the guys are sexualized in doses, such as when Sam Louis Obispo introduces Flagg to his mistress , and we see a bit of BDSM, for the guys. Chayking loves fashion and filled it with such. the women didn’t just wear lingerie; he filled it with other fashions, too. Much of it was inspired by crime novels, such as those of James M Cain and Mickey Spillane, and the covers of those things featured the imagery that Chaykin produced. Thing is, Chaykin loves to push buttons and knows that stuff attracts attention and that comic book fans rarely pass up a chance at something almost pornographic; probably more than they will actually go for real porn. I think he is as much making statements about the audience as he was indulging his own fetishes. Flagg spends plenty of time running around half naked, too. It may not be totally balanced; but it is lightyears moreso than his contemporaries’ work, especially Miller, in my opinion.

    Besides, Raul was the second most awesome cat in the world, with the first being my own, much missed, Mr Man. I still want to see that Flagg movie or tv series option revived and done; but, I doubt Hollywood would get the satire, since they have been reproducing his jokes, without sensing the irony.

  9. John Trumbull

    AMERICAN FLAGG! is one of the gaps in my comics reading. Although I became a fan of Chaykin later on, I never went back and read AF.

    Jim, I can totally relate to your tale of people taking your gag websites seriously. One weekend when I was bored around 2004 or so, I made fake fake MySpace profiles for Captain Kirk, Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, and Peter Parker. For Bruce’s profile, I used pictures of Christian Bale from BATMAN BEGINS (And remember, this was before there was even a trailer for the movie, so only comic book fans knew what the stills were from). In the MySpace profile, I had Bruce lament all of his failed romantic relationships with Selina, Talia, Silver, Sasha, etc. And because the Bruce profile used a pic of super-handsome but not yet world-famous Christian Bale, I got a few messages from women who didn’t get the joke but were sincerely interested in him.

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