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Trading Up: American Flagg! Vol. 1

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Recently collected for the U.K. market in a definitive edition from Titan, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! Volume 1 is a welcome return to print for one of the most influential titles of the Eighties. Broken Frontier takes a look at the opener in a planned series of collections that gathers together the first six issues of the First Comics series from 1983.

With an incredible verbal economy in the circumstances, the collection’s back cover blurb describes the series’ basic premise thusly: American Flagg! is set in 2031, in a world ravaged by nuclear conflict, environmental disasters, and nationalism that had driven the United States government – and the corporations that owned it – to the relative safety of the planet Mars. Do not let the brevity of that description fool you into thinking this is a standard tale of a nightmare dystopia however. American Flagg! is far, far more than the sum of its parts.  

Reuben Flagg is TV actor who finds himself dumped from his popular show by a computer-generated replacement and pressganged into taking on a similar role in real life as he portrayed on the screen. In an America of giant mall-like population centers, overseen by the ever watching Plex (the exiled corporate American government on Mars), Flagg becomes a Plexus Ranger, enforcing the law in the Chicago Plexmall. This first collection covers his early days in his new position as he discovers the level of oppression being wrought by the Plex via a manipulative media and uncovers corruption on a scale that will give him a new focus in life.

The fictional reality that Chaykin has created here is quite remarkable, not just for its much-lauded presience, but for its intricacy and realisation. From the complex political relationships between the characters and factions of this near-future to the detailed history that led to its dystopic emergence, Chaykin draws us into a sophisticated, media-obsessed reality that, in the intervening years since Flagg was first published, we seem to have been propelled ever closer to.

These first six issues introduce us to a number of the main players in the cast including Hammerhead Krieger, Flagg’s amoral boss in the Plexus Rangers; Mandy, Krieger’s daughter and, one suspects, one of a number of potential love interests; the almost endearingly corrupt Mayor of Chicago C.K. Blitz and his daughter Medea; Raul the talking cat and a number of other smaller players. Some of these characters seem likely to go on to play much greater roles in the volumes to come. Medea, in particular, appears to be launched into a much longer-term storyline as a result of the intrigues she is a part of in this collection.

By the time the reader finishes the final page of issue #6 it feels like the surface of this chillingly recognizable future society has only been scratched. Indeed, there are countless seeds sown for future storylines here. At Volume 1’s conclusion the reader has learnt alongside Flagg of the harsh truths of life in 2031 and the titular character has taken his first steps down the road to challenging the conspiracies he has uncovered. The real strength of characterisation here is that by the book's end the reader feels as invested in Flagg’s objectives as he is.

           

Chaykin’s kinetic artwork is given a shaded tint that can best be described as providing a shadowy dynamism. This captures, in equal parts, Flagg’s pragmatic heroism and the overt corruption of the world he lives in. Inventive layouts and clever stylistic tricks further emphasise an artist at the top of his game, cramming each and every issue/chapter with a level of visual design that delight and absorb the reader.

If, like myself, you have known about this influential series since its inception, but never actually got around to reading it, then you may well come away from this volume seeking some form of penance from the Great Gods of Comicbookery for your twenty-five year-old crime of omission. American Flagg! is, without even the palest shadow of a doubt, a book that rewards earnest re-reading. Its dense plotting and layered storylines will sadly seem atypical to many of today’s readers who are used to their comics being spoonfed to them in easily manageable, digestible and decompressed mouthfuls. For those who prefer their graphic storytelling served with a little more meat on its bones, however, this is a hearty feast indeed.

Pick up the first volume of this ongoing series of collections for a reassuring trip back to a time when experimentation and an attempt to push the boundaries of comic book storytelling held precedence over the mandates of the current incarnation of the self-contained (written for the) trade paperback. If you have never experienced Reuben Flagg’s exploits before then you’ll never have a better opportunity than this to sample a series that truly deserves the label of a classic.

The U.K. edition of American Flagg! Volume 1 is published by Titan  priced £12.99 and available at Amazon UK.

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