Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Divided States of Hysteria (2017): written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin



The Divided States of Hysteria (2017): written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin: Legendary comic writer-artist Howard Chaykin stirred up controversy when The Divided States of Hysteria came out in single-issue form in 2017

Much of the flack came from the Left, an odd turn of events because Chaykin is vocally left-wing and has been for decades. But he's also been an expert at making readers uncomfortable for decades now. 

For example, he caused the late Harlan Ellison to have a world-class freak-out with his revisionist Shadow miniseries in the mid-1980's, a book which logically pointed out that the Shadow was a fascist sociopath and then ran with it all the way to awesomeness.

The Divided States of Hysteria is a near-future dystopia in which much of the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government died in a terrorist attack before the book's narrative begins. Rather than offer a bipartisan fantasy of a perfect President within this scenario, as Designated Survivor does, Chaykin instead offers more chaos, horror, incompetence, and a group of "heroes" who make the Dirty Dozen look about as scary as the goddam Goonies.

At the heart of a lot of complaints, I think, is Chaykin's ability to make violence and fascist tendencies look attractive. It's sort of the point -- as some wag once pointed out, a lot of comic-book superheroes are fascistic, anti-government sociopaths. Or would be, if they were real. But isn't fun to watch them solve things with punches and explosions?

At the heart, though, of those complaints is also the inability of many people, left or right, to separate the representation of something from advocacy of that same thing, along with a a pronounced and escalating ability to take offense at anything that isn't pablum. Bland, inoffensive pablum. You're mean, Early! How dare you draw the aftermath of a completely plausible 21st-century American lynching AND PUT IT ON YOUR COVER! 

Identity politics also requires that one of the two people closest to being a hero in The Divided States of Hysteria, as a trans woman, SHOULD NOT BE REPRESENTED BY A HETEROSEXUAL WHITE MALE CARTOONIST!!!

But she is a great character. And dead sexy.

At one point, female terrorists detonate dirty bombs they've had implanted in their wombs. This is not a pretty scenario. I imagine Tom Clancy vomiting with rage somewhere. So too someone on the Left. Chaykin has decided to find ways to horrify the reader, and the same old beheadings and IED attacks and marathon bombings have lost the power to shock. They're becoming background noise.

In order to stop America's enemies -- and redeem his own devastated reputation, and avenge the deaths of his mistress and wife and family in a terrorist attack  -- a disgraced CIA operative puts together a team of four convicted murderers. They're up against a cadre of terrorist leaders and a Russian operative and the incompetence of their own country's government. The President they're working for, a replacement from the Cabinet's lowest levels, is a compromised hack. 

So five misfits.... well, 'misfit' is a bit of a misnomer. Besides our CIA protagonist, our heroes are a trans man who killed three clients in self-defence, a mob hitman with a serial-killing hobby, a criminal accountant who murdered a couple of dozen rich people with poison, and an African-American serial-killing sniper who's a really good shot and loves shooting white civilians in the head.

The Challengers of the Unknown these are not. Challengers of the Unthinkable, maybe.

The violence is horrifying. The art is slick and gorgeous and horrifyingly clinical at atimes. The 'sound-design' from letterer Ken Bruzenak is fascinating enough that it gets its own 4-page explanatory essay at the back of the volume. Over it all hangs a question Chaykin has been asking and answering for a long time in his work -- are these the heroes you want? Because this is what they would really look like.

I mean, there are other questions. And the whole thing, complete with the cynical 'voice' of an omniscient narrator running along with the narrative, is a compelling action narrative, blood-soaked and morally dubious. But it's also a compelling examination of the heroism people love when it's sanitized in everything from James Bond movies to daily news reports of Seal Team 6 and Our Brave Black Ops Boys in Afghanistan. 

And I haven't even delved into the sexual and racial politics explored throughout! The Divided States of America delves into an America besotted with sex and violence, sometimes at the same time, sometimes as the same thing. 

Along with the narration comes a recurring series of images of death and horror from various American sites. The terrorist groups themselves are a mixed bag too -- an All-Star, Dream Team-up of White Supremacy and Black Power and Islamicism, coordinated by a Russian operative who's also a Hollywood movie producer. It's doom alone that counts, all moving towards a final attack on a telethon for a wounded America, complete with the President, to be destroyed by the same groups who are also the event's public donors.

It's not so much that the satire and the violence both blister. It's that the entire book seems entirely plausible. Chaykin's been examining the puritanical, pornographic nature of American culture for decades. The American love of violence as a solution, and the attendant separation of the world into Good and Evil, Us and Them. Now all accompanied by the eternal chatter of social media.

Bang bang, screw screw, shoot shoot. Highly recommended.

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