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The Joy of Plex: Erotic Arthrology, Tromplographic Intercourse, and "Interspecies Romances" in Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!

By Daniel F. Yezbick

Howard Chaykin has seen the future, and it's full of garter belts.
– Lloyd Rose

In his enthusiastic preface to Volume I of the 2008 Dynamic Forces/Image collected American Flagg!, Pulitzer-winning novelist and critical historian of comic art, Michael Chabon, observes that the largely forgotten series' "post-nuclear, post-global collapse, post-Cold War, corporate-controlled, media –overloaded, sex-driven, space-traveling, Jean Paul Gaultier-by-way-of-Albert Speer, freak-o-rama" overhauled generic concepts of dystopic Science Fiction, romantic comedy, James Bond-style sex romp, Hollywood Noir, and pulp adventure in ways that no one had previously seen or anticipated (Chabon ii). A few years earlier, Frank Plowright's encyclopedic Slings and Arrows Comic Guide had confirmed that the "underground sensibilities," "attendant violence," and "large number of sexual partners" which inform Chaykin's "cynical, bitter satire on American culture, morality and politics" produced a series that "deserves to be measured among" the most esteemed "highpoints in American comics" (NF in Plowright 24). A recent web interview with Chaykin also sums up what diehard fans and discerning readers have always remembered; not only did Howard Chaykin develop "a defiant" oeuvre that "ranks among the most unusual and exciting in comics history," but American Flagg!itself "stands as a landmark… one of the most iconoclastic and dynamic titles of the 1980s, if not of all time" (Doane). Speaking in person, concerning American Flagg!'s legacy, Chaykin describes the methodology behind the series in terms of a remixed or sampled pastiche that invokes but challenges and deconstructs the assumptions of its autodidactic consumers:

Comics is material for an audience with a catalog of preconceived notions. The language is encoded with certain ideas and expectations. When you confound and contradict those expectations, you either succeed beyond your wildest expectations or you fail so miserably that your audience is confused. (Chaykin qt. in Nelson)

In its time, American Flagg!was heralded as an "inventive, fast-moving, erotic, bold, witty, profane, and, above all, funny" re-interpretation of numerous media tropes (Thompson 23). The series won an unprecedented 7 Eagle awards in 1984 and "became the first comic book series ever to be placed in Nomination for a Nebula," with three entries in the "short story" category in 1985 (Obadiah in Chaykin Hard Times postscript). Today, however, Chaykin's pastiche of "crisp" postmodern "pop elegance" and hyper-nostalgic sexuality remains underappreciated and under-analyzed by comics scholars and media theorists alike (Rose 77).

As Franklin Harris has observed, Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!pioneered an "amazingly prescient" mode of post-modern comic-book narrative between 1983-1989 that, in its own way, predicted "the social satire and commentary that Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns would bring to mainstream superheroics a few years later" (Harris). Chaykin's own views on the relationship between his work and theirs remains understandably more subjective:

American Flagg!was a profoundly influential book mostly because of its invisibility in its publication. It was published by a small company that was defined as independent. …Flagg! , because of its small scale publication, was influential in comics because the only people who really paid attention to it were professionals. It sold well enough in the context of the 1980s, but it never really achieved mass-market, ground level support or fame because it was more obscure. It was occasionally opaque and frequently obtuse. It made a demand of the reader that most comic books at that time were not making, which is why, when people talk about comics in the 1980s, they talk about Watchmen and Dark Knight. The third book in that triumvirate, I believe, should be American Flagg!, but, it's invisibility is a source of frustration for me. I've learned to accept the way the world works, but it is frustrating, and of course, it's not helped by the fact that the reprinting has been delayed so long. (Chaykin qt. in Fary "Part One")

Where time has pushed American Flagg!further into the margins, Miller and Moore's works, though similar in their elaborate, darkly deconstructive structure, have grown in stature over the years, becoming influential and profitable milestones in and beyond the comics medium. Miller's Noiry elegy to Bob Kane's original brooding vigilante became one of the primary instigators of the High Concept Bat-franchise of cross-marketed films, cartoons, toys, video games, and assorted premiums that inundate every facet of the 21st century marketplace. Meanwhile, Moore's meditation on Cold War zeitgeists and the sequentially quixotic interconnectedness of time and space tricked out in super-clothes has been cited amongst the most influential works of contemporary fiction by no less than Time magazine (Grossman). And yet, as Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly has observed, Chaykin's American Flagg! languishes relatively unsung: "Unlike those other touchstones, this groundbreaking series" has remained more obscure, less commercial, and largely marginalized for the better part of 20 years, and, due to a variety of conflicts and hurdles, was not substantially "collected in the graphic-novel format until" mid-2008 (Jensen).

