In many ways the comic book rose to the status of true literature during the early 1980s. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons brought Watchmen to life. Frank Miller re-imagined Batman in a way that his Caped Crusader may have become the real paradigm for the Dark Knight. Walt Simonson did the same for Thor. The Hernandez brothers combined science fiction and street culture in the marvelous Love and Rockets. And one of the first, if not the longest lasting was Howard Chaykin's American Flagg.
American Flagg was set in 2031 Chicago, one more corrupt and dystopian then the Daley Machine could ever have imagined. The Earth is ruled (from Mars) by a gigantic corporate master known only as The Plex. The plex is everywhere, makes everything, employs everyone yet doesn't give a damn about anyone outside the executive class. They talk about putting a run-down and savaged America "Back on Track by '76" but it's really just a scam as the people the Plex rules are seen as nothing but economic assets to be bought or sold. In 2031, America really is for sale.
Into this comes one Reuben Flagg, unemployed actor now turned policeman. The plex controls the population primarily by its police, known as the Plexus Rangers. Flagg had spent a couple of years playing one on TV, "Mark Thrust, Sexxus Ranger", which was a top rated show. In that show, the tall, broad-shouldered square jawed Mark Thrust protected the world while shagging pretty much everyone he wanted. That too was covered because while 2031 America had plenty of religious poli-clubs (licensed, armed militias) the Plex itself controls all the media and gives Americans all the sex and violence they could possibly crave. You might watch Mark Thrust, or maybe enjoy a tender yet explicit Interspecies Romance. If action is what you crave why not watch Firefight All-Night Live? Live robotic cameras track the various poli-clubs as they battle to expand their neighborhood. Any weapon goes except nukes and air, which the Plex alone controls. Truly the Lebanese Civil War (which was in full bloom when the comic first appeared) had nothing on Chicago 2031. And if you were really lucky, you might win tonight's Body Count Lotto (also trademarked) which will fill your wallet with creds you can spend at a fortified Plexmall.
What makes American Flagg so brilliant is how completely corporatism and exploitation penetrates every level of society. Everything has a trademark, every product a media tie-in. Timely images like the Love Canal brothel chain pull the fantasy back to reality and ground it. The good people of Chicago involved seem largely unaware how little respect their plutocratic masters have for their humanity. They are hogs sucking at materialism's teats, in fact Gotterdamocrats wear hogs heads. In Chicago you might find beautiful Jewish doctor wearing a swastika ("We're all Gotterdammocrats now"). The art itself conveys pervasive materialism with vivid framing, marketing images in almost every panel. Cheykin even drew in the 'info' bars we now see at the bottom of our TV screens or when watching videos on YouTube. The media were perhaps even better integrated here then in Miller's The Dark Knight.
Reuben Flagg himself is is one of the exploited himself. He had a great run for a while playing Mark Thrust, Sexxus Raanger until the Plex had scanned in enough footage of him to simply replace him with a hologram. He was fired, broke unemployed and forced to become the Plexus Ranger he portrayed on the screen. In this Chaykin foresaw the technology that allowed Tupac to perform after his death, making it possible that performers continue to make money for business long after their death.
While the world of American Flagg is dystopian and depressing, the stories themselves were not, at least so long Chaykin was doing them. The art style was fluid, innovative and beautifully drawn. The characters were vivid and Chaykin wrote them with humor pathos. Creative surprises abound! Until Chaykin burned out the book was simply brilliant. And the burnout was inevitable. Chaykin had little experience with collaboration and wanted to keep the product quality up. For the first year he wrote, penciled, lettered and inked the book himself. He may even have done the colors on occasion. The work was brilliant, but he couldn't keep up, eventually turning the writing and art over to others, most notably J.M. DeMatteis and Steven Grant. Even Alan Moore took a short swing. But the characters and story drifted, and even a short return by Chaykin (as writer) couldn't stop the sales decline. The book peaked too early, then lost its direction. Chaykin himself was looking in other directions, particularly as the short lived The Flash TV series. It was still good, but not brilliant, and people expected brilliance based on the standard Chaykin had set. With Dr. Manhattan sitting on an adjacent shelf, American Flagg finally folded in March of 1988, after a nearly five year run.
American Flagg was not long-lived as comic heroes go, particularly in an age where many titles have long outlived their creators. But it was also influenced a younger generation of writers such as Warren Ellis. It effectively satirized American materialism and foresaw the rising influence of corporate money in poltics. And it was one of the books that got adults like me excited about reading comics again. The superb first year was been gathered into a trade paperback in 2008. If you happen to find yourself in a comics shop with some extra money burning a hole in your pocket you can do no better than American Flagg.