Howard Chaykin - American Flagg!
All American hero
With a penchant for eroticism and violence, US comics visionary Howard Chaykin is releasing another groundbreaking work. Miles Fielder chats to him.
American comics were dragged kicking and screaming out of adolescence in the mid-1980s with the double whammy of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The twin iconoclastic sci-fi superhero graphic novels continue to be widely recognised for bringing maturity and broader credibility to the medium, but there was a third title that contributed to the comic book revolution: Howard Chaykin’s visionary sci-fi satire American Flagg!
Loaded with adult themes and content, American Flagg! was – and is – just as radical and as prophetic as Moore and Miller’s efforts. Set in the year 2031, it imagines that a series of global crises have prompted a morally bankrupt US government and its supporting corporations to relocate to Mars, governing America via Earthside militia the Plexus Rangers led by a disillusioned ex-TV star named Reuben Flagg. Mixing pulp thrills with biting satire, American Flagg! was originally serialised between 1983 and 89 predicting, among other 21st century phenomena, the collapse of international banking, the war with the Middle East, media saturation and the rise of reality TV.
‘I didn’t think I was seeing anything that wasn’t obvious to everyone,’ Chaykin says. ‘It was all based on my reading of culture at the time. The US was in a trough of political conservatism with Reagan, who was a fraud, thief, liar and a cheat. I also wanted to do a fun, violent, sexy, dirty story with a strong political underpinning and a streak of hysterical humour. I was laughing at the edge of the precipice. I was such a nihilist back then.’
Arguably more so than his contemporaries, Chaykin pushed the boundaries of comics with challenging adult content. Flagg!, and to an even greater degree his 1988 transgender S&M noir Black Kiss, mixed socio-political satire with foul language, kinky sex and graphic violence. ‘I always liked sexy and violent stuff,’ he says. ‘By the late 70s I wanted to do a book that reflected my sensibilities rather than the generic material that was being pumped out. So I just started doing stuff that interested me. And I feel like I opened enough doors for people to be able to push their own envelopes.’
Chaykin took an extended break from comics to work in television in the 1990s, a lucrative career move that allowed him to return to his first love earlier this decade. Now contentedly subverting Marvel Comics titles from his northern California home, the New Jersey-born cartoonist’s outlook has mellowed into bittersweet as he approaches 60.
‘We have a worldscape primed to be run by morons,’ Chaykin says. ‘We’ve had an imperial presidency with Bush that makes Nixon look like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, most dispiritingly, we have the return of religion to public discourse. I wasn’t planning on spending my late middle age in a holy war between two bunches of religious fanatics, Islamic and Christian, with me caught in the fucking middle. Nevertheless, I’m vital, hardy and healthy as I watch the collapse of the American empire. Still, I have a good life and I’m a much happier guy now, because I’ve learned to accept the fact that it’s a scary world we live in and that life is unfair.’
American Flagg! Volumes One and Two are published by Titan Books on Fri 29 May.