Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! 35 years later

“I wanted to do a book that would annoy, piss off, and educate… and it did.” – Howard Chaykin

To celebrate the Fourth of July holiday week, I am taking a look back at the first 14 issues of Howard Chaykin’s comic book series, the dystopian political satire American Flagg!  Written & drawn by Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Lynn Varley & Leslie Zahler, American Flagg! was published by First Comics.

This year is the 35th anniversary of the debut American Flagg! (according to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics the first issue went on sale June 20, 1983).  This is one of those series that went totally under my radar for many years because, to be completely honest, I just was not mature or sophisticated enough to appreciate it back in my teenage Marvel Zombie days. Having become a fan of Chaykin through his later work, I subsequently discovered American Flagg! via back issues, and immediately fell in love with it.

American Flagg house ad

American Flagg! is both very political and very patriotic, proudly wearing its love for America, albeit in a manner that was very different from most expressions of flag-waving to be found during the Reagan years.  As editor Mike Gold explains in the first issue…

“Chaykin’s probably the most patriotic person I know. Not in the usual ‘Love It or Leave It’ nonsense that serves to divide instead of unite – and is therefore not patriotic. Howard’s patriotism comes from pride – and from great hope for America.”

Of course, as he’s acknowledged over the years, Chaykin was not only interested in politics, and he also utilized American Flagg! to delve deeply into the worlds of violence, guns, fashion, and sex… lots and lots of sex.

The first issue of American Flagg! opens in October 2031 AD.  It has been three and a half decades since 1996, “the Year of the Domino, when everything went to hell.”  The United States and the Soviet Union experienced simultaneous violent collapses, and the planet was stricken by a series of calamitous economic, social and ecological crises.

The American government relocated to the planet Mars (“temporarily of course”) and, merging with private industry, reorganized as Plex USA.  Ostensibly formed to help put the country back on its feet, the so-called Tricentennial Recovery Committee is actually intended to milk the planet dry of its remaining money & resources, so that the Plex can permanently establish an independent nation / corporation on Mars.

Across the globe a number of Malls have been constructed, hives of government & commerce, their twin goals to maintain order and keep the population pacified with entertainment that is suffused with explicit sex and graphic violence.  The population of the former United States has splintered into numerous tribal factions, with different ethnic, religious, and political paramilitary “clubs” fighting it out.  The Plex actively encourages these “clubs,” providing them with weapons, and recording their battles to air on Firefight All Night, “the highest rated vidshow on three planets,” one that makes the Plex “a fortune in ad revenues.”

American Flagg 11 cover

Into this morass of corruption and violence, of omnipresent mass media and runaway capitalism, all feeding an unending cycle of urban warfare, steps Reuben Flagg.  Born on Marsplex to left-leaning bohemian parents, Reuben was raised to have a love for the ideals of the American Dream.  For several of years Reuben starred in the Plex’s top-rated exploitive TV cop show Mark Thrust: Sexus Ranger.  Unfortunately for Reuben, even though the show got renewed, he was fired, replaced by a computer generated image.  The out-of-work Flagg is drafted and shipped to Earth, where he is assigned to be the new deputy ranger at the Chicago Plexmall.

This is the first time Reuben experiences the dire situation of life on Earth.  Chicago and the rest of the New Midwest are plagued by “70% unemployment, constant intergang warfare, and malaise on an epic scale.”  The idealistic Flagg is appalled, even more so when the various jockeying factions of the region each attempt to inveigle him in their corrupt activities.

As Reuben explains to Mandy Kreiger at the end of the third issue…

“I grew up on Mars with a passionate, reckless love for this country… a devotion fed as much by history as by my parents’ homesickness… Wasn’t till I got here that I discovered the spacious skies were soot black, and the fruited plains were rotted through and through.

“But the damage is deeper than physical disrepair – much deeper. The American Spirit – the honest, openhanded driving force of solidarity – has been castrated. Betrayed by the banks… big business… by slimy fat cats who use patriotism like a tart uses cheap perfume… betrayed by the Plex.

“Someone’s got to stop the decline… Or try.”

Of course, reading this scene in 2018, it is also possible to perceive this as an example of a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied man riding into town and telling everyone they had better listen to him because only he knows how to save the day.  Your mileage may vary.

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In the past Chaykin has said words to the effect that while he is not a nice person, he is a good person.  That is definitely how one could also describe his creation Reuben Flagg, as well.  Reuben has all manner of glaring flaws.  He is arrogant, impatient, short-tempered, sarcastic, a womanizer, and more than a bit self-righteous.  On the other hand, he is also governed by a clear set of morals, he is honest, he hates injustice, and he has a clear aversion to killing.  Reuben may not be nice, but he is basically good.

Chaykin draws this line between Reuben and many other members of the cast, who are nice, but not necessarily good.  C.K. Blitz, the mayor of Chicago, is certainly a nice guy.  He is very friendly and polite, and knows how to make friends.  He needs to be, to stay in office and do his job effectively.  But, like most politicians, he is motivated primarily by self-interest, wheeling & dealing in order to acquire more power, prestige, and wealth.  Blitz isn’t a bad person per se, but he’s always looking for the next angle that he can play for his personal gain.

John Scheiskopf and Ester de la Castro are even more striking examples.  Both of them can definitely be very nice.  Either of them will be your best friend ever… right up until the point when they no longer have a use for you, at which point they will literally knife you in the back.  Beneath their polite manners and warm smiles, both Scheiskopf and de la Castro are incredibly selfish, power-hungry, immoral individuals who will casually commit mass murder in the furtherance of their goals.

Chaykin is clearly pointing out the danger of superficiality, of falling for outward appearances, both in politics and business.  The slick, charming outward veneer often masks all number of sins and selfishness.  In contrast, an individual like Flagg may be obviously flawed, but in his case what you see is what you get, and he doesn’t hide who he is, good and bad.

Reuben is also Jewish.  Chaykin establishes this in an almost-offhand manner, and it is only referred to in passing from time to time.  It certainly is not a defining characteristic; Flagg is a character who, among other things, happens to be Jewish. Nevertheless, I believe that this made him one of the first ever Jewish characters to headline his own ongoing comic book series.

American Flagg 3 pg 5

Chaykin quickly sets up a large ensemble of supporting characters and adversaries within the first several issues of the series.  Among these is the lovely Amanda “Mandy” Kreiger, the headstrong daughter of Reuben’s boss, the ever-obnoxious Chief Ranger Hilton Kreiger.  Mandy is a whiz with electronics, as well as Reuben’s main romantic interest… although certainly not his only one.

