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Contentious Curmudgeon says …

I just finished reading the nice hardcover of American Flagg! It was the first time I had ever read the original Chaykin issues. “Overrated” is the word that immediately springs to mind. I don’t get the love, I’m afraid. Off the top of my head, I can think of three seminal, independent comics from the 1980s that are far better – Dreadstar, GrimJack, and Grendel – and I could probably list more (Scout? Coyote? Elementals, even?) if I thought about it. American Flagg! features pretty good (but not great) art and pretty lousy writing, which averages out to “mediocre.” Oh well. Live and learn, I suppose.

Check out that regal nose!

38 Comments

Pretty much the same reaction here. “I’ve seen it done elsewhere. I’ve seen it done better.” I could be wrong or I could just be the wrong audience, but I’m not driven to wade through it again to double check. Always something new on the horizon.

I haven’t read Dreadstar yet, but I completely agree that Grendel and Grimjack are much better. Chaykin’s art has never done it for me, unfortunately.

By the way, you couldn’t have picked a less curmudgeon-y picture for a post called Contentious Curmudgeon :-)

I don’t have many curmudgeonly pictures of myself, so I picked one where I’m mysteriously in shadows. It’s SPOOOOOKYYYYY!!!!! (Okay, maybe not.)

This is one of those “ya hadda be there” series: For its time, and compared to everything else on the stands then, it was wonderful.

American Flagg is one of those books where you just had to be there, I think. It didn’t really break any new ground, but it was different enough from most of its contemporaries, especially the stuff the big two were putting out, that it seemed better than it does in hindsight.

I find your list of “seminal” ’80s independents very amusing, though, because I would lump all of those together with American Flagg. They were basically mainstream books with more sex and violence than Marvel or DC could get away with. To me, Love and Rockets is the seminal early ’80s independent comic, followed by Yummy Fur, Neat Stuff (and later Hate) and Eightball.

I’ve always kind of assumed Flagg! is one of those “had-to-be-there” books – from the descriptions of it, at least. But I did want to read it because of its cultural status within comics. I’ve read a lot of comics that have a somewhat “had-to-be-there” kind of vibe, and some retain their power after many years. So I was disappointed that Flagg! wasn’t impressive.

Ed: I always forget about Love and Rockets, mainly because I haven’t read it yet. I didn’t realize those others were from the 1980s – I thought they were more 1990s, standing more on the shoulders of giants. But I will concede that those are very excellent examples (and I know I have to read Love and Rockets, but I just don’t like Bagge at all, so I probably won’t read that).

Greg, I do have to admit I haven’t reread any Neat Stuff or Hate in many years, they might not hold up for me, but at the time they made me laugh so hard I cried. I have reread L&R, Eightball, and Ed the Happy Clown from Yummy Fur in the past couple of years, and they all seem just as fresh as they did 20-some years ago.

Yummy Fur started in ’83, Neat Stuff in ’85, and while Eightball didn’t debut until ’89, I’d already seen a lot of stuff from Clowes.

I should also mention that Raw and Weirdo were the seminal independent anthologies of the ’80s, and published many groundbreaking and influential artists.

You almost, briefly, had me… and then you had to use Dreadstar as a comparison. While I might agree if it was Epic Illustrated Metamorphosis Oddyssey Dreadstar, if it’s the Epic Comics ongoing comic book, you’re far off the mark: it’s a good superhero/space opera book but nothing groundbreaking.

I might agree with the assessment you’d have to be there– in the same way that I don’t quite get the big deal about Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange– but I re-read Flagg (much of it for the first time; actually I read Dreadstar for the first time then as well) a couple of years ago and I still found it impressive.

And I think the thing about American Flagg that I think puts it up there is that Flagg is a triumph of graphic design: it’s not only great art (Chaykin’s best) but it’s the first comic that really thought of a comics page as a piece of design in and of itself. nA lot of the tricks that Miller, Gibbons and so many comics creators used over the next 20 years used were first used in Flagg: fragmented narrative, media talking heads, using the 9 panel grid for something other than continuous action… I’m not saying that Chaykin necessarily invented these things, but I think American Flagg was a place that brought these things together.

That said, I still think Thriller is better.

Graeme, you need to check out Will Eisner’s work if you really think Chaykin was the first to use a page as a unified design.

Graeme: The way Chaykin lays out a page is definitely the most impressive thing about American Flagg! It’s very neat and influential. Good point.

