Pipeline: Pipeline Previews for November 2004

Fri, September 3rd, 2004 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

A LITTLE BIT OF FLAGG!-WAVING

This Pipeline Previews is a little different. I'm not going to trudge through the catalog for every little inspired publication two months hence. I've done it on my own once already and I wasn't particularly inspired. I still plan on running through the late, canceled, and expired books for you a little later. And please do stay tuned for those. There are a couple of interesting ones in there for you.

But this month, I want to focus on one title. It probably doesn't need the extra attention. It already has the cover to PREVIEWS. It has an impressive five page spread in the Image section devoted to it. It has Erik Larsen waxing nostalgic for it in his letter from the publisher. But it's one of those books that deserve even more attention. And it's a sad state of this industry that it probably won't top 50,000 copies sold combined, even after all that.

I'm talking, of course, of Howard Chaykin's AMERICAN FLAGG!. As much as we may focus on WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS as seminal books of the 1980s, there are several others that influenced creators, broke new ground, and stand the test of time just as well. AMERICAN FLAGG! is a leader of that vanguard, and will finally become available to a new generation of readers in November. Only the first twelve issues will be reprinted right away, but if we're lucky and the sales merit it, we'll see more. Cross your fingers.

AMERICAN FLAGG! is the near-future story of Reuben Flagg, an actor whose career comes crashing down when he's replaced by a computer. Even in 1983, at a time when graphics were only as spectacular as Ms. Pac Man and Donkey Kong, Chaykin leads off with a prediction that's just starting to come true now, 20 years later.

People flocked to the movie theaters to see TOY STORY in 1995 and TOY STORY 2 in 1999, but readily admitted that the humans are the weakest of John Lasseter's crew's CG animation. When FINAL FANTASY was released in 2001 and pointed at as the future of filmmaking, it seemed an impressive technical accomplishment, a rallying point for politically bored union actors, but hardly anything overwhelming and fear-inducing. It seems silly and perfunctory when Al Pacino makes a movie like S1M0NE in 2002. While George Lucas may continue to screw STAR WARS up frame by frame with virtual actors (and THX 1138 next), it doesn't cause his devoted fanbase to do anything more than laugh at his stupidity and decry his degradation of their childhood favorites.

But in 1983, Howard Chaykin started off his comic by replacing Reuben Flagg with a computer actor in the popular "Mark Thrust" television series, and then the plot point is rarely ever mentioned again. It's just one more off beat story idea in a series that builds upon ludicrous concepts that, to some, seem all too real today.

Chaykin's future starts 40 years after a societal meltdown, where a world at war with itself in 1986 caused the U.S. government to leave the planet and head out to Mars. Oppressive government control is thinly veiled by the promise of a revival in the far flung future of 2076, the tricentennial. The 1996 election was doomed from the start by an orbiting satellite set to throw the country into a panic, but the meltdown (financially and politically) happened first. Some might say that Chaykin was only off by one election cycle.

Let me get this out of the way now: Chaykin and I would disagree vehemently on every point of politics that we'd discuss. I've never met the man, but I've read enough interviews, seen him in action at enough conventions (er, that's a total of one convention), and read enough of his work to know that he is a man who is probably as far to the left as people would think I am to the right. But that doesn't bother me at all in this series. This is not a political polemic. AMERICAN FLAGG! does not concern itself with making topical hay anywhere it can. FLAGG is, instead, a funny and witty tale of an offbeat future in a bad place and time. It's an action comic with a caustic wit and a sarcastic attitude. It's a creative series with a never-ending run of ideas, and not a monotonous indictment of a political philosophy.

Anyone who wants to see parallels between today's political climate and the one seen in this title would, well, probably be voting for John Kerry. It's almost a litmus test in that regard.

In any case, Flagg is no longer an actor, and has instead been drafted into the Plexus Rangers, a pseudo-military organization dedicated to maintaining the peace. It's as corrupt as everything else in Chaykin's world of 2032, of course. But in FLAGG we deal with "Chicago O'Hare Plexport," a private institution once thought to be a center for commerce and transport. Instead, it now serves two flights a week and an unsteady stream of shoppers, many of whom are more interested in "The Love Canal" (use your imagination, and you're probably getting the idea already) than The Gap. It's also the site for a weekly gang uprising that Flagg gets to deal with for the first time by page eight.

The gangs are riled up weekly by subliminal messages hidden in their favorite television series, "Bob Violence." And those messages are controlled by -- well, I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Flagg doesn't necessarily want to deal with it, but he's being thrust into a corrupt and over-commercialized situation that's about as stable as the wildest of western towns in the mid- to late-1800s. AMERICAN FLAGG! is a sci-fi western, complete with fancy westerns, prostitutes, and pompous politicians. Maybe it's been done a thousand times by now, but never as well.