Among the other ladies in Reuben’s life is Gretchen Holstrum, the middle-aged “hostess” of the local Love Canal franchise.  Gretchen immediately finds herself drawn to the young, handsome Reuben, much to Mandy’s disgust, exacerbating the already-existing tension between the two women.

As the story advances, we learn a great deal about both Mandy and Gretchen’s histories.  It is to Chaykin’s credit that he develops Gretchen into a genuinely tragic, sympathetic character, yet at the same time still gives Mandy legitimate reasons to dislike her.  In other words, you can see both women’s points of view, and recognize that it’s a difficult situation, with complex emotions at play on both sides.

Another wonderful member of the supporting cast is Raul the talking cat.  Yes, that’s right, a talking cat.  Raul is both a source of comic relief and a close confidante to Reuben.  At various times Raul plays the piano, drinks himself silly, and operates heavily-armed attack helicopters.  He’s definitely a favorite of mine.

Raul is such a very cat-like cat that I figured that Chaykin must have had at least one cat in real life.  This was confirmed by Chaykin’s friend and occasional collaborator Don Cameron, who explained:

“Fun fact: Raul was based on a cat Howard had named Cochise who used to “mumble” all the time.”

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It’s interesting to look at the place American Flagg! holds in Chaykin’s career.  In the prior decade Chaykin had produced a body of artwork of variable quality, ranging from good to lackluster.  Chaykin himself is dismissive of much of the material he drew during that decade, regarding it as sub-par.

In early 1980, after a disagreement with Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, Chaykin left the field of comic books entirely, and for the next three years painted cover artwork for paperback novels.  When he returned to comic books in 1983 with American Flagg!, Chaykin’s work had clearly taken a seismic leap forward.  The quality of Chaykin’s art for this series is astonishing. Chaykin himself refers to American Flagg! as “the first thing I did that was any good.”

One of the most frequently-cited examples of Chaykin’s work on American Flagg! is page 17 of the first issue.  Chaykin’s brilliant layouts work with Ken Bruzenak’s superb lettering to create a stunning narrative sequence that lays out the back-story of the series.

American Flagg 1 pg 17

Due to unforgiving deadlines and a crushing workload, Chaykin was unfortunately unable to draw the two epilogues to his first story arc.  Issue #13 is penciled by James Sherman, and #14 by Pat Broderick, with both inked by Rick Burchett.  All three artists do their best to emulate the tone, the storytelling modes utilized by Chaykin, but it isn’t quite the same.  It certainly serves as a very example of just how much of an impact the artist has on the look, the flow, the tone of the finished work in comic books.

American Flagg! was a very prescient work.  Chaykin looked at the United States in the early 1980s and clearly perceived exactly where the country would be going over the next three and a half decades.  The pervasive presence of mass media and its influence on the electoral process, the manipulation of government by private industry, the escalation of ethnic and religious conflicts and the factionalization of American society, the degradation of the environment… all of this is present.

Chaykin also foresaw the dangers posed by a heavily-armed paranoid conspiracy-peddling white supremacist alt-right movement based out of the American heartland, or as they call themselves here, the American Survivalist Labor Committee.  In issue #9, the A.S.L.C. stage a grandiose political rally which they broadcast to the region via the Fasfax Chicago network, and their charismatic leader boldly declares…

“We’re here to stop this country’s slide into oblivion… a crisis precipitated by the most malevolent criminal cartel known to man… the Italo-Brit-Zionist Conspiracy.”

There is even a subplot in the second half of the initial year-long story arc involving plans by the Soviet Union to manipulate the outcome of a Presidential election.  In 1983 that might have left readers going “What a crazy idea!” but in 2018 has most of us responding “Um, yeah, I can totally believe it.”

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Chaykin’s work on this series was also groundbreaking and influential.  It’s probable that a number of up-and-coming creators who read American Flagg! in the early 1980s were influenced by it, and soon after utilized the tropes and techniques in their work for DC and Marvel.  It’s unfortunate that all these years later American Flagg! is still under-recognized, whereas The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, two books that could be regarded as its immediate successors, have both received widespread acclaim and multiple printings.

If you haven’t read American Flagg! before, I certainly recommend it.  In 2009 the first 14 issues were collected into two trade paperbacks by Image Comics which are still readily available.  It is one of the best examples I can think of that demonstrates the vast, often untapped, potential of the comic book medium.

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Tony Isabella returns to Black Lightning with “Cold Dead Hands”

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill – and suspicion can destroy – and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children – and the children yet unborn.” – Rod Serling

I am very pleased to see writer Tony Isabella back on his signature creation, Black Lightning.  Jefferson Pierce, schoolteacher by day, superhero by night, was the first African American character to headline a solo book published by DC Comics.  Isabella previously chronicled Black Lightning’s adventures in the late 1970s, and again in the mid 1990s.  This new six issue miniseries Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is the first opportunity Isabella has had to return to Jefferson Pierce’s world in 20 years.  It was well worth the wait.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 1 cover

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is actually something of a reboot to the character’s mythos.  All of the reality-altering events to have taken place in the DCU over the past two decades have provided Isabella with a chance to give Black Lightning a bit of a fresh start, keeping some elements of Jeff’s back story intact, revising and/or jettisoning others.

Jeff, as seen in Cold Dead Hands, has been a costumed hero for only a few years.  He is relatively young, and still single. Jeff is teaching at John Malvin High School, located in a predominantly black area of his hometown Cleveland.  An idealist who wants to make a genuine difference in his community, Jeff has made it his mission to help his teenage students achieve not just an education, but to also set aside hate & violence.

Jeff also works closely with Detective Tommi Colvalito, who he has known since they were children, and who he fondly refers to as “my sister from another mister.”  I was appreciative of the fact that Isabella established right off the bat that Tommi knows that Jeff is Black Lightning, avoiding the clichéd scenario of a hero’s close friend unknowingly pursuing them in their costumed identity.

The story opens shortly after the death of Jeff’s father, a veteran journalist.  Jeff has scarcely had an opportunity to mourn his father’s passing when a violent crime spree begins to engulf Cleveland.  Gangs armed with high-tech weapons are carrying out hold-ups across the city.

Jeff in his guise of Black Lightning attempts to stop this rash of robberies, a task made more difficult by the racial tensions inflaming the city, and by the fact that certain members of the police department resent that a black vigilante is, in their minds, upstaging them.  Matters are made even worse when Black Lightning is framed for murder by Tobias Whale, the mysterious crime lord responsible for arming the gangs.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 1 pg 14

In Black Lightning volume two, Isabella had Jeff describe Tobias Whale as “the single most evil human being I’ve ever know… an insidious and ruthless predator.”  Those remain the defining characteristics of the Whale in this new continuity.  Having scoured the country for technology left over in the wake of various failed alien invasions, the Whale has had his technicians reverse engineer the recovered artifacts, producing a lethal arsenal of “sci-fi guns.”