Many reasons exist for the strange snubbing of Chaykin's "multi-layered, electric, funny, inspirational, and most of all, smart" creator-owned concept (Lee). For one, First Comics, a one-time leading alternative publisher which produced American Flagg!, self-destructed in the 1990s. Afterwards, Chaykin's artwork was "scattered to the winds" and the "photostats used to print the original" first editions have been M.I.A. for years (Thielman). Also, Chaykin himself traded on the "cachet from Flagg!," and moved away from the industry, spending much of the 1990s involved in various film projects and television series where he enjoyed the commercial success that had largely eluded him as a comic-book professional (Chaykin qt. in Fary "Part Two"). On top of these historical factors, American Flagg!was never as marketable as either the Dark Knight or Watchmen, simply because it eschews the sacred cash cow of American comic-books, the superhero. Miller's crotchety Batman and Moore's outlaw vigilantes were more easily recognizable as comic-book properties because they were superheroes, and therefore, more effectively exploitable within pre-established markets. It becomes much harder, by comparison, to conceptually pigeonhole or commercially appraise the viability of American Flagg!'s remediated palimpsest of dystopic Sci Fi, Brechtian comedy, haute pornography, Noir mystery, Classical Hollywood glamour, and "profoundly patriotic" social satire (Chaykin qt. in Schweier). Looking backward, Chaykin recalls that "the audience for comics today is much less interested in these complex themes" (Chaykin in Fary "Part One").

Chaykin now flirts occasionally with mainstream capes and unitards, having completed his super-series, Power and Glory, as well as taking periodic work on titles like Hawkgirl, The Punisher, and Blade, but he has always acknowledged that his interests as a creator and his strengths as a storyteller lie within a different set of pulpy traditions which run parallel to caped crusaders: "I've only dabbled in superheroes. Most of my work has been science fiction, fantasy and crime, with a heavy dose of erotica" (Nelson). Yet his sequentially acerbic narrative, "dense in detail, busting with color, unified in design" and imbued with a dense, yet driving narrative which represents some of American comics' most ambitious aesthetic experiments, especially in light of American Flagg!'s far-out, eroto-maniacal remediations (Jensen). To fully comprehend how thoroughly issues of sexuality and seduction influence the rich legacies of story and style that Chaykin used to concoct his "post-holocaust negative utopia as burlesque comedy," one needs to briefly consider the multitudinous range of interests and influences that inform Chaykin's conceptions of both sexuality and design (Chaykin qt. in Fary "Part One").

The dearth of masks, capes, and costumes aside, Chaykin's American Flagg!represents "the apotheosis of all the things he'd been reading, studying, and learning since his teenage years" (Schweier). Interviews with Chaykin reveal the shrewd insights of a culture junkie and consummate craftsman, what Michael Chabon dubs "an artisan of pop," whose myriad investigations into all eras and types of stories and techniques have resulted in a nearly kaleidoscopic familiarity with every level of contemporary culture. While reporting that his early influences in comics involved an interest in "space ships and ray guns and giant monsters and shit like that," he also exhibits authoritative knowledge of West Coast Jazz, musical comedy, Film Noir, Nazi aesthetics, and his own "love/hate relationship" with what he dubs "a shameful amount of television" (Epstein, Fary "Part One"). Describing himself as a "weird, cult-y figure," he discourses on both the famous and obscure in comic art, crime fiction, Sci Fi, commercial art, television, film, pop music, West Coast Jazz, and even Broadway with the easy assurance that bespeaks the knowledge of a committed artist fascinated by his influences. In fact, he fashions himself a kind of eccentric outsider of comic art whose largely unsung innovations inspire Michael Chabon's comparisons to Orson Welles, Paul Simon, and Barry Levinson (Chabon i). Chaykin himself prefers comparisons to Robert Altman and Van Morrison (Fary "Part One"). With rebel cache, however, comes controversy, especially regarding the sexual politics of his characters.

Responding to frequent accusations of misogyny and fascist intent in his work, he immediately declares, "I love Facist imagery, it's extremely powerful," but also insists that "I'm one of the most liberal guys you'll ever meet… I don't subscribe to their politics," quickly backing up his argument with an extended lesson in poster design surrounding Ludwig Holbein, J.C. Leyendecker, and Richard Amsel (Andelman). Chaykin is equally capable of defending "the certain amount of Chauvenism" exhibited by his male protagonists and their fatale-inspired paramours (Schweier). Largely salvaged from the pulpy shadows of bygone swashbucklers, exotic adventures, and death-defying He-men, Chaykin's penchant for retro-refitting hunky masculinities finds its roots in Hammett, Chandler, Caniff, Raymond, and Runyon while his fusion of crime drama and witty comedy with Sci Fi and sorcery evolved out of early adaptations of Fritz Leiber tales. A catalogue of Chaykin's original leading men includes pulpy monikers like Iron Wolf, The Scorpion, Dominic Fortune, Cody Starbuck, and Gideon Faust, names that evoke not only a personal penchant for the swaggering adventurers that thrilled readers of all ages before the birth of the super-suit, but also his personal commitment to buck what he shrewdly condemns as "Presentism":

