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.

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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.”

American Flagg 2 pg 1

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.”

American Flagg 9 pg 27

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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Cats and comic books: Hero Cats #10-13

Happy Halloween from the Hero Cats of Stellar City!

I have continued to enjoy the ongoing Hero Cats comic book series written by Kyle Puttkammer and published by Action Lab Entertainment. The latest four issues have been a lot of fun, as our team of crime-fighting kitties have traveled the world, and then arrived back home in Stellar City for a spooktacular Halloween.

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Hero Cats #10-12 features the three part “World Tour.” Puttkammer is joined by new series penciler Omaka Schultz, with inks by Ryan Sellers & Brandon Page.  When I first read #10, for a moment there I actually thought I had missed an issue.  Puttkammer opens the story in media res, with the Hero Cats aloft in a hot air balloon, accompanied by a little girl dressed as a princess.  By page two the balloon has crashed in the middle of the desert, near the town of Coyote Canyon.

I’m actually still trying to decide if the Hero Cats were somehow transported not just to the American Southwest but also back in time. Modern technology is completely missing from Coyote Canyon, and soon after the train out of town is waylaid by armed bandits.  Well, whether the year is 2016 or 1880, we are treated to an exciting throw-down between the cats and the gang of dastardly desperadoes.

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Although heading back to Stellar City, it is apparent that after returning the little princess home the cats somehow got detoured, as #11 opens in the aftermath of an airplane crash on an island off the coast of Africa. The cats encounter the warrior Malo who possesses the ability to talk to animals, and they join forces to combat a mystical menace that is seizing control of the island’s inhabitants.

The cats’ next stop on their way home is the Far East. They arrive in what appears to be Medieval Japan (more time travel?) where they assist a local feline heroine in rescuing a mystical cat who has been kidnapped by ninjas.  I’m not sure where the Giant Panda who’s hanging around the neighborhood came from; perhaps like the cats he’s another lost tourist?

In these three issues Puttkammer continues to develop the personalities of and relationships between the various cats. He does a good job at making this truly an all-ages book.  Young kids will enjoy the fun adventures of the cute cats, and for older readers there’s are interesting characters & story arcs.

Schultz is a fine addition to the series. He effortlessly juggles the cartoony elements and the highly-detailed real-world settings.

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With the Hero Cats finally making their way back to Stellar City, issue #13 detours into what I would classify as a “What If” or “Elseworlds” type of reality. We are introduced to a world much like the one seen in the previous dozen issues, only with several darker, supernatural twists to it.  Our feline cast is still present, but different.  For instance, Belle is an evil witch, Midnight is a vampire, and Rocco is a giant monster.  As for poor Ace, faced with a world overrun by zombies, he is the Last Cat on Earth.  I guess you could say that Ace is all alone against an onslaught of the Purring Dead.

“Hero Cats of the Apocalypse” is drawn by the art team of Sey Viani & Sarah Elkins. As with previous artists, they do a fine job handling the diverse tone of the book, drawing a story that is both cute and macabre.

While I did initially wish that Puttkammer had written a Halloween story set in the “real” world of the Hero Cats, it later occurred to me that perhaps this could serve as a prologue for a future story. We’ve previously seen the Hero Cats fight against villains from other dimensions.  So the possibility exists that at some point “our” Hero Cats might cross over into this other world where everything has gone terribly wrong and encounter their dark counterparts.  You never know.

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In any case, it was a bit of a treat to see Belle as a witch. Belle looks a lot like one of my cats, Nettie, a doll-face Himalayan.  Belle has slightly darker fur and brown seal-point coloring instead of grey, but other than that she looks a lot like Nettie.  My girlfriend Michele has always wanted to dress up Nettie for Halloween, but Nettie refuses to let us put any sort of costume on her.  One of Michele’s ideas was to give Nettie a witch hat.  At least now, courtesy of Belle in Hero Cats #13, I have an idea of how Nettie might look wearing one 🙂

One last note… after missing him at the last two New York Comic Cons, this year I finally got to meet Kyle Puttkammer. I got a couple of issues of Hero Cats autographed, and had an opportunity to see previews of a few upcoming issues.  I’m definitely looking forward to them.

Squeaky Squeakums for U.S. President

As a proud and loyal citizen of America, I have spent the last several months aghast at the train wreck that is the campaign for the 2016 election for President of the United States. It has been both embarrassing and more than a bit terrifying watching a succession of fools and crooks attempting to out-pander each other in pursuit of the office of the Presidency.  The possibility that one of these clowns might very well be elected to the White House is genuinely unsettling.

