Blast From The Past: American Flagg #1

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Recently I spread the word on Howard Chaykin’s recent series on the history of comics from the inside, Hey Kids! Comics!, being a success for the seasoned comics creator. Within that review, I mentioned his earlier effort, American Flagg, which I believe to be his most successful creation. So lo and behold, here I am at one of the local comics shows, and what leaps into my hand but a copy of AF #1. Didn’t look like it had been read, was in a clean bag and a board, and was for sale for the bargain price of one dollar. Obviously an omen, I had to relive this older favorite of mine.

Chaykin, who’s made his rep depicting high adventure, lusty, cynical, violent hero types, perhaps like many creators, uses his leads as a portrayal of themselves as center actors, living through their characters. Howie is certainly guilty of this, but while his leading males are certainly bigger than life, they are also infused with an everyman sense of how outrageous their situations are, and a sense of indignation for being put there. Rueben Flagg, our protagonist, is an out of work soap opera actor replaced by a holographic projection, and finds himself working a crap job as a law enforcement officer at the local Plexmall, a microcosm of what future society holds for us, excesses and all. It’s midwest based, with the Plexmall inspired by suburban Chicago malls, with numerous local inflections sprinkled along the way.

To Chaykin’s luck and First publisher Rick Obdiah’s credit, Chaykin gets LOTS of leeway on mature content for a comic I could of sworn was on the newsstands. Flagg jumps right into the action, the basic plot and numerous characters introduced at breakneck speed to keep action in the forefront. While they may display a stereotypical slant to them, Chaykin’s self sense of interest leaves a fresh, spicy imprint on all, giving his actors a personal distinctiveness rare among comics, especially right off the bat here. The boundaries of good taste are also pushed a bit, with suggested sex, drugs, and continuous gang violence just the beginning of this ride.

While Chaykin is always on the forefront of narrative graphic panel composition, American Flagg displays an assurance of talent, a mature mastery of eye movement, composition, and the full integration of literal word messaging within the panels contents. Rare indeed are the experimental approach and the common sense of storytelling disciplines working in perfect tandem as they do here.

Yet another strength in Chaykin’s bag of tricks is is an ability to constantly invent costumes and clothing. The thought and detail here should be a visual lesson to any creator of what it takes to produce a multi layered, textural reading environment. This makes the comic repeatedly accessible, each new read revealing previously missed visual cues. I really didn’t notice the “ben day dot” effect till my second read, that gives the figures another easy to achieve level of depth, allowing Chaykin to focus elsewhere within the panel on other inventions.

Big kudos to “new” letterer Ken Bruzenak here, who’s skill at typography and design take Chaykin’s birthings to a new level. There are literally dozens of fonts on display here, encyclopedic in their numbers, yet fully clear with their intent and narrative focus. Flagg incorporates figure drawing, graphic design, and typography to a high level here, and it works just fine. Lynn Varley’s limited palette with its 64 standard printing colors is also a demonstration of what pros can do with skill and limited means. What both accomplish here without computers certainly paves the the way for later practitioners.

While one can quibble with Chaykins manish approach and overtly sexy derring do, it’s obviously what inspires him to do comics at this level in the first place. What he does with 28 pages here is a visual testimony of his skills, and a “restrained” approach for a wider audience. All of the actors here are likable, stylish, and leave a great impression with the reader, despite their role in the drama.

Like the fine arts, comics sometimes are so far ahead of their time, their true value not recognized until much later. This books mainstream accessibility along with its continuous sophisticated display of invention, form a perfect balance of commerce and creativity, easily placing it into my pantheon of favorite comic books.

American Flagg, now over 35 years old, still remains as fresh and different as the day it was published, a superior effort from one of comics modern masters. Quite the bargain at a buck, which was also its original cover price, by the way.

Hey Kids! Comics! – Howie Chaykin’s History of Comics

Heykids

Howie Chaykin, a writer/artist who’s been on the comic scene since the early seventies, has always been a bit of an outsider. While he’s done his share of the standard and not so standard mainstream hero fare, has generally exemplified his best work among the “anti mainstream” tendencies. After all, a guy’s gotta work, right? But it’s within those oddball, fantasy concepts he reveres and excels in.