We're a society that is constantly victimized by presentism. You've got contemporary culture doing period material that imposes contemporary ideas on period ideas. So when I do period work, I try to convey period sensibility, and buyer be damned. And I'm frequently damned by the buyer because they want presentism, and they can find it elsewhere. (Schweier)

With American Flagg!, a series set in a very corrupt but intensely nostalgic 2031, Chaykin's period sensibilities helped him define the "fairly principled" hard-nosed and horny reformer, Reuben Flagg whose sexual escapades are a frequently humiliating corollary to his efforts at heroic justice (Gunderson). More on Reuben's liaisons will follow, but the real thrills in American Flagg!come from Chaykin's luxurious melding of strong liberated women with the silks, sashes, and sweet unmentionables of the past:

Chaykin's women have the requisite amount of pop-cultural post-feminist toughness: they fly jets and perform emergency surgery operations on lunch counters and tote the occasional automatic weapon. But what one can only refer to as their gams – the kind of legs found nowhere on earth except Las Vegas and in comic books – are upholstered and decorated with an assortment of hose and garter straps that would make Frederick (of the Hollywood Fredericks) look twice. This silky-seeming leg wear must be made out of some futuristic miracle material, for Chaykin's ladies come through the worst kinds of gunfire and disaster with their stockings serenely unladdered. (Rose 77)

Chaykin's cover designs for American Flagg!4 and 5 illustrate how thoroughly his women exude a righteous and deadly Post-Feminist 'tude – the kind of icy wicked cool that once defined Bond girls and greatly inform Frank Miller fanboy – Feminists like Elektra, Martha Washington, and the many butchy bitches of Sin City [See Figures 1-2].

Figure 1. Cover design for American Flagg! #4: Chaykin’s self-reflexive homage to Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates as well as a rather blatant nod to the Bad Girl Art of the 1930s and 40s. His conception includes a 1980s Cold War update with automatic weapons and Dirty Harry attitude.
Figure 2. Cover design for American Flagg! #5: A companion piece that features more sly allusion to swash-buckling pulp traditions within a thoroughly dystopic future. In this example, Flagg’s companion evokes the unabashed pose of the Good Girl pin-up whose objectification is largely a matter of accident or coincidence.

Free, tough, titillating and objectified all at once, they are also capable of co-opting or re-appropriating traditions of sexist voyeurism and covetous misogynist anger in a playful and occasionally stunning revision of established gender hierarchies. For example, the self-reflexive cover for Flagg! #4 mixes its homage to Milton Caniff's famously tough broads caught in mildly compromising positions, in Terry and the Pirates, with Crystal Gale Marakova's decidedly patriotic Bad Girl ensemble. Adorned with literal "stars and garters," she points her weapon at us, utterly unabashed of her near nudity. As a lover, a "Girl Friday," and a throwback to old-fashioned American pin-up aesthetics, she backs her hunky "fuck buddy's" play with grim resolve and a very accomplished eyebrow job. The following month, Chaykin offers a telling companion to this design with his upgrade of Good Girl pin-up traditions on Flagg!'s next cover. Rueben appears yet again amidst a triple threat of sports, sex, and violence and once more his lover sports a provocative mixture of eroticized couture and firepower. Here, however, Chaykin's leggy broad is less conscious of her own conspicuous exposure, a primary trait in the long-standing assumptions of innocence, naïveté, and patriarchal dominance that drive Good Girl eroticism. Fittingly, this time Rueben's girl clings to his hulking torso, legs splayed around his thigh to provide both support and "up-skirt" access. Here also, the female body is posed away from the viewer, emphasizing the demur, retiring attitude of the damsel-in-distress. Hanging out with Reuben, she has probably experienced enough adventure to carry a gun, but unlike Marakova's semi-auto, her dinky derringer recalls the genre traditions of the Western saloon tart, the Cold War spy, and the Noir fatale whose agency is tied hiding her weapons within her sexual persona in order to emphasize seduction, deceit, and manipulation. If Chaykin's Bad Girl flaunts her lingerie and her weapon, his Good Girl – who never really appears in the story itself – remains a mere ornament, the perfect accoutrement for Flagg's 21st century adventuring.

American Flagg!also toys continually with the fetishistic, pervy, and commodified elements of sexuality, but these flirtations run quite contrary to the series' typically loving recreations of classic erotica and burlesque comedy. Consider, for example, how the cover for issue #22 amps up the erotic details of earlier designs to the point of fetishistic hyperbole [See Figure 3].

Figure 3. Cover design for American Flagg! #22: Chaykin’s fetish-influenced costume and badass proto-riotgirl equate him with the flashy dominatrix/assassins who also appeared in similar works of new adult comic art at the time.

