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INTERVIEW: Howard Chaykin on ‘Divided States of Hysteria’ controversy

Howard Chaykin By Luigi Novi
Howard Chaykin (photo: Luigi Novi / via Wikimedia)

I fully assign the blame for changing the way I viewed comics on Howard Chaykin.

I think I was about seventeen when I first read his Blackhawk mini-series and it completely forced me to change the paradigm of what I used to believe was the comics medium. Comics stopped being mindless distractions, but eye-opening insights into the human character and the world around me as well. The Blackhawks became more than just two-dimensional cartoon characters ready to deliver a one-two punch combo to the forces of fascism; they themselves were flawed characters with dark natures as grim and dirty as their enemies’.

That was the first moment I can recall when comics became objects of reflective thought for me rather than just senseless distraction. While it was like saying farewell to the last vestiges of my childhood, I have Chaykin to thank for that moment of growth and realization.

And thank him, I did. However, this time, instead of the warm and cozy surroundings of my youthful basement bedroom, I had a chance to share that reflection with the creator of this comic – from the confines of my adult basement man-cave. Huh… the more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose.

“I happen to think that reflection is fun,” Chaykin told me when I related that story to him. “I mean, I like writing fun stories that are darker and deeper than some. “

Detail from cover of ‘Blackhawk: Blood & Iron, Book One’ (DC Comics)

Chaykin’s most recent work, The Divided States of Hysteria (I reviewed the latest issue in my weekly roundup) is another deep opportunity for reflection. It’s a dark mirror held up to the surface of the United States that reveals dark and disturbing images but should elicit a poignant and deeply thoughtful response. I say ‘should’ but it has also brought Chaykin a great deal of controversy and anger.

Chaykin was generous enough to share some of his time with me and I wasted no time in taking advantage of his good nature, beginning with his conception for this story:

“The book was conceived in late ’15. I live in a small California town, more conservative socially and politically than would be assumed about the west coast. I spent a great deal of time in the American Midwest, going to comics shows. And it just seemed that the country I grew up in had ceased to exist. There was a divide along racial lines, generational lines, ethnic lines with no capacity for compromise under any circumstances.”

If anyone knows Howard Chaykin, he is not one given to soften his opinion for the sake of being politic, and this is a comic that doesn’t pull its punches. If you haven’t read the sold-out The Divided States of Hysteria, it’s currently on Issue #2 and is about imagining the worst possible terrorist attack upon American soil and the resulting chaotic responses it elicits from within the American psyche. Chaykin presents to us a disturbing image of a wounded animal that lashes out in blind anger, revealing its horrid and mutilated nature. We see a nation gripped in fear and expressing its rage through racism, violence and unfettered cynicism. It is terrifying and it really isn’t too far off what America looks like right now to the rest of the world. Yet, for this, Howard has received a great deal of backlash himself, with his work being cited as “vile” and “beyond the pale”.

“The irony is that the only criticism I’ve received from the right is the only criticism that’s come from those who have actually read the book,” he pointed out. “On the other hand, the obsessive hatred directed at me; the cynical attempt to promote one’s own product by attacking me–this comes from my side of the aisle. I’ve said more than once, I never understood the apostasy of someone like Whittaker Chambers or Ron Silver, who could make a switch from left to right with such finesse and ease. I’m beginning to understand that now as I’ve been assaulted by Eloi who’ve mistaken me for a Morlock and again, that’s a literary reference that many people will not get.”

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The cover for issue #1 of ‘The Divided States of Hysteria’ (art: Howard Chaykin / Image Comics)

Chaykin’s feelings are pretty strong about this book. But then again, what boggles my mind is that if you are even slightly familiar with Chaykin’s work, then why is this a surprise? You know what you are going to get with Chaykin and to be further honest, in comparison to the other examples of his work in the past, these are themes that have been present there as well. If you know Chaykin, you know what to expect.