Early on at DC, working on the Burrough’s revival Weird World series, the wonderful Sword of Sorcery adaptions from Fritz Lieber; the related creator owned Cody Starbuck from Gary Frederich’s Star Reach label; culminating here on his most successful creation (in my own humble opinion), American Flagg for First comics. About this time he matured, decided to push the envelope on “acceptable” comics, and went off on a series of outlaw concepts for the mature readers Vertigo line, did the nasty x rated Black Kiss series at Vortex, and stayed away from the big two, only dipping his feet in the water for the steady paying work. During a recent reentry into semi mainstream, he collaborated with writer Matt Fraction on the wonderful (but also not fer kids) Satellite Sam series at Image.

While all this time having both steady income and critical praise, he still kept that outsider, trend bucking cynic that picked scabs frequently off those with gentler tastes. Whether brought on by personal experiences or sympathetic attitudes towards his fellow creators, this history in comics has brought him to create Hey Kids! Comics!, a five issue history of comic books and the creators that brought them to life and suffered greatly for the experience.

Chronically depicting the lives of three comic books creators that spent their lives working within our favorite hobby, he covers lots of ground by splitting chapters by decades, showing the aging and growth of our protagonists and the world they inhabit, warts and all. It’s a good way to keep all the misery from overcoming us, done in several page chapters, each issue repeating the format while continuing the main story, as well as some of the more scandalous and heartbreaking tales from its history.

Chaykin spares no expense here in the lives of these creators, as they struggle to continue to earn a living, meanwhile watching the business grow and evolve around them, swallowing decency and mutual friends along the way. The comics business is shown by its soft underbelly, the stuff you didn’t want to know, but knew it existed. The many lives destroyed in its endless conquest for fame and the almighty dollar.

While a decent understanding of comics actual history will provide dividends to those who study such things, the synonyms of those depicted will entertain and horrify any reader. The industry whose products we loved for a lifetime had their origins in stories not far removed from EC horror comics of the fifties. Both sides of the coin are represented and contrasted, the wealthy publishers, the insane editors, and the mercilessly taken advantage of creators, adding up as entertainment for mainstream comic readers that probably didn’t even know they existed for the most part.

Chaykin is in his element here, ceaselessly parading it all for us, never withholding the sordid truths, the monetization of sex, the racism and ever present class warfare, all adding to our precious comic memories, unshielding our eyes from it’s mean and devastating truths.

Aesthetically, one can say Chaykin here has some of his ticks that some readers may find off putting; his slight visual repetitions from one character to another and an expanding list of characters can make you work a bit to keep it all straight. I read each issue a couple of times, then blew through all five for a much more coherent and continuous read. The sheer cynicism on display here could turn off some readers, but its the subject matter here thats off putting, Chaykin’s talents only serve too well the stuff he’s depicting. For me, these ticks can be forgiven. After all, Howie is in his seventies, and he’s producing here an incredible tale- a sympathetic story thats incredibly sad mostly because it is real and the casualties are those we grew to love and admire in our desire for four colored fairy tales.

Chaykin only works with A-list talent, so kudos also to Wil Quintana’s rich, lively colors, and the never ending varieties of Ken Bruzenak’s lettering. Also assisting in his line up are several guest stars, helping him create the detailing that helps give the book life and it’s authentic touch, as well as back matter thats essential.

Despite whether you can stomach the details and the story, the utter lack of ethics or morals portrayed by those in charge that benefitted the most from them, there can be no doubt that (paraphrasing from the book) comic books are truly the ATMs of the media development industry these days.

Howie, you’re a tough read. But somebody’s got to do it, and while I’m sorry its you, you are the best fitted for it. Thank you.