And I don’t consider Dreadstar groundbreaking at all. All I wrote was that it’s better, in terms of storytelling, than Flagg! But I don’t consider Flagg! to be groundbreaking very much either, so I judge them both on simple comics goodness, and I just think Starlin does a better job telling his story.

I was there for American Flagg the first time–and it wasn’t great then. It certainly doesn’t hold up well over time. I have never gotten Chaykin–his art looks good on the surface, but I have always thought he isn’t a very good storyteller–writing or art. the difference to me between American Flagg and the other stuff mentioned–Grendel, Elementals, Grimjak, Love and Rockets, and to a much lesser degree, Dreadstar, is that those series hold up when reread today (or in my case with Grimjak, read for the first time) while American Flagg certainly does not.

I just don’t get this lack of admiration for American Flagg. For Chaykin, the comic was the fruition of a style that he had been moving towards since his earliest work. The storytelling is breathtaking and remarkable for its integration of word and image to move the story forward at break-neck speed. . No, Chaykin was not the first to create “unified” pages, but this work combined with Ken Bruzenak’s spectacular lettering and design-centric Sound Effects was truly something new under the sun.

The story gives us science fiction, political satire, bawdy humor, over-the-top action movie thrills all packaged in a slick, professional manner. He was not, nor did he intend this to be what later came to be known as “alternative comics”, ie. not Love and Rockets, not Yummy Fur. These are both amongst my all time favorites. His intent was to bring adult sophistication and style to the main-streamcomic page and he succeeded admirably.

Though I very much enjoyed GrimJack, and Grendel and even more Scout , none of them reached the level of total command of techique and craft that Chaykin hit right out of the gate. Coyote and Elementals though having something to commend, didn’t come close.

I see his influence both in drawing and especially dialogue al over the map in comics then and all the way to the present.

I haven’t read any of the comics mentioned in this post but I am compelled to reply.

Okay, I read one issue of Dreadstar years and years ago. Flagg! looks like something I would enjoy but, as always, I am not made of money, unlike Graeme McMillions, a Scottish cartoon dog sculpted out of Uncle Scrooge’s melted-down bullion.

The great thing about AMERICAN FLAGG! was that it wasn’t to everyones taste. Chaykin was telling a very personal story in an innovative way. You could love it, hate it and argue about it.

Is it a deathless piece of art? Probably not, but it did matter at the time. There were a lot of odd, personal indie comics that mattered around the same time: GRIMJACK, GRENDEL, NEXUS, LOVE & ROCKETS, ZOT!, THE ELEMENTALS and the rest. Taken together, they really did change comics for the better. It is hard to imagine Vertigo without those Indies and (of course) Alan Moore. It is hard to imagine Wildstorm without Vertigo. It is to imagine Nu-Marvel without Wildstorm.

I don’t know about you, but for me a comic that really felt like it mattered and helped change the medium for the better would be pretty welcome right now.

Very cool that you mentioned Dreadstar and Grimjack, which were two of my favorite comics during that era. I never got the American Flagg love either and I think Howard is just a little bit over rated. I still have not forgiven him for all the money I wasted on that crappy Blackhawk prestige format mini series he wrote/illustrated. What a mess.

This is a joke post, right?

funkygreenjerusalem

October 21, 2010 at 4:24 pm

But I don’t consider Flagg! to be groundbreaking very much either, so I judge them both on simple comics goodness, and I just think Starlin does a better job telling his story.

Flagg! was groundbreaking though – it’s about the marriage of the art and story, the way the lettering is used, the iconography involved.
You may prefer the stories of Dreadstar and Grimjack -and I’ve not read Dreadstar, but Grimjack is a very good read – but Flagg! is more important in terms of ‘comics’ than the other two.

(I’m actually lost on what you mean by ‘simple comics goodness’ – to me that implies the marriage of art and story all working together to one end, but it seems to me you mean you just like the story better in the others).

Steven Grant had a column once pointing out how influential Flagg was, as Civil War (apparently, I’ve not read it) had a lot of his narrative techniques throughout.

This is a joke post, right?

Some people just want their stories Tim!
I don’t quite understand making a post decrying a works popularity/importance without touching on why it was so popular and important, but the complete unpredictability is the joy of Greg’s posts.

FGJ: I disagree that it’s about the marriage of art and story and the way the lettering is used, however. Steranko did that better. Hell, I just read McGregor’s Black Panther run, and Buckler and Graham did it too, maybe not as well as Chaykin did it, but they were doing stuff like this years before American Flagg!

