So by now, I’m sure that most of you folks that have an interest in new comics have heard about the hubbub caused by noted comics provocateur Howard Chaykin’s newest series The Divided States of Hysteria. The cover to the first issue features what looks to be a Caucasian person in a Muslim-ish veil printed with the American flag. What’s the message there? I can’t really tell, but it had nothing on the solicited (and now removed) cover to the fourth issue, which I’ll get to later. Either way, it was clearly meant to raise eyebrows.
Chaykin’s career in comics has been marked by controversy from the acidic social commentary of American Flagg to the sexually graphic horror-noir of Black Kiss. DSoH is an interesting mixture of elements from both of those works into what I called “a fever dream, jumping from one incendiary situation to the next with almost no feeling of cohesion” after reading the first issue. As opposed to Flagg, which took place in an almost 2000 AD-ish future, DsoH could take place next year which makes its more outrageous elements hit even harder. Ostensibly, the book concerns a group of either marginalized or disenchanted people who will eventually come together to fight back against a corrupt system, though that’s not entirely clear thanks to the nature of Chaykin’s storytelling. He seems much more interested in pushing buttons with things like the first issue’s brutal and hard-to-read sexual assault of a trans woman, which was the element that first sparked the flames of backlash.
Apparently though, that was just an appetizer with the cover to the fourth issue being the main course in this feast of outrage baiting. The cover (which again, Image has already pulled) depicts a scene set on a typical ‘Main Street’ at night where a lynched and graphically castrated man is hung in front of an ‘all-American’ diner with the word ‘Paki’ written on a name tag affixed to his chest. It’s…quite a sight. Unlike the cover to the first issue, Chaykin’s message is clear here- racism in all it’s ugliness exists and it exists in spaces that would generally be considered wholesome. The clarity of the message and his artistic intent, however, hasn’t changed the fact that it still managed to anger a whole bunch of people- fans and pros alike. A few days after releasing the solicit, Image decided to pull the cover and replace it with one which features a bald eagle flying in formation with a fleet of drones.
I’ve read countless articles and thinkpieces and hot takes regarding the controversy over this cover that run the gamut from ‘THIS IS OFFENSIVE AND THEREFORE SHOULDN’T BE PUBLISHED’ to ‘THOSE FEELINGS DON’T MATTER…FREE SPEECH!’ and nothing in between because there is no in-between left in our national discourse. In fact, it’s almost as if there is a DIVIDED HYSTERIA in the way that we discuss things like this. It seems impossible to believe that perhaps the cover can be both wildly offensive and tasteless AND a textbook example of envelope-pushing with a purpose because we’re no longer capable of nuance in our opinions. Blue state or red state, left or right, Coke or Pepsi, Tim Allen or Tina Fey. The outrage and discussion about the book is a meta level of social commentary that the work on its own couldn’t possibly hope to achieve, to the point that I’m now starting to wonder if that was Chaykin’s goal all along (though that would be giving him more credit than I think he deserves). In typically nihilistic fashion, none of this really matters. Despite the fact that Image pulled the cover, everyone saw it anyway (certainly more people than would have seen it on shelves). The book itself has received both a second printing for its first issue and more press than it really deserves. If anything, Chaykin should be upset that you don’t have to buy his comic to understand the point he’s trying to make.