The Bronze Age Cometh! The Amazing Adventures of Killraven

Amazing Adventures #18-39

Marvel Comics, 20-30 cents, 1973-76

#18-20

Hot on the heels of a fury of fantasy heroes such as Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, Roy Thomas looked for further ways to expand this non-powered concept of heroes. Taking H.G. Wells’s noted novel War of the Worlds and morphing it into a post apocalyptic action series based on the Martians second visit to earth, they’ve totally subjugated mankind, made them slaves, as well as use humans in genetic experimentation to further their goals of dominance.

In the introduction, he creates Killraven, a spectacularly successful arena fighter who’s a rebel with a secret even he doesn’t know. He gives the adventure proceedings a new coat of paint as it were, unique from its fellow fantasy comics brethren.

The first issue, written by Thomas, has some good establishing art by Neal Adams. Good with depicting action and distinct likenesses, Adams immediately gives the series an oomph that would have been difficult for a lesser artist. He makes the first story very successful, establishing the cast and world in a visually exciting manner. Sadly, Adams isn’t available afterwards, but Howie Chaykin steps in admirably. While he isn’t the draftsman Adams is, his forte with fantasy based themes, as well as exotic costuming make this a still interesting read. Continuing in this schizophrenic creative vein, Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman step in for scripting chores on the next two issues, keeping the action going from what I assume is Thomas skeleton for the series. Regardless, the proceedings are still on track, probably saying more about the method of Marvel comics production and its in-house talent pool at the time than anything else. Don McGregor takes over as the series regular writer next issue.

#21-24

The next four issues feature new regular artist Herb Trimpe. While McGregor’s prose displays an inspired attack, the strip goes more into irony and commentary on the human condition. Whether it’s deadlines, or budget(?), Trimpe’s art gets more and more rushed from the first issue, and by the last two, story content is reduced to 15 pages per issue, with golden age monster reprints filling the book(ugh!). While he’s not able to get past flat, stereotypical characters, the divorce from Marvel reality helps enormously, and the series becomes more a treatise on mankind according to McGregor’s philosophy. The mere 20 cent cover price makes it a bargain compared to the majority of Marvel’s output of super schmucks. Hope the new to comics Rich Buckler’s art next issue can elevate it…ooh, Klaus Jansen inks, too!

#25-28

Well, after the totally underwhelming run of Herb Trimpe on art, newcomer Rich Buckler does a fill in on issue 25, and the possibilities of the book begin to show a bit as it starts to evolve. While Buckler’s figure work is a bit wonky, his emulation of both Kirby and Neal Adams add an excitement to the proceedings that wasn’t there before. The next issue is another fill in by Gene Colan, of all people; he gives this episode a dark melancholy that helps demonstrate McGregor’s story emphasis. This schizophrenic approach to visuals,-(hey, who’s got time to do a Killraven issue?), and the continued use of a mere 15 pages to tell a one off, really hurt McGregor’s strengths in trying to make his point. On one hand, he’s got bigger fish to fry, but can’t do it in 15 pages AND perform the dynamics that Marvel comics demand (editorially, I assume).

Then in issue 27, Craig Russell arrives. Two things happen that make this story work so much better than than the entire previous run. One, Russell’s art is fully ensconced in the romantic and social depths that McGregor’s writing has desperately needed a visual partner for, and Russell’s chops are up to the task. Second, he is able to turn this into a two parter, utilizing 30 pages to tell the entire story, and give it the space and length it needs to be convincing. Killraven’s band here is also given the room necessary to develop their one dimensional depiction so far, and begins turning them into genuine people. The best story of the bunch thus far, both in writing and in physical depiction.

#29-34

McGregor and Russell totally fooled me here. While last issue provided a satisfactory end to the Death Birth Citadel story, this next issue picks up mere minutes from the end of the last, making this project not one of several short stories, but evolving into a continuing narrative, really without a concrete end from issue to issue. I notice as well that Russell not only does pencils and inks, but has been doing the coloring for the last two issues as well. If creators were trying to transform this into quite possibly the most ambitious workload as possible, this comic is able demonstration of it.