Tobias Whale is a monster obsessed solely with the acquisition of wealth and power.  He is willing to sacrifice anyone, even the members of his own family, to achieve his dreams of avarice.  Tobias explains to Black Lighting his vicious plan to flood first the city, and then the entire country, with the alien weapons…

“The frightened citizens will want to arm themselves against these guns, legally or otherwise. The NRA will demand the guns be available to all, and their toadies in Congress will agree. The gun manufacturers will spend millions, maybe billions, to make that happen. Eventually a great many of those millions will make their way to me. Once I lease my designs to those gun manufacturers, I will become richer and more powerful than entire nations.”

In addition to utilizing this miniseries to touch upon the epidemic of gun violence in America, Isabella also casts his gaze at the tragic rash of police shootings of unarmed black men, something that I do not believe has been examined anywhere near as closely as it ought to be.

As a white male, I cannot imagine what it is to be black in this country.  I simply cannot know what it must be like as a black man to walk down the street, knowing that any minute you might get shot and killed by a cop because you happened to be holding a wallet, or a cell phone, or a metal pipe, in your hands that was somehow mistaken for a gun, or because you were wearing a hoodie, or because you were moving in a “furtive” manner, and so on.  And I cannot conceive of the outrage and disgust that a black person must feel, witnessing again and again and again cops who have shot and killed unarmed black men getting off with, at most, a slap on the wrist.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 3 pg 17

Isabella is very concerned with the toxic effects of fear and bigotry on people, and upon society as a whole.  Us versus them, white versus black, cop versus civilian… fear plays a significant role in all of these exchanges.  And of course there will always be individuals such as Tobias Whale who will take every opportunity to fuel and exploit those fears for their own personal benefit.

The classic The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is alluded to throughout this miniseries, with Jeff’s class staging a school play which is a thinly-veiled version of Rod Serling’s story.  At one point Assistant Principal Lynn Stewart tells Jeff that that another teacher has disparagingly referred to the school play as “SJW Theater,” and I chuckled.

Despite the manner in which some comic book fans have recently utilized the term Social Justice Warrior as a pejorative, the fact remains that for much of the history of comic books numerous creators have utilized the medium to advocate for progressive causes, and to rail against injustice.  Isabella has certainly been doing that for his entire career, and via his invocation of The Twilight Zone reminds us that Rod Serling was also doing so in one of the most popular television series of the 1960s.

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is a very political work, blunt and honest in its addressing of the issues and crises of racism, gun violence, and the unchecked excesses of the police.  I am appreciative of the fact that DC Comics gave Isabella carte blanche to write about these controversial issues.

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The main artist on Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is Clayton Henry.  He does good, solid work.  It is flashy, but at the same time solidly rendered.  I previously enjoyed Henry’s work on various titles for Marvel over the past decade and a half, so it’s nice to see him teamed with Isabella on this miniseries.

Also contributing to Cold Dead Hands is the underrated Yvel Guichet, who is the co-artist on issue #s 4-6.  Guichet is an underrated artist who has been in the biz since the early 1990s.  I fondly recall his early work for Valiant, and I’ve also enjoyed his more recent assignments at DC.

Additionally, the talented Ken Lashley drew the cover for issue #5, as well as a variant cover for the first issue.  Mark Morales inks Henry’s covers for #1, #2 and #4.

I think it’s worth noting that Isabella, the creator of the Black Lightning character, is white, but he has often worked with black artists.  That is especially the case on Black Lightning.  Trevor Von Eeden (the penciler on the original series), Eddy Newell (the artist on volume two), Clayton Henry, Yvel Guichet and Ken Lashley are all black.  Isabella has always strived to make Jefferson Pierce an authentically African-American character, and I think it’s wonderful that a significant part of that has involved collaborating with artists of color.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 5 cover

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is a very effective miniseries, with passionate and insightful writing from Tony Isabella.  He does a fine job both in developing his characters and in broaching important issues facing American society.  His writing is complemented by dynamic work from talented artists.

I hope that Isabella will once again have an opportunity to return to Jefferson Piece in the near future, either to recount his continuing adventures, or to explore his origins in this new continuity.

April 30th Update: It was great meeting Tony Isabella yesterday at the East Coast Comicon at the Meadowlands Exhibition Center.  Of course I asked him to autograph my copy of Cold Dead Hands #1. I recommend checking out Isabella’s most recent Bloggy Thing installment for some behind-the-scenes info on the miniseries.

Baby Boomers and the Bomb

In the last several years there has been much examination of the role that Baby Boomers played in shaping the dysfunctional America of the 21st Century.  I think at long last I have finally wrapped my head around an aspect of the mindset of the Baby Boomer generation that led to the creation of the screwed-up world we are living in today.  I actually owe this to comic book  writer Alan Moore.  The blog Dork Forty is examining Moore’s proposal to DC Comics in 1987 for a dystopian saga, Twilight of the Superheroes.

In his proposal, Moore wrote…

“What I want to show is a world which, having lived through the terrors of the Fifties through the early Nineties with overhanging terror of a nuclear Armageddon that seemed inevitable at the time, has found itself faced with the equally inconceivable and terrifying notion that there might not be an apocalypse. That mankind might actually have a future, and might thus be faced with the terrifying prospect of having to deal with it rather than allowing himself the indulgence of getting rid of that responsibility with a convenient mushroom cloud or nine hundred.”

Previously I have had a great deal of trouble understanding how the Baby Boomers could go so wrong.  How could a generation that grew up in one of the most economically prosperous, technologically advanced eras to ever exist go on to tank the economy, become violently anti-science, ignore inconvenient facts like climate change and elect politicians who severely destabilized the institutions of this country, threatening the prospects of numerous future generations, all for short-term economic gains?

I have heard it suggested that because Baby Boomers grew up in a time of prosperity and growth, with no financial hardship, no Great Depression or mass-unemployment, they developed the assumption that things would always be that way.  I think that definitely played a role.

However, the Cold War also undoubtedly also played a major part in shaping the self-centered, sort-sighted psyche of the Baby Boomers.  As Moore observes, for a period of several decades, between the 1950 and the 1980s, the possibility of nuclear war was very real.

mushroom cloud

So on one hand you have a generation that were basically handed everything on a silver platter, benefitting from previously-unseen levels of economic growth and technological advancement, living lives of comfort and affluence previously unknown to most of people in the world.  On the other hand, that same generation grew up being reminded on a daily basis that any minute those dirty Commies might drop the Bomb on us, kicking off a nuclear war and wiping out all life on Earth.