There's a lot that happens in the first year of this series, and once of the main reasons for that is the density of storytelling. Completely illustrated and written by Chaykin (lettered by Ken Bruzenak and colored by Lynn Varley and then Lesley Zahler), it's remarkable to think of how this book maintained its monthly schedule. Comics were different back then. The cost was only a dollar, there were no fill-ins, and no decompressed storytelling. Each issue was packed with story, and ran 28 pages. There were no computers, so the dense pages, photostatting, logo replication, et. al., had to be done by hand.

If Chaykin weren't so keen with the dialogue and the constant flow of new concepts, it would be an exhausting read. I wanted to take breaks while reading this book just because it's so much heavier than comics today, but my curiosity for What Happens Next prevented me from putting this series down. It may not be the quickest 12 comics I've ever read, but it's certainly one of the most absorbing.

Chaykin has a flair for subtle and not-so-subtle word play in the book, as well. "Medea Blitz" is one character's name, while Flagg uses a knockout blast called "Somnambutol" to quell the crowds. The morning-after pill is the ingeniously named "Mananacillin." Everything in the mall and over the airwaves has some bit of cleverness to it, including the "Jerry Rigg Custom Firearms" shop. Nothing hasn't been thought through for maximum impact or satirical purpose.

Chaykin broke the first year down into four three-part stories. Each arc has a beginning, middle, and end, strongly correlating to each issue. The third and fourth arcs run together pretty well, though, and things snowball continuously at that point. You might not even notice the way the third arc ends and the fourth arc begins, but just sit back and enjoy the ride, anyway.

"Hard Times" (issues #1-3) is a murder mystery, introducing us to Reuben Flagg as we, the readers, are introduced to Chaykin's world.

"Southern Comfort" (issues #4-6) is the story in which Reuben Flagg heads out into the world with a flight to the south of Chicago. (I'm a bit confused as to whether they land in Cuba or Brazil, so please forgive me the vagueness of that sentence.) The story expands the cast a bit, but this is it. After this storyline, you'll know all the characters you need to know to get you through the first year. All the pieces are in place, including Yet Another Love Interest for Reuben in Crystal, who turns out to be the most likable and, personally, the cutest of all Reuben's bed buddies. Really, by the fourth issue you know that anyone Reuben so much as winks at will be involved in a bedroom scene by the end of the issue.

Issue #4 is a fun blimpjacking issue with a great streak of humor to it, including a terrorist who looks suspiciously like Curtis Sliwa in Guardian Angels garb.

In "State of the Union," (issues #7-9) Reuben returns to the Chicago area to find an insane blizzard causing havoc in the surrounding areas and back at the PlexMall. Issue #8 is really the turning point in the series, as things collapse low enough that Reuben feels the need to take action in a serious outside-the-lines kind of way. He's come a long way in a short time from being a glorious television star to being a battled-tested man of the law.

Finally, "Solidarity For Now!" (issues #10-12) builds on everything that's come before it to give the first year a grand send-off. I hope you've been paying attention to all of the players so far, because you'll have a lot to keep straight. Things go from bad to worse, with a big upheavel in the status quo happening. It's potentially larger than even the first storyline's, but we won't know about it until after the 12th issue, which the November collections won't be showing. I have the issues here, and I'm sure I'll be pouring through them to learn more in the weeks ahead.

It's not just in the story that AMERICAN FLAGG! grabbed me, but also in the art. Chaykin's style is familiar to anyone whose read any of his other work, whether it be the current CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, the recently MIGHTY LOVE hardcover, or even the forgotten classic, POWER AND GLORY, from Malibu a decade ago. Let's face it -- all his leading men look basically alike, and his women all have a thing for stockings and/or garter belts. Consider it a trademark instead of a fetish and you'll breeze right by it.

But FLAGG! looks different. Part of that, no doubt, is due to Chaykin's youth and lack experience at the time. This is a younger artist who is, by definition, less sure of himself. Compared to today's work, his art is trying harder to look more realistic. In the intervening years, it's obvious that Chaykin has become more sure of his artistic muse and cuts straight to the more stylistic approach. It's a natural progression, and one you can see in most artists today over a similar time frame, including the likes of Erik Larsen, Stan Sakai, and Bruce Timm. For example, look at the original character designs by Timm on BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, and compare that to the way they ended up in the revamped look of the series. Gone is the attempt to make it look "real," replaced with a stripped down bare bones approach using much of the same style, but trying less hard to be concerned with photorealism. It's up to the reader, of course, to determine which is better or more enjoyable. In most cases, I'll take the looser and less structured art that comes with maturity.