Russell’s art complements McGregor’s prose perfectly. While it can be argued McGregor bites off more than he can chew in his socially conscientious narrative, Russell’s art is equal to the task, providing the needed checks and balances, elevating a mere post apocalyptic tale into what can be said is as close to a work of art as Marvel could ever publish.

But commercial publication schedules will have their way, and this one provides more casualties than just McGregor and Russell, as issue 30 provides a frickin reprint of the Herb Trimpe story we just read a few issues ago, Killraven not an old enough property to have enough history of reprints to choose from, so this one is bookended by some character pages by Russell along with a couple of pages of the main villain reiterating what we pretty much knew. Whoop, wait, the character pages provide a couple of tidbits fleshing out some facts hereto unknown about the characters. But otherwise, ugh, pass.

Issues 31 and 32 get things going again, solidifying the continuous narrative McGregor is pursuing, with little advancement in plot, but it doesn’t seem to matter. At this point, Killraven’s story with his crew isn’t about the quest, but more about McGregor’s disillusionment with humanity and its self destructive path. One that the Martians have not only finished, but provide a inevitable exclamation point for. #32 emphasizes this, putting Killraven and his buds into a prewar amusement park that caters to the dreams of the freemen, showing in its conclusion the futility of man’s selfish goals in the first place. These nihilistic threads are balanced by Russell’s exquisite art, giving hope in the form of beautiful fantasies for the freemen. By this issue, he has mercifully given up coloring and handed over inks to the excellent Dan Adkins.

Of course, after two mere issues of overwhelming craft, we fall victim to another fill in. This one written not by McGregor, but Bill Mantlo and drawn by the ever present Herb Trimpe. This issue stands out as a sore thumb scheduled as a fill in, the editor knowing by now this will be the norm. However, astute readers will notice this one should have appeared after next issue. The story itself? Well, let’s just say this. While it was originally published in ‘75, it lands with a thud as perhaps the most graceless way to offer a sliver of continuity with a writer that had little idea of the narrative McGregor is working toward here. Also, even in 1975, this had to come off as fairly racist in its idea and execution. Now it seems little more than a horrible embarrassment in the annals of comic publishing history.

While #33 is pretty jarring in its near complete train wrecking of the series flow, with #34, our intrepid duo manage to right the ship again with perhaps the end(?) of the current storyline, and their ultimate battle with the toughest villain of the series. McGregor provides dramatic sacrifice for his characters, and Russell gives the proceedings a convincing display of an epic finish. War of the Worlds comes full circle here, transforming its narrative of basic action comic into something mainstream comics hadn’t seen before.

#35-39

And here you have it. The final five issues of Amazing Adventures featuring Killraven complete his saga, in a more or less satisfactory manner. The deadlines for the book have at this point convinced McGregor and Russell to limit themselves to more modest, single issue stories, or perhaps McGregor has decided that format suits his needs better. The aim of each issue seems better off for it, primarily since this was a bimonthly comic.

#35 features Jack Abel inks, perhaps the best work I’ve seen by him, no doubt guided by the tight pencil work of Russell. Sonny Trinidad embellishes #36, and #37 has Abel back again, all to satisfactory ends. Each issue’s themes work very well in the 18 page chunks, suggesting McGregor has a bit more of a handle on how to approach his stories. There’s also a nice balance between attempting to tell a story, with the metaphorical flourishes still there, just reigned in somewhat by conventional story standards, and perhaps the better for it. At last, the series, while not as ambitious now, has started to gel somewhat.

#38, being one of those shoehorned in fill ins, features for some strange reason another script by Bill Mantlo, I guess because he did the first fill in. While not as offensive as the first, retreads a theme McGregor has already covered, and is clunkily drawn by Keith Giffen (in his first published work?), whose Kirby influences only hurt his cause, both in terms of the utterly graceless figure drawing, and some pretty insufferable page layouts. Once again, you can pass on this one.

#39, the final issue, has McGregor and Russell depicting what they seem to know would be their last; they made sure they got it done in time for publication, with Russell inking his own work, but in a more simple, flowing style, showcasing what would later become his signature traits. McGregor, for his part, realizes there’s absolutely no way to tie up or finish his plot threads, and avoids them entirely. While visually looking a bit rushed, it’s nice they were at least able to go out on their own terms.