But let’s be frank and allow me to roughly describe the controversial material and images so that there are no misconceptions: in the first issue we see various nefarious characters and elements of criminality; corrupt CIA operatives, and a transgender woman getting savagely beaten when her penis is revealed. This is set against the main story idea of New York City suffering the worst terrorist attack imaginable, resulting in catastrophic damage. The second issue sees the ineptitude of the American government in trying to deal with the situation and scenes of extreme violence in a prison riot as we learn more about the criminal characters of this comic.

Am I offended by the images and material? I think it’s safe to say the images are very disturbing to me in my own safe and closeted lifestyle up here in the Great White North. But I have the choice to stop reading it and to never look at it again. Yet, I can’t condemn Chaykin for telling a story in the way that he wants to.

But when I consider books like the Blackhawks, American Flagg¸ or even one of his more recent collaborations with Matt Fraction in Satellite Sam, it’s very obvious that Chaykin is not afraid to rip off the dead skin of American society and expose the sore to the sunlight. But the real question though is, can an inflamed America take it? Chaykin doesn’t seem to think so.

“It inflamed people who hadn’t read the book, slamming it on the basis of assumptions drawn from the image. From the start of this, I’ve been accused of Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and my favourite, anti-Semitism. I’ve covered all the major food groups. I’ve spent much of my professional life having representations mistaken for the act. Back in 1994, I did a book called Power & Glory in which I had the president of the United States tell a genuinely offensive joke, in order to convey how loathsome this guy was. I was taken to task for telling the joke. It didn’t matter that it was the character telling the joke, because it was the audience that was repelled by the character telling the joke. But this was ignored in the name of virtue indication–a concept that had no name back then, so I’m grateful to have lived long enough for it to be designated.”

An editorial headline from The Guardian (via TheGuardian.com).

Has Chaykin gone too far with this book, though? I don’t know – maybe, but that’s not really for me to judge. Chaykin lives in a country that values the right to free speech. His right to express a piece of fiction is guaranteed by that nation’s constitution. It’s also important to remember that this fiction is for sale and that readers make a conscious decision to purchase this book on the merits of Chaykin’s forty-six year career. The people buying this book are the ones familiar with his penetrating and inflammatory style of story-telling.

Image Comics has supported this storyteller’s work, despite the wave of response that has been lobbied his way.

“They were rightfully upset by the assault,” Chaykin said about Image. “They’ve supported me. These are stand-up guys who haven’t fired me–yet. There are people publishing books at Image who have said, and I paraphrase, that they will do everything in their power to see that a book like this is never published at Image again. This is where my own naivete comes to the fore. I remain constantly astonished by the level of narcissistic guileless self regard that informs this material.”

Despite the negative response, Issue #1 sold out and has gone to second printing. At the time of this conversation, Chaykin was in the process of rushing out a new cover for the second printing.

“I’m sure there’ll be the usual second issue fall-out, but I have no idea. As we speak, I’m drawing issue #6. Issue three is in the process of being put together for the beginning of August and #4 has been delivered in camera ready status.”

Of course, the point here is that Chaykin’s work is selling. Regardless of the response from various identified social groups, this is a work that his readers want to read.

There is no dispute that Chaykin’s story material and imagery is graphically disturbing, but America has a history of being fascinated by equally disturbing subject material in comics. Jessica Jones (in the Netflix version) has a horrifying origin story in which the Purple Man essentially controls her will and makes her commit murder and rapes her. We’ve seen cannibalism and incest in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, extreme violence in Warren Ellis’s The Authority, and don’t even get me started on the imagery that comes out of books like The Walking Dead and Crossed.

The point is, Chaykin doesn’t condone the acts in his stories but recognizes them as evils that American Society is capable of expressing in its worst moments and these are elements that are necessary to telling this story. However, the act of telling the story is offensive for many.

But why?

Because when Chaykin holds up that mirror, there are some parts of  itself that America doesn’t like seeing.

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Panels from issue #1 of ‘The Divided States of Hysteria’ (art by Howard Chaykin / Image Comics)

“That may be but you are also dealing with a constituency with several levels of resentment,” Chaykin stated. “There are enthusiasts and the retailers who have to deal with them, who live in a world of anticipatory hurt – who presume that everything is a slight; who were raised by people who believed that just showing up rated an award. My prayer is that those 40some year-olds who raised these 20some year-olds will pay the price for this nonsense when they’re in their seventies, with their unemployable 50 year old children living in their basement.”