Therefore, I am proud to present an alternative to these opportunistic fear-mongers, a candidate who possesses strength, wisdom, courage, humility, and bravery in abundance… my cat, Squeaky Squeakums.

Squeaky Squeakums for President

In a year when nearly every candidate on two legs appears to embody the very worst aspects of humanity, let us look to another species entirely, namely Felis catus, the domestic cat.  Squeaky Squeakums is a wonderful representative of this proud and sage breed.  Yes, she sleeps for an average of 15 hours a day, but during her time awake she is a coiled spring, ready to leap upon intruding mice.  So, too, will she pounce at the first sign of trouble to this great nation, to threats both foreign and domestic.  If elected, she vows to serve all species, be they human, cat, or other animals. Yes, including dogs.

Squeaky is no pampered house cat. Born in Salem, MA, young Squeaky was sadly abandoned by her first human on a trip to New York City.  She spent several years living in an overcrowded apartment in the Bronx, competing with seven other cats, two dogs, and a variety of lizards and birds for space & food.  Seven years ago my girlfriend Michele and I rescued Squeaky and brought her into our home, where we have showered her with love & affection.  But she has not forgotten her humble beginnings.  She possesses a great deal of empathy & understanding for all Americans who struggle to make ends meet.

Squeaky also required extensive veterinary care when we first took her in. That experience has convinced her of the crucial roles that health insurance and affordable medical services must play in our society.

But do not let Squeaky’s compassionate side fool you. She also possesses nerves of steel and a fierce determination.  She will stare down any opponents who seek to take advantage of her good nature.

Squeaky stare closeup

There have been some questions raised as to Squeaky’s eligibility to run for President. Let me assure you that these are unfounded.  Certain people have asked if she is at least 35 years old, as specified by the Constitution.  Squeaky is 13 cat years old, which as per the experts at Purina is 68 in human years, definitely making her qualified.  She is also most certainly a natural born citizen, and if requested we will release her long form birth certificate for review.

Perhaps you are asking yourself “How could a cat possible gain the support necessary to be elected President?” I can understand your skepticism.  However, Squeaky has already gained a large and enthusiastic group of supporters, Americans male and female who span all ages, races, religions and cultural backgrounds.  All of her campaign appearances have been attended by large crowds of voters who are eager to hear her message.  In fact, here is a photo of Squeaky being greeted by her numerous supporters at her last campaign rally…

Squeaky campaign rally

If you are dissatisfied with the direction this country has taken, and if you believe that this nation deserves better leadership than it has had in many decades, then pledge your support for Squeaky Squeakums. You can find out more about Squeaky and her message for America on her official Facebook page, Squeaky Squeakums for U.S. President.

Vote for pussy – We’ll all be happy.

This blog post has been brought to you by the Squeaky Squeakums 2016 Super PAC (Pet and Animal Committee).

New York Comic Con 2015

I was originally not planning to go to New York Comic Con this year.  Then about a week before the show my old friend Mitchell Lampert contacted me to let me know he had two extra tickets for Sunday.  Thanks to Mitchell’s very kind and generous gift, my girlfriend Michele and I were able to attend the show.

As usual, I was on a limited budget, although I did manage to raise a little extra money at the last minute.  Even so, seeing all of the amazing creators who had tables in Artists Alley, I did wish that I could have afforded a few more sketches.  Well, there’s always the future.

Erik Larsen NYCC 2015

When we arrived at the Javits Center on Sunday morning, I immediately headed over to Erik Larsen’s table in Artists Alley.  Larsen is the creator of Savage Dragon from Image Comics.  I’ve been following it from the very beginning, over two decades ago, and for the last few years it has been my favorite ongoing series.  Larsen has been a guest at NYCC several times before, but somehow I’ve always missed him.  I did meet him quite a few years ago, but he had a long line then, so I really did not have the opportunity to talk with him.

Fortunately on Sunday, while there was steady traffic at Larsen’s table, it never got very crowded, and so I was able to spend a few minutes talking to him, asking him questions and telling him how much I enjoyed his work.  Larsen is definitely a friendly, cool guy.

I was able to obtain a couple of sketches by Larsen.  He did a quick free sketch of Malcolm Dragon, and then I paid for him to do a detailed Beautiful Dreamer in my theme sketchbook. Larsen is a huge fan of Jack Kirby, so for a while now I’d hoped to have him contribute to the sketchbook.  I’m happy I finally had the opportunity.

