Happy Flagg Day, Funnybook Nation!
Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! might be fairly sexist at times…
Okay, actually, it’s a somewhat embarrassing example of a funnybook artist working out his fetish for thigh-highs and heels on the printed page.
Oh, fine. The book reeks of jizz and problematic (if good-natured) men’s magazine misogyny.
But it also uses sex as part of a rather smart social satire…
…and the ladies aren’t the only ones who’ve been hyper-sexualized.
A discussion of Howard Chaykin’s complex sexual politics is far beyond the scope of this fluffy pictorial, but there’s a bit more going on in American Flagg! than my attempts at humor may have thus far lead you to believe. For one thing, it was a totally transformative work for comics storytelling. Check out this page, for instance:
Now remember that this book came out in 1983. Chaykin was doing the talking heads media thing before Miller, and maybe doing it better. In fact, I remember thinking, when Dark Knight Returns came out in ’86, that Miller was riffing on Flagg pretty hard in that book. Chaykin’s media-drenched pages have more of a point than Miller’s, though, I think: Chaykin was writing about the effect of all that sex, all those talking heads, on the people who consume them. That comics fandom as a whole only absorbed the surface T&A of his approach here, and that he swiftly degenerated into self-parody in response, is sadly appropriate.
The media stuff’s not all that’s going on with that page, though. There’s some very canny experiments with page layout going on there, using words to draw the reader’s eye across the page in ways it might not otherwise travel, and leaving Chaykin free to explode his series of tiny heads into the larger anchor drawing at the bottom.
And the text! I love how those exclamation points across the top turn into dominos in service to their introduction to the discussion of “The Big Crash.” This use of text as a design element has become something of a trademark for Chaykin, but it all started right here. Another favorite example:
Simple and effective. Of course, Chaykin also took his sound effects to extremes at times, especially in action sequences…
…which are something else he excels at. The series’ first such sequence, a gunfight against the “GoGangs” threatening the future Chicago Plexmall Our Hero is assigned to, is coolly kinetic…
…and features more sound effect goodness. Not so sure about the “Papa Oooo Mow Mow” gag there, but holy crap what a page! That this stuff still looks fresh almost 30 years later is amazing. I mean… Yes, it’s obviously a product of the 80s, and many of the fashions on display have that weird 80s/30s vibe you see in a lot of retro-futurist stuff from that period.
But in terms of layout, action and structure, it looks very modern. Many of Chaykin’s storytelling tricks have been absorbed into the standard artist’s toolbox by this point, copied over and over from artist to artist, until it’s hard to even recognize the source anymore. But few had ever done it as well as he did on this book. Hell, he didn’t even quite manage to pull it off himself on his own later work.
But that makes American Flagg! pure funnybook gold. Lightning in a bottle. If you haven’t read it (or at least its first 12 issues), you really really should. It’s as important, as visionary, and as groundbreaking as Jim Steranko’s 60s Marvel work. And it’s a good read, too. You might still be able to find the omnibus editions that were put out a few years back for the book’s 25th anniversary, but it’s recently been released digitally on Comixology, as well. And it’s definitely worth the two bucks a pop they’re charging for it. So what the hell are you waiting for?! READ IT!