Imagine a United States full of division, distrust and racism. Looks a lot like the present—except things are even worse, and are about to go into a full tailspin. As the story opens, we meet Frank Villa, a CIA field officer. The President of the United States and most of the Cabinet had been assassinated a month before, leaving a low level politician as President (much like the TV show Designated Survivor, although the details of the attempted coup are not spelled out in detail). Villa is convinced that a serious terrorist attack on Washington DC is in the offing, and has drones tracking the suspects. Turns out he was right, but the female terrorist (who was hiding the bomb as a pregnancy) gives surveillance the slip, rendezvousing with several other women in New York City. In a story not notable for visual restraint, a single white panel with the word “BOOM” in the middle speaks volumes.
The explosion is the worst domestic terror nightmare: a combined effect equal to a low-kiloton atomic bomb. The blast (plus an airborne toxin) decimates much of Manhattan, killing as many as three million people. The destruction of the United States’ financial infrastructure cascades out to the rest of the country and the world, spreading chaos and anarchy. After resigning from the CIA, Villa joins a private security firm and vows to get revenge on the planners of the attack—as well as prevent them from doing any more damage. They are an unlikely alliance of white supremacists, black militants, Islamic fundamentalists, and a former Russian oligarch whose only agenda appears to be money and power.
Villa recruits a motley group of murderers serving life sentences in prison for his hit squad, like in the 1967 film The Dirty Dozen (or DC Comics’ Suicide Squad). Much of the story is devoted to their sting operations to take out the terrorist network, along with the inevitable internal conflicts within the team—interspersed with scenes depicting average citizens behaving deplorably, and terrorist acts inspired by the situation.The team is predictably dysfunctional, but they get the job done: lots of intrigue and action. The terrorists did indeed have a masterstroke planned, which is foiled at the last minute, in fine action film fashion. The squad gets their reward, and one member in particular gets much more. The prospect of macho Villa hooking up with a transgender convict may not be entirely earned in-story, but these are strange times.
The Divided States of Hysteria generated considerable controversy during its initial run as individual issues. The original cover for issue #4 portrayed a violent hate crime against a person of color, lynched in a street, having suffered genital mutilation, with a racial slur tagged on the body. The issue preview created such outcry that Image Comics and Chaykin agreed to substitute another image–this collection includes the original cover and Chaykin’s public statement about it. But it has to be said that the entire series was clearly intended to be provocative: the collection’s cover has a woman wearing a burqa made from an American flag, and even a casual examination will find profanity, racial slurs, rough sex, and ugly racial stereotyping. Chaykin has worked on mainstream comics characters for Marvel and DC, but his creator-owned work has often employed antiheroes, pulp adventure and sex–going back to his landmark series American Flagg! (First Comics, 1983), and more recently titles like American Century (Vertigo Comics, 2001). This book reads like a howl of rage, a vulgar, black, dystopian extension of the current state of the world, with an entire cast of disagreeable characters. In a sense it’s like Chaykin turned up to 11. Even for a Chaykin fan it can be downright uncomfortable to read, as if he is more interested in being outrageous than telling a story.
Lettering and design play an unusually important part in the artwork. The pages are full of interstitial information between the panels: sound effects, signage, and barely intelligible bits of news feeds and social media postings. It creates a visual static that mirrors the uneasy emotional tone of the events in the story. A very interesting process piece by letterer Ken Bruzenak describes how it was done, as well as the creation of the series logo and all of the faux-product logos and designs that litter the text. Whether you like the effect or not, there is no denying that it creates a unique visual look for the series.
Howard Chaykin certainly has a fan base likely to be interested in this collection; the controversy might actually generate additional interest. It is definitely for adults only, and capable of offending just about anyone (by design).
The Divided States of Hysteria
by Howard Chaykin
Art by Howard Chaykin
Image Comics, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: M/Mature