Russ Braun NYCC 2015

Next I headed over to see Russ Braun, a very talented artist who has worked on such series as Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Battlefields, The Boys and Where Monsters Dwell.  I met Russ at a signing at JHU Comic Books a few months ago, where he did a nice drawing of Beautiful Dreamer for me.  Since then we’ve corresponded on Facebook.  Russ is definitely a class act, one of the nicest comic book pros I’ve ever met.  It’s always a pleasure to see the new artwork he’s posting on FB.

I picked up a copy of Russ’ 2015 NYCC Sketchbook, which contains some amazing illustrations.  A lot of these are pieces he’s shared on Facebook in the last few months, and it was nice to see them complied together.  Russ drew a sketch for me in my Avengers Assemble book.  He drew a pretty obscure character named Masque, who you might recall if you were reading the Avengers comics in the mid-1990s.  I will be the first to admit that “The Crossing” storyline was a huge mess.  However, there were certain characters and elements to it that I thought had potential, and Masque was one of those.  Anyway, Russ did a great job sketching the character.

Sovereign Seven original artwork

I was pleasantly surprised to meet Christopher Ivy, an artist I know from Facebook.  He is an extremely prolific inker who has been working in comic books since 1988.  Ivy had some original pages for sale.  I was just browsing through them out of curiosity when I came across one of his pages from Sovereign Seven penciled by Dwayne Turner.  As I’ve written before, S7 was an interesting series.  This one leaped out at me because of the beautiful drawing of Lucy the cat by Turner & Ivy.

Yes, as regular readers of this blog will know, I am definitely a huge cat lover.  So I immediately knew that I had to buy this page.  Fortunately it fell within my budget.  Michele thought it was a nice page, as well.

Chris Claremont NYCC 2015

Chris Claremont, the writer of Sovereign Seven, had a table in Artists Alley.  I brought the page over to get his autograph.  Claremont was pleasantly surprised by this, and he appeared genuinely happy to see it.  I always thought the series had a great deal of potential.  Even though it was published by DC Comics, the characters were owned by Claremont.  I told him that I would enjoy seeing him write them again, if not in comic books then perhaps in a prose novel.  I get the feeling that given the opportunity Claremont would like to revisit his creations.

I spent most of the day in Artists Alley, mostly because it looked like the main floor was very crowded.  Around 3:00 Michele and I decided to give it a try.  And, yep, it was completely packed!  It was almost impossible to move in places.  I felt like we were on the NYC subway during rush hour.

After elbowing out way through the crowd and making our way from one end of the floor to another, we finally arrived at the Action Labs booth.  Unfortunately by that time the creators of the Hero Cats series had left for the day.  Well, maybe next year!

Paris Cullins NYCC 2015

Inching our way back the other was, Michele and I came to the Papercutz booth.  Paris Cullins was there to promote The Zodiac Legacy, the new series he’s working on with writer Stuart Moore.  Cullins asked if I would like a sketch.  He then proceeded to draw Michele and myself!  I think that I look sort of weird, but the drawing of Michele was of course beautiful.  It was a very nice gesture on Cullins’ part.

I met a number of other creators at NYCC.  Among them were Joe Staton, Bret Blevins, Jan Duursema, Tom Mandrake, Joyce Chin, Mike Lilly, Bob McLeod, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Joe Prado, Fernando Ruiz, Jamal Igle, Jim Chambers and Joe Martino.  I hope I’m not forgetting anyone.

There were, of course, some really amazing cosplayers at NYCC.  Michele took a whole bunch of pictures.  Here are a few of my favorites…

Sabine Wren from Star Wars: Rebels

Sabine Wren from Star Wars: Rebels

The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer

Hot Pepper

Hot Pepper

Doctor Strange and Zatanna

Doctor Strange and Zatanna

Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham

Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham

I really admire many of these cosplayers.  They obviously possess a great deal of talent to be able to create such amazing costumes, as well as the self-confidence to wear them at huge gatherings of fandom.

I’m happy that Michele and I were able to go to New York Comic Con this year.  It was fun.  At the same time, I’m glad that I only went one day.  Any more than that and I would have been completely worn out!

Cats and comic books: Hero Cats #3-5

The Hero Cats comic book series from Action Lab Entertainment continues to be an enjoyable read.  I previously reviewed the first two issues, so now let’s take a look at #s 3-5.

