Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly look at what the Smash Pages crew has been reading lately.
Let us know what you read this week in the comments or on social media.
This week I’ve been super busy with work, but I did manage to get a little bit of reading in. I managed to read the entire X of Swords event, and I’m really digging it. It’s quite an accomplishment to have such a big crossover with one overarching story, yet have each book be its own unique thing that continues the theme that the books have been following so far. I don’t think I’ve seen that done so well in any crossover as each book still seems integral to the main story. There’s no throwaway issues here.
Another book from Marvel I’ve been reading is Iron Man. I was a bit skeptical based on the solicits for this new reboot, but this book is the real deal. The creative team is really digging deep into WHY Tony does what he does. He’s a good guy but doesn’t realize that he puts himself into a position of privilege and puts his decisions OVER everyone else’s. He doesn’t see why people see him as a bad guy. It puts into perspective all the runs before this one, taking them into account while working to put the character into a better place than he was when they started. I really like the introduction of Patsy Walker as the person to help him realize this, too. It just works. I’m looking forward to a long run by this team.
And finally I’ve been continuing my massive read through of all the Black Panther comics at Marvel. I’m on Hudlin’s run now, and I remember not liking it when I read it the first time. But I don’t know what young me was thinking — this book is great. I even like the relationship with Storm, as it feels like it was building since Priest’s run. It’s handled well. Hudlin does a great job at continuing Priest’s excellent work while making the book his own. It’s also nice to see Shuri start to come into her own as a character. You see the beginnings of that here.
I feel like I’m very Marvel heavy lately but I just can’t get as into DC today as a cohesive universe. Reading old Marvel books feels like I’m reading history, it all mattered. Reading old DC feels like another universe, another place, there’s not a connection there like there was before. I enjoy individual books there a lot, but they don’t feel like they are part of a whole like Marvel books do today. I hope that changes because I love DC. I miss it.
This week I re-read the first six issues of American Flagg! (cover-dated October 1983-March 1984), one of the seminal independent comics of the early ’80s. Written and drawn by Howard Chaykin, with colors by Leslie Zahler and wall-to-wall lettering (including literal backgrounds full of sound effects) from Ken Bruzenak, Flagg! is still very impressive in terms of craft – particularly when you realize that it’s all produced by hand. While it is also fairly prescient in terms of social commentary, at the time Chaykin was criticized for how he presented Flagg!‘s female characters. Needless to say, that treatment was front and center when I returned to the series this past week.
For those who came in late, American Flagg! takes place in early-2030s Chicago, a dystopian setting full of sex, violence and Machiavellian politics. After a series of catastrophes in 1996 (the “year of the domino”), the world’s governments relocated to Mars. A mega-corporation called The Plex swooped in to restore order with its force of Plexus Rangers; and now everyone lives (and shops) in Plexmalls if they don’t want to deal with well-armed gangs of marauders. The Plex has monetized it all – for example, you can bet on the outcome of gang wars – so that keeps the general public satisfied.
Into this mix comes Reuben Flagg, an actor who played a Plexus Ranger on TV and ended up joining the actual Rangers when his job was made obsolete by holographic technology. Flagg soon figures out that the Chicago gangs are being manipulated by subliminal messages in their favorite TV show, and his investigation eventually uncovers a shadowy far-right group bent on replacing the Plex as the rulers of the United States. This story spans Flagg!‘s first 12 issues and is told in 3-issue arcs. The first, “Hard Times,” is about the murder of Flagg’s boss and the subsequent battle over Chicago Plexmall’s pirate TV station. The second, “Southern Comfort,” finds Reuben chaperoning Chicago’s underground basketball team on a trip to Cuba and Brazil. Both are well-done adventure stories which flesh out Reuben as a character and build an impressive alternate 21st-Century world.
The problem, as mentioned above, is Chaykin’s treatment of female characters. Mandy Krieger is an air traffic controller who has a lot of free time, because there’s only one shuttle landing per week. At first she’s defined in relationship to her dad (Flagg’s boss Hilton Krieger). Mandy and Hilton don’t get along, so initially her ambition looks like part of that rebellion; but once he’s murdered she comes into her own. Next is Gretchen Holstrum, the sex-obsessed madam (because of course a 21st-Century sci-fi dystopia has to have a legally-sanctioned bordello). She appears briefly in the first arc, where she is very one-dimensional; but she too gets a lot more attention starting in issue #12. Much the same applies to Medea Blitz, the spoiled, high-living daughter of Chicago’s mayor. Like Gretchen, she expands beyond one dimension as well, arguably starting when she’s drafted into the Plexus Rangers. Sexually-adventurous Desiree Deutschmarx-Overholt is kind of a Gretchen-Medea combo, but she’s not in these issues enough to make much of an impression. Zeppelin pilot Crystal Gayle Marakova is presented as pretty much equal to Reuben – smart, good with her fists or a gun, and not defined by him or any other male counterpart. Finally, Ranger Arcadia Driftwood is a supporting character in “Southern Comfort,” but she’s similarly treated as Reuben’s more-than-capable colleague. (She does get ogled by Desiree at the end of the arc, though.)