In a way, it is not too surprising that so many Baby Boomers went on to live selfish, self-centered, me-first existences, making no allowances for others, or for the long-term future of the country and the planet, because on some level they probably did not expect there to be a future.  This is a generation that lived each day as if it was their last because they genuinely believed it could be the last, that any minute civilization could end.  Now all these years later they are unable to escape that fatalistic mindset, to wrap their collective heads around the possibility that humanity could conceivably have a future.

I wonder if that is why so many older voters who voted for Donald Trump are perfectly fine with him playing chicken with North Korea.  Maybe the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse is something they lived with for so long during their formative years that it actually now seems much more palatable than facing the difficult work of actually having to deal with complex, long-term crises such as climate change, rapidly-changing job markets, and wealth inequality.

I do realize that there is more to this issue than just Cold War psychology.  I am also leaving out the existence of racism in America, which has warped the thinking of a great deal of the populace for many decades.  As well, there are the issues of an increasingly multicultural society and the fight for women and the LGBT community to gain equal rights.  Certainly, we cannot overlook the tendency of many people to want to find simple answers to complex solutions, and to look for scapegoats for society’s problems.

For all I know I could be completely wrong on this issue.  I just thought it was worth pondering.  Feel free to let me know what you think.

Comic book reviews: The Divided States of Hysteria

As we enter 2018, let’s take a look back on one of the best comic book series to be published last year.

The Divided States of Hysteria is written & drawn by Howard Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Jesus Aburtov & Wil Quintana. The six issue series was published by Image Comics.

DSOH 1 cover

Chaykin is a creator who is no stranger to controversy, but The Divided States of Hysteria definitely generated more than its fair share. In addition to excessive levels of violence & sex, the series broaches upon a number of divisive political, economic and societal issues currently facing the United States.  It also contains graphic depictions of hate crimes.

Set in a reality all-too-similar to our own, the first issue of The Divided States of Hysteria opens one month after the President of the United States and most of the Cabinet have been assassinated in a failed coup d’état. CIA field officer Frank Villa is convinced that a massive terrorist attack is imminent, one that could push the already-destabilized nation into total chaos.  Frank is correct about the timing, but not the location, and to everyone’s horror a major American city is totally obliterated by militant Islamic suicide bombers armed with nuclear devices.

The vulnerable American government makes Frank the scapegoat for the failure to prevent the attack. His family dead, his career ruined, and his reputation in tatters, Frank receives an offer from Chandler Vandergyle, the CEO of River Run Inc, an amoral corporation that runs much of the nation’s prisons and security services.  Vandergyle wants Frank to organize & lead a covert unit to hunt down the heads of the subversive factions who conspired to carry out the terrorist attack.

Vandergyle knows the government is on the verge of collapsing, and the country is literally pulling itself apart, with numerous different ethnic, religious & economic groups engaging in violent acts against one another.  He hopes that a high-profile elimination of the terrorist leaders will shore up the Presidency and restore a degree of national stability, thereby enabling River Run to continue making obscene amounts of money.

Not having any other options, Frank reluctantly accepts the deal. He recruits a quartet of convicted murderers who are serving time in a maximum-security prison owned & managed by River Run.  Each of these four convicts has a tangential link to one of the terrorist organizations, and Frank hopes to utilize those connections, as well as the convicted killers’ aptitude for killing, to locate & eliminate the “bad actors” behind the bombing.

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Frank is a very flawed, damaged character. Even before the terrorist attack he was an arrogant, overconfident, womanizing asshole.  Shattered by his failure to prevent the bombing, Frank takes the assignment because he literally has no other choices.  He is flailing about in the dark, motivated by little more than a half-baked desire to make up for his immense error in judgment that resulted in millions of people getting killed.

The closest thing to a moral center in The Divided States of Hysteria is Christopher “Chrissie” Silver, a transgender prostitute who identifies as a woman. Unlike the other convicts, who are all mass murderers & serial killers, Chrissie has been railroaded into a life sentence for killing three homophobic men in self-defense.

Chrissie is a smartass and a flirt. She is very much motivated by self-preservation, but she also possesses a certain degree of empathy & morality.  She soon perceives that Frank is stumbling around in a fog of uncertainty, and quickly takes the initiative to save both their lives.

There had been criticisms of the early issues that Chrissie was a stereotype, that she was poorly depicted, that the transphobic attack against her was clichéd and exploitative. I can understand the reasoning behind these criticisms, and early on perhaps Chrissie is somewhat thinly written, Nevertheless, as the story progresses I think she becomes its strongest protagonist.

The mastermind who organized the various disparate terrorist groups to work together is Leo Nichols aka Leonid Nikolyukov, a Russian oil oligarch turned American venture capitalist and movie producer. Chaykin initially conceived The Divided States of Hysteria in early 2016, when it appeared that Hillary Clinton would likely be the next President of the United States.  I have no idea how far along Chaykin was in his work on the series when Donald Trump won the election under a cloud of foreign interference & voter suppression, but the character of Leo Nicols nevertheless feels like a response to that.

Nicols is a wealthy Russian autocrat who successfully manipulates both financial institutions & mass media to severely undermine the stability of the United States; he is very much akin to the real-life individuals who were behind the dissemination of divisive propaganda during the 2016 campaign and who are now undoubtedly pulling Trump’s strings.

Of course Chaykin has often been a very insightful & prescient author, going back to his work in the early 1980s on the groundbreaking American Flagg! at First Comics. So it is quite possible that all of the details of The Divided States of Hysteria were already worked out prior to November 2016.

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In an era when many single issues of comic books cost four bucks and take less than ten minutes to read, I found The Divided States of Hysteria refreshing. Chaykin’s plotting is dense, his scripting diffuse.  It took me quite a bit of time to read each of the six issues making up this arc.  I also found the series to be richer upon re-reading the earlier issues.  It is a fairly complex story.

One might regard The Divided States of Hysteria as very cynical. Chaykin himself has commented that what many have taken to be cynicism he regards as skepticism.  The Divided States of Hysteria does articulate his skepticism for institutions, ideologies, organized religions and economic systems.

Chaykin demonstrates there really is no difference between a “terrorist” like Nichols and a “patriot” like Vandergyle.  Both are aspects of the so-called military industrial complex.  The only thing that separates them is that one profits from destabilizing the United States, and the other profits from controlling it from behind the scenes.  The rest of us are just poor schmucks like Frank and Chrissie who are subject to events beyond our control.

Chaykin’s skepticism is reserved not just for those on the right, but also on the left.  As he writes in his editorial in issue #6…

“The right isn’t going to get a white-European America back. The left will never get a table where everybody sits at the head. The damage that has been done by our rulers and their masters to our country, and thus by extension to the world, will not be repaired in the time I have left on this planet.”

