Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"American Flagg" to Finally Flap in the Breeze!

This comes to us via the "About Damn Time" department. Image is finally releasing their American Flagg hardcover. It contains the first 14 issues (and a new story) of Howard Chaykin's groundbreaking sci-fi comic series from the 1980s. I think this was one of those First Comics books, along with E-Man.

Think. I can't actually be sure because it's been a long time and I really don't feel like looking all this stuff up again. So, from memory... American Flagg tells the story of Fred Flagg, an itinerant flag designer and all-American patriot who, infused with the power of a thousand American flags, becomes American Flagg, the red-white-and-blue defender of all things American: motherhood, apple pies, college football, celebrity worship, reckless overseas adventurism, stratospheric gas prices, obsession over American Idol and a natural spirit that combines both a shrill puritanism and a prurient pop culture. As a comic series, it was incredibly accurate in its prescience!

Thank god for my photographic memory, because until this book's street date, that's all any of us have to rely on- our memories of Flagg, his stylish leather jacket, his somewhat effeminate boots and Lester McWhiskers, his Garfield-inspired imaginary cat companion.

Why the long delay? This book was announced what seems like an eternity ago, and I was convinced at one time I'd missed its one and only printing. Then I had this vague idea legal issues had tumbled it from a state of exalted grace into developmental hell. After that, I thought it was a UK-only book. Eventually it turned up for pre-order on Amazon.co.jp and I put myself down for a copy, with little or no hope of actually getting one. Now I'm thinking it's a 50-50 proposition and yet I'm still stoked about it.

Actually, it seems the delay was technical. The original art is long gone, so they prepared this book from the comic books themselves. That brings up a myriad of difficulties- look at Checkers Book Publishing Group's delightful Gold Key Star Trek reprint books for one approach to using the printed comics. The people at Checkers seem to just photograph the comic pages, and that's fine; to me, the rough edges add charm to the Trek stuff and bring back memories of the days when comics were ephemera. But American Flagg was state-of-the-art in its day, so a big expensive hardcover full of moires, blurry art and fat linescreens just wasn't going to cut it.

You can read all about the reconstruction work at PW Comics Week, where they have the straight scoop from people who actually know what the hell they're talking about. I find this story fascinating because I'm a former Photoshop jockey/graphic designer and can appreciate the difficulties that went into this. And also that they took it upon themselves to update the colors somewhat. Evidently, Flagg wore "salmon" boots in the original printings. Yikes!

Purists might scream, but one problem I have with all these giant "omnibus" editions and archival reprints is the colors become way too garish, too harsh. Back in more primitive times, purples washed out and passed for certain shades of brown, pinks became subtle, use of magenta was probably subjective and meant to stand in for some other more reasonable color that wouldn't reproduce. Colorists avoided other colors altogether. Slavishly copying these colors themselves may be historically accurate but doesn't take into account the colorist's intent when dealing with poor reproduction and cheap materials. Color schemes that looked fine years ago on cheap, ink-absorbing newsprint often look like a carnival barfed on the slick white papers used today.

I suggest if you must hew completely to the original palette for accuracy's sake, at least take off about 5% or desaturate and soften the harshness. The black line work will stand out that much more and that's really what we want to see. The color should accentuate shape, depth and perspective, not actively compete with or obscure them. Judging by some of the info in this article, the American Flagg restoration team seems to have taken that into account. I really can't wait to read this stuff again.

Considering some of the subject matter, I probably shouldn't have been reading it at all when I was 14.

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