‘A Montage Of Mayhem And Murder’: Critiquing The Divided States of Hysteria #2

by Oliver MacNamee

This week sees the release of Howard Chaykin’s second issue of his controversial series The Divided States of Hysteria. You may have heard of it, maybe?

Even before the offensive cover for issue # 4 dropped, the first issue of the series already had its controversies from the get go. Released during Pride Week, a scene depicting Christopher Silver, the transgender character introduced to us as a victim of a hate crime, was called out by the LGBTQ community as vile, stereotypical and unnecessary. Blunt storytelling, using the worst kind of stereotypes. Y’know, like saying all Italians are connected to the Mob and all LGBTQ members are victims.

Indeed, many saw this as nothing more than crass profiteering and an insensitivity–or naivety–to the LGBTQ community who are rightly outraged by this depiction. Hell, initially Eric Stephenson, Image’s Publisher, supported Chaykin arguing that he has an “unflinching reluctance to pull any punches”, and a “warts-and-all depiction of the modern world… an ugly place, governed by hatred, fear, and intolerance.” Image did get one thing right in the initial press release, and that was that the comic was “designed to make readers both angry and uncomfortable” and it did. Just not in the way Image had hoped.

When Chaykin did break his silence on this issue to Steve Ekstrom, it was clear he did so without checking in with Image themselves and it was even clearer he did not stand by everything Image had to say when they finally realised that this storm wasn’t dying down any time soon. They then pulled the cover and released a further press release to finally accept their mistake. Chaykin, I would surmise, still thinks his view is the right view, however.

Now, with Stephenson offering staff a Trans 101 Webinar–an offer many are happy to receive, I believe–have he and Image done enough? And, what about the suggested boycott of ALL Image books making the rounds? While I implore any admittance to a mistake made and, more importantly, steps taken to ensure it won’t happen again, we’re still left with a fair few more issue of this series and this week only sees the publication of issue no. 2.

I wonder, will this webinar include Chaykin himself? It would be something of an insult of it didn’t, instead just including staff who may feel they do not need the training. After all Image will also be publishing Moonstruck by Grace Ellis, Shae Beagle and Laurenn McCubbin, who added their own piece on this issue.

Surely, the boycotting of a whole company because of one bad egg cannot help voices such as these? It seems to me a rather extreme measure that will hurt far more creators than Howard Chaykin. Are we really ready to penalise these creators because of one dodgy book?

On the whole, Image does offer creators a voice they may not otherwise have if they worked for the Big Two, and part of Image’s success has been in giving these talents a platform. Boycott The Divided States of Hysteria, if you want, but not every damn title. Surely, we’re not that far from mass burning of comic books if we go down this road?

Well, what of issue no. 2? Not only an I genuinely intrigued–y’know, like driving past a car crash, you just can’t keep your eyes off it–but I admit to being intrigued as to how Chaykin would progress the story. And, what aesthetics would he bring to this issue? After all, there was a lot to like about the style of the first issue. But, more importantly, I’ve liked his work in the past, so maybe I’ll continue to like this too. That, and I don’t take kindly to people telling me what I shouldn’t read! Hardly a democratic, level-headed response, in my opinion.

Well, I actually liked the first issue; all dystopian destruction and gnarly, unlikeable characters; ready to be lined up and whipped into shape by the Chaykin archetype; the morally flawed Frank Villa, all washed up after the catastrophic strike on New York as depicted at the end of last issue.

The sense of an overbearing noise throughout this book – whether from social media, or inmates at the privately owned prison shouting abuse at one another as America burns – is a strong design element in this book, with Chaykin clearly wishing to put across the sense of violent, hateful chatter and chaos constantly going off wherever the reader finds themselves. It can be hard to switch off from it all, I think we can all at least agree on this point, if nothing else.

This is an America filled with the worst kind of people as Chaykin once more ramps up all that is bad about America (and other societies, surely?) and offers it up to his readership. But, a readership he seems to be forever attempting to alienate if his thought-piece at the end of the book is anything to go by, wherein he frankly tells anyone not down with his style of bombastic storytelling to just go read another book instead. See what I mean by him not getting behind Image’s statements? That seems a rather defeatist attitude if you ask me and can only end in a smaller and smaller readership as the creator dismisses any and all dissenting voices other than his own.

He depicts New York, not so much as the shining example of multiculturalism and tolerance that it has come to symbolise, but rather as a city hated by the rest of America because of this very same diversity. But, in this example, therein lies the problem. Chaykin dismisses the rest of America as redneck separatists who never recovered from seeing slaves freed over 100 years ago. There is no subtly at work here, only black and white polar opposites. A deeply divided, racist America.