In spite of the series’ earnest, angry tone of outrage, the first arc ends on what is, all things considered, a fairly upbeat note. Certainly the conclusion was much more optimistic than I had been expecting.

This is only my impression, but having read a fair amount of his work I get the feeling that Chaykin is one of those people who, even though he knows how utterly unlikely it is, nevertheless sincerely hopes that one day things might finally work out for the best.

DSOH 2 pg 22

Chaykin does excellent work illustrating The Divided States of Hysteria. He expertly renders a large cast of characters in a multitude of settings.  At times I did find some of his layouts a bit confusing, the flow of action and the jumps from one scene to the next rather disjointed.  From time to time it can be a bit difficult to tell certain characters apart.  For the most part, though, Chaykin’s work as an artist here is effective.

Each of Chaykin’s covers for these issues are all very striking, a series of symbolic images that encapsulate the discord that has swept through the country, the clash of cultures and the atmosphere of fear. The color work by both Jesus Aburtov & Wil Quintana on these is striking.

Chaykin has worked regularly with letterer Ken Bruzenak since American Flagg! Bruzenak does a fine job on The Divided States of Hysteria.  In addition to his lettering of the dialogue & narration, Bruzenak also gives us a background “buzz” of electronic chatter and social media nattering.  This drives home the chaos & confusion brought about by the information, and disinformation, of the electronic age, driving home the omnipresent “noise” of the internet that often serves to distract or misinform the populace.  This “swarm” of data is juxtaposed with the ever-present drones populating the sky, signifiers of the twin intrusions of propaganda and a police state into our society.

The Divided States of Hysteria is a rich, complex, thought-provoking, deeply personal story from Howard Chaykin. The trade paperback collection is due out on January 10th.  I highly recommend it.

Howard the Duck for President

There has been certain skepticism regarding my cat Squeaky’s presidential campaign, with some wondering if a feline can actually even run for President. Well, let me assure you, Squeaky is hardly the first non-human to seek election to the highest office in the land.  Let us cast our gaze back four decades to the year 1976, when that foul-mouthed fowl Howard the Duck ran for President.

Howard the Duck 8 cover

Marvel Comics in the mid-1970s was a madhouse, and the lunatics were running the asylum. The company was in chaos, with little editorial oversight, deadlines being missed left & right, and sales on numerous books hovering at precipitously low levels.  On the one hand, this meant that for a time Marvel was teetering on the brink of collapse; on the other, this chaos enabled creators to experiment, to try all sorts of crazy ideas.  Howard the Duck was definitely one of those far-out concepts.  For a time the character was a tremendous success.

Howard the Duck was created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik. In many ways Howard was Gerber’s baby (no pun intended).  Gerber possessed an extremely offbeat and farcical sense of humor.  He utilized the character of Howard, an anthropomorphic duck from another dimension stranded on Earth, to brutally skewer a variety of topics, among them politics, religion and popular culture.  So it was natural enough that Gerber would utilize Howard to mock the 1976 presidential race.  It’s the sort of storyline that even a few years later he simply could not have gotten away with at Marvel.

The main narrative of Howard’s quest for the Oval Office took place in issue #s 7-9 of his monthly title and in the oversized Marvel Treasury Edition #12. Artwork on the Howard the Duck series was by the team of Gene Colan & Steve Leialoha, while the Treasury was illustrated by Sal Buscema & Klaus Janson.

In issue #7, Howard and his human companion, the lovely redheaded Beverly Switzler, are hitchhiking through rural Pennsylvania. After their run-ins with the loony Reverend Joon Moon Yuc and the Incredible Cookie Creature, the pair catch a ride with country singer Dreyfus Gulch.  The rhinestone cowboy is scheduled to sing the Star Spangled Banner at the national convention for the All-Night Party at Madison Square Garden.  Arriving in NYC, Gulch arranges jobs for Howard and Beverly at the convention.  Howard work security, which mostly entails breaking up fights between delegates, while Beverly is a Hospitality Girl, which mostly entails her getting pinched in the ass by those same delegates.  (As far as I know, Bill Clinton was not on the premises.)

Howard ends up foiling a plot to blow up the convention. The delegates, impressed by both his bravery and his extremely blunt honesty, decide to make him the All-Night Party’s presidential candidate.  This immediately puts a target on Howard’s feathered backside.

Howard the Duck 7 pg 17

In the pages of Marvel Treasury Edition #7, the first assassination attempt on Howard is made by a quintet of lame wannabe super-villains led by Dr. Angst, Master of Mundane Mysticism, who convinces his fellow losers that fame & fortune awaits them once they kill Howard.

Meanwhile, the still-broke Howard and Beverly are in Greenwich Village searching for a place to crash. Mistaking Doctor Strange’s sanctum sanctorum for the home of Beverly’s old high school friends, the pair instead comes face-to-face with the Defenders.  At this point the legion of losers attacks.  Strange is knocked out by a mystic barrage of baseballs and the unconscious mage temporarily transfers his powers to Howard.

Yes, that’s right. Only one day after receiving the All-Night Party’s nomination, our plumed politician assumes the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme.  If that’s not Commander in Chief material, I don’t know what is.  True, Howard’s turn as a veritable Ducktor Strange, Mallard of the Mystic Arts is short-lived, but he acquits himself well, playing a key role in helping the Defenders to defeat the despicable dimwits who have attacked them.

Howard the Duck as Doctor Strange

Also in the pages of the Treasury is an interview with Howard conducted by Steve Gerber himself. Queried about his qualifications and political experience, Howard articulates his reasons for running…

“I never kept one job more than three an’ a half weeks. Which is another advantage of the presidency. They can only fire ya for high crimes an’ misdemeanors. That stuff, I don’t pull. I just mouth off a lot.”

Perhaps you may be thinking to yourself that this is a terrible attitude for a Presidential candidate to have. But just look at it this way… ask any old human why they want to be elected to the White House, and they’ll give you some song & dance about “serving the public” and “patriotic duty” and “making America great again.”  But, truthfully, that’s all a load of horse pucky.  What they are really after is power and adoration and wealth.

In contrast, Howard comes right out and admits he wants to be President because he’s looking to (appropriately enough) feather his nest. How often do you come across a politician with that kind of honesty?

Moving on to Howard the Duck #8, having defeated their attackers, Howard and Beverly depart from Doctor Strange’s house. Within mere seconds they are attacked by a succession of would-be assassins hoping to earn the $10 million bounty that’s been placed on the duck’s head.  Fortunately Dreyfus Gulch zooms to the rescue in his armored limo.

