The Divided States of Hysteria #1

Note: This review originally appeared (in truncated form) on the Weird Science DC Comics website. It was written some time ago and I’ve been a little hesitant about posting it here, not least because the (admittedly gruesome and racially insensitive) cover to the series’ fourth issue triggered the kind of moral panic that has been de rigeur in Western societies over the last few years. Those of you who are interested can read The Guardian arguing for censorship here (yes, I know they’re saying that’s not what it is, but they’re being extremely disingenuous) and the man himself talking about the series and the cover here. The collected edition is coming out in February, I think. Here’s my review of issue 1…

Divided States of HysteriaWell, then. That’s a cover and a half, that is. Coming in the year that Linda Sarsour popularised the stars and stripes hijab on the anti-Trump woman’s march, a comic book called ‘Divided States of Hysteria’ featuring a woman wearing a full-blown stars and stripes niqab on its cover is certainly making a statement. What kind of statement, though, remains to be seen. This is Howard Chaykin, after all, and, if it’s one thing that you can say about him it’s that he likes his satire bold, violent, sleazy and decidedly mischievous. Look closely and you can see that what could be interpreted as a warning against the perils of Islamist terrorism is (perhaps) more complex than that. The features beneath the niqab are Caucasian; the eyes blue. Is Chaykin aiming at the kind of terrorism that has its roots much closer to home? Is he making a statement about the way much of the rest of the world sees the United States? For the time being, those uncomfortable questions will have to wait, as they’re not really addressed in this first issue. What we do get is something a bit weirder and darkly comic.

It is going to be difficult to write this review without offending someone, so I might as well level with you. Despite having (virtually) no skin in the game of the 2016 Presidential Election, I found myself coming down fairly enthusiastically on the side of the tangerine septuagenarian property developer from New York. There are a number of reasons for this, some of them more trivial than others, but it kind of boils down to this. If you think that American politics has become almost completely divorced from the people from which it nominally derives its power (which I do), it makes sense not to vote for someone who represents a continuation of the status quo but someone who represents a disruption of it. In this sense, Trump – in all his crass, pussy-grabbing glory – is precisely the kind of man you can get behind. One does not need one’s rock to be pretty; one just needs it to be heavy enough to shatter the window. (It remains to be seen just how successful the current POTUS has been in that regard, but there are certainly cracks beginning to show – not least in the reactions of the defeated Democratic Party and a servile media class that is becoming increasingly exposed as partisan preservers of the status quo.)

Divided States 4The reason I mention this is that, conceived during the primaries last spring, this book is explicitly political and Chaykin, someone who strikes me as being a traditional liberal, addresses last year’s election in his essay at the end of the book. As well as expressing his contempt for “right-wing ignorance and hypocrisy-driven rage” (and he’s not entirely wrong in characterizing Trump’s appeal in that way), he takes aim at a particularly divisive identity politics that seems almost calculated to result in atomization and incivility. Chaykin is equally scathing of both ideologies (if you can call frustrated anger an ideology) and both sides of the political divide. How does all this real-world politics inform this comic?

Well, we start this story being told that it is set one month after the President of the United States and most of the cabinet have been assassinated in “an aborted coup d’etat.” And that’s one hell of an opening statement right there. Coup d’etat suggests that this was a coordinated campaign of domestic terrorism, but Chaykin doesn’t elaborate too much on who the perpetrators of the coup were. He’s more interested in showing us the US in a state of high alert and the inner workings of the life of Frank Villa, a CIA Field Officer who has the unenviable job of protecting the current administration from terrorism. He’s convinced that DC is going to be the target of an imminent attack. This being a Chaykin comic, Villa divulges this information, not in a boring discussion with government officials, but in a conversation with his mistress. This conversation is interrupted by a phone call from his wife in New York who is being driven to distraction by their kids. There are layers of irony and satire here that are beyond the scope of this review to unpick. While Villa is juggling his personal life, a performance that ends with him and his mistress decamping to the shower for steamy shenanigans, the narration that started with the update about the coup continues and becomes a Chomskyan potted (and partial) view of American history. As Villa and his paramour head for the shower, the narration turns caustic, referring to a nation whose people are “unable to raise their eyes from their self-mythologizing, self-serving self-obsession”.

And the rest of the issue bears this out. The main story deals with Villa’s attempt to prevent the terrorist attack. Villa’s (and, by extension, the military-industrial complex’s) arrogant reliance on technology is cruelly exposed by the end of the issue. While that story is unfolding, Chaykin introduces a number of characters who are presumably going to become more important as the series unfolds. Each one is arrested for murder; each one is profoundly unsympathetic (with the possible exception of transgender hooker Christopher). While we don’t get to find out just how they’re going to tie into the main storyline, they are here used to punctuate that A-plot’s action in a dramatic and pretty effective way. The only (slight) problem with this approach is that, though still coherent enough, the narrative is not especially fluent. That is probably the point, though. In any case, the vignettes are substantial and well-written enough to be compelling pieces of storytelling in their own right. If it’s one thing you can always guarantee with a Chaykin comic, you will be entertained. Freaked/grossed out occasionally, but always entertained.

Chaykin’s art is pretty much what you’d expect here. His ‘hero’ is square-jawed and handsome; his women are full-lipped and full-figured. His panels are tight and well-structured. In short, his visual story-telling remains exemplary. In a clever touch, the background ‘buzz’ of the internet is represented by streams of blurred characters and indistinct tweets and facebook posts. It’s a nice visual way of reminding the reader that everything in this comic takes place in the context of our always-on communication technology culture, while not crowding out the action taking place in the panels.

It’s far too early to say whether this title will be a success, but the early signs are promising. Chaykin has his sights set firmly on an America that is trying to project itself as a world leader and representative of noble democratic and liberal values while its populace becomes ever more fractured and intolerant of each other. Whatever your political persuasion, this is a book worth reading. Its story is thought-provoking, well-told and, at times, a little disturbing. The book is well worth a look.

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