When Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! debuted in the early 1980s it was one of the few comics that really made demands on its readers. Chaykin’s space opera noir, set in a near future where media perception has become the controlling political force and the right to bear arms has been taken to extremes, builds up its alternative reality in snippets of TV dialogue, announcements, headlines and bulletins. Visual sound effects, by letterer Ken Bruzenak, are as central and iconic as the Ka-Pow effects on the first Batman TV series. All the time you are asked to monitor what’s going on in the background and foreground simultaneously to decode the full story.

Our hero, Reuben Flagg, is the former star of Mark Thrust, Sexus Ranger, a soft porn TV show. After being replaced by a hologram he joins the real Plexus Rangers (run by the Plex Corporation who pretty much rule the solar system) and is sent to a decaying Chicago, where an over armed and over medicated populace regularly riot on Saturday nights, and everyone seems to have some sort of scam going. Stylistically influenced by Bladerunner, Chaykin’s decaying Earth is a mix of 1940s design and shopping centre chic, with a nod to Judge Dredd thrown in for good measure, where robots, porn and talking cats are part of everyday life. 75 political ‘clubs’ fight for territory among the crumbling skyscrapers, while various ladies, from the police chief’s daughter to the local madam, fight for his attention.

This collection covers Flagg’s arrival on Earth, and his discovery that much of the violence now taken for granted is prompted by subliminal signals in the most popular TV shows. Can he get to grips with his new job and get to the bottom of the TV pirates delivering illegal satellite TV to the city?

Hard Times’ artwork brings a whole new meaning to grim and gritty. Chatkin’s use of Craftint Duoshade boards gives everything a textured, grimy edge, and while some colours are bright, everywhere looks dirty and run-down, like the entire city needs a spring clean.

Fast-paced, definitely raunchy, with plenty of great one-liners and a zippy script, this is a great adult adventure full of likeable but very fallible characters that is only just showing its age at the edges. These early issues are fresh and strong, among the best of the series, but in the first volume you get the feeling the story’s only just beginning and there are more complex and crazy things to come.

American Flagg! is continued in this format with Southern Comfort. It’s also available in a confusing series of reprints including Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! Definitive Edition Vol 1 from Image and Titan which included a new but not terribly important story by Chaykin alongside the first 14 issues of the comic.