In hindsight, it seems inevitable this series wouldn’t make it commercially, as I can’t imagine the young male audience (for the most part, I presume), having the patience for the all over the place storytelling, and the artistic level set up by the creators here far too labor intensive and prose heavy to keep it them entertained, as well as on schedule. While Killraven never quite grabs you on a personal level (its characters being pretty much vehicles for McGregor’s main interests), the series remains a piece of Marvel Comics history that shows an experiment, that while never standing a chance under the systems it inhabited, at least a demonstration of what could be in commercial comic books.

A smoother read of this series would be pretty much the first couple of issues for set up (#18 & #19), skipping to #25 & #26, the semi successful fill ins, #27 is where Russell comes on board, skip 30 with the reprint, read #31 & #32, skipping the abominable issue #33 fill in, picking it up again at #34-37, skipping the sad issue #38 fill in, and end with the somber finish of #39. This order of experience will give you an uninterrupted, more pleasing read of the series, unencumbered by the commercial necessities of deadlines and interruption of mainstream hack work.

The Ruff & Reddy Show #6 (May 2018)

The Ruff & Reddy Show #6

It’s over. It’s really, really over. Finally. In what’s got to be the best issue since the first–I can’t go back and look, I don’t want to remember too much about the experience of reading Ruff and Reddy. I’m ready to forget. Ha.

So this issue has very little of writer Chaykin trying to offer commentary on show business. There’s talk about commentary on show business, but it’s bluster. The bluster works better than when Chaykin’s actually trying. This issue opens with a pseudo-Ain’t It Cool News website page. Because Ruff and Reddy apparently thinks AICN is a thing still. But other than that painful exposition tool? There’s not a lot of nonsense here. When Ruff and Reddy go on TV, Chaykin sticks it out and has a real scene.

And on it goes, with the character development Chaykin’s avoided for four issues, before a nice, sort of funny finish. I mean, if it weren’t vaguely homophobic. It might have actually been a good start to the series but, no, Chaykin plotted the thing out disastrously and it’s possible the only reason I’m a wee bullish on the finale is because it is the finale.

I never have to read Ruff and Reddy Show again.

I can’t believe I read it this time.

Nice enough art from Rey. He really deserves a better project than this one.

CREDITS

A Cautionary Tale In Six Parts, Part Six; writer, Howard Chaykin; artist, Mac Rey; letterer, Ken Bruzenak; editors, Michael McCalister and Joey Cavalieri; publisher, DC Comics.

The Ruff & Reddy Show #5 (April 2018)

The Ruff & Reddy Show #5

The Ruff and Reddy Show continues. It continues to get more and more embarrassing for writer Chaykin, who apparently decided to add some commentary on Hollywood sexual assault and harassment. Only not really, just for the opening summary page.

Then the issue is a series of not funny scenes with Ruff and Reddy in various television pilots. They’re all terrible modern television shows. Chaykin handles it all dispassionately. He’s just churning through. The reader, the writer, they get to churn through the pages without dwelling. Poor Rey has to illustrate this nonsense.

Chaykin finishes the comic with an almost decent scene at Comic Con with Ruff and Reddy getting into a fight. It’s not a decent scene, but it’s almost decent.

Barely almost.

I can’t believe I’ve made it through five of these comics.

CREDITS

A Cautionary Tale In Six Parts, Part Five; writer, Howard Chaykin; artist, Mac Rey; letterer, Ken Bruzenak; editors, Michael McCalister and Marie Javins; publisher, DC Comics.

The Ruff and Reddy Show #4 (March 2018)

The Ruff and Reddy Show #4

Ruff & Reddy has turned a corner. It’s now abjectly pointless. Chaykin has a big twist–which doesn’t come off like a big twist because artist Rey doesn’t make important panels bigger, in fact they’re usually smaller. But it’s also a really lame big twist.