By simple comics goodness, I mean that for all that while something like Dreadstar simply does what other comics do and doesn’t break any new ground, the actual pencil work is as good as Chaykin’s (even if the layouts aren’t) and the writing is much better (even with Starlin’s overuse of recapping previous issues). It’s more entertaining, and if we discount the innovations of Chaykin (which aren’t all that innovative), American Flagg! comes off as a rather juvenile fantasy, one in which the characters are far more childish than in something like Dreadstar. If we’re going to accept that American Flagg! is influential (and fine, let’s accept that), then we have to accept that people were influenced indirectly by many of the things that influenced Chaykin, and just because those things don’t get the press doesn’t make them any less important. Michael Chabon, in his introduction, even acknowledges how much Chaykin takes from other works, There’s nothing wrong with that, as creators are influenced by everything all the time, but that makes the case of American Flagg! being so groundbreaking far less convincing. If we ignore the supposed groundbreaking nature of the book (and I will admit, doing something new goes a long way), then we’re left with art and story, neither of which hold up very well.

Tim: Yes, it’s a joke. You got me!

Huh. I just read American Flagg for the first time and really, really liked it.

funkygreenjerusalem

October 21, 2010 at 6:35 pm

I disagree that it’s about the marriage of art and story and the way the lettering is used, however. Steranko did that better. Hell, I just read McGregor’s Black Panther run, and Buckler and Graham did it too, maybe not as well as Chaykin did it, but they were doing stuff like this years before American Flagg!

I disagree with your disagreement!

I think Chaykin took it all to a new level.
I’ve not seen everything Steranko did, nor any of McGregors Black Panther, but did they really use the lettering as effectively as Chaykin did?
Look at the sequence where it’s counting down to the gangs attacking the shopping mall – everything there is working together perfectly to build tension. It’s like Simonson’s and Workman’s use of ‘Doom’ in Thor, cranked to ten.
Also the use of cold war iconography – from the soviet stars, to constant reminders of Regans ideal America.
Somehow Chaykin managed to get every element to click together.

I can agree that the story is like a juvenile fantasy – but that’s kind of the point.
Flagg! is a full blown satire – it’s making fun of that archetype.
I mean look at how many women Flagg gets – several times whilst another woman is waiting for him – it goes beyond juvenile sex fantasy there.

I think the problem is now, three decades later, Chaykin has really overused the Flagg character type and style to the point that not only is it not funny anymore, I’m not even sure he’s making fun anymore.
For me, it still works in Flagg because everything is else pretty much satire or farce, and it all works together as one, whereas in latter, lesser works, like Blackhawk and City Of Tomorrow, it doesn’t have the context for that character, so he does just come across as the juvenile concept of what a ‘man’ should be, not a send up of it.

That said, I think that character type of Flagg worked just as well in American Century, with Harry Kraft, where Chaykin went back to the time period he took that archetype from – although he also made the smart move of having the character change his name to take on a new persona, to become the man he felt he was inside, which smoothed it over as well.

Do you like anything Chaykin did since American Flagg? Because to me it seems like he’s just been repeating the same thing with every comic he’s done since then. Even Angel & the Ape, although at least Sam Simeon didn’t look exactly like Reuben Flagg.

I almost gave up AMERICAN FLAGG! the first time I read it. I found it too complex and confusing. But I picked up a couple back issues and then continued with it. I think it’s one of those series where you have to read a lot of it before it starts gaining weight. Perhaps like SANDMAN, which also didn’t impress me initially. Or SCALPED.

I’d put AMERICAN FLAGG! on about the same level as DREADSTAR–a good second-tier series. That puts it higher than SCOUT or COYOTE, and much higher than the forgettable and forgotten ELEMENTALS. I haven’t read enough GRIMJACK or GRENDEL to compare it to them.

I will say that AMERICAN FLAGG! is on the other end of the spectrum from DREADSTAR. It’s complex and confusing whereas DREADSTAR is crisp and clear. And like many people, I tend to prefer the latter.

P.S. Haven’t a couple people compared CASANOVA to AMERICAN FLAGG!? I’d say CASANOVA is overrated for the same reasons you think AMERICAN FLAGG! is overrated. Discuss.