Howard and Beverly are ferried to the offices of G.Q. Studley Associates, whose image consultants want to make Howard into the perfect pre-packaged candidate. Howard, of course, violently rebels at this.  Hiring Mad Genius Associates to manage his campaign, Howard embarks on a series of nation-wide appearances where he bluntly dishes out the unvarnished truth.  The misanthropic duck feels perfectly free to do so because he really doesn’t care if he wins or not, and he’s totally thrilled to finally have a soapbox from which to mouth off and tell everyone how stupid they are.

Howard the Duck 8 pg 10

You might say that Howard the Duck as a presidential candidate possesses the ideology of Bernie Sanders and the personality of Donald Trump. As one person in this issue comments, “My god, he’s telling the truth!  He’ll be dead in a week!”

Much to his surprise, Howard makes significant gains in the polls, and as Election Day approaches it actually appears that he might have a shot at winning. This all comes crashing down when a doctored photo that appears to show Howard and Beverly having a bath together is published by the Daily Bugle.  Yep, there’s nothing like the whiff of extramarital hanky-panky to send a promising political career into a tailspin.

As issue #9 opens the election is over and Howard has lost.  Truthfully he really doesn’t care, but Beverly is horrified at having been humiliated, “branded nation-wide as a shameless hussy.”  Dreyfus Gulch taps his CIA contacts, and they discover the forged photo originated in Canada.  Beverly insists to Howard that they head north to clear their names, explaining “My meticulously fabricated rep is at stake!”

Howard and Beverly journey to Canada, joining forces with Sgt. Preston Dudley of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Dudley leads them to the most likely suspect, “the infamous Pierre Dentifris, Canada’s only super-patriot!”  Dentifris has a burning hatred of America, regarding it as an arrogant bully that is constantly encroaching on Canada.  The attempts on Howard’s life and the forged photo were parts of an insanely convoluted (and just plain insane) plot to destroy America.  Further casting doubt on his sanity, Dentifris dons a suit of armor shaped like a giant beaver and challenges Howard to a fight to the death on a tightrope strung across Niagara Falls.  Howard, of course, perseveres, although the entire experience leaves him completely opposed to ever again entering the political arena.

Howard the Duck, as well as Steve Gerber’s other works, are something of an acquired taste for me. When I was younger I didn’t really appreciate his writing.  Quite a bit of his material went over my head.  As I got older, and my horizons broadened, Gerber was one of those creators who I grew to appreciate.  Looking at his work now, it’s apparent that Gerber was not the type to write down to his audience.  He certainly enjoyed pushing the boundaries.  Gerber was also very on-the-nose with his withering satire.

In regards to the blurb on the cover to issue #9, “When Bites the Beaver,” I’m curious if Gerber was sneaking in a crude sexual innuendo. Then again, sometimes a beaver is just a beaver.  After all, a few months after this storyline Gerber introduced the villainous Dr. Bong, whose head was a giant bell.  Despite much speculation over the years, Gerber always insisted that, no, the name Dr. Bong was not a drug reference.

Howard the Duck 9 cover

These issues have some really nice artwork. Gene Colan’s unconventional pencils are a nice fit for this series.  Colan specialized in rendering the genres of horror and mystery.  As can be seen by his work on Howard the Duck, he was a versatile artist who was also adept at humor.

Steve Leialoha is a great artist in his own right. He had only been working professionally for about a year when he inked these issues.  As has often been observed, it could be a difficult task to ink Colan’s pencils as he utilized very subtle shading.  Leialoha certainly acquits himself very well.  He possesses a rather abstract, flowing quality to his work, and his inking gives Colan’s pencils a slightly more cartoony quality that suits the tone of these stories.

I asked Leialoha on his Facebook page if he had any thoughts to share concerning his collaboration with Colan, and he was kind enough to respond…

“I like to think I took to inking Gene’s pencils like a duck to water! But, seriously, out of all the pencilers I’ve had the pleasure to work with he was my favorite.  Beautiful stuff!  Doing a little math: I figure I’d inked about 250 pages up at Marvel before Howard the Duck # 7 rolled around with about 70 of them over Gene’s pencils, so I was ready for it!  I look back at it now and see things I would do differently but I’m grateful for the opportunity, all those years ago.”

I’ve previously written about my great fondness for Sal Buscema’s art. He does a very nice job penciling the oversized Treasury.  It’s interesting to see him render the more oddball, cartoony elements of the story, such as Howard himself.

Klaus Janson, even this early in his career, was doing great work. As he has a distinctively gritty style, it’s noteworthy that he’s working on a humorous story like this one.  He and Buscema do make a good art team.

These issues are among the material contained within the Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection Volume 1 trade paperback. I highly recommend picking it up.  Trust me: in this insane election year, we can use all the humor that we can find!

Doctor Who reviews: The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion

Yesterday I watched the recent two episode Doctor Who story “The Zygon Invasion” and “The Zygon Inversion” written by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat.  It was a pretty good pair of episodes.  They were not perfect, but certainly entertaining and well-made.  This was another one of those stories that I needed to think over for a bit before writing about.

Zygon Invasion poster

1) You say you want a revolution?

The dangling subplot of the Zygons from “The Day of the Doctor” was picked up here.  We learn that humanity and the Zygons did manage to reach an agreement that enabled 20 million Zygons to secretly settle on Earth in human form.  Unfortunately a splinter group of militants has formed made up of Zygons who do not want to live as humans, who wish to embrace their alien heritage.  They regard humans as the enemy and assimilated Zygons as traitors.

I realize that these episodes were written & filmed months ago, and even aired prior to the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month.  But the parallels here are interesting.

Those attacks, and numerous other atrocities around the globe in the last several years, are the work of the Islamic State, a fanatical doomsday cult of Muslim extremists.  They wish to create a “caliphate” based upon their idea of a “pure” interpretation of Islam in preparation for the arrival of the End Times.

The actions of ISIL have led to anti-Muslim paranoia in the Western world.  Many in the United States want to ban Syrian refugees from entering the country out of fear that militants could be hidden among them.  This actually plays right into the hands of ISIL, who want to stop the refugees to find a safe haven, and who perceive the Islamophobia as the perfect recruiting tool.

Harness and Moffat pointedly avoid any mention of religious motivation among the Zygons.  However, the revolutionaries, led by a Zygon known as “Bonnie,” are motivated by the dream of a society that is totally free from both the presence and ideology of anything that is not Zygon.  They are willing to commit horrible acts of violence to achieve this “perfect” world.

Bonnie intends to cause the Zygons who have assimilated to return to their original forms, realizing this will create massive panic among humanity.  This will force the assimilated Zygons to join her group solely to survive the inevitable human violence.  Bonnie even recognizes that realistically 20 million Zygons do not stand a chance against six billion humans, but she would rather die on her feet in pursuit of her goals, taking as many humans with her as possible, than live on her knees.