Instead of doing the bickering cartoon animals shtick, Chaykin concentrates on a condemnation of the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, the cartoon animals are a terrible entry into that condemnation–and Chaykin really doesn’t have anything to say about the entertainment industry.

Or, if he does, it’s so bland, predictable, and familiar, the eyes gloss over it. In fact, mine glossed over so much I couldn’t help but notice Rey’s word balloons look funny this issue. Maybe they look funny every issue, but I haven’t noticed until now.

There are two more issues.

I don’t know if I can make it. Not because it’s too bad to read, but because it’s too bland to read.

CREDITS

A Cautionary Tale In Six Parts, Part Four; writer, Howard Chaykin; artist, Mac Rey; letterer, Ken Bruzenak; editors, Michael McCalister and Joey Cavalieri; publisher, DC Comics.

The Ruff & Reddy Show #3 (February 2018)

The Ruff & Reddy Show #3

This issue Ruff and Reddy are tragic and sweet and sympathetic. Meaning Chaykin has changed it up yet again. Three issues, three starts to the comic.

Unless the different approaches are just the gag. Maybe they’re just the point of the comic. We’ll get to the end and the story never gets started; Chaykin will have introduced at least three new subplots and dismissed six by then. There’s something like a subplot development this issue but it doesn’t work. Chaykin hasn’t been working on the subplot at all, so it’s just a cheap twist.

Maybe not even cheap. Cheap’s a determination. Chaykin’s not determined on Ruff & Reddy.

Rey still does quite well with the art. He’s drawing the same things over and over again, but he does them well. Chaykin puts more time into his one-panel talk show spoofs than he does the issue itself. Sorry. Sorry. I was trying to be positive about Rey’s art.

It’s not enough to keep this book going though. Reading it feels like more effort than Chaykin put into writing it.

CREDITS

A Cautionary Tale In Six Parts, Part Three; writer, Howard Chaykin; artist, Mac Rey; letterer, Ken Bruzenak; editors, Michael McCalister and Joey Cavalieri; publisher, DC Comics.

The Ruff & Reddy Show 2 (January 2018)

The Ruff & Reddy Show #2

The second issue of Ruff & Reddy might as well be the first. By the time it’s over, the series is basically in at the point where it should’ve been at the end of the first issue. Or the beginning of this one.

Instead Chaykin plots out this long issue featuring Ruff and Reddy have to go to a pop culture con and sign autographs. They’re being hounded by the young agent but don’t really want to sign on the dotted line yet. They’re too proud.

Even though they’re sad and miserable. The comic goes on forever, without a lot of content. Rey’s digital art is fine, it’s just not at all interesting when all he’s visualizing is the anthropomorphic leads standing or sitting around alone and sad.

Maybe if Chaykin turns out to have a story in mind, the series will recover. From this issue, however, it doesn’t look like he’s got a story in mind at all.

CREDITS

A Cautionary Tale In Six Parts, Part Two; writer, Howard Chaykin; artist, Mac Rey; letterer, Ken Bruzenak; editors, Michael McCalister and Joey Cavalieri; publisher, DC Comics.

Satellite Sam 15 (July 2015)

Satellite Sam #15

Satellite Sam comes to a close. A colorful one.

Fraction doesn’t exactly take the story somewhere unexpected or surprising–though there are a couple, post-big revelations last issue surprises (at least one anyway)–and, in many ways, it’s a gentle finish to the series. Chaykin doesn’t get anything lascivious to draw; they are just hints.

The not exactly surprising finish has a lot to do with the television industry. Fraction finishes up all the character plots and still has time for the history lesson. He does a great job with it; Chaykin too. The issue moves beautifully; the series works just as well without all the menace the creators have been imbuing it with.

But that success is the surprise. Fraction and Chaykin quietly created this great cast underneath a sensational story. So when the sensation finished, Sam stands on its own for the characters. It’s rather fantastic work.

CREDITS

Dead Air; writer, Matt Fraction; artist, Howard Chaykin; letterer, Ken Bruzenak; editor, Thomas K.; publisher, Image Comics.

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