Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 02/16/2005
It's been far too easy to forget just how powerful and important a series Howard Chaykin's American Flagg! was to the development of the then nascent modern age of comic books. Hitting the racks in 1983, a full three years before those other oft-cited touchstones of modern comics, The Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Chaykin used the unprecedented freedom offered by Flagg!'s original publisher, First Comics, to explore the dark side of the then popular vision of the American Dream in all its excesses. In doing so, Chaykin expanded the limits of not just the subject matter that comics were "allowed" to deal with -- at different times the series dealt directly and otherwise with such previously taboo subjects as his characters' sex lives, advertisers use of explicit and suggested sex and violence to sell their products, what's been called the general loosening of moral standards within the media, and the deliberate separating of classes within US borders, among many other still-incendiary topics -- but also radically re-envisioned the very means by which comics were designed and created, introducing elements from disciplines as diverse as the new strain of ironic, highly irreverent political satire and the modern musical theater dance renaissance which were both then blossoming on these shores. And he did it all with real grace, with an unfailing intelligence and wit, with an almost child-like glee and a great deal of abandon and consummate skill. American Flagg! remains one of the best books of its time -- of all time, if the truth be told -- and the fact that it has been unavailable for the past twenty-plus years is nothing less that an injustice, and probably a crime of some real sort.
Enter Nick Barrucci's Dynamic Forces. Never one to let an injustice stand uncorrected, or a great series too-long unavailable to languish in the depths of "Out of Print" Purgatory for overlong, Barrucci and company have corrected this long-standing wrong by putting a very nice chunk of Chaykin's Flagg! run between the pages of two highly affordable, beautifully designed and packaged trade paperbacks, as well as signed and unsigned hardcover editions. Which makes this the perfect opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with that title's creator, a man who surely is ...
An All-American Original
Howard Chaykin on American Flagg! and the Dynamic Force collections
An interview by Bill Baker
Bill Baker: How does it feel to finally have American Flagg!, one of your most celebrated, even seminal projects, coming back into print after all these years?
Howard Chaykin: It feels wonderful. It's been out of print for so long-I'm delighted to see it out there. One of the things that amazes me is the turnover of generations in comics. There's an entire audience-several entire audiences-who have no idea this book exists. And Flagg! was, in it's time, a seminal work. I'm very gratified to see it back in print.
BB: Does this mean that we'll get to see all of the American Flagg! story?
HC: I'm not sure how far beyond my own stuff in the book we'll go, if at all.
BB: Do you think this series might have the same relevance today as it might have back when it was first published?
HC: I have no idea. My great character flaw has always been that I assumed I was completely mainstream. People always tell me how weird my stuff is-but when I look at it, it seems perfectly normal.
What Flagg! was about, beyond it's narrative context, is design and graphics - and the application of thought and process from outside the comic book world to comics. I've always been influenced by other things outside comics - be it movies, television, graphic design, industrial design, music, dance, everything. I'm always astonished when I realize that, from a commercial perspective, I might have been better off being a comic book whore, staying within the confines of the panels. [General laughter] I'd've been less happy, in the long run.
BB: Have you given much thought about how those new generation of readers you referred to earlier might make of these tales?
HC: Beats the hell out of me. [General laughter] I have no idea. I cannot judge, or even anticipate, the reaction of the audience to the Flagg! material. I'm always flabbergasted at what the audience chooses as it's own definition of brilliance. Me, I have to constantly remind myself that the work is the reward.
BB: Well, what would you like readers, be they just discovering American Flagg! or returning members of your original audience, to get from it? Is it just about pure entertainment for you as far as what you'd like them to ultimately receive from the book?
HC: No - I always have an agenda - and I always have a point of view. But I try to couch that agenda and point of view in material that's as entertaining as I can make it. I'm not trying to change anybody's mind; rather I'm trying to express what's on my mind, and to find other people out there who might be like-minded, and agree, or who categorically disagree, and open a dialogue.
At the core, I want to be an entertainer. I see nothing wrong with that. My models for my life has ranged from Count Basie, to Bob Fosse, to Wallace Wood and Gil Kane. Guys who just went out there and had a good time doing what they loved doing. For those guys, the work was the reward as well.
BB: One last question, and it's one that I know is on the minds of a lot of your fans ... Does this perhaps signal that we might be seeing some new American Flagg! material from you if the reaction to the trades is positive enough?
HC: There's a new 12 page story in the Dynamic Forces hardcover edition of the collection and I never say never. The world I created in Flagg! is open enough, and loose enough, that there are plenty of stories to tell. So it's always a distinct possibility.
I'm back in comics full time right now, and I'm really happy. My life is enviable. I'm a very lucky guy.
Howard Chaykin would like to thank Nick Barrucci and the good folks of Dynamic Forces for bringing American Flagg! back into print. As should we all, Howard. As should we all.
You can find more information on the long-awaited American Flagg! reprints, as well as order those and other fine DF products, via their website at www.dynamicforces.com.
[Note: A version of this piece first appeared in Gemstone's Overstreet Comic Price Review magazine and is © by William M. S. Baker]
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