Howard Chaykin’s latest comic is a tad controversial. For those of us who’ve been fans of Chaykin’s work for the last few decades this won’t come as a shock as after all, American Flagg! shocked people in the early 80’s with the amount of sex and violence in it. His revamp of The Shadow for DC Comics (full of sex and violence) that caused Harlan Ellison to attack it as a
a really offensive, ugly, mean-spirited, violently pornographic piece of work
Then there was Black Kiss. A comic full of sex and violence which caused Grant Morrison to call it a
adolescent homophobic mummy’s boy jerk-off fantasy drivel
Then there’s the stuff like Blackhawk or Time2 that was only mildly controversial, but you publish a Chaykin comic you know you’re going to get a mix of politics, sex, violence, and characters who are unlikeable as well as use racist, homophobic and all the transgressive things you imagine people can say. So if you know your comics you know what roughly to expect when picking up a comic by someone who’s spent nearly 40 creating shock as well as some exceptional comics.
Which brings me to The Divided States of Hysteria.From the cover it’s clear Chaykin isn’t fucking around and the synopsis on Comixology makes things clear too.
An America sundered. An America enraged. An America terrified. An America shattered by greed and racism, violence and fear, nihilism and tragedy…and that’s when everything really goes to hell.
There’s been a strand of deep, cynical satire (and remember, Chaykin is left of centre in an America where people like Hilary Clinton are considered ‘left wing’) that’s threaded Chaykin’s work from American Flagg! onwards which when it works is astonishing. When it doesn’t it feels like a scream. It is normally at least interesting, and this is an interesting scream at 21st century American politics, culture and society.
The comic starts with a telling of a terrorist incident that wipes out the President and his cabinet.
This is angry stuff. Chaykin is fucked off at what he sees as ‘self-obsession’, but I’ll wait to get to that in detail later. For all the anger and rage, this is a lovely looking comic and is certainly Chaykin’s best work artistically in years with his eye for design looking as good as ever.
Those though are panels from a black sniper in Chicago who is targeting white people. As said, Chaykin isn’t fucking around here as he makes the reader deliberately uncomfortable as although this part has gotten attacked on the internet, I wonder what would have been the reaction if he’d made the character white? This is the thing here; Chaykin is attacking identity politics head on in a way I’ve not seen in a comic published by one of the mainstream American comic publishers before but then we get to the stuff that’s setting Bleeding Cool alight and providing that site with lots of clicks.
This is the ‘transphobic act’ that’s set Twitter alight as a trans woman is violently attacked. However I think what also is riling people up is the commentary which is from the point of view of the trans woman.
Chaykin is sticking his fist into a hornet’s nest here but he raises a point. Trans women are treated appallingly by the ‘liberal media’ with a look at what people like Julie Burchill or Germaine Greer have said in the past, but Chaykin doesn’t treat the person here as ineffectual meat to be slaughtered but someone who fights back in the only way a Chaykin protagonist can do.
Unless you’ve by now be triggered into a safe space it is perfectly clear that The Divided States of Hysteria is a very, very dark satire which takes no prisoners but yet, for all the controversy its clear where Chaykin’s heart lies. He’s an individualist whose politics seem to be consistently left of centre, but doesn’t fall into what would be called ‘left wing’ or ‘liberal’ in 21st century terminology. Chaykin explains himself in the letters pages and for some, it has only served to make things worse.
This is going to make hard reading for some on the American (and indeed, British) left as it contains some painful home truths. While some of us on the left were fighting for small things the likes of Trump, or Farage and his Brexiters went out, won elections and referendums and promptly fucked things up for not just our respective countries but the planet. Now these small things needed to be fought for but many did lose the bigger picture trapped instead in small echo chambers where a man like Chaykin would be seen as a right wing lunatic, even if he’s clearly nothing of the sort.
Are there problematic things in The Divided States of Hysteria? Yes, there’s what looks like Islamophobia near the end of the first issue and the comic does seem to cross lines a lot between satire and personal attack, but it is as Chaykin said about American Flagg!, a liberal mugged by reality (it was actually former New York mayor Ed Koch that said that but still…). And this feels like Chaykin serving all the worst he sees in reality at his audience in a way many won’t be accustomed to as normally creators pull back, or create at least one entry-level character for the reader to identify with. There’s none of that here. Every character is either a murderer, bigot, racist, and on, but there’s nobody to like however Chaykin presents us with characters who liberals (with a small ‘l’ rather than Tim Farron’s lot) will normally side with. By presenting characters who are shits but due to identity politics will be seen by some on the left as automatically sympathetic, Chaykin is essentially forcing people to confront some very, very dark things within themselves.
Essentially he is trying to mug you with a big stick made of reality. It doesn’t work all the time and of course it is only the first part. It is also offensive and interesting in a way few comics from mainstream publishers ever are in a era where pandering to fans has muted creators vision. It is a comic not for the faint hearted but it is a return to form for one of the most interesting voices in American comics.