Writer/Artist: Howard Chaykin
Colors: Jesus Abertov
Variant: Wil Quintana
Letters: Ken Bruzenak
Editor: Thomas K
Hey, we’re on our second issue of this series that blew up the internet last month–thanks, Twitter and Bleeding Cool. Somehow in the midst of one controversial scene and a planned controversial cover, the mainstream comics media missed out on what The Divided States of Hysteria is all about. So, to recap: the last issue of TDSoH, set in a near-future America, dealt with Agent Frank Villa, a government operative looking to take down a terror ring before it could act–which it did. A group of Muslim-sympathizing women with nuclear bombs shoved into their wombs slipped through Villa’s fingers–yes, they literally accomplished a South Park joke–and blew up Manhattan.
Set against this background story are four sides of Americans caught in the darker aspects of our culture: a black man who goes on an anti-white shooting spree; a hitman; a Jewish con artist who raids people’s bank accounts through fake schemes; and a transgender sex worker who defends herself against an attack and gets convicted under the “trap” defense. And set against all that is a growing tension that the United States is eating itself: politically, morally, socially, tribally. Love of neighbor and countryman is gone, and everybody’s in it for themselves, and it feels very much like the top is about to blow. The nuke explosion is that moment.
Issue two takes things from bad to worse: with America having literally detonated, the dead are piling up and the country is descending into chaos. Not that anyone is doing anything about it: fingers are pointed at Villa for letting this happen, while the terror conspiracy–made up of a very unlikely alliance–continues to plot their next step. Villa’s only hope is a new assignment in which he determines that the four figures from the previous issue actually have inadvertent ties to the conspiracy, and he needs to recruit them to take down the enemy.
TDSoH raises dangerous questions and uncomfortable scenes, with Chaykin’s central thesis being that real-world America is very quickly running itself off the rails. As an acquaintance of mine once put it, it seems like we’re caught in a burning building where people are too busy arguing over how it started and few are actually trying to extinguish it. In that regard, the argumentation over the story itself–that it’s too triggering, too uncomfortable–sort of proves Chaykin’s point: critics are conflating the uncomfortable portayals in the comics, which are never presented as a good thing, as synonymous with the things themselves. (They’re also disturbingly selective–people objected to the attack on Christopher the trans-female, but not on the images of a black man shooting whites or Muslims committing terrorism.)
Say what you will about TDSoH, but the first issue has proven itself to be an interactive comic in a way that Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity wasn’t. If America has devolved into a state of tribal warfare and its people are missing the larger issues, then Chaykin correctly predicted the response, and his essay in the second issue works as an ugly “I told you so.” The second of his essays is a very blunt response to his readers: no, fans don’t own a creator’s work and can’t tell him what to write. We’re split as a country, both on big issues (government) and little (a comic book story which will probably be inconsequential in a decade), and the letter column in the back illustrates that. As if proving the point, very little of the reader responses discuss the actual story. Most just marry the reader’s reaction to their ideologies.
As a story, it’s still too soon to tell where things are going. Whatever the terror conspiracy is, Chaykin hasn’t gotten too deep into it beyond it blowing up New York. Most of the issue is spent on Villa and his failure, with minimal exploration of the four prisoners who will become Villa’s team. What Chaykin does accomplish at this point is to set the mood, a look into the ugly mirror of where we’re going. It’s apparent that in the aftermath of the attack, everyone is blaming everyone else. In a chlilling sequence, cops are killing blacks, whites are killing Muslims, Jews are killing gentiles, and bringing things full circle, blacks are killing cops. It’s a frightening reminder of where things could go if the real world gets pushed past the tipping point.
Chaykin’s art will take some adjustment for the older reader who isn’t used to him. This is an older style by an older artist, one who insists on inking his own work with heavy outlines and giving a certain grotesquery to his characters. At times, it carries emotion in spite of itself; at others, the cartoonishness is hard to take seriously. The transwoman Christopher in particular frequently warps in appearance: while she looked very feminine last issue, this time, she literally shifts between a male and female appearance between panels. Still, Chaykin does have a powerful sense of layout and symmetry, with the riot scenes repeating the same thematic imagery in an almost poetic sense.
Who knows if this book will continue to cause controversy? The first issue has long passed and the controversial cover was pulled. It’ll be hard to invoke as much surprise from here, but heaven knows, Chaykin has surprised us before–nobody expected the first issue to cause the reactions it did. Anyway, as a 2017 social commentary, it’s at least worth a curious peek and some significant reflection.
Rating: Three and a half riots out of five.