Sunday Page: Rich Barrett su “American Flagg”

Every week on “Sunday Page” an author has to choose a single page from a comic book. It could be for sentimental reasons o for a particular technical achievement. The conversation could lose itself in the open water of the comic book world but it will always start with the questione: «If you had to choose a page from a comic book you love, what would you choose and why?»

This Sunday I’m out with Rich Barrett, author of the graphic novel Nathan Sorry, designer (USA Today, Nascar, Columbia University) and writer for Mental Floss and The Comics Journal.

I chose the first page of Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg #1 because it is one of my all time favorite comics and also one of the greatest books that many people still haven’t read. It came out in 1983, predating many of the defining comics of the 1980s like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and is really as important as those books in changing the expectations for what kinds of stories comics could tell at that time and how they could tell them. Since it was published by an independent publisher, First Comics, it also predated the whole Image Comics movement of the 1990s that would pave the way for the creator-owned movement in comics today. I was probably about twelve years old when I first read this comic (which was probably too young considering the heavy sexual content) and it shaped my expectations of what non-superhero comics could be from then on.

I chose this page, not so much because it has the best art in the series but because it really sets the stage for what this comic is going to be like and how to read it. Comics are very much about the balance between words and pictures and Chaykin really uses words to do a lot more than just provide dialogue and narration. He creates a visual texture with it and he also does about a good a job I’ve ever seen of simulating a soundscape and background noise on the page. I should note that collected editions and the new digital comic editions of this first issue contain an additional 10 page intro before this page, but originally the comic began with this page, dropping you right in-between dialogue and other noise. Chaykin is also an incredible page designer and the way this page layers panels, word balloons, the cutout of the Plexmall building and the “Hard Times” story title is just wonderful.

So, how did you discovered the book? Was it your first comic book you read?

No, I had been reading comics for most of my childhood at this point. I was probably about thirteen or fourteen-years-old when I discovered it and thinking back, I think I found it through back issues so it was probably a few years after it was first published. Up to that point, I was reading only superhero comics but was getting a little tired of them. I was the perfect age to appreciate the mid-1980s, a time when mainstream comics in general were becoming more sophisticated and lots of more adult-oriented comics were becoming widely available.

When I discovered American Flagg! my mind was kind of blown by the complex view of sex and politics although I’ll admit, I was mostly initially drawn to it by the sex. In this future world of 2030 Chicago that Chaykin depicts, promiscuity is a way of life thanks to a “morning after” pill called Mañanacillin which is secretly part of a government plan to sterilize the public. Chaykin loves fashion and women’s lingerie in particular so almost every woman is shown at some point wearing garters and fishnets and lace bras which was a pretty great thing for old thirteen-year-old me. It’s all a bit prurient but yet it also has some very strong and interesting female characters so I don’t think it’s fair to label it sexist (although it certainly is a little).

The world-building in this comic is just so intriguing and it really opened my mind at the time to the wonders of dystopian future science fiction. Chaykin imagined a future full of corporatocracy, reality TV, CGI, mall culture, climate crisis, the rise of Islam and the fall of the Soviet Union that all kind of came true in one way or another.

This is one of those titles that had a very strong influence on comics creators and yet not very well known globally. How come?

Unlike The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, which are perennial bestsellers, American Flagg! was trapped in the back issue bins for about twenty years until Dynamic Forces and Image Comics managed to finally put together a collected edition around 2008. I think there were some poorly made collections before this but a real definitive collection was held back due partially to some rights issues but also to production issues. Chaykin used some complicated printing tricks for the time that proved to be hard to reproduce properly using modern techniques. This lack of a bookstore presence during the formative years of the graphic novel made this more of a forgotten classic rather than a contemporary of works like DKR and Watchmen that it should be considered with in the same breath.