In Chaykin's case, there's the added texturing of DuoTone to be found in AMERICAN FLAGG!. As editor Mike Gold pointed out on more than one occasion in the letters column for the series, Chaykin used paper that had the dot patterns built into it. Brushed with the right solution, the pattern showed through on the paper. Chaykin used it to create additional dimension and texture to his art, but also to shade the sides of buildings in the backgrounds and even, in some cases, to draw the silhouettes of backgrounds entirely. As technology progressed, fancy Photoshop filters and improved printing presses made DuoTone and other related patterns archaic. They're not used much anymore, except for affect.

The overall graphical feel of FLAGG! has to include the lettering work of Ken Bruzenak, now busily at work on POWERS. It is, as Warren Ellis once pointed out to me, the link between John Workman's THOR and Todd Klein's SANDMAN. You can see a variety of fonts used for different purposes. It moves past the simple, elegant, and clear work filling in word balloons and directing the story in captions. There is a strong design work used in sound effects that wrap around characters on the page and fill in the backgrounds of panels, plus consistent corporate logo designs, and more.

There's a knowledge of nature's abhorrence for balance and symmetry shown by Bruzenak even in the logo design. Look closely at the clipped lettering and the angular edges in the letters of the design. Then notice upon careful consideration the the "N" at the end of "American" is not at all consistent with the rest of the character designs. See how the "A" in "Flagg" jumps out at you, but only overlaps with the "L" before it and not the "G" that comes after. These are little things that you won't notice unless you're as anal about this art as I am. But you'll come to appreciate it all the more for what it does. It adds a quirkiness and an unsettling charm to the logo that carries through the whole book.

This isn't to say that Bruzenak is perfect, though. There is an odd goof on the title page in issue 12, where Bruzenak retitles the story "Solidarigy For Now!" Sure, "Solidarigy" looks good in filling the space, but it hardly does Webster proud.

There are a lot of techniques used here, including balloons which are cut off by items in the panel. Sound effects encroach on word balloons to prevent curse words from appearing. There are also examples of hand lettering being done by the seat of the pants. In a day and age where lettering on a computer means everything can be shifted around with ease, I think we all too often forget that hand lettering means running ink over an artist's finished pencils. You screw that up and you don't just slide the words over. No, you've caused an inker to redraw something, or a penciler to redo a page. Sometimes, you just let the imperfection stand. Who's going to notice? Just me, probably. But it's the imperfection which adds character.

AMERICAN FLAGG! was produced at a time when not every series got collected in a trade. To that end, Chaykin created an expository device to allow him to update readers on what went on last issue, which also fit into the framework of the series. It's a masterful little stroke of technique that prevented the storytelling from stopping dead at the beginning of each issue. It's also less lazy than a "Story So Far..." page. It's hard to describe, but consider it a psuedo-television interview, with the dialogue stored in the thick black borders along the top and left side of each square panel. The interviewer's face goes in the top left corner, and sometimes a Plexus ad will take the place of the dialogue.

When read in trade form, this shouldn't be a stumbling block. For starters, it's good to keep the players straight in this story with a gentle reminder. More importantly, the page is always entertaining in its own right. It's done with a lot of character behind it. It doesn't recap every little thing or provide us with a new omniscient viewpoint. It's keeping within the story. It's a nice technique.

It'll be interesting to see how they get these reprints to reproduce in the new editions in November. Originally printed on newsprint, the art often (by today's standards) looks blurred and muddy. Chaykin's DuoTone work really sculpted parts of his art, as well as adding texture to scenes, and even creating backgrounds. In addition, some portions of the art were colorheld to push them into the background more. All of these techniques make it more difficult to just scan in the published pages, clean them up a little, and reprint them. I hope they have the original film for these issues, or it's going to be a lot of work to re-present them today. The print quality could prove to be a big distraction to the story.

We have only to wait now until November to see how it all works out. Image is, in cooperation with Dynamic Forces, publishing the book in both hardcover and trade paperback. Each trade collection six issue is set at $20, while the hardcover with all 12 issues and a new 12 page story is only $50. This being a Dynamic Forces production, there's a signed and limited hardcover edition for $70.