FGJ: The satirical aspects of Flagg! bother me, because I don’t think he does a very good job of it. Satire is, to me, extremely difficult to pull off unless you’re going really broad, and Chaykin doesn’t seem to want to do that, so it’s hard for me to appreciate it, I guess. In more of the “had-to-be-there” category, I guess the aspects of the Cold War and Reagan’s America that he’s satirizing seem like such easy targets, and I suppose the zeitgeist was so different in 1983 or thereabouts that it felt more hard-hitting. And for me, once the satire begins to falter, I again fall back on the story. It needs to work on both levels, and I don’t think it does. And no, the earlier works didn’t incorporate the lettering as much as Chaykin did. But the influence was still there (going back to Eisner, even).

buttler: I don’t read too much Chaykin, because I really don’t think he’s all that good a writer (although I do like his art and think it’s gotten much better over the years). One of the reasons I picked up Flagg! was because I wanted to read something that, it seemed, most people like, so I figured if I was ever going to like Chaykin’s writing, it would be with this. Alas. The first thing I ever read by him was his Shadow mini-series, and that had a lot of the same tics as Flagg! does – very disjointed writing, a lack of characterization, a jaundiced eye that might be satire but might not be. Since then, I just haven’t been a fan.

Rob: I haven’t read enough Scout, Coyote, or Elementals to judge, which is why I just threw them out there (although the first arc of Elementals is tremendous). You make a good point about the differences between Flagg! and Dreadstar. I lean toward the latter, certainly, but I’m always open to the former. I just don’t think Chaykin does it particularly well.

The reason I wouldn’t compare Casanova with Flagg! to the detriment of both is because Fraction does a much better job with creating compelling characters. But that’s just me.

Haven’t read AMERICAN FLAGG, but CASANOVA is awesome not only because of the characters and the craft, but the fact that it doesn’t happen to collapse under the weight of its own sheer Ideas. There’s so much going on, but the pacing is magnificent, and the series is pure fun.

Tom Fitzpatrick

October 21, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Has anybody read Chaykin’s graphic novels, Time2?

They were pretty good, even tho’ I was disappointed that Chaykin didn’t keep doing them.

I feel the same way, but I actually feel the same way about Howard Chaykin in general.

I was a rookie w/ the HC, and I was just pissed that we can’t get vol 2 in HC.

The mix of satire, media obsessed culture, over the top violence and corporate controlled politics makes Flagg a real touchstone for the 80′s. For full appreciation, you should read individual issues and in between watch stuff like RoboCop and episodes of Max Headroom that share the same ideas. I think of Flagg less in terms of other comics of time than I do the politics and these general themes that recurred in other media at the time.

I dug AF, what I’ve read of the beginning of it. By the end of the series and the 12 issue Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg, it was probably played out.

I’ve got the 3 original First comics collections, which collect 3 or 4 issues each book, so I’ve read the first 12 or 16 issues, not sure which. What did the HC collect?

One reason the “satire” won’t necessarily work is that he’s extrapolating the political situation of the 80s and imagining it years in the future (was it around 2030 that Flagg took place?). Obviously there have been big changes that can hurt the effectiveness of a story like that, reading it 25 years later. (As in, wait, the RUSSIANS are who we have to worry about?)

I’d say Bruzenak was one of the first letterers really recognized for his lettering. You had great letterers prior to this, but until the early 80s, with Tom Orzechowski and Bruzenak, they were just starting to get recognized. Around the same time, you have Dave Sim starting to expand what could be done with lettering, and Richard Starkings and Todd Klein starting to expand and get recognized as well.

And while it may be a spoiler, and I’m not sure what issue it appears in, but how can you not love lettering for a gun that goes “Papapapa ooh mau mau mau”?

I like Chaykin’s stuff, to a degree, but he definitely mines the same field over and over. But it is good.

I hesitate to mention it, but I did like Black Kiss, myself. Ahem.

And since someone brought up American Century, am I the only one that thinks that that series could be the secret prequel to Mad Men? Dick Whitman –> Harry Kraft –> Don Draper. I think it works, man.

Travis: The hardcover collects “Hard Times” and issues #1-14, through Reuben’s rebellion against Scheiskopf and the aftermath with the guest artists.