In this case, Reuben has completely shifted roles, falling from traditional romantic protector to abused love slave. Again, the Bad Girl stands defiantly "clad" in nylon, leather and studs, but the bizarre line of the iron chain she uses to dominate her captive perversely recalls both coitus and birth in its over-the-top portrayal of enraged femininity.

As belles, babes, or bitches, Chaykin's women display a comfort, confidence, and grace that neither Bond babes nor Miller's leather-studded she-bangers can claim: they look their best on their own terms even under fire, in deshabille, in bondage, in anger, or – in very rare circumstances – in dire straights. Perhaps this particular brand of sexy, sensuous strength or eroticized self-assurance arises from Chaykin's apprenticeship in 1970s romance comics where, as he describes it, the genre soon failed because, "the guys who edited them were failed book editors, and the guys who replaced them were comic book geeks. So they basically threw away the idea of girl readers, which really pissed me off, because I like girls" (Chaykin qt. in Schweier). And Chaykin – always the master-planner, prefers his "girls" correctly and assuredly dressed.

Consider the ensemble modeled by Crystal Gayle Marakova for American Flagg!#2 [See Figure 4].

Figure 4. Cover design for American Flagg! #3: Chaykin’s interest in women’s costume as an expressive visual device remains fairly rare even in today’s comic art, but in cases like this one, the combination of fashion-forward looks with stylized action and quasi-Deco ornamentation helped to establish some of the toughest and most elegantly realized female characters in comic-book history.

Even in the pastel and neon-infused 1980s, her bobbed 'do, coquettish cocktail dress, patent stilettos, and flapper pearls get a smoothly fashion-forward bump with the leopard-print skull cap, announcing a look that is both inherently vintage – short skirt, garter belt, and stranded pearls – and playfully edgy with its politicized USA-shaped earrings and fingerless elbow-length gloves. Marakova and her compatriots continually accessorize with Cold War emblems throughout the series, and their perpetual pairing of firearms to outfits also provides a subtle satire of the way that fashion informs and inspires the decadent confusion of Chaykin's aesthetically fractured milieu. Such attention to the observed realities of women's costume remain rare in even the most realistic comic art, and Chaykin admits that his past experience as a "Eurotrash clothes horse" has much to do with his fashion-savvy heroines:

I love clothing… I've been a subscriber to GQ, Esquire, and a number of women's fashion magazines since my teens, but I don't wear clothes in that sense anymore. I do believe in keeping current. …There used to be an art director at DC Comics, Neil Posner. He called me out of the blue and said, "I just saw this book you did and I've never seen a comic book in which a woman was wearing pedal pushers and loafers." It made my day. Since we have so little access to actual characterization in comics, there's a great deal you can do with costumes and attitude and I try to make as much as I can out of that. (Chaykin qt. In Fary "Two").

From macho revamps of established icons of adventure like The Shadow, Blackhawk, and Nick Fury to the strategically sensual couture of his heroines in works like Black Kiss, Mighty Love, American Century, Time2, and the hugely under-appreciated Helix title, Cyberella, Chaykin's career before and after American Flagg!has continually evinced his conspicuously intelligent, and often un-popular attention to the contradictions and "observed realities" of diverse, realistic gender identities within pulp and comic-book contexts (Epstein). His characters remain "pastiches and fantasies," but their actions and mannerisms, tastes and allegiances, are all clearly keyed to emphasize their authority, agency, and authenticity vis a vis inherently fraudulent or hypocritical systems of governance, coercion, and consumption thriving on the shallow thrills and comforts of Presentism (Chaykin qt. in Doane). Whether they inhabit "galactic empires with brightly painted star ships," posh yuppie condos, or sprawling super-malls, Chaykin's characters always rebel with "ironic detachment" against overwhelming scenarios of mass iniquity, groupthink, covert conspiracy, and panoptic control (Schweier). Their bemused cynicism is largely characterized by what Michael Chabon isolates as "the characteristic Chaykin facial expression," the "raised eye-brow of irony, skepticism, puckishness" that announce "a satirist's rage" as well as a gleeful mockery of that which he knows he can assail with abandon. On top of the arch attitudes metonymized by Chabon's knowing, the protagonists of American Flagg!defy their crypto-Fascist oppressors by exercising their libidos with all the frequency and creativity of devoted revolutionaries. Akin to the ways that Eastern European artists and film-makers used promiscuity, fornication, and sex fantasy to revolt against Russian Communist interference in their native cultures throughout the Cold War, Chaykin's not-so-young and randy things defiantly explore sex for pleasure and dalliance as they conspire to run away with the asylum which hinders their freedoms and attempts to cash in on their desires. To emphasize the contrast between rebelliously individualistic sex and the chaotic socio-political construct that antagonizes Chaykin's characters, American Flagg!employs a narrative design as flamboyantly over-determined as the matrix of lies, illusions, and advertisements his horny schemers hope to outwit.