THE ODDBALL BITS AND PIECES

The collections can't cover everything in these 12 issues. First packed in plenty of cool little extras throughout the series, including an AF! letters column, a First Comics letters column, a history of alternative comics text series, ads, and more. Some of it is worth looking at today. Here's an assortment of such oddities

One time DC Editor (now BACK ISSUE editor) Michael Eury has a letter in issue #5 in which he decries the lack of a parental notification on the cover. I'd make more fun of him for that here if I weren't guilty of the same thing. I had a letter printed in SIN CITY once, in which Frank Miller explained why that book didn't include a Mature Readers label. It was the first time I had ever heard the reasoning explained and it changed my mind on the concept. Maybe this letter did the same for Eury?

* It's fun to see the old vanguard of letterhacks represented in the series. T.M. Maple shows up a couple of times in that first year of the series.

* The letterhacks were obsessed with the important stuff, including Italian food recipes, as mentioned in the series. Take this quote from a letterhack in issue #5:

"By the way, I noticed in both issues that Krieger wore an earring in his right ear. Don't men generally wear an earring in their left ear? ... Or was he ... Oh, well, maybe I'm wrong and tradition has changed in the year 2031."

* Issue #10 had a letter from a man in West Virginia by the name of "Stephen Scott Beau Smith." Is that the "Last Real Man In Comics," back in 1983? I believe it is.

* Issue #9's letters column had this response from Mike Gold: "You cannot do both a novel and a continuing comic book. American Flagg! was designed to be the latter, but I think there are some interesting stories that can be told in graphic novel form. Hopefully, someday Howard will have the time to do just that."

At least the reader wasn't "waiting for the trade."

* What a fun time for FIRST comics. Take a look at some of the books they were publishing at the same time as AMERICAN FLAGG: GrimJack, E-Man, Jon Sable, Mars, Warp, and StarSlayer.

Their lineup of talent included Chaykin, Joe Staton, John Ostrander, Tim Truman, Mark Silvestri, Mark Wheatley, Marc Hempel, and Rick Burchett.

* In one ad, the 1983 Chicago Comicon (nee Wizard World: Chicago) touts such guests as Dean Mullaney, Roger Slifer, and Mike Gustovich. Also: Brent Anderson, Fred Hembeck, Mike Baron, Steve Rude, Max Collins, John Byrne, Mark Silvestri, and Terry Beatty. Admission was $5 a day, and the con was held at the Americana-Congress Hotel in the city of Chicago.

* One last thing worth noting, but that doesn't fit in this column anywhere else: AMERICAN FLAGG! is an obvious influence on Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's TRANSMETROPOLITAN. You have the crazy future, the political fray, the renegade lead character. You have three issue story arcs, little throwaway bits of business going on in the background, recurring gags, the whole nine yards.

That's all I have to say on this series for now. Come back on Tuesday when I attempt to throw everything else in that e-mailers tell me I forget!

PREVIEWED NO MORE

This month's catalog of items that are canceled or sold out is mountainous. It runs five pages, with just over one full column coming from DC announcing sold out books, statues, and collections. Marvel has a full line-up of sold out books, also, including the world's worst collection ever: X-MEN VISIONARIES: JOE MADUREIRA. That book literally falls apart in your hand. It puts the Caliber collections of the 90s to shame. I've never seen a book from anyone fall apart so easily.

Archangel Studios promises that they will resolicit TALES OF THE RED STAR #1.

CrossGen Entertainment is responsible for the creation of a brand new code, 9. This is for "Series/Product line cancelled [sic]." A whole string of issues from CrossGen falls under that category, though some are merely listed as "Lateness." ABADAZAD #4 is late. ABADAZAD #5-6 are cancelled. BRATH #15 is late, but #16-17 are canceled. NEGATION WAR #3 is late, while #4-5 are canceled. So it goes for SOJOURN/LADY DEATH, ROUTE 666, and LADY DEATH: WILD HUNT.

There's another new category listed, 10, for "Supplier Out of Business." Nothing is listed under that just yet, but stay tuned for next month's CrossGen's listing.

It's a pity, really.

Dynamic Forces has a lineup of 16 titles listed as "Cancelled [sic] by Previews." I guess those limited signed editions of this month's hot books aren't doing too well anymore, in a landscape with a major comic book convention every month?

Fantagraphics falls victim to the same category for both editions of its hardcover FREEDOM FRIES book. Somewhere, Ted Rall weeps.

Oni's KILLER PRINCESSES trade from November is a promised resolicit, which it is in this very issue of PREVIEWS.

I'll be back on Tuesday to review the week's comics and find something from the summer convention season to talk about. I'm still catching up, and have a long long way to go.

Over at Various and Sundry this week: A look at MTV's pathetic Video Music Awards show. The new iMac computer. The new Jeep Grand Cherokee's ugly design. The week's DVD releases. Fun with fonts. Olympic oddities. And the resurrection of the PBA.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are also still available at the Original Pipeline page.

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