Let me put in a plug for the second year of American Flagg!, which I think is just as strong as the highly accomplished first year (albeit in a different way), and which reveals that a lot of the elements of plot and characterization readers complained about in the first year were things that Chaykin was deliberately setting up to deal with later, not jsimply unproblematic aspects of the book’s worldview. I wrote about this here: http://prettyfakes.com/2010/07/six-great-things-about-american-flagg-year-two/

Although all political satire is almost by its very nature dated, there are reasons why some of it lasts — why people still read Orwell’s novels but no one really reads Joe Klein’s Primary Colors or Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen here anymore. Chaykin’s work belongs in the former category: There’s a very keen perspective there under the particular details of the era that has broader significance. (And in point of fact, the series doesn’t suggest that the Russians are who we have to worry about — instead, the Soviet Union of Flagg! is as crumbling and decrepit as the U.S., living on mainly in the form of commercialized nostalgia for its powerful past and in unsecured weapons that continue to wreak havoc. Political satire doesn’t need to be prescient, but if it did, Flagg! wouldn’t be too far off the mark.)

I don’t know that Flagg is a “had to be there” strip, so much as it is a — let’s call it a “Bullitt car chase” strip. For years people talked about the car chase in Bullitt as being this amazing, seminal moment in film, and nowadays when modern audiences see it they shrug. Because now it’s routine. But back then, no one had done a chase scene as visceral as that before.

Likewise with Flagg, which premiered in summer of ’83, I think, you have to remember that the Marvel landscape looked like this and DC’s looked like this. Against that backdrop, it’s no wonder that Flagg, Sable, Grimjack — hell, everything First was putting out — blew us all out of our socks. Nowadays all mainstream adventure-type comics look like that — narrative structure, page layout, ‘adult’ subject matter that’s really just classy pulp fiction — and it’s not a big deal.

But I really do think that most modern superhero/adventure comics are copping riffs either from Mike Grell’s Sable or Chaykin’s Flagg. Sure, those guys were themselves influenced by others, but it’s that copy-of-a-copy thing that makes a lot of current superhero stuff feel a little tired. when First and Eclipse and the other 80s indie publishers were trying it, we were all incredibly excited over it.

Really if you pinned me to the wall on it I’d have to admit that, for all the affection I have for 1970s comics, the 80s were the REAL Golden Age of superhero comics, at least up through 1988 or so. we started with Claremont/Byrne X-Men and Miller’s Daredevil and finished up with Dark Knight and Alan Moore, and there was an amazing array of stuff in between. Those were great days.

Greg: I’m glad you reminded me of Jon Sable. IDW just put out the omnibus, which is the first time I’ve read the original series, and it’s MUCH better than American Flagg! Maybe I just like the genre, Grell’s writing, and Grell’s art better, but man, that was a cool comic.

I dunno that those cover galleries really make any self-evident point about the state of the Big Two, Greg (Hatcher). I bought most of those Marvel & DC comics depicted and loved them. I was also into the stuff First was putting out (especially Badger and E-Man) but not because I was dissatisfied with the state of the mainstream at the time. As you say later in your comment, that was really a pretty great time for comics all around.

funkygreenjerusalem

October 24, 2010 at 10:04 pm

And for me, once the satire begins to falter, I again fall back on the story. It needs to work on both levels, and I don’t think it does.

This is where we’ll have to agree to disagree then – I think though the stories themsevles aren’t that strong, the way he tells them are.

And no, the earlier works didn’t incorporate the lettering as much as Chaykin did. But the influence was still there (going back to Eisner, even).

Why it is Eisner’s techniques aren’t more common – or even regularly striven for – I’ll never understand.

I think, you have to remember that the Marvel landscape looked like this

What the hell is US 1?

From what I’ve read/heard, US 1 is about a space trucker or some such shit. I think there was a reappearance in She Hulk after that series, and from what I’ve heard, it also appears in the recent Avengers and the Infinity Gauntlet mini (or whatever the hell it’s called).

Everyone in comics should look at what Eisner did and strive for it.

I’m not sure, exactly, but I believe that the Spirit letterer was a man named Abe Kanegson (and others, according to wikipedia, but Kanegson’s the one I’ve heard named before). Not sure if he lettered Will’s GNs.

I couldn’t agree more about Sable. That book is more fun than most stuff printed now! And I could talk all day about Grimjack. But the first arc of Flagg is worth reading once. But it dosn’t hold up to me personally.

funkygreenjerusalem

October 25, 2010 at 1:08 am

I’m not sure, exactly, but I believe that the Spirit letterer was a man named Abe Kanegson (and others, according to wikipedia, but Kanegson’s the one I’ve heard named before). Not sure if he lettered Will’s GNs.

It’s less the integration of the lettering, and more Eisner’s way of using the art to spell out the title.

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