As these distinctive lay-outs from the series' premiere issue reveal, Chaykin developed what has been called a "positively Gordian" lay-out, flooded with "graphic explosions" and "pell-mell pace" wherein "pages seemed to barely contain panels that barely contained themselves" (Erickson 73) [See Figures 5-6].

Figure 5. The Gogang riot scene from American Flagg! #1: One of Chaykin and Bruzenak’s most inventive compositions where panel gutters are defined by digital countdowns and the sound effects of automatic weapons which fire industrial strength, crowd-controlling tranquilizers beat out the rhythms of 1960s surfer anthems.
Figure 6. One of Chaykin’s “positively Gordian” lay-outs from American Flagg! #1 which uses both grid motifs and color shifts to partially reveal the origins of the Plex.

In terms of Thieery Groensteen's recently translated work on the poetics of comics, such designs quickly complicate the "arthrological" interaction of readerly hyper-frame and page-bound multiframe which helps to organize reader engagement with comics narrative (Groensteen 30). In such works, the margins, gutters, and minutiae that "separate the usable surface of the page from its peripheral zone or margin" can become extremely difficult to recognize or define (Groensteen 31). As a result, the page space itself and the spatio-topical framework it supports seem to seethe or leak with chaotic, randomly subversive meanings. In a way, we are asked to contemplate the beauty or profundity of a kind of Deriddean comics differance that posits a random inevitably meaningless counter-continuity within busily interwoven panels that surprise and interrupt each other through a number of unexpected or over-determined "adjacencies" (Peters Paragraph 38).

As Scott Bukatman has observed, the almost palimpsestic quality of Chaykin's mise-en-page "demolishes the clear demarcation of space into separate panels in favor of an overlapping and largely synchronic display" that mirrors the hyper-spectacular simulacra which define and control Flagg!'s remediated world (Bukatman 59). Despite the desperation, confusion, and conflict evident in the busy, over-burdened "syntagmatic progressions of panels," Chaykin's heady combination of "jagged dialogue," "sound effects," and Craftinting also weaves in specific moments of pop cultural wit. Consider how the sounds of the automatic weapons in the riot scene from the first issue of American Flagg!evoke the famous chorus of the 1962 Surfer standard, "Papa Oom Mow Mow" by the Rivingtons.

In developing these overburdened page designs, Chaykin followed a rigorous set of aesthetic rules and narrative restraints that pertain especially to depictions of sexuality and sexual activity (Erickson 73). For the entirety of Flagg!'s run and in much of his later work, Chaykin repeatedly emphasizes how he always "had a fun time drawing sex" (Fingeroth 5). Yet, his creative decision to eschew any explicit nudity or intercourse in all the erotic material produced by himself, his assistants, or his collaborators on Flagg! represents another Chaykin-esque remediation of the classical codes of popular entertainment. As a result of never allowing for "full-frontal nudity and nobody, never swearing," the series tempers its never-ending games of sexual hopscotch and media-saturated sleaze with an old fashioned, Studio-era form of seductive suggestion reigned in with glamorous restraint (Chaykin in Thompson 28). The end results function as both hilariously suggestive and arthrologically profound comics.

Instead of explicit genitalia or representations of intercourse, Chaykin's poignant manipulation of erotic and pornographic codes takes on two distinct trends. Whenever he deals with the way that Earth's "leaders in absentia," the Plex, apply the "language of the spectacle to infect everyday discourse" and manipulate the daily affairs of citizens, Chaykin allows his unruly layouts to mirror or mock spectacular combinations of sexuality, technology, violence, and consumption. For example, the Plex uses its massive "government cum communications network cum corporate power" to sanction and circulate advertisements for trademarked recreational drugs, custom fire arms, franchise brothels, and – most amusingly – Mananacillin, a popular "morning after" contraceptive (Bukatman 55) [See Figure 7].

Figure 7. One of American Flagg! ’s many bonus galleries from issue #16 which use a time-honored tradition of mainstream comic-books to playfully describe some of the future’s more popular pharmaceuticals including mananacillin, the morning after contraceptive which may be tied to a Plex conspiracy to sterilize its citizens.

On top of government-supported programming that includes subliminal suggestion, pay-per-view fetish pornography, and reality-esque 24-hour "Fire Fight Live," PLEXUSA, the only legally licensed entertainment network also deploys "Tromplographic" or hyper-spectacular "Tromp L'oeil" CGI techniques that eliminate the need for human actors [See Figure 8].

Figure 8. Chaykin’s one-page summary of Plex TV’s all-day panoply of carnivalesque programming from issue #17 which includes prophetic early conceptions of reality TV as well as nostalgia-based channels and Raul the Cat’s favorite tromplographic soap, Interspecies Romances.