Arguably, he states, America never ended their Civil War, but simply took a ‘Time-out’. One can detach the creator somewhat from his creation, but it’s hard to not hear Chaykin’s words, beliefs and values in this book. He is unashamedly left-wing and clearly wants to make a point about the current sad state of America, but the way he is choosing to present it has left a bad taste in many people’s mouths.

Is it simply a question of not wanting to see the ugliness, or is it all too passé because real world politics is already an exaggeration of reality? Or, worse, is he guilty of portraying a very simplistic view of American political polarity? Urbanites are a tolerable bunch, but get out of the city and what does the US of A really look like? Sorry, I ain’t buying these sweeping generalisation as it only dilutes the intended meaning of this series. And, while we are told to keep an eye on some real character development in Christopher Silver, surely she isn’t going to be the only character to develop across this series?

So, what does work? I freely admit to being a fan of Chaykin’s past work and there is a lot to like about the book, in terms of its layout, composition and the repetition certain design elements for effect. The seemingly repetitive pages that focus time and time again on the River Run prison complex changes ever so slightly as each similarly laid out page re-introduces us to the four criminals we briefly met last issue and who will make up the team Villa is planning to put together to fight fire with fire. It’s a great visual trick.

Amongst them, the aforementioned Christopher Silver. The violence that was in depicted in the first issue may in itself have been too much. Too far. Too obvious and cliched. In the presentation of any minority, so media theory suggests, first comes the ridicule. Are we still at this level with the LGBTQ community? Really?

But, the violence is another symptom of the disease Chaykin sees in America today and is amplified in his comic. In this issue, for example, is a panel that depicts a strangled South-Asian shop keeper; clearly the inspiration behind the now infamous 4th cover. Making me wonder, why it would have been used for the fourth cover unless for purely shocking reasons? After all, if it had been released with this cover, how would that even reacts to that particular issue’s content, I wonder?

Anyway, the alternative cover, with its military planes and swooping eagles is a much more subtle and clever cover, I think. Besides, a comic, unlike a painting by Picasso, let’s say, is  series of images. Picasso gets the one canvas; his message has to be presented front and centre, no matter how abstract. So, why was it felt that the proposed image for issue 4 was best served on the front cover? And, an event that probably doesn’t even happen in that particular issue? Why did Image censored the swearing out of it’s preview pages for issue 1 and not censor the image in question for preview? Logic seems to have been lost momentarily. But, all it takes is a moment.

And that’s maybe my problem with this comic book. The message–while I can get behind it–is maybe too brutally delivered as one shocking over-the-top violent event after another unfolds, with the growing sense of Corporate America (as personified by the River Run company Villa ends up working for) being either responsible for these terrorising attacks, or at the very least, ready to capitalise on these events, just like Lockheed Martin and other bloated corporations continue to make profit from the killing fields. America is bad, man, And, so is Corporate America. Bummer, dude. Tell me something I don’t know.

I believe there is a voice in comics for political discourse but on closer inspection of this series, maybe one that isn’t so blunt and so alienating. Those of us of a left-leaning worldview should be able to get behind the central sentiments of this series. But, in presenting it through the lens of jaded, one-note characters and stereotypical situations and people, it becomes harder to defend this book. Chaykin’s message is not a new one, and this issue does little to develop the argument that America is ugly, backward and right-wing. Rather, it shows even more hatred against one another with Villa slowly dusting himself off getting back up on his feet. Are we really meant to believe there are no more heroes? It would seem so, if criminals are the best for the job at hand.

I’ve not given up on this series, as many have, but this second issue, while delivering action and cleverly thought out compositions, is a lot slower than I had hoped. It’s more a montage of mayhem and murder that doesn’t develop the story too far. Maybe the third issue will?

I will not be told what to read and what to think, but rather I will take on arguments and viewpoints from all quarters. If I continue to read this series, it may well be because of the art, the interesting use of panels, background noise and the like. Hell, the story may even improve, but I cannot ignore the problems not only brought to light across the internet, but in the actual telling of the story itself.

But, more importantly, I will engage with such challenging texts because to simply read The Guardian because it shares similar world-views with me, will not do me any good in the long run. I need to burst my middle class, centre-left leaning bubble and try to engage with others and try to persuade them otherwise. And, while Chaykin may well be a lost cause, there are many out there who aren’t. Let’s educate, not hate.