By Howard Chaykin, Jesus Aburtov, Wil Quintana, Ken Bruzenak
For those not familiar with Howard Chaykin, he is a longtime professional of the comic industry going as far back as the 1970’s, known primarily for heavily violent/sexual works and stark political views. While I have very limited reading experiences of his body of work, I had the fortune of meeting him in person briefly at a comic-con. As such, I can attest that he lives up to the blunt and nonchalant persona he portrays in interviews. All of this is to give background and context for the review of his Image miniseries, The Divided States of Hysteria.
It took me two read-throughs to actually finish the book, which was my own fault but may color my assessment of the plot itself. Not since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again have I read a book so overly sexual and violent that it challenged me to finish the work itself. While I have read books that were more sexual or more violent is not the point, both series seemed to push past the necessary limits merely for the sake of excess. While Chaykin will likely resent the comparison, I find it fitting nonetheless.
The story of Divided States of Hysteria centers on a terrorist attack on New York City, the worst one to ever take place, and the man who failed to stop it looking to prevent the following one with a rag-tag group of extreme individuals who have tangential connections to the people behind the first attack.
This series goes through a check-list of politics plaguing societal discourse such as police brutality, Black Lives Matter, White Supremacy, Terrorism, Greed, Alternative forms of Sexual Attraction and lifestyles, Gun-control, Sexism, the list goes on. While I cannot define Chaykin’s personal political leanings, I can speculate he would fall on the liberal side with the series being fairly progressive in its presentation. That said, every imaginable ethnic and homophobic slur is used within the pages, repeatedly. That’s not for the writer’s amusement, but to give context to the characters and their views. It’s not titled “Divided” for nothing, the premise is that every separate group in America begins attacking every other in self-preservation or abject hate of any outside their respective approval. There is a tendency in stories, live-action and otherwise, to expect every character to fall within approved forms of views and attitudes at nearly all times or be swiftly corrected to conform. Chaykin pretty much disregards this, letting his characters be as close-minded and bigoted as they want since that is how these degenerate people should act.
This leaves us with a story where there are no true endearing characters, but that they also fall into the category of stereotype instead of archetype. You have the slick and smart ladysman with tragic backstory, an angry black man who hates all white people (and isn’t that fond of LGBT+ people either), the serial-killer with mob ties and his own unique sexual deviance, the violent transsexual who is eager to sleep with as many men as possible, and the money-hungry Jewish man who only cares about his own continued living. None of these people are heroes you want to root for, and seeing what happens to America after the awful terrorist attack you’re not sure it deserves saving.
For those curious about the art, it’s as ugly and messy as the plot. It’s where the comparisons to The Dark Knight Strikes Again truly come into play, as both have heavily digital art and an abundance of distracting detail inside compact panels. The use of internet chatter via a illustrator filter on nearly every page along with rectangular speech balloons only serve to confuse the reader and make simple readings of the page more difficult. In the backmatter, this was explained as a conscious decision to be innovative but instead feels reductive. Comics or sequential art, should be clearly legible and easy to follow. That doesn’t mean Dr.Seuss like storytelling, but that simply reading a comic page shouldn’t be a chore. It should become a subconscious task as readers mentally fill the character’s voices, how they move from panel to panel, etc.
After 2017, The Divided States of Hysteria is exactly the type of story I would seek to avoid. For want of any positive to give the book, it’s this: It remains entirely representational of the U.S.A as it currently stands. Even after the dozen or so terrorist attacks that have occurred around the world, and the two that took place in NYC; its an ever-present danger in populated areas now. As much as we may hope for racial harmony and to come together as a country, our President’s disparaging remarks about other non-white and pre-industrialized countries prove they remain ever more out of reach as they’re criticized and defended.
The comic is mostly relevant for the modern state of America, without necessarily being a good story because of it.
Disclosure: Publisher Image Comics provided a review copy of this collection to Nothing But Comics without any payment between the site and publisher or agreement on the review’s content.