Howard Chaykin's Divided States Of Hysteria #1 published a couple of weeks ago succeeded in doing what it set out to do. Which was to stick a salted finger in an open wound and wriggle it around a bit.
This is Chaykin's art to provoke, to piss off, to puncture, to pontificate and to punch in every direction, up, down, left and right. He is a walking, talking trigger warning, he is the South Park of comic book thrillers and his work isn't there to inspire, it is there to hurt. And in that he seems to have suceeded.
He's also doing some interesting things with the comic book form in the process, and I wanted to look at those too.
It begins, post-Presidential assassination, with a country in chaos, and a comic page to match. Streams of text in different alphabets and tweets break through, running above the page but below the speech balloons break the narrative, giving the reader the impression that something somewhere is going on beyond the surface that can't be touched, can't be reasoned with or spoken with but may doom it all. It's as real as the drones that also fill the skies, portending doom, throughout the comic, so the finale seems inevitable rather than a twist. It's incredibly effective – and new.
The comic starts with lies – a CIA agent calling home as he tried to escape a terrorist-targeted Washington DC, but doing so from a moment of hotel adultery, with the narrator detailing the broad brush strokes of American history. Everything is embedded in lies and deceit – and always was.
And that is also embedded in the scene with a trans protagonist that so offends. The trans panic of powerful men trying to kill a trans prostitute when they discover that she has a penis is a narrative trope that we thought had died with Trainspotting – though in this case, she kills them when they attack her, and then suffers the consequences. In doing so, she narrates how this is an emperor-with-no-vagina moment, everyone plays with the fiction while it suits them, until it becomes real and they freak out. It's a position of strength for the character in the moment, but one that is undercut by her arrest, and her birth name being used in the arrest sheets.
The trans panic is also meant to be a parallel for so much. That is the basis of financial systems, of polite society, hell, of impolite society, a convenient fiction that people play along with for mutual benefit. When the reality is exposed, certain people who should have known better, much better, choose to freak out. But to tell that fable, Howard Chaykin used – and I do mean used – a trans character being violently demeaned. That is true of many characters in the comic, in many of Howard's stories – but it does tend to be always true of the trans characters. That Howard has a fascination with trans women seems to be clear, but he also uses them to make points – and in the process uses them.
This is one of a number of characters whose stories we learn and find themselves arrested. Indeed, she is the most moral and justifiable in her actions than the others – which may be why a background of underage sex and subsequent incarceration had to be inserted. The others include a black man sniping random white people because of his own issues. A serial killer who thought he was playing the system. And a conman who steals from the rich under their noses, and then poisons them so no one notices the crime. Until they do. She shoots people who were trying to kill her, at close range.
The implication is that the CIA character, Frank Villa, the man so obsessed with his take on things that he missed what was actually happening and doomed the city of New York – including his family – will be gathering these people up into his own Dangerous Dozen, his A-Team, his Suicide Squad to stop it from happening again.
That reaction will probably be just as screwed up, just as deceitful and just as wrong. Divided States Of Hysteria is about hubris – and it is ironic that Chaykin has suffered from that in the process. He probably thought the first issue endgame, with seemingly pregnant female Islamist terrorists blowing up New York with explosives placed inside them, as if they were in a Mark Millar comic or something, would be what hit the headlines rather than the violence-to-trans characters motif. Or the reworking of Bernie Madoff into a killer, or the repurposing of the story of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.
It was intended to get a reaction of offence. Just no one expected to get this particular reaction. While Chaykin is reflecting the concerns of the current world, he's doing so with the same language of Black Kiss and American Flagg and expecting a similar reaction. Stuff that offended then, does not now. Stuff that did not offend then, now does. But Divided States of Hysteria continues to press the same buttons that Howard Chaykin has always liked pressing, it's just that the keyboard layout has changed in the interim.
You may have noted, even someone like Mark Millar has changed the buttons he presses.
There has also been strong reaction against the first issue having a Pride variant cover, supporting Pride charities, when having such characters and storylines. And it's hard to argue against that, Pride being a celebratory act of resistance. It is likely that future issues if gathering such individuals together to form a team, may have more celebratory or inspiring moments in fitting with such a promotion. And there may be potential for a trans female sex worker who shoots those who assault her, to elicit such feelings.
But, given the context of the first issue, you may have to be a certain kind of person to see it. And with the first issue, Howard may have lost that audience. Though that's another thing. It's his audience to lose.
Image Comics publishes a wide variety of comic books with a wide variety of voices. That they do not all sing from the same songsheet is a strength not a weakness. In my own privileged position, I would prefer a Howard Chaykin going all out with whatever he wishes or fetishises, than a lily-livered version of the same trying to please an audience and acquiescing to the demand to "put it away, Howard". As ever, your mileage may differ. But while commercial art tries to please, "art" art doesn't. It hurts, it offends, it provokes.
It is, however, harder to serialise in a monthly format.
The Divided States of Hysteria #1 by Howard Chaykin has sold out and gone to second print. That, and the second issue will be published on July 12th.
ERRATA: The article originally stated that the Pride variant was with the second issue, not the already published first issue.