Using computer memories of human beings, Plex programming plays to what one critic calls "our worst fears about our plastic, violent culture with its philistine tastes and hunger for novelty" (Rose 80). Alongside Plex programs like White Sluts on Dope, Public Humiliator, and the delightfully perverse Press the Meat, comes Interspecies Romances, a bestiality soap opera that takes parent, partner, and child swapping reality competitions to outrageously lurid extremes. One compelling episode focuses on a loyal husband who suffers under the "insatiable, lascivious desires" of Lupe, his promiscuous rabbit lover while another records the continuing trials of a bizarre love triangle involving "a man, a woman, and duck" (Chaykin Hard Times) [See Figure 9].

Figure 9. A two-panel sequence detailing Plex programming from the original intro to Chaykin’s graphic novel collection of the first story arc, “Hard Times.” Note how American Flagg! , like The Dark Knight Returns embeds a great deal of its narrative in sequential remediations of TV screens. Chaykin’s design concept also uses harsh lettering and “sound effects” which allow the lower borders of the panels to create an almost Brechtian alienation effect, distancing the reader and effectively jamming the Plex’s signal through resistant arthrology.

Chaykin's hypertrophied mise-en-page satirizes and condemns these sordid simulacra by representing them as a flood of haphazard images, "a circus of cheap elements from action movies, porn films, comic books, sci-fi, [and] TV – all going off as glorious fireworks" (Rose 80).

In effect, Chaykin's clogged lay-outs condemn tromplographic art by using the very power of mindless, rapid-fire spectacle against itself. To paraphrase Erving Goffman, Chaykin's self-reflexive tromplographics force readers to engage and interpret spectacular signs on the edges of the narrative frameworks that organize and deploy them (Goffman 174). In other words, his own pseudo-spectacular page designs teach us how to navigate, sift, and critique the manipulating remediations that the Plex provides somewhat suspiciously as a public service.

By developing a specialized "language or vocabulary" that can interrogate what he posits as "post-analytical" narrative, "more interested in sensation than sensitivity," Chaykin finds a vocabulary that self-consciously pits coercive spectacle against consumptive bewilderment and media manipulation. In such sequences, American Flagg!simultaneously creates and condemns its own "good looking nonsense" (Fingeroth 5,7). The end result is a counter-spectacular expose of mindless entertainment rooted in what Chaykin calls an agenda of "antagonism and questioning" shared by heroes and readers both (Fingeroth 4).

Yet, Chaykin's treatment of actual sexual contact takes on much more human, comic, and decidedly sensual forms [See Figure 10].

Figure 10. A 10-panel sequence from American Flagg! #3: One hot waffle of steamy, yet discrete sex that employs the kinds of frozen physical gesture, facial expression, and balanced grid-like design that Benoit Peters finds crucial to comics narrative.

Take, for example, a fairly infamous sequence from American Flagg!#3 where Chaykin's typically "dark-haired, dark-eyed, and Jewish hero" enjoys his first tryst with frequent lover, Mandy Krieger (Fingeroth 5). As an apt example of what Benoit Peters labels a "conventional utilization of page space," a "waffle iron"-type grid produces "a strongly codified system in which the arrangement of the panels on the page, by repeating itself, tends to become transparent" (Peters paragraph 8). In Peters' words, "gestures or facial expressions take on a considerable significance because of the regularity of the units" in such a composition, and as "characters barely move within an unchanging framework," readers are forced into a stronger, more intimate sense engagement.

Again, we enjoy a Goffmanian rim-surfing experience where readers are asked to contemplate the relative transparency of narrative forms that concentrate our "attention on some tiny changes in action and poses" (Peters paragraph 9). Where tromplographic Plex porn is outlandish, outrageous, and overdetermined in its interspecial shock value, this nine panel description of a "three hour" not-so-quickie privileges intimacy, privacy, and passion with tightly composed predominantly facial compositions. It upholds the dignity of the sexual act itself by not featuring, exaggerating or focusing explicitly on genitals, and most importantly, it generates the fun and pleasure of filling in the moments between each gutter as the lovers move carefully and playfully through one hot waffle iron of steamy red arthrology.

Principle characters in American Flagg! generally recognize the dubious, constrictive qualities of their government and rebel through frequent, often outrageous, and predominantly disappointing sexual escapades rooted in politically shocking or ethnically edgy encounters. Few are as randy or as perpetually frustrated as Chaykin's hero, Reuben Flagg. As Steve Erickson has observed, Reuben is "a naïve ex-actor turned cop and literally a Martian Jew who, having heard about 'America' his whole life, was besotted with the idea of it" (Erickson 72). Michael Moorcock also appraises Flagg as the "first All-American, hard-nosed liberal, humanly fallible… somewhat sexist, Jewish urban adventurer, the defender of all that our current leaders seem anxious to destroy and deny in our democratic traditions" (Moorcock in Chaykin Hard Times ii). Chaykin is fairly notorious for his many tall, dark, and ravishingly self-righteous protagonists (Fingeroth 5). Yet, Flagg's troublesome libido makes him particularly fallible. Erickson concludes, "But for how he was distracted from his ideals by his dick, his sanctimoniousness would have been insufferable" (Erickson 72-73).

