Friday, July 21, 2017

"Now let's be perfectly clear, here." The Divided States of Hysteria #1-2 review

Although a tag for Howard Victor Chaykin already exists on this blog from previous articles I am not exactly a Chaykin fan. Most of the Chaykin comics I have read over the years have been stories he drew and someone else wrote. Of those stories I read which Chaykin did write & draw, I didn't find that they held my interest.

Chaykin has certainly been talked about in the comic book industry lately due to his new Image series The Divided States of Hysteria. Who would have thought a series with that title would rattle people's cages? Indeed, in an editorial found in issue #1 Chaykin recalls the first announcement of this series at Image Expo being greeted by "a neutral, mostly uninterested audience." That changed when issue #1 came out and several people (many of them comics industry professionals) were outraged by its contents, followed by a second outrage at the preview art for issue #4's cover, which resulted in a change of covers. All of that hit before issue #2 had even come out!

I attempted to follow the discussion but what I found difficult to ascertain was what exactly it was about issue #1 that people had a problem with. No one was posting panels or quoting dialogue to show what they hated. In fact, the response seemed to be "it's so terrible I can't even begin to tell you, so I won't." Lacking this context, I became more and more interested in the series. I hadn't paid attention to any of the promotion - I read the Image solicitations every month and the solicits for The Divided States of Hysteria left no impression on me. But now I was learning what it was about and that was... intriguing. I am, certainly, a reader willing to indulge viewpoints I don't agree with - witness my previous entries on this blog re: Steve Ditko or Dave Sim. Issue #1 was sold out but a 2nd print came out to coincide with issue #2.

Above all, The Divided States of Hysteria is an exercise in venting. This is an angry comic written by an angry man - an angry liberal man who sees much to be outraged by. The reaction to this series, then, is an outrage against outrage over the thing which outrages both groups. It is almost impossible to keep from seeing the content of this series (and the reaction to it) as emblematic of the ugly side of the USA as seen in last year's election. In The Divided States of Hysteria, one liberal points his finger and says, "Look at this hellhole we live in!" And his peers gasp, "How dare you draw our attention to that!"

But what is The Divided States of Hysteria actually about? It is set in the near-future shortly after the US President (presumably Trump) and most of his cabinet have been assassinated, but this has only led to even worse things for the state of the nation as people become more and more divided (hence the title). The central protagonist is Frank Villa, a Pentagon official who learns of a looming terrorist attack and fails to avert catastrophe. Consequently he loses his government job and is hired by a private firm to put together a team of operatives to hunt down the people responsible for the attack (a consortium of Muslim, black supremacist and white supremacist allies-of-convenience).

Villa's four operatives are introduced in issue #1 and recruited at the end of issue #2. Each is in prison when Villa finds them: Henry Noone is a black supremacist who went on killing spree which targeted only white people (obviously drawn from recent real life "anti-white" gunmen in the USA); Christopher Silver appears to be a transvestite sex worker who was assaulted by her three johns and shot them all to death; Paul Berg is an expert poisoner who preys on wealthy people ("the 1%" as he calls them); Cesare Nacamulli is a serial killer who targets random people to avoid forming identifiable patterns.

It's the character of Christopher Silver who provoked the aforementioned outrage. It's actually a little difficult to pin down Christopher's gender but she appears to be a man in women's clothing (no surgery); I use the term 'her' because it's what the story uses. She's introduced in a three-page sequence in #1 where she's seen with her three johns, who feign outrage upon 'discovering' she has a penis (Silver notes in her narration they knew that when they hired her and were pretending so that they could claim the "trap defense"). When the trio begin beating her she takes a gun from her purse and shoots them all dead. Christopher stands apart from the others because her punishment is unjust - she acted in self-defense, whereas the other three prisoners were sociopaths preying upon others: white people (Noone), the wealthy (Berg) or strangers (Nacamulli). Silver is picked for Villa's team not because she's in the same league as the others, but because the johns she killed were coincidentally linked to the terrorist network.

I can't bring myself to be outraged by the treatment of Silver because the story's perspective is that Christopher Silver was wronged. She is granted a righteousness the other anti-hero protagonists do not possess. For all I know, she'll turn out to be the conscience of this series (or then again, maybe there is no conscience). Chaykin has called this a "revenge story" so it stands to reason that the person who was wronged will attain vengeance by the tale's climax. I understand people speaking out against this comic book because they don't want to read it - they shouldn't. I can't bring myself to agree with those who don't want this book to exist - there, I must side with Chaykin's remark: "I’m being impugned from my side of the aisle–by the sort of people who say such things as “I’m all for artistic expression, but…” It’s that “but” that undercuts all that “…all for…” No, you’re not really. If that were the case, there’d be no buts."

I'm afraid my problems with The Divided States of Hysteria will be of little interest to anyone. Chaykin has a bad habit lately of abusing his pages with Photoshop. A behind-the-scenes feature in issue #1 shows the transformation of a page of Chaykin's pencils into the finished product and I much prefer the lines on the penciled page - whenever a Photoshop background or graphic is used it's wicked obvious and jarring. The use of computer-generated imagery to fill in details feels cheap, which I'm sure is intentional - Chaykin spent time with Wally Wood early in his career and one of Wood's mantras to his apprentices was "Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut out and paste up." Wood would have loved Photoshop. Further confounding are the two kinds of lettering boxes, seen below:

First there's the blue narration boxes which look like they belong on a 1999 Geocities page (so says the owner of a 1999 Geocities page), then there are the speech balloons with their tiny, near-invisible tails which cause momentary confusion when trying to follow which person in the conversation is speaking. I've called out Chaykin's comics for this one before and I'm afraid I must again - letterer Ken Bruzenak: you are my least favourite part of this comic book. Your lettering consistently interferes with my ability to follow the story being told, which is just about the last thing lettering should do.

Perhaps because I am not a citizen of the USA I have a few degrees of removal from their toxic political culture and can better enjoy this book as an outlet of liberal rage. Certainly when I think about the state of politics in the US, I get a bit angry; mostly depressed. I am not one who normally advocates on behalf of offensive/provocative art - I say, 'well, I agree in principle with its right to express itself but I sure don't want to read it.' I don't enjoy exploitation films, the exploitation 'homages' of Tarantino, 'rape revenge' films, splatter films or 'torture porn'; I was never an angry youth so I never enjoyed young angry music. Yet here I've read these two issues for sake of getting better informed on the controversy and find myself interested in following the plot. Weirdly, then, for the first time in my life I find myself reading a Howard Chaykin comic book I'm willing to follow regularly. Uh... thanks, people who wanted this story banned!

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