UNIT, in turn, faced with millions of shape-shifting aliens who have the ability to infiltrate all levels of government, to assume the identities of friends and loved ones before they strike, are ready to wipe out all of the Zygons, guilty and innocent, in order to prevent more violence.

INVERSION OF THE ZYGONS (By Peter Harness and Steven Moffat)

2) Working class Zygon

Bonnie forces one of the assimilated Zygons, a man named Etoine played by Nicholas Asbury, to transform back to his actual form, recording it on her cell phone and posting it on the internet as a start to sowing xenophobia among humanity.

Etoine is horrified; he was perfectly happy with his new existence as a human, and now that has been destroyed.  Harness and Moffat make in very clear that this Zygon is apolitical, just someone trying to get on with their life…

Etoine: I’m not part of your fight. I never wanted to fight anyone. I just wanted to live here. Why can’t I just live?

The Doctor: We are on your side.

Etoine: I’m not on anyone’s side! This is my home!

Seeing no way out, Etoine commits suicide in front of the Doctor.  It’s a heartbreaking scene, with a sad, moving performance by Asbury.  It really demonstrates the suffering that ordinary people endure because self-important revolutionaries prize ideals more than they do actual lives, when fanatics believe that the ends justify any means.

3) Capaldi and Coleman

Both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are amazing in this pair of episodes.

Capaldi is well on his way to becoming my favorite Doctor ever.  He is such an amazing actor.  In the second episode, the Doctor gives a powerful speech to Bonnie…

I don’t understand? Are you kidding me? Of course I understand. I mean, do you call this a war? This funny little thing. This is not a war. I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know. I did worse things than you can ever imagine. And when I close my eyes… I hear more screams than anyone would ever be able to count!

Capaldi totally owns the episode at this moment.  I could not take my eyes off of him.  He was amazing.

Even when it comes to silly stuff like the Doctor claiming that he has question mark underpants, referring to himself as ‘Doctor Disco” and “Doctor  Funkenstein,” or alleging that his real name is “Basil,” Capaldi delivers those lines with such a wonderful irreverence.  Things that might sound daft coming from a lesser actor are quite witty and almost self-deprecating when Capaldi delivers them.

I know that at this point a number of viewers, myself included, are experiencing a bit of Clara fatigue.  The character has been around for a while now and, as with other companions, the quality of writing given to her has been somewhat inconsistent.  Given that, I think it can become easy to overlook Coleman.  But she actually is a great actor.

This is ably demonstrated when Bonnie takes on Clara’s form for the majority of these two episodes.  Bonnie is a completely different character from Clara, and Coleman plays the part perfectly.  It definitely demonstrates her versatility.

THE ZYGON INVERSION (By Peter Harness and Steven Moffat)

4) Osgood lives

Despite having been murdered by Missy in “Death in Heaven,” Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) returns.  It transpires that since the events of “The Day of the Doctor,” there have been two Osgoods, one human and one Zygon, the living embodiment of the peace treaty.  We don’t find out until the end of “Inversion” which one this is, human or Zygon.  But since they both have the same memories and personality, in a way both of them were real.

When I first heard Osgood was returning, I did feel it cheapened her death.  However it’s made clear that the death of one Osgood very much affected the other, that they had become as close as twin sisters.  Osgood certainly seems a more serious, somber individual here than in the past, no longer a goofy teenage but an adult dealing with great responsibilities.

5) Pod people

There is a tone to these episodes very reminiscent of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a menacing undercurrent of paranoia.  Is this person a human, or are they actually a Zygon?  Who can you trust?  At times it is quite unnerving.

The difference here, of course, is that the Doctor is hopeful that he can cut through the fear & distrust to find a peaceful solution.  He desperately wants to find a way for the two races to co-exist.

6) Five rounds rapid

Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) comes across much better than she did in her previous appearance in the Series Nine opener.  Yes, it’s obvious that Kate is still very much in over her head.  This time, however, we see that she nevertheless remains as rational and level-headed as one can under extremely difficult circumstances.

Kate is obviously much less idealistic than the Doctor.  Like her father, she is willing to use violence as a first resort.  But these episodes do demonstrate that her approach is not all that unreasonable…

Kate: You left us with an impossible situation, Doctor.

The Doctor: Yes I know, it’s called peace.

As much as I appreciate the Doctor’s noble intentions, it’s easy for him to negotiate a peace treaty and then fly off in the TARDIS.  Kate was left with the difficult job of actually making it work, of ensuring that humans and Zygons peacefully co-existed.  Just as Ashildr pointed out in the previous episode, the Doctor is always interfering and then running away, leaving others to deal with the consequences of his action.  All things considered, Kate appears to be doing the best she can.

While it is unfortunate that Kate had to kill several Zygons, if she had not done so then she herself would have died, just as many other members of UNIT did in this story.

Zygon Inverson Kate Stewart

7) Let’s let Zygons be Zygons

The Doctor eventually convinces Bonnie to give up her crusade.  He also forgives her for her crimes.

I was left wondering if Bonnie got off easy.  After all, she and her followers killed a great many people, both human and Zygon.  Many would argue that she was deserving of some form of punishment.

Perhaps this can be seen as the lesser of evils.  If Bonnie had been killed, it likely would have turned her into a martyr, inspiring her followers to continue her fanatical path.  If she had been locked up, she could have remained an unrepentant enemy waiting for an opportunity to escape and resume her terrorist activities.

By convincing Bonnie to reconsider her views, the Doctor has diffused the threat she and her organization presented.  At the end we see her devoting herself to maintaining the peace treaty by permanently taking on the form of Osgood.  It can be argued that she is making amends for her crimes by working to heal the rift she created and prevent others from following in her footsteps.

This is an issue that continually plagues humanity.  What is more important, enacting retribution or ending the circle of violence?  Do you let crimes go unpunished if it will prevent future violence from occurring?  There definitely is no easy answer.

As I’ve observed before, a quality of science fiction which I appreciate is that thru its lens it enables us to gain different perspectives on contentious real world issues. Obviously these two episodes of Doctor Who gave me a great deal to consider.

Star Wars reviews: Republic #61

The new Star Wars movie The Force Awakens comes out in December.  Although I haven’t written much about it on this blog, I’ve been a big Star Wars fan since I was a kid.  At first I was thinking of re-watching and reviewing the previous six movies on this blog as a sort of lead-in to The Force Awakens.  But I realized that so many others have written about them already.  Besides, I just couldn’t decide what order to review them in!

Then it occurred to me to look at some of the tie-ins that have been published over the past 38 years, the comic books and novels.  Most of those have never been examined in-depth.