Hero Cats 3 cover

Cassiopeia, the newest member of the Hero Cats team, has been serving as the gateway character, the readers’ introduction to the rest of the book’s cast, both feline and human.  In issue #3 we see her official basic training, as the rest of the kitty commandos put her through the paces to see if she has what it takes to battle evil and protect the innocent.

Kyle Puttkammer’s script for this issue is both funny and moving.  He does a good job showing the novice Cassiopeia overcoming her doubts & inexperience to be accepted by the team.  Puttkammer also examines the motivations of Hero Cat leader Ace, and shows the developing bond between him and Cassiopeia.  The story is very thoughtful, sentimental and laugh-out-loud funny.

In issue #4 the Hero Cats explore a subterranean mystery beneath Stellar City.  They discover a civilization of trolls and help them fight off invading rock monsters.  Puttkammer uses the story to delve into the background of Belle, the long-haired telepathic member of the team.

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In prior issues of Hero Cats readers were told of how Cassiopeia’s humans, Stanley Quest and his daughter Suzie, were secretly the costumed crime-fighters Galaxy Man and Cosmic Girl.  Cassiopeia and the rest of her team finally discover this in issue #5.  The cynical Midnight and Belle are both automatically suspicious, observing that all of the bizarre menaces that have been plaguing Stellar City only began to show up after Galaxy Man first made his debut.  Cassiopeia, of course, thinks they are being ridiculous.

Actually, though, Cassiopeia’s two teammates might just be on to something.  During his latest journey into outer space to search for his missing astronaut wife Amelia, Galaxy Man unwittingly brings back to Earth a swarm of ravenous space bugs.  Fortunately it turns out they are allergic to peanut butter.  Cassiopeia, Rocco and Rocket all team up with Cosmic Girl, who has, amazingly enough, still managed to keep her identity a secret from her father.

Puttkammer’s writing on these three issues is great.  As I have observed before, he is one of those writers whose stories can be appreciated on different levels.  Younger readers will enjoy the cute cats and their funny adventures.  Adults will appreciate the development of the felines’ different personalities.  Puttkammer does a good job scripting the Hero Cats’ interactions as they work to apply their often-clashing world views and philosophies to solving the crises facing them.

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I certainly had to chuckle at the various scenes in these issues of Cassiopeia trying to talk to her humans.  We the readers obviously understand her dialogue, but to the people in the story it just sounds like “Meow meow meow!”  I expect anyone who has ever had a cat can identify with that.  Cats can be very expressive, and they often appear to be attempting to communicate with us.  You just know when a cat is telling you something, even if you may not know precisely what it is.

I really enjoy the work by penciler Marcus Williams and inker Ryan Sellers.  Their art is cute and expressive, possessing a real dynamic quality.  Williams & Sellers invest their characters with genuine emotion.  They are great at rendering both dramatic action sequences and quieter scenes featuring Puttkammer’s passages of dialogue.

Tracy Yardley once again illustrates the Galaxy Man & Cosmic Girl two page back-up stories in Hero Cats, as well as penciling the cover to issue #6.  It was interesting to see his interpretations of the various cats on that.  Yardley has a somewhat different style from Williams, but he is definitely a good fit for this series.  I hope he will continue to contribute to Hero Cats.

Hero Cats 6 cover

Once again, I recommend this series.  Back issues can be ordered through the Hero Cats website.  There is also a trade paperback out collecting the first three issues.

Y’know, while I’ve been typing up this review, one of my two cats, Squeaky, has been sitting next to the desk.  I think she wants me to pay less attention to fictional felines and spend more time with her.  Looks like it’s time for treats and tummy rubs!

Squeaky the Stressed-Out Cat

Our cat Squeaky is definitely one of a kind.  I’ve blogged about Squeaky before.  Michele and I took her in when her previous human abruptly decided that he had too many cats.  Since Squeaky wasn’t getting along with the others he wanted to drop her off at a shelter.  That probably would have literally been the death of her.  Squeaky is extremely shy and sensitive, plus she had health problems at the time, so she would probably have been put to sleep.

Michele told me that in her former home all the other cats beat Squeaky up whenever she tried to come out to eat, and so she was often hiding behind a radiator.  She was even too scared to use the litter box, and so she scratched out a hole in the back of a sofa and used that instead.  In the five and a half years since we adopted Squeaky she has definitely come out of her shell, though. She was incredibly frightened when we took her in, but now she is more at ease.  She was incredibly skinny and unhealthy, but now she is round and healthy.  Squeaky seems happy.

