I finally got around to reading Howard Chaykin’s The Divided States Of Hysteria and… it was okay. I got a kick out of it, but Chaykin has long been my favorite comics creator of his generation so I’m in the tank for him to start with. That said, I understand why some people don’t like him. (Setting aside the controversies surrounding the book, which I won’t get into.) Let’s face it, you either get Chaykin or you don’t, and if you do get him, you either enjoy his work for being so quintessentially Chaykin or you find his idiosyncrasies repetitive and grating. In some ways, he’s an acknowledged master of the medium who has become sui generis, like Frank Miller or Robert Crumb. The reader has to buy into the whole Chaykin brand or else it just won’t work.
Everything one expects from a Chaykin comic can be found in these pages. The dialogue has the patented Chaykin snap, the art has the solid craftsmanship. Panel by panel, we get a lot of held cinematic shots and head-shot insets, which is par for the course. Chaykin is capable of breathtaking design and layout innovations, but that is less evident here than in other works as he emphasizes the clarity and velocity of the story. Of course, Ken Bruzenak’s lettering adds layers upon layers of narrative complexity: a Chaykin book would feel incomplete without his contribution, his unique juggling of textual noise is essential to building that sense of modern-day static-and-thrum. There’s a great behind-the-scenes write-up at the end of the book to show how Bruzenak does it and how he thinks through the process; it is a definite bonus highlight.
However, the story seems more hysterical in itself than interested in depicting the hysteria of the title. We are promised a story about America torn to the breaking point – and beyond – by the kind of tensions and strife that we see in the news every day. We get glimpses of that – a lot of glimpses, actually – but it’s all window dressing. We never really get into the nitty gritty of lives torn apart or communities destroyed by hate – those things are tucked safely behind a variety of diegetic screens and never given a deep dive. It’s one snapshot atrocity exhibition after another, feeling a lot like what I imagine the Purge movies to be like.
Instead, the main focus of the story is a major terrorist attack on American soil and a CIA agent, Frank Villa, who gets revenge on those responsible by recruiting a quartet of murderers with ties to those terrorists. There’s a good deal of shooting and stabbing and fucking and even more fucking. So yeah, the plot is pretty standard for Chaykin and handled with relative aplomb, though there’s an even higher dose than usual of the bigoted name-calling and in-fighting one expects from a Chaykin story such as this. The only really interesting wrinkle in the characterization is the blooming of an unexpected romance over the course of the six issues / chapters, with a nice little payoff at the end.
That said, there are two major plot points that I could not wrap my head around. First, I don’t get why Frank is so reviled by the nation: he warned of the attack and the higher-ups didn’t listen until late in the game. He tried his hardest to save people, so aren’t his superiors the ones who should be held accountable for not backing him up more – and earlier – than they actually did? Or is he being scapegoated just because it adds tension to the plot? We don’t even see how much national hatred is directed towards Frank, people just keep telling him this is so. Second, the cabal of terrorist groups behind the attack is simply unbelievable no matter how you cut it. If these people are true ideologues – enough to be terrorists, for Christ’s sake – then no amount of money would move them to such collaboration. (Imagine ISIS working with white supremacists.) And if they are the decadent, greedy hypocrites that populate Chaykin’s casts of characters so frequently, where is the profit in their actions? It just doesn’t add up.
As an international romp of sex and violence through Chaykin’s overheated imagination, The Divided States Of Hysteria is an entertaining sociopolitical thriller confection. Chaykin has a distinct voice and a unique perspective, and here it is clearly inflamed by the state of the world today. Does that extra dose of righteous passion add to the overall effect? Perhaps a little, though I find Chaykin is much funnier and cannier when he allows himself a more aloof distance from what he parodies.
If Chaykin was looking to make four-color sequential agitprop, his desire to entertain in his usual fashion got in the way of such rabble-rousing. And there’s no shame in that. If he was looking to stay relevant while telling a nasty story of national upheaval and revenge, this book is much closer to the mark, and more satisfying when read in that light.