Chaykin conceives of Flagg's many on-the-job boffings as deliciously rendered remediations of classic pin-up poses and stag couplings [See Figures 11-12].

Figure 11. In this nearly steamy moment from American Flagg! #2, mediatized surveillance provides comedic coitus interruptus when Crystal and Reuben are disturbed by Raul’s video message.
Figure 12. A similar scene from American Flagg! #5 suggests that Crystal and Flagg eventually develop ways to continue their foreplay despite the inevitable videophonic interruptions. Video conferencing and sex become simultaneous activities with each party observing the turn-ons and titillations of the other. Remediated scopophilia for all those tight schedules at the PlexMall.

His paramours frequently strip slowly and lovingly out of their retro-chic lingerie, stilettos, and garters. Still, the sweet promise of coital bliss is almost always ruined by intrusive crimes, scandals, crises, or – worst of all – moral doubts. As both examples suggest, these sudden interruptions are more often than not the result of media intrusions involving Plex-sponsored communiqués, breaking TV news, or ubiquitous two-way monitors and screens.

Consider this stunning sequence from American Flagg!#24 where Reuben fails to conquer his own lust after he discovers that his newest lover, Titania, is actually a neo-Nazi [See Figure 13].

Figure 13. Sexual and Racial Politics in American Flagg #7: Chaykin’s heavily braided two-page sequence uses deep greens, purples, and reds to trace Reuben’s failure to deny his throbbing libido when bedding a Nazi. Note also how the paneling employs hair, legs, and hands to move the form of the offending swastika along the page.

Torn between the throb of his loins and the dignity of his race, he fails to rise above his hunger and plunges violently into what is described but not depicted as a "violent, dark, short, and anything but sweet" screw (Chaykin American Flagg!#7 24). To magnify the shock of Flagg's discovery, Chaykin's mise-en-page slyly reinforces the shocking power of the offending Swastika necklace by repeating or braiding its unique design into the mass of tangled flesh, heels, boots, and stockings in the following panel. In fact, Chaykin's braiding makes particularly subtle use of the multiframe here as Titania's body not only mirrors the Nazi icon's design, but the recurring representations of the necklace itself float slowly and diagonally down the center of the page from where it is featured and framed in the nape of her neck in Panel 1 to the page's visual center in panel 4. From here, it again roams diagonally downward to where it is ripped off her body into the foreground, out of the frame, and, for Flagg's purposes, out of his conscience.

Sour sex scenes predicated on Flagg's ethnicity occur in other stories such as the sequence from issue # 20 where the tough female cop, Kristen "Bullets" Cristo, notes that "I'd always heard Jews sweat a lot more," belittling the mutual orgasm that Flagg himself finds "sensational" and "incredible." Stealing the tough guy role, Bullets continues to symbolically castrate her companion near the bottom of the page as she jerks her lighter toward her cigarette with the arrogant, affectatious "Snik" of the jaded lothario [See Figure 14].

Figure 14. Another post-coital pillow talk from American Flagg! #20 where Reuben does actually get laid, but his lover winds up castigating both his prowess and his ethnicity before callously dismissing his affections. In this case, Chaykin employs floating triangles on one page as a braided metaphor for the actual intercourse that takes place on the next. Punched in reaction shots also intensify the shattered intimacy of Reuben and Bullets’ liaison.

Even more tender moments like the return of a long lost crush continue to complicate his sexual adventures when she reveals not a swastika, but "grandpa Moishe's mezuzah" – the family heirloom he had given her in earlier, more innocent days. Yet again, Flagg's carnal pleasures are cut short by a call to duty and Chaykin's shrewd design uses matching colors and tightly counterpointed romantic two-shots from both the past and the present to emphasize the braided antagonism between the harsh "Eeps" of Flagg's intercom versus the spiritual and familial power of the mezuzah [See Figure 15].

Figure 15. This excerpt from a very tightly choreographed multi-page tryst in American Flagg! #24 includes some of the series’ most intimate and intricate erotica. Using musical scales and electric buzzers to define panel borders and backgrounds, Chaykin toys with the shape and color of the heirloom mezuzah to recall one of Reuben’s more innocent, idealistic romances.

Such sequences are arthrologically rich, but distinctly less frenzied than the contentious lay-outs dealing specifically with Plex-powered hyper-consumption. In total, the sexual politics and graphic innovations of Chaykin's work continue to challenge and empower readers' abilities to process multivalent forms of spectacle and seduction through wit, humor, and eroticism.