Squeaky photographed by Michele Witchipoo

Squeaky photographed by Michele Witchipoo

That said, she is a quirky cat.  Even after being with us for all this time she is still very jittery.  Loud noises cause her to run & hide, her tail completely fluffed up.  Squeaky still doesn’t like tall men standing near her.  I am 6 feet 2 inches, and when she sees me walking towards her she runs away.  She has no problem with me when I am sitting down or lying in bed.  Actually she is very affectionate at these times, and she loves for me to pet her or brush her fur.  But the instant I stand up she bolts.  Michele believes that Squeaky is still traumatized from whatever craziness went on where she used to live.  I think that there must have been a lot of noise & chaos there.

Squeaky sometimes reminds me of the cat Mooch from the comic strip Mutts by Patrick McDonnell.  Like Mooch, Squeaky is a rather idiosyncratic cat who loves to eat.  Reading the strip in the newspaper often brings to mind our own black & white kitty cat.  That’s especially the case when McDonnell does a strip about Mooch’s love of food.

Mutts September 3 2014 by Patrick McDonnell

Mutts comic strip September 3, 2014 by Patrick McDonnell

It must have been because she was starving for all of those years before we adopted her, but Squeaky is obsessed with food.  We normally feed her at 7:00 in the morning.  Well, starting around 5:00 AM she starts meowing incessantly.  She’ll jump on the bed and scratch up the furniture.  She wants food immediately, and she doesn’t want to wait.  When we finally open a can of wet food and feed her, she dives right in.  Nettie also eats at this time, but she likes to pace herself.  She’s a small cat, and has a tiny tummy.  So she’ll have several bites and walk away for a while.  Unfortunately Squeaky will then try to eat out of Nettie’s bowl, and we have to put it on top of the refrigerator until Nettie is ready to eat again.

Around 10:00 AM Squeaky starts meowing for dry food.  We’ll usually give her and Nettie some an hour later.  She’ll devour that right away.  Dinner time for the cats, when they get the rest of the canned food, is at 3:00 PM.  Well, come 1:00 in the afternoon Squeaky will start meowing sadly, pretty much non-stop, circling about in a worried manner.  She really seems to be convinced she isn’t going to get fed.

Of course, every time Michele and I have something to eat, Squeaky must inspect it to see if it’s something she would like.  If it is, she’ll either give us a wide-eyed pleading expression, or she’ll simply try to snatch some of our food with her paw or mouth.  She is incredibly persistent.

This all inspired Michele to draw a cute, funny illustration entitled “Squeaky Loves To Eat.”

Squeaky Loves To Eat by Michele Witchipoo

“Squeaky Loves To Eat” by Michele Witchipoo

Poor Squeaky.  She can get very stressed out sometimes.  This just goes to show that animals can be very much like people.  If an animal experiences trauma when it is young, that can affect them for the rest of their life.  I definitely think that happened to Squeaky.  She still appears to be coping with some of the stuff she went though before we adopted her.  She seems like a very sensitive soul.

Sometimes I will explain Squeaky’s story to people as a cautionary tale, to demonstrate that it is very important for us humans to treat our four-legged friends with kindness.

Having said all this, I do believe Squeaky is now much happier.  She has food and two humans who love her.  She eventually got used to Nettie trying to play with her, and the two cats are now close.  Squeaky also gets to play, something she never could in the past.  Occasionally she will play-fight with her toy mousies.  But much more often she will grab one of Michele’s pencils, pens or markers in her teeth, carry it off while yowling, and then wrestle with it, chasing it about the apartment as it rolls all over the place.  A good chunk of Michele’s art supplies go missing in this manner.  We often find pens under the bed, or buried in the blankets, or hidden under the rug, or in the laundry pile.

I am glad that Michele and I were able to give Squeaky a much better home than she once had.  She is a very affectionate cat.  Despite her sometimes-unconventional behavior, she really does brighten up our lives.

Cats and comic books: Hero Cats #1-2

Michele and I like to joke that our cat Nettie Netzach is secretly a superhero, that when we aren’t around that she moonlights as the dynamic Netzach Wondercat.  So when I found out that there was an actual comic book series about crime-fighting felines, Hero Cats, of course I had to pick it up.