The others are colleagues of mine who feel that artistic integrity and expression is something that has a line that can be drawn in it–and that they are ones to draw that line. Unfortunately for these arrogantly misinformed folks, that’s not the case. I was raised in a plural society–but this country is no longer plural by any recognizable standard.”

This isn’t Blackhawk and it sure as hell isn’t Batman or any other comic book. This is a book that is definitely provocative and it penetrates America’s sensitive skin in a bloody, barbed way that will leave scars. But that is the way that Chaykin tells a story: blunt, abrasive and in a way that empowers the medium of comics to cruelly scrape the reader’s mind free of traditional comic structures. It’s uncomfortable but in the end, like a using a negative to emphasize a positive, the reader knows what’s right and what is wrong.

“Well, that’s what comics are–liberal ends achieved by fascist means,” he said. “Consider this. Batman had a bad day when he was eight. His reaction is this: instead of investing his inherited billions in addressing crime where it starts, or getting in politics to become a force for good, he dresses up like a bondage freak and beats the living shit out of people he doesn’t know but identifies them as bad on the basis of the way they look. This is a fifteen year-old’s idea of how the world works. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler about Alan Ladd, he’s a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. And again, I read Batman comics and loved them throughout my boyhood. But I can’t write this without irony.”

I brought up Blackhawk in response to this.

“The Blackhawks was about a fascist presence in the United States government cutting off their financing, forcing them to get money from the Soviets. Jenette Kahn [DC Comics publisher at the time] got a letter from the B’nai B’rith complaining about the presentation of the two Jewish mobsters murdering the two black soldiers with the help of their gentile girlfriend accomplice–whom they then murder without a second thought. Welcome to my world, pal.”

The cover for issue #2 of ‘The Divided States of Hysteria’ (art: Howard Chaykin / Image Comics)

Right now, America is reeling in the first six months of probably its most controversial presidency in its history. My opinion of the man is not an issue, and whether I think he brings dignity to the office or not is beside the case, but there is no dispute that there has been a great deal of negativity and suspicion associated with his presidency. Clearly Chaykin’s work is influenced by this.

“I come from a longstanding left wing/liberal tradition, so I wanted to do a book that talked about the divisiveness of the culture. I actively chose not to do a book that referred to contemporary figures or that dealt with contemporary issues, because, as I said in the essay in the first issue, I assumed that Hillary was going to win, and there would be some violence from Trump supporters. I was the first voter in my polling place. I was having lunch with my wife that day and there was an eerie quiet in the street. I sat and watched the election results that night, changing channels in the hope of getting a different result. I was shocked by the election results but not surprised. It seemed to be a natural fault of this country. You sow the wind and you reap the whirlwind and that’s what’s going on. And let’s not forget the fact that there are 41% of the American people who still think he’s doing a great job.”

It’s a story that befits the times that Chaykin is in. It is so easy to see the source of his cynicism and disenfranchisement when the person in the highest office of his nation is so mired in controversy over the most humanistic issues the country can face. Chaykin isn’t the monster here, but he knows how to describe one and it hurts Americans to be told that they have one in their midst, by their own acceptance.

“But the reality is: there is nothing in the Constitution or in the Bible that grants you freedom from having your feelings hurt. Unfortunately, I live in a culture that feels that that right is innate.”

Nice isn’t good, Howard told me further, and there really isn’t anything nice in this comic. But that still shouldn’t stop people from thinking about its message and its origins. Judge the story for its merits but don’t equate the story’s creator with its objects. Howard is a product of left-wing liberalism and an immigrant origin that’s about as American as apple pie. If there is anything that Howard should be blamed for, it’s having a mind that is capable of imagining this horrible imagery, but it still tells a provocative story that should make people think. Yet, if they choose not to be subjected to it, then the solution is simple: don’t buy the book.

However, I for one will continue to blame Howard Chaykin for changing the way I looked at comics, and I think that’s a culpability he’s quite comfortable in shouldering.

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About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.