I know that many people were disappointed in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.  While I readily acknowledge that those films were flawed, I still enjoyed them.  And they opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the so-called “expanded universe.”  Dark Horse, which had the rights to publish Star Wars comic books from 1991 to 2014, released many excellent stories set during the prequel era.

My favorite writer to work on the Dark Horse comics was John Ostrander.  He has always been incredibly adept at crafting stories that combine action, drama and political intrigue.  This made him particularly well suited to examining the events of the prequel era.

Star Wars: Republic #61 is written by Ostrander, with artwork by Brandon Badeaux & Armando Durruthy and a cover by Brian Ching.  It was published in January 2004.

Star Wars Republic 61 cover signed

Sixteen months after the Battle of Geonosis the Clone Wars are raging across the galaxy.  Senator Bail Organa is en-route from his home planet of Alderaan to the capital on Coruscant when his ship is attacked by space pirates.  Fortunately the Jedi arrive to drive off the raiders.

Landing on Coruscant, Organa is greeted by Senator Mon Mothma.  She is unsettled by the Senate’s willingness to leave oversight of the war to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine.  Organa acknowledges he is perplexed the Senate hasn’t discussed the Republic’s recent catastrophic defeat on Jabim.

That evening Organa is secretly visited by Finis Valorum, the previous Chancellor who resigned in disgrace after a vote of no confidence.  Valorum is aghast at the Senate granting Palpatine more and more power.  Organa rationalizes that this is “temporary,” to which Valorum fires back…

“The Senate barters away the fundamental rights upon which the Republic was built! You trust that the tyrant you are creating will give them back to you when the crisis is over? Palpatine will give back nothing! No one who seeks power the way that he does ever surrenders it willingly!”

Valorum informs Organa that Palpatine is using the assault on the Senator’s ship to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa is alarmed by this news.  As their meeting ends the two are unknowingly observed by a cleaning droid equipped with a camera.

The next day Organa has an audience with Palpatine.  The Senator questions the lack of debate on Jabim.  Palpatine waves this away, arguing that if the facts of the Republic’s defeat were on the record it would serve to alarm those whose loyalty is wavering.  Organa then informs the Chancellor that he resents the space pirate attack being used as an excuse to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act, and that he will be opposing it.  An unperturbed Palpatine simply replies:

“You must, of course, do as you think best. Might I give you a small warning? It would not be wise for you to see Finis Valorum again. Dirt rubs off so easily, and can tarnish those who would otherwise seem clean.”

Of course Organa detects the implied threats beneath Palpatine’s seemingly polite words, and he begins to ponder if Valorum is correct.  Soon after he and Mon Mothma meet with Valorum, who is preparing to depart Coruscant.  Organa says he is starting to share Valorum’s  suspicions concerning Palpatine.  Valorum boards his ship, which takes off… and then, to Organa and Mon Mothma’s horror, the vessel explodes above the spaceport.

The following day in the Senate, the destruction of the ship by an act of “terrorism” is offered as a further argument for the necessity of the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa addresses his colleagues, voicing his opposition.  He passionately argues of the dangers that occur when too much power is held by a single individual:

“This chamber is a place of reason, invested with certain powers and authorities! When power is invested in many, it cannot be seized by one! That was the plan and the purpose when the Republic was formed!

“The powers that this Act seeks to invest in the Supreme Chancellor belong to the Senate! They are our responsibilities and given to us in trust…

“We fight for the Republic. But what is the Republic, if not the principles on which it is based? To cast aside those principles would make even a clear-cut victory in this war pointless.”

Despite Organa’s efforts, the Act is passed into law by the Senate.  Although he has lost this battle, Organa tells Mon Mothma he now recognizes the importance of fighting for the integrity of the Republic.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 9

When Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were released in 2002 and 2005, Lucas was asked if he was commenting upon George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” the passage of the Patriot Act, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security.  Lucas denied this, stating that both the original trilogy and the back story he utilized in the prequels were originally conceived in the early-to-mid 1970s.  If there was any influence, it was actually Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.

Lucas went on to state that the prequels were an observation of the cyclical nature of human history.  Specifically he was commenting upon how democracies often give way to dictatorships as citizens willingly give up their rights & freedoms for the promise of security.

This is something that I’ve observed on this blog before, the seductive lure of the so-called “benevolent dictator” who will supposedly guide a nation through turbulent times with a firm hand, relieving the population of the burden of the messy, complicated business of democracy.

I went to see Attack of the Clones in the theater with my father. He didn’t regard the rise of the Separatists and the Battle of Geonosis being secretly orchestrated by Palpatine to enable himself to obtain “emergency powers” from the Senate as a reference to the War on Terror.   Instead my father was reminded of how in 1964 Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in response to a supposed act of aggression by North Vietnam.  This gave the President the power to utilize military force in Southeast Asia to combat “Communist aggression” without a formal declaration of war from Congress.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 12

In 2008 I met Karen Traviss, author of several novels set during the Clone Wars, at a book signing.  As with Lucas, she commented that her books were not inspired by the War on Terror per se, but on reoccurring motifs throughout history.  Traviss stated that just as people seeing the prequels in the early 21st Century might be reminded of Bush, so too would those born in the mid 20th Century recall Johnson and Nixon, and a Roman centurion watching the movies would see parallels to the rise of Julius Caesar.

Nevertheless, when I met John Ostrander at a comic convention in early 2005, he confirmed for me that Republic #61 was certainly his commentary on the War on Terror.

There were several scenes filmed by Lucas for Revenge of the Sith where Padme Amidala, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, realizing that Palpatine does not intend to relinquish his extra powers once the war concludes, begin organizing the movement that would become the Rebel Alliance.  Unfortunately these ended up on the cutting room floor, although they were included in the extras on the DVD.  As these were omitted from the actual movie, I’m glad that at least in the comic books Ostrander was able to depict some of the events that placed Organa and Mon Mothma on the path to opposing Palpatine.

Ostrander is correct that “temporary” or “emergency” powers granted to heads of state are often anything but transitory and are seldom relinquished.  One only needs look at the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.  I don’t know if Republicans honestly believed that the authorizations that they granted the Presidency in the aftermath of September 11th would simply vanish into thin air once Bush left office.  But they certainly appeared to be completely shocked when Obama utilized those same broad powers to authorize drone strikes and conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of American citizens.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 21

This is one of the reasons why I am a huge science fiction fan.  Yes, sci-fi is fun with its robots and rockets and ray guns.  But the genre also allows writers to offer commentary on political and social issues via allegory and symbolism.  Often it is much easier to critically analyze these controversial topics by transposing them into the future or onto another planet, to address divisive questions in a setting less likely to arouse bitter partisanship.

Ostrander certainly did this in his work on the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse, crafting stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking.