Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Howard Chaykin, and the issue is American Flagg! #3, which was published by First Comics and is cover dated December 1983. These scans are from Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! Definitive Collection volume 1, which was co-published by Image and Dynamic Forces in 2008. Enjoy!
American Flagg! is Howard Chaykin’s masterpiece – it’s pure distilled Chaykin, from the macho hero to the ornamental women to the crazy violence to the biting humor. It remains his apotheosis, which is too bad as it’s 30 years old and Chaykin kind of calcified after it, with some minor tweaks that I’ll look at tomorrow. I’m not really a fan of American Flagg! – this collection has the first 14 issues, and it wasn’t enough to interest me in the rest. I love Chaykin’s art on it, but I’ve never warmed to his writing. Such is life. Let’s take a look at the art, and I apologize for some of the fuzziness on the margins of these scans – this is a thick hardcover, and it was hard to flatten it on the scanner. I beg your forgiveness!
If you’ve ever seen an issue or example from American Flagg!, you’ll know that it’s famous (maybe?) for the stippling that Chaykin uses throughout. As rough as his artwork was before it, in this comic it’s wonderfully textured, as the dots give everything a tough, ragged feel to them, as even the people look like they’ve lived hard lives (this helps make his females a bit less glamorous, too, which is interesting). I don’t know if he began doing it here or if he started earlier – I don’t own any of his art from 1978-1983, so I can’t compare – but it’s a really neat effect. Reuben Flagg might live in a futuristic world, but Chaykin goes out of his way to make it gritty even as people are zipping around in flying cars. This also alleviates the Chaykin Face just a little – in Panels 2 and 4, we see Reuben’s face pretty well, and while we can see that it’s a “Chaykin face,” in Panel 2 he makes Reuben’s chin more prominent and his nose a bit sharper, which tweaks the Chaykin Face a little, while in both panels, the deep grooves created by the stippling make his face a bit more etched and tough. This is, I assume, Duo-Shade, and Chaykin uses it to wonderful effect.
Chaykin loves him some sexually aggressive women (and, to be sure, sexually aggressive men), and Mandy Krieger certainly fits. I’m always impressed how Chaykin’s women always seem to have sexy lingerie under whatever they happen to be wearing – overalls, hazmat suits, mascot uniforms, it doesn’t matter, because when they take those off, they’re wearing sexy lingerie! Panel 2 is a typical Flagg! panel in that Chaykin or letterer Ken Bruzenak use sound effects very well to help the reader move across the page. I know Bruzenak gets a lot of credit for a lot of the design work on Flagg!, but usually artists do the sound effects, don’t they? So did Bruzenak design the fonts for the sound effects and then Chaykin drew them in? I don’t know, but this kind of use of effects is an integral part of the series, and it does a great job making “sound” a bigger part of the story than most comics achieve.
Of course, we couldn’t go an entire series of posts about Chaykin without one Chaykin sex scene! I don’t own his porn comics, so we’ll just have to deal with that, but Reuben and Mandy do the deed, and it’s as “movie sex” epic as you might imagine, even ending with lightning and thunder (way to be subtle there, sir). Leslie Zahler wisely colors this red, because red is the color of sex and violence, and characters in Chaykin’s comics seem to enjoy violent sex (more than any usual sex is violent, which we know is the case even if we don’t like to admit it) … although this color has been “restored” by Avalon Studios, so I’m just hoping the original was in red. Chaykin weirdly doesn’t let Mandy be naked – I mean, it’s not like he shows anything objectionable, so why does she stay clothed? I can’t imagine getting banged with those heels on is all that comfortable. What I do like is that Chaykin shows them enjoying it, which so many scenes of sex don’t seem to show (people in movies often seem to be enduring sex, which is odd), and he also shows Reuben banging her from the rear, which we also don’t see in sex scenes in comics that often (as rare as sex scenes in mainstream comics are, it’s even rarer to see doggy style). Yes, these are things I think about occasionally. I don’t love Chaykin’s obsession with sex, but at least he acknowledges that people like it. That’s still ahead of its time, 30 years later.
