Of the 87 artworks in my Common Elements commission gallery, I’ve only had the opportunity to witness the creation of a small fraction. Four pieces in the series — two by penciler Ron Lim and inker Danny Bulanadi, and two by the great Tony DeZuniga — were drawn before my eyes at comic book conventions. Another, by Darick Robertson, was crafted during a signing event at my local comics shop.
Until recently, however, I’d never watched a Common Elements commission come into being via the magic of the Internet.
John Beatty is best known to comics aficionados as an inker, in partnership with such pencil artists as Mike Zeck (on the groundbreaking miniseries Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, and for lengthy runs as the interior artists on Captain America and as cover artists on G.I. Joe), Kelley Jones (Batman), and Michael Golden (the war adventure The ‘Nam). Like many of the best inkers, John is also a terrific penciler in his own right. His drawing style, which to my eye reflects the influence of Jack Kirby — although it’s fair to say that almost every superhero artist of the past 50 years borrows at least a smattering of influence from Kirby — led me to commission him to draw this pairing of Kirby’s Captain America pastiche Fighting American and Reuben Flagg, the antihero of Howard Chaykin’s satirical series, American Flagg!
Fighting American has an interesting backstory. Created in 1954 by Kirby and his longtime creative partner Joe Simon — the same team who created Captain America nearly a decade and a half earlier — Fighting American reflected the anti-Communist paranoia of the McCarthy era. The character, whose original 1950s run lasted a brief seven issues, played like an over-the-top parody of the patriotic Cap, battling Red Menace stereotypes with names like Poison Ivan. It’s hard to tell whether Kirby and Simon were feeding off the tenor of the times or spoofing it, but I vote for the latter.
Unfortunately, as too often happens in comics, the character later fell into the hands of lesser talents who didn’t get the joke. When it comes to comics, “talents” hardly get “lesser” than those of Rob Liefeld, the poster boy for everything that went wrong with the industry in the 1990s. Liefeld’s Awesome Entertainment turned Kirby and Simon’s character into yet another of his own innumerable hyperviolent (and horrifically drawn) adolescent fantasies. Marvel Comics sued Liefeld for introducing elements into the Fighting American mythos that smacked too strongly of Captain America (which character Liefeld had drawn for Marvel before striking out on his own), including a Cap-like shield. (A compromise was reached between the companies which allowed Liefeld’s character to keep his shield, but not to use it as a throwing weapon.)
Like Fighting American, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! was a parody of its era — in the latter case, the ultraconservative Ronald Reagan ’80s. Chaykin’s series portrayed a near-future America in which the global economy crashed, the axes of power shifted (the most powerful nations on Earth became Brazil and a united Africa), and the U.S. government relocated to Mars to ride out the crisis. In the midst of it all, an out-of-work actor named Reuben Flagg lived out his former television role as a Plexus Ranger, a member of the cowboyesque police force sponsored by the Mars-based government and its corporate sponsors.
The quality of American Flagg! waxed and waned, depending largely on the connection Chaykin maintained with the project — which, after the first couple of years, wasn’t much. Still, the series provided an often-intriguing commentary on then-current events and attitudes, flavored with Chaykin’s penchant for ribald humor and wacky visuals.
Speaking of wacky visuals, when John Beatty took a look at the characters I’d assigned for his Common Elements commission, he decided to poke a bit of fun at the more ridiculous aspects of their respective costumes. Thus, his Fighting American is puzzled by the cowboy boots in Reuben Flagg’s Plexus Ranger ensemble, while Reuben wonders why his compatriot has donned his underwear on top of his tights. A hilarious idea, which John carried off beautifully.
As mentioned above, I had the privilege of watching John draw this piece online, thanks to modern technology. You, should you be so inclined, can check out the recorded video version. John was joined for the event by comic art collector (and noted Sylvester Stallone buff) Craig Zablo, and their lively banter about life and comics proved both insightful and entertaining. The entire presentation runs four hours — never fear, you can skip ahead as you wish — and is divided into two segments.
Thanks to John Beatty for his outstanding artwork, and for allowing me to share the links to his video. If you enjoy John’s presentation, there’s also an edited video on YouTube chronicling the birth of my aforementioned Darick Robertson commission. You’re welcome to partake of that one as well.
By the way, there’s a Common Element between today’s two featured heroes that isn’t as obvious as it might appear. In addition to their similar themes and satirical approaches, both characters share the same surname — Fighting American’s secret identity is Nelson Flagg. Maybe he and Reuben are related, in a transdimensional sort of way.
And that’s your Comic Art Friday.