My Misspent Youth: American Flagg by Howard Chaykin

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.


While there were underground comix for a long time, I started reading four-color adventures at about the point the independent comics movement got underway. Thanks in part to the emergence of the direct market and a greater number of shops that essentially sold nothing but comics, there was suddenly an broader audience willing to pay a little bit more for material that was outside of the traditional Big Two publishers of Marvel and DC. I’m thinking of the comics that still fit squarely into tried and true genres, but were a little more adult, a little more daring, a little more distinct. As a result of all that, the independent comics intimidated me to no end.

Compounding my trepidation was the higher price tag. American Flagg #1, for example, cost one full dollar! Almost twice as much as the same month’s issue of Fantastic Four or The New Mutants. How on earth could I justify such an expense? Especially when I knew nothing about the character and didn’t feel compelled to figure out how he fit into a well-established fictional universe. For those reasons, I instinctively kept my distance from writer-artist Howard Chaykin’s creation, no matter how much it intrigued me. On the rare occasions when I did get a glimpse of what lurked behind one of its glossy covers, it was dizzying.


It was unlike anything I’d seen before, albeit in part because I hadn’t knowingly seen any of Chaykin’s earlier work, or, for that matter, similarly dynamic efforts like Manhunter, by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson, or much of anything by Jim Steranko. Many of the comics I was reading at the time were shifting the boundaries of superhero fare, but ever so slightly. Chaykin was delivering a wild hybrid of hard science fiction and superhero saga, marked by unapologetically dense pages of vividly challenging visuals and avalanches of jargon-punched language. It was maybe the first comic series I encountered where it was practically impossible to join midstream. Chaykin laid out his near-future techno-nightmare scenario in the first issue and put the full responsibility for catching up on anyone who wasn’t there from the beginning.


When I finally read an issue, I was baffled. And I felt a little dirty. Along with his satire aimed at politics, media, and whatever else struck him from month to month, Chaykin devoted a lot of his mental energy to sexy, sexy images, training his pencil on the task of rending those images with impressive alacrity. Taking advantage of the added freedom of creating for a publisher who wasn’t especially worried about impressionable kids picking one of their comics up from the lowest shelf of the drugstore’s magazine rack, Chaykin filled his pages with scantily-clad women, most of them with a predilection for bustiers and garters.


At the cusp of my teenaged years, I should have been a prime target for such salaciousness, but instead it made me nervous, as if someone was going to catch me reading it and ship me off to some reprogramming camp for the misguided youth who get turned on by pencil and ink drawings. My monthly reading of John Byrne’s Alpha Flight was already proving that I could be uncomfortably attracted to a a comic book character. I didn’t need Chaykin’s amped up version of panel-by-panel sexiness causing further turmoil to my hormone-rattled psyche.

And yet I kept circling around American Flagg, tentatively but with keen interest. I was seeing the ads for it regularly crop up in other First Comics titles I read, and I was tuned in enough to the comic book press to know Chaykin’s series was well-regarded. And it sure looked cool. Hell, it even managed to snare unlikely fan-vote accolades from time to time, as when Raul the cat just barely nosed past Beta Ray Bill to win Favorite Supporting Character in the annual Comics Buyer’s Guide poll. That might not seem like much. Believe me, it was a major upset in 1984.


The circle finally closed years later, and I read a big batch of American Flagg comics, my brain nicely marinated in a bevy of challenging indie fare by that time, making me far better prepared to absorb the intricacies of Chaykin’s storytelling. I’m honestly not sure how it holds up apart from my catch-up nostalgia. Like any science fiction that can be carbon dated in terms of decades as easily as years, some of the forecasting in its pages must seem a little silly. For me, though, reading it primarily gives me a chance to feel like a bolder version of my younger self. That’s an experience that doesn’t have an expiration date.

Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith
The Man of Steel by John Byrne
Fantastic Four by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
“Allien and How to Watch It” by John Severin
Fantastic Four Roast by Fred Hembeck and friends
The Amazing Spider-Man #25 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marvel Two-in-One #7 by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema
The New Mutants by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod
Dark Horse Presents
Bizarre Adventures #27
Marvel Team-Up #48 by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema
Metal Men #20 by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru
The Avengers by Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Fantastic Four by Marv Wolfman and John Byrne
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra

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