I noted yesterday that Chaykin seemed to be getting a bit stiffer with his figure work, and we can see it a little bit in Flagg!, although it’s not as egregious as it would later become. He can get away with it because he does pose the characters really well and his panel-to-panel storytelling is very good, so the fact that his figures are a bit stiff is overshadowed a little. But look at Panels 4 and 5 – Chaykin’s figures in Panel 5 are angular and stiff, while in Panel 4, the neat drawing and the angle he uses hide Reuben’s awkward arm and even his fairly stiff leg. I don’t really mind it on this comic, because there’s so much else that’s excellent about it, but it’s something to keep in mind. Chaykin also continues to use blacks really well – they really help the bright colors stand out well, as we see in Panel 2. The panel is colored “unrealistically,” and we get bright yellows and oranges, but Chaykin’s use of blacks on the figures adds good contrast to the scene. Once again, the sound effects are an excellent part of the art, as the gunfire in Panel 1 leads us from left to right and, like the effect in the scan two examples above, helps create a sense of motion. Little things like this are, as I noted, why the stiffness of the characters doesn’t bother me too much.
Another thing Chaykin does really well in this comic when he has to is drop holding lines to create a more shadowy scene, as we see here. He uses nice thick blacks, the stippling, and the lack of holding lines to plunge Reuben into darkness, making his brief journey through the junk murky and dangerous. He uses negative space very well, as we see when he shines his light on the bomb in the final panel. Chaykin knows how to build tension, certainly!
There’s not much to say about this page – Chaykin packs a lot onto it, but he moves us around the page well as Hilton Krieger, whose murder kicked off the story, tells his tale. We get a good view of Reuben, too, and Chaykin makes him a bit more angular than other Chaykin males, but we see the thick and pointed eyebrows that a lot of Chaykin men sport. I love the details on this page – the stitching on Reuben’s gloves, the fashion of the women – even though it’s dated (the book is set in 2031, but of course reflects stuff from the early 1980s), Chaykin still manages to make it more “retro-futuristic” rather than just “retro,” so the fashion looks more like it’s people in 2031 trying to dress like people in the early 1980s rather than people from the early 1980s turning up in 2031. If that makes sense.
Scheiskopf (Chaykin is really not subtle in this book, but because it’s a satire, it’s not too egregious) is the killer, and he ends up fighting Reuben, not surprisingly. This is a pretty good fight, as Chaykin’s figures aren’t too stiff, and when they are, he once again compensates by using interesting angles. The first three panels are close-ups, so Chaykin doesn’t need to be too fluid, and the close-ups allow him to show how brutal the fighting is, as it feels more intimate and intense. The size of both Reuben and Scheiskopf in Panel 4 is a bit off, it seems, even though Reuben is “behind” Scheiskopf – he still seems too small compared to his adversary, but the way Chaykin uses perspective is nice, making the scramble for the gun even more crucial. This is the case again in Panel 6, as Scheiskopf throws Reuben – the speed lines help with the dynamism of the figures, but the way Scheiskopf throws Reuben to the right and the front is even better, adding dimensions to the fight and leading us nicely to the next page. Chaykin also lays the page out well, as an inverted pyramid, building to the big moment of Scheiskopf flipping Reuben. Notice that in the absence of computer rendering, Chaykin still uses nice blacks and the stippling to add texture to Scheiskopf’s sleeves on his jacket. That’s really neat, and it’s one of those details that make the artwork on this series so keen.
As I noted, this is probably Chaykin’s high-water mark, art-wise. His work on The Shadow was very good, too, but I’m not going to show that because it’s too similar to this work. Tomorrow I’m going to move ahead some years (decades, even) and show some reasons why I’m no longer a big fan of Chaykin’s work. It’s too dang bad! But don’t let it deter you from checking out the archives!
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