Hero Cats 1 tri-fold variant cover

Hero Cats #1 Tri-Fold Variant Cover (click on it to see super-sized version)

I actually learned about Hero Cats back around this year’s New York Comic Con.  I wasn’t able to go to the convention, but Jim Hanley’s Universe was having a signing event to tie in with it.  One of the guests was Marcus Williams, penciler of Hero Cats.  I looked at his work on Facebook, and thought it was fantastic.  Unfortunately I ended up not being able to go to the JHU signing either, due to a last-minute emergency.  But shortly afterwards I found the first two issues of Hero Cats for sale at Forbidden Planet and Midtown Comics.

Hero Cats is released by Action Lab Entertainment, the publisher of many fine comic books, including Molly Danger by Jamal Igle.  Hero Cats is written by Kyle Puttkammer, penciled by Marcus Williams, and inked by Ryan Sellers.  It is a fun, adorable, exciting series about six cats who have joined forces to protect the human population of Stellar City.

In the first issue, we are introduced to this group of brave felines by Cassiopeia, an orange tabby.  Growing up a stray alongside her brother Bandit, a black & white kitty, Cassiopeia was a literate feline who would read the books & magazines sold at the newsstand above which the two of them lived.  One day Cassiopeia spotted a signing by Lillian C. Clark, her favorite author, at the book store across the street.  Waiting outside for a chance to meet her, Cassiopeia was adopted by Lillian, and the two become very close.

Hero Cats 1 pg 8

Lillian’s niece Amelia was an astronaut, and her spaceship became lost on a mission to study a comet striking Mars.  Lillian knew how upset Amelia’s astronomer husband Stanley and their daughter Suzie both were.  Realizing that Cassiopeia would be of great comfort to Stanley and Suzie, she gave her cat to them, pretending that with her book signing schedule that she could no longer care for her.

Around this time humans in Stellar City started manifesting super-powers.  Some, naturally enough, became criminals.  Cassiopeia decided to fight against these villains, joining up with five other cats:  Midnight, Belle, Rocket, Rocco and Ace.

Unknown to Cassiopeia, her humans have also gained powers, and have both adopted costumed identities to fight crime.  Stanley is Galaxy Man and Suzie is Cosmic Girl.  In short epilogues illustrated by Tracy Yardley we get to view the events of each issue from their point of view.

Hero Cats 1 pg 25

Puttkammer invests each of the six crime-fighting kitties with distinct personalities and perspectives.  The artwork by Williams & Sellers very much brings this band of brave felines to life.  Through the combination of script and art these cats are each unique individuals, with their own charming quirks.

Having introduced the cast of cats in the first issue, Puttkammer takes to time to explore their personalities, and examine how they interact with one another.  Belle and Ace are arguing about whether or not it was a good idea to allow Cassiopeia to join the team so soon.  Belle believes that Cassiopeia is untrained and should not be fighting alongside them.  Ace says he has full confidence in Cassiopeia.  Belle responds that she believes Ace’s feelings for Cassiopeia are affecting his judgment.  The two of them also end up debating the merits of human crime-fighters such as Galaxy Man and Cosmic Girl, as well as discussing the latest threat to Stellar City: an irresponsible teenager known as Johnny Arcado who is bringing video game monsters to life.

The entire team gathers, and they set out to stop Johnny Arcado, who lives in the house next door to Belle’s human.  Soon enough the cats are fighting Johnny’s computerized creations.  Cassiopeia proves herself to the team when her ability to read enables her to instruct Ace on how to operate Johnny’s alien-augmented arcade machine.  Ace uses it to create a giant robot to crush the monsters.  Meanwhile in the epilogue we see Galaxy Man and Cosmic Girl dealing directly with Johnny Arcado himself, all of them unaware of the crucial role Cassiopeia and her four-legged friends played in thwarting the threat to Stellar City.

Hero Cats 2 pg 11

If you like both cats and comic books then Hero Cats is highly recommended.  Puttkammer is a writer who is successful at crafting stories that are genuinely all-ages.  His scripts are genuinely fun, as well as intelligently written so that they do not talk down to younger readers, with a level of sophistication that will appeal to adults.  The artwork by Williams & Sellers is both cute and dynamic.  The cast of cats are all so wonderfully expressive.

According to the official Hero Cats website, issue #3 is currently available.  I’m definitely looking forward to picking it up.  You can order copies of all three issues through the website, along with plenty of other cool goodies, including issues of the Galaxy Man series and some cool t-shirts.