Comics That No One Gives A Crap About #3: "Amerikan Flagg!

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I can hear you now, “Hey, what do you mean saying no one gives a crap about American Flagg? How dare you! Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg was one of the best comics of the 80s, and a beloved staple of the emerging indie comics industry and the counterculture itself!” Well, yes, that’s all true and well and good, but check out the spelling, sparky: Normally there ain’t no “K” in “American,” is there? And while American Flagg itself was at least occasionally all those things you mentioned up there, my dear hypothetical reader, it’s sequel was…well…something else.

A quick recap: The 80s were a time when color printing finally became affordable to small companies, and a whole spate of comic companies that were not, in any way, either DC or Marvel, burgeoned as a result. Many of these rebelled against the conventions of the comics industry – principally superheroes, but also G or PG rated storytelling – and a lot of neat stuff happened. Following Sturgeon’s Law, it follows that 90% more crappy stuff happened than good stuff, but that’s not really material – it was a watershed change in the industry and it was an interesting and exciting time to be in to comics.

American Flagg! Was launched in 1983 by First comics, and told the sweet, noble, archetypical, almost Normal Rockwellesque story of a Jewish ex-porn star from Mars with a talking cat sidekick who gets a job as a Chicago cop, and ultimately balkanizes the United States towards the end of the first third of the 21st century.

No, I’m kidding. I kid. Well, I kid about it being a sweet, noble, Rockwellesque story. In fact, it was pretty damn smarmy. All that stuff about the protagonist being a washed-out Jewish porn star from Mars…that much is true. And as deliberately offensive as the original American Flagg! Was in the mid-80s, it is hard not to like the book. Honestly, how can you not like a Science Fiction Cop Comic? It’s art, it’s broad social parodies, it’s hard-boiled dialog and wry sense of humor and 80s Suburban Shopping Mall Noir sensibilities make it a surprisingly-overlooked classic today. And despite being an unbelievable, screaming liberal, it was quite obvious in the book (And in real life) that Chaykin really does passionately love this country. His wonky sensibilities – liberal though they were – were at least insightful and thought provoking. “It’s a much better symbol to wash a flag than to burn it,” he says in one issue. And of course there were no superheroes, just ordinary (If impossibly good-looking) people living in and around Chicago in 2031, 35 years after the world fell apart.

After 12 issues, Howard Chaykin started drifting away from the book, and after 24 isssues he’d found himself wooed away from it entirely by the allure of other projects. Flagg became more and more the work of other people, and the book and the character of Reuben Flagg himself became embarrassingly conventional, and it all just sprawled out of control. Finally, after several years of deteriorating storylines, diminishing readership, and critical drubbings, First decided to end American Flagg, and launch a sequel book which would be wholly run by Mr. Chaykin once again. Thus all the story lines were tied up in the last several issues, with Illinois seceding from the Union (Not that the rest of the US seemed to care at all), and Reuben Flagg himself becoming the President of the Illinois Free State.

“Amerikan Flagg!” – the sequel series – picks up in 2032, pretty much immediately after the first series ended, and it doesn’t exactly hit the ground running. Most of the first four issues are geared around clearing the tables of all the accumulated non-Chaykenesque crap that had accumulated in the previous 3 years. You know, bookkeeping before we can get to the actual tale itself. The initial storyline, which runs through these four is called “Little Hitlers.”
Issue one is almost entirely recap, explaining to readers how Reuben Flagg became President of Illinois, and why Illinois is no longer part of the US. It’s pretty convoluted and not very interesting, and takes up half the first issue. Not exactly a crowd-pleaser, but Chaykin attempts to ameliorate this somewhat by having the recap take the guise of a propagandistic video (“Reuben Flagg: A Man For All Reasons”) that the people of Chicago are forced to watch on every channel at random intervals. So the story is intercut with various characters wandering around annoyed while President Flagg’s face is on every monitor. This fills us in on what’s going on with the various dramatis personae, Flagg’s two live-in girlfriends (There’s a gratuitous ménage a trios scene in there), various friends and nemeses. To Chaykin’s credit, this *almost* works, but he’s hampered by having to synopsize a sprawling, needlessly complicated backstory that never made any sense anyway. When we finally hit the plot, around half way through, it’s pretty boring: another unlicenced policlub battle destroys Q-USA, and in the ruins Flagg finds a video tape (VHS, actually. It’s oddly funny sitting around in 2009 reading a story from 1988 set in 2032 where VHS tapes are the best video storage media around. Also, no one has cellphones. Ah, the days of future past!) that has a picture of Flagg’s long-lost daddy on it. Pretty darn dull, and the letters to the editor in the next issue were all pretty negative. On the bright side, there was a “John Carter of Mars” gag in it.
Issue Two has Flagg going to Europe to covertly look for his daddy. Europe is now owned and operated by the Pan-African government, and practicing “Reverse Apartheid.” They’re very law-and-order Communists, and take a zero-tolerance view of pornography, drugs, and what have you. A writer from Flagg’s old porn TV show – “Mark Thrust: Sexus Ranger” – slips a porn video in Flagg’s luggage, resulting in his arrest and imprisonment in Hess-Spandau prison, where he’s immediately sexually assaulted and almost-raped. (Several of the inmates were big fans of his back before he became a cop it seems.) Meanwhile, back in Illinois, Flagg’s girlfriends both dump him, Media Blitz goes bad again, and uber-hooker Gretchen Holstrum starts a new religion in which she channels the ghost of deceased Chicago mayor, Hilton “Hammerhead” Kreiger. On the bright side, there was a “Life in Hell” gag in it. Media is working for Lesbian Gangsteress Siobahn. Meanwhile, in Schwartzendeutchland, Colonel Mitshuli emerges as a nemesis for Flagg.
Issue three has Reuben having problems in prison, while Raul the Talking Cat and Jules Folquet, captain of the Skokie Skullcrushers Basketball Team, try to make arrangements to meet a resistance group called “Rocky and the Flying Squirrels” to spring him. Back in Illinois, Media and her new gang hijack one of those HUGE freight trucks (5 stories tall!) that are always lumbering by in the background, and Illinois rejoins the Plex and the United States. Meanwhile, Desiree Deutchmark DuPris plans yet another ludicrously complex scheme to purchase all or part of the United States and add it to Brazil. Really.
In issue four, Reuben is sprung from prison, but can’t go back to the states so Rocky, Jules, and Raul decide to go to Russia instead. Back in Illinois, Media’s hijacking goes horribly wrong, and the super-hyper-mega-monster truck she’s hijacked slams in to the Chicago Plexmall at full throttle, destroying it, killing her, and presumably most of the other main characters of the comic.

It’s more than a little bit weird to have Chicago essentially wiped out as an afterthought. It’s weirder still that we never find out what happens to any of these characters, or even who lived or who died. I fully understand Chaykin’s point in moving Flagg out of his comfort zone, and also wiping clear the past, but as climactic, irreversible plot decisions go, it’s surprisingly anti-climactic. It’s unexpected, there’s no particular build up to it, and we never see any of the consequences of what happened. Even Flagg himself doesn’t bother to mention it.

In Issue 5, with the housecleaning over, the ‘real’ story (Such as it is) of Amerikan Flagg begins in another story called “Red Highlights and Permanent Waves.” It picks up several weeks later with Reuben Flagg beating up a woman in front of her child in Moscow (Obviously supposed to be funny, I’m not sure why). He’s now working as a courier for Rocky, who is in actual fact Bess a lawyer in the Soviet Union.

In 2032 (As seen from 1988) the Soviet Union is still around, but it’s been unified with the United States under the Plexcorp. It’s no longer a communist country in anything but name, and the KGB is a rogue terrorist organization trying to return the nation to its red roots. Flagg’s estranged daddy, Axel, has been making a comfortable living off of the Communist Pan-African League by selling them forged communist documents – Stalin’s high school term papers, stuff like that – and decides to go for the big score: stealing Lenin’s body.
Raul the Talking Cat and Jules Folquett now have a talk show, “Him and It,” and the musical act is Eurydice Khan and The Horde, singing what appears to be garden variety punk. She’s a spoiled little rich girl, a celebutant as we’d call them today, Paris Hilton with a violent streak. She takes Reuben hostage and demands concessions when her act bombs. Reuben kicks the crap out of her and turns the tables, and she falls in love with him. It’s Chaykin’s version of “Meet Cute” in romantic comedies, namely “Meet Violent.” Reuben doesn’t like her.
“Mother Russia,” the chief ranger of Moscow re-enlists Flagg in the Ranger corps. And that’s pretty much that. Curiously, after the first page of issue 5, the comic abandons it’s standard “Flagg” format of a 3x3 panel structure on the pages, and goes for a more random structure from then on in.
Issue 6: Flagg’s daddy & co. steal Lenin’s body out of the tomb. Colonel Mitshuli of the PAL – the same guy who sent Reuben to prison on porn-smuggling charges – turns up to buy the body.
Issue 7: Following their only lead, Reuben and Mother Russia head to Odessa for the International Surfing Championship on the Black Sea. (Really. I’m not making this up.) “It’s Beach Blanket Bingo 2033” one person says. While the KGB tries to horn in on the sale, or break it up (I’m unclear on their motivations), Reubin tracks down his dad, bumps in to a now-hot Desiree Deutchmark who tells him she’s married and uninterested, and then has consolation sex with Eurydice Khan on the beach, despite the fact that he can’t stand her. Bombs go off, a tidal wave comes in…it really doesn’t make much sense.
Issue 8: Rocky pulls Reuben out of the flood in a copter, professional surfer Ian Cambridge pulls Eurydice out of the flood on his surfboard. Yeah, it’s just that silly. She falls in love with Cambridge for saving her, but he’s gay so that ends up just annoying both of them. The surfer turns out to be an agent for Plex Internal Affairs (Surfing is just his cover, see…). The KGB grab the body, Cambridge chases ‘em down, the KGB tries to outrun a mega-train, and fail, getting pulverized in the process. Meanwhile, Reuben tries and fails to catch his daddy, and then he and Rocky have sex.

Remember “The Incredible Hulk” TV show? Banner had to “Hulk out” twice per episode. It was a network rule, even if it didn’t fit the story. There seems to be something like that going on here – Flagg has to have sex at least twice per issue.

The final storyline is called “Loose Women and Best Men.” It starts out with Reuben meeting up with Luther Ironhart, an android from his Chicago days. (Think a bigger, dumber Hymie the Robot from Get Smart). A grab bag of other characters from the first Comic series turn up again, too: Crazy genocidal racists Tatiana Weiss and Rafferty turn up pretending to be Krishna-Catholic priests (With the destruction of Rome, the Catholic Church and the Church of Krishna Conciousness merged in 1996 under the leadership of Pope Vishnu the First. They’re not a front for organized crime.) Rocky flies ‘em in to Russia thinking their refugees from PAL-occupied Europe. Bullets ___, a Plexus ranger from Texas, shows up tracking Raferty. A woman Plexocrat named Pippa Corben turns up, claiming she’s going to get Mother Russia fired. Siobahn, the leather dyke from the destruction of Chicago shows up working for Desiree Deutchmark as her hired muscle. Axel Flagg, Reuben’s black-sheep daddy, is also working for Desiree in some capacity. In Europe, Eurydice is shacked up with Colonel Mitshuli. (Despite the fact that he’s black and she’s white, and the PAL frowns on such things). He slaps her around and dumps her when he realizes that that Bitsko guy who framed Flagg back in issue two was working for pirate TV star and Max Headroom knockoff, “Master Programmer.” Meanwhile, back in Russia, Weiss and Raferty make a super-hot fully functional female android (Gynoid) to set off a neurotoxin and kill everyone in Siberia so that…I think…Desiree can buy it at a discount. I’m not clear, frankly. It’s all a bit fuzzy. There’s a hostage situation on a blimp, and Flagg sorts it out. One of the hostages turns out to be Pippa Corben, who’s Flagg’s ex-wife from mars.

And that was just issue 9. See how confused and rushed all this feels?

In issue 10, everyone is in Siberia, the new Vegas, for some reason. Luther, Flagg, and another Robot are undercover in a casino. Jules Folquet retires from being a tv show host (And evidently retired from basketball several issues earlier, but no one bothered to mention it), and goes in to negotiations with Raul, who’s upset about this breech of their contract. Jules has their disagreement arbitrated by Pope Vishnu II (The New Vatican City is in Siberia), who is a 50-year-old clone of Elvis Presley, and does rockabilly versions of the liturgy. Pippa Corben goes to work for Desiree. Bullets turns up there too,, looking for Rafferty. Mitshuli turns up looking for Bitsko, who he feels will lead him to The Master Programmer. For some reason I’m never quite clear on, Ian Cambridge, the gay surfer PIA agent kills the pope and Bitsko when he runs there for refuge. The Popicide seems to be an accident, but I’m unclear. Raferty has sex with the virus-loaded Gynoid, which causes a falling out between him and the spectacularly hot, naked, and spectacularly evil Tatiana Weiss. She tries to shoot him.
Issue 11: But then Bullets Kisco busts in and kills him instead. Jules joins a monastery for some contemplation with the hot nuns. Mitshuli is still on the trail of the Master Programmer. Reuben meets up with Eurydice again, and finds her strangely changed and “More together.” Meanwhile, Ranger Driftwood – from Louisiana – turns up in persuit of Sam Louis Opisbo, who’s now married to Desiree. They knock boots. Everyone is captured and brought to the man behind The Master Programmer: PJ Harvey.
PJ Harvey is a 90-year-old variation on Pee Wee Herman. He’s insane, and exactly like his TV personality, and has been running The Master Programmer show (AN illegal pirate Max Headroom) from Siberia for years.) During a shootout, completely out of nowhere, Reuben asks Eurydice to marry him.
Issue 12: Everyone is a prisoner of the evil, senile, and annoying manchild, PJ Harvey/Pee Wee Herman. He reveals that he’s the father of both Colonel Mitshuli and Ian Cambridge. Jules becomes Pope Vishnu III. The super-hot Bombot is released and armed, and Reuben and co go off chasing that, while Ian and Mitshuli chase PJ. PJ kills Mitshuli, and then Ian kills him. Meanwhile, the Bombot is captured and disarmed, and Desiree discovers Driftwood and Sam in bed. Devestated, she’s informed that her incomprehensibly baroque land deal has fallen through and now Eurydice’s daddy Rupert has bought the Ukraine. (Wait, wasn’t all of this about Siberia last issue?) Desieree decks Pippa for no particular reason. Reuben and Eurydice marry with Pope Jules doing the ceremony himself. Then his new father in law puts him in charge of his massive broadcasting empire.
The end.

Phew.

Kind of a sprawling mess, yes? It’s much hokey-jokier than the original Flagg (Which is saying a lot, since one of the main characters of the original Flagg was a talking cat), and not nearly as satisfying. While broad social parody was always part of the Flagg comic book, here the door’s been blown off the hinges. (Pee Wee Herman is the big bad guy?) The leftover characters from the old book don’t get much to do here, and the new characters never quite catch on. The stories are all needlessly complex. I have nothing against complexity in storytelling, but there are loose threads all over the place here, most of them not very interesting, and they bump in to each other at random. It’s a muddle. Particularly in the very rushed final storyline.
The art, as always, is pretty good, if needlessly oversexed (We get it: these people are debaucherous. Enough already!) though it appears a bit stiffer than Chaykin’s normal style here and there. Which isn’t surprising as Chaykin wasn’t drawing the book, he was just scripting it. The view of the future isn’t as fun as it was in the first comic series, and I don’t feel they get as much comedic mileage out of Russia being a hip, swingin’ kinda’ place as they could have. Towards the end it could just as well have been the United States. While that’s probably intentional, and some kind of underhanded political commentary, it’s just not terribly funny, or adventurous, or interesting, so at the end of the day, what is there to it?
I’ve been unable to determine if Amerikan Flagg was always intended to be a miniseries, or if it was intended to be ongoing, but disinterested readers and behind-the-scenes problems kaiboshed it. Evidence seems to point both ways: First promoted it as a new ongoing series, then said later on that it was always intended to be a mini. Chaykin himself is listed in the credits of the last issue as “Disgruntled parental influence,” which would seem to imply he wasn’t any to happy with it either. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter, but it does show the limitations of mass-culturally based “Too hip for the room” storytelling: It does not age well at all.
My favorite part of the series was the “Additional Features” tucked in to the back. Each issue has a few pages detailing some aspect of the Flagiverse – those huge trucks, or Rocky’s Flying Squirrel planes, or new basketball hand signals for refferees or things like that. I’ll try to scan a few of those and put them online here in the future.The best thing about the whole book is the last image – a fat, middle-aged househusband version of Flagg, with a gone-to-seed version of Eurydice in the background, arguing with several kids. It’s not the way we probably would have chosen to remember Flagg, but it is certainly a fair indicator of the depths the character sank to.

The Original American Flagg was a brilliant science fiction/cop/adventure/comedy comic from a pivotal time in the history of the industry. While undeniably dirty as hell, it burned brightly and then had a long, smoldering, disappointing fizzle-out period. Amerikan Flagg was a potentially brilliant attempt to re-light that same candle, but unfortunately it just completely failed, and has been mostly forgotten and nobody gives a crap about it.

Deservedly.

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