Just about all of them (except Arcadia, seen only in uniform) dress more provocatively than Chaykin’s male characters. I know that’s not supposed to be indicative of anything, but it didn’t do him any favors in the ’80s and it’s probably not the best look for today’s more sex-positive perspectives. Mandy, Gretchen and Crystal all have sex with Reuben (and he meets Desiree in an S&M bordello, where he ends up punching her). Reuben does seem to settle down with Crystal after issue #3, and Mandy and Gretchen each have their own reasons for sleeping with him. It is all very James Bond-esque, which was probably the point but doesn’t say much for its enlightenment. In fact, the most problematic female character in these six issues is “Southern Comfort’s” mysterious blonde villain. Her gender identity isn’t necessarily part of her evil nature – it’s more like using her sexual wiles to corrupt another character, which is problematic all on its own – but it sure doesn’t help that there’s no comparable representation on the good guys’ team. (Having Reuben groin-kick his way through a group of drag queens who are hot for his bod has also not aged well.)
Ultimately, American Flagg! presents the now-familiar dilemma of a stunningly-rendered work which nonetheless requires deeper interrogation. Re-reading them from a 2020 perspective was rewarding even if it highlighted the yawning social chasms which our society still struggles to bridge. (It also reminded me of how far away the 2030s were in the early ’80s. Millennial Reuben was born in October 2000, and the series is now set “just” 11 years in the future!) Chaykin wrote and drew Flagg! for the bulk of its first 26 issues, which may be collectively the best work of his career. Each issue works both on its own merits and as part of the larger arc(s); the unity of design is second to none; and the world of Flagg! practically arrives fully formed on the first page of issue #1. I haven’t even mentioned Raul the talking cat. American Flagg! deserves to be re-read, both as the product of an artist at the height of his powers and an insight into what was transgressive both then and now.
In a very good way, I had some serious Invincible vibes while reading the first issue of Commanders in Crisis. I wasn’t sure what to expect from it after reading the initial press on it, but I really enjoyed the first issue of this new series by Steve Orlando and Davide Tinto. Remember how Invincible seemed like it was just going to be a standard superhero tale about a young hero and his dad — then bam! — the big twist comes? I was reminded of that when I got to the end of this one. Not to say that this is in any way a copy of Invincible; it just has that same sense of wonder and impact.
Anthologies can always be a bit of a mixed bag, and DC’s latest Halloween collection, The Doomed and the Damned, is no different, but I felt it had more treats than tricks. Of note to folks who may have passed it by — if you were ever a fan of the classic Garth Ennis/ John McCrea Hitman series, you’ll want to pick this up. Ennis’ story in this features a team up of epic proportions, as Darkseid comes to Earth for a drink and encounters Baytor (not to mention some other characters from his run on the comic). I don’t want to give anything away, but this story was … bueno. There’s also a clever take on the old Solomon Grundy nursery rhyme by Marv Wolfman and Tim Mandrake, a fun story involving Aquaman and Frankenstein by Brandon Thomas and Baldemar Rivas, and some really great Max Fiumara art on a Superman/Swamp Thing team-up involving a surprise villain, written by Amedeo Turturro.
Finally, Marvel promised that Fantastic Four #25 would be a game changer in terms of the book’s status quo, which is something we’ve all heard before, right? And for the Fantastic Four, it usually means that one of the Four ends up dead or quitting or whatever, and we get a new member like Spider-Man or She-Hulk or Crystal or whatever for a number of issues. Honestly, I kind of expected something like that this time around, and I was really happy when that didn’t happen.
No, the status quo change in this issue was two-fold, and for the sake of spoilers, that’s all I’ll say at this point. But it made for a great issue that leaves Dan Slott and his new creative partners plenty to build on — as this issue also introduces a new artist, RB Silva, who, along with colorist Jesus Aburtov, really gets to cut loose with some big action as well as some quieter, emotional family moments.
Combine that with a MCU-like “secret scene” at the end involving two very familiar Marvel characters, and I gotta say this is probably my favorite comic I read this week.