Chaykin in general and American Flagg!in particular rely primarily on three strategies in their ironic struggle against the forces of confusion and control: Sex, Style, and Story. Most critics cite Chaykin's heady blend of plot, porn, and pop mythology as the defining defiant theme that made the series "a landmark in comics history, and one of the most iconoclastic and dynamic titles of the 1980s, if not of all time" (Doane). Chaykin himself observes, "It was just an opportunity to vent all of my spleen and get paid for it. What a concept" (Chaykin qt. in Schweier). The complexities of Chaykin's plot development in Flagg! and elsewhere are largely beyond the scope of this essay, but his commitment to gripping tales of mystery, crime, seduction, and intrigue certainly informs the substance of both his lay-outs and his eroticism. As Chaykin has always condemned a "lack of interest in the narrative on the part of many of today's artists," the same can be said for his utter commitment to the narrative intensity of American Flagg!(Doane):

…it just seems to me that most comics artists who've come into the business in the last twenty years or so - with some very conspicuous exceptions – have no interest in the storytelling aspects of comics. The kind of talent I'm talking about is more interested in endless splash pages, or trading cards – mostly posed imagery that brings to mind professional wrestlers glowering at each other or bodybuilding competitions – as opposed to narrative forms like fiction, the drama, opera, or musical comedy – all of which can share in the heightened reality of story telling with visual imagery. (Chaykin qt. in Doane)

Committing to taut plots and rich dialogue, Chaykin works in "full scripts, we don't do Marvel style, or whatever that's called today. I believe in full scripts" (Chaykin qt. in Ash). As what he defines as an "anal structuralist in every sense of the word," he also insists on similarly close scrutiny of his page designs: "I'm a great believer in order and geometry, and for some ungodly reason, and I have no idea where it came from, I developed a jazz musician's improvisation, a lack of fear about not knowing exactly where I am going with an idea" (Chaykin qt. in Schweier). In general, his drafting process involves repeated stages of alteration and revision, "I've never been able to have inkers. I always look in awe at guys like [Jim] Starlin and [Neal] Adams who can do these tightly rendered pencils. I can't do that. My pencils are schematics. I do a polish and finish in ink. It is a multistage process because after I ink I re-ink and then I ink again. An average page crosses my desk four or five times before I deliver it" (Chaykin qt. in Epstein). Even when working with assistants, which he has done frequently, there is an absolute commitment to technical structure: "I'm a bit of a dogmatic and I have a very specific idea of what things should look like…. The offer I make to everybody who comes to work for me is that I will get you to do better work for me than you do for yourself. And that's usually the case" (Thompson 25). Chaykin's "dogma" of perfectionism became especially challenging with the narrative design for American Flagg!where his technical ambition inspired a "profoundly production-heavy product" whose very construction involved unconventional use of markers and "paper stocks like Zip-a-tone and Duoshade" that "inventively pioneered dozens of effects that computer programs can approximate now" (Thielman). As avant-garde as these techniques were, their artisanal quality further complicated efforts at reprinting new editions of the series. In fact, the retooling and remastering of American Flagg!for its much-anticipated and much-delayed 2008 reprint became "an incredible pain in the ass" for all involved parties. Along with other glitches in the digital transfer of the lay-outs, "the colors had to be completely removed and reapplied, which is the computer equivalent of cleaning your bathroom with a toothbrush" (Thielman). Though the physical resuscitation of American Flagg!and the fidelity of commercially repackaged vintage comics in general remain a crucial, but rarely addressed concern for both consumers and scholars, the arduous nature of Chaykin's eccentric page design involving "xerography and literal paste-ups and mechanicals" in the original compositional stages "before it ever got to First's production department" greatly informs the distinctively erotic narrative structure and well as its high critical regard (Chaykin qt. in Doane). In essence, the arthrological substance of American Flagg!is as richly suggestive and visually heady as Chaykin's leggy sirens. Like his tough chic women, his hip multiframes are draped in the echoes of the past. His gutters function as flirtatious suggestions of sweet pleasures just under the lace, behind the silk, and past the garters. Most importantly, however, Chaykin holds back on his aesthetic "money shots," allowing readers to merge with just the hints, tips, and edges of his eroticized lay-outs in whatever ways they find appropriate and satisfying.

Once promoted as "one of the most honored comic art series of all time," and finally enjoying the lavish reprint it deserves, American Flagg!still functions as what Steve Erickson has called "The Great Lost Comic Book" which "illuminated the future of comics before imploding" (Erickson 76). More importantly, Chaykin's deft use of sexuality, eroticism, and "brutal, porny style" as a political weapon, an artistic innovation, and a cultural satire remains substantially under-scrutinized (Rose 79). In fact, the representation, remediation, and exploitation of sex, gender, and identity are at the very heart of American Flagg!'s trenchant effort to empower readers to draw "their own conclusions about the social and political message" that in promotes through remixed pulp adventure, sharply timed burlesque, and perhaps most significantly of all, Plex-free sex (Gunderson 94).


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