Let’s not kid ourselves — America is fucked. Anyone who follows my ramblings regularly is already more than familiar with my views of our current (and, in my opinion, probably quite temporary) president — and anyone who doesn’t can probably intuit how I feel about the bloated orange mentally ill clown easily enough based on the first couple of lines of this review alone — but one good thing about living in strange and tumultuous times is that the great Howard Chaykin will probably have something to say about them.
After taking us back to the past in his last series, the stylish noir thriller Midnight Of The Soul, Chaykin and his steady collaborators, colorist Jesus Aburto and letterer Ken Bruzenak, are taking aim at the present day (well, three years into the future, as the timeline here would have it) with their new Image Comics six-parter, the provocatively-titled (and speaking of provocative, how about that cover?) The Divided States Of Hysteria. Are you ready for a bumpy ride?
Mind you, when I say “bumpy ride,” I definitely don’t mean that as a criticism — quite the reverse, in fact. I just know my Chaykin (shit, I’ve been reading his stuff for nearly three decades now), and things never go smoothly for anyone in any of his stories. That’s a big part of their — dare I say it — charm.
So, what the hell is happening in this book? That’s something of an open question one issue in: We seem to have a typically Chaykin-esque morally bankrupt protagonist at the center of events here — in this case an undercover CIA operative — and he appears to be undertaking and/or being conscripted into some sort of assignment that involves him assembling a team of recently-busted criminals (among them a high-dollar transgender prostitute, a Henry Lee Lucas-style serial killer, a homicidal maniac who hates white people, and an embezzling accountant turned mass murderer) in order to function as “disposable assets” working high-risk assignments in an America where an attempted (and failed) coup has resulted in some low-level cabinet member or other “inheriting” the presidency given that everyone above him (or her, that part’s not really clear yet) was either implicated or killed in the plot. So, yeah, things are messy — and that’s before they literally go “boom” on our final-page cliffhanger.
Yeah, “messy” — that’s sort of the operative word here. On many pages, a number of panels nearly threaten to get buried under a steady, throbbing stream of sound effects, digital coding, social media posts, and various other forms of electronic “white noise,” and while this represents Chaykin and Bruzenak amping their usual “look” up to about a “10+” on the ugliness scale, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work in terms of setting a visual tone that’s both arresting in its hyper-stylization and probably more than a little too close for comfort as a reflection of our information-overloaded world. I’d say something trite and cliched like “we’re clearly not in Kansas anymore” at this point, but who are we kidding? Kansas is saturated under all of this crap, too.
Keeping up with everything going on here, and accurately processing and collating it all, is something of a challenge, it’s true — but again, how is that anything other than an absolutely accurate and honest representation of today’s social, political, cultural, and media landscape? Chaykin just plain gets that, and he’s not in the business of sugar-coating the truth in order to make it more palatable — never has been, never will be, and don’t let the fact that he’s in his seventies now fool you : slowing down and retreating quietly into his twilight years is clearly and obviously nowhere on his agenda, a fact for which we should all be damn thankful.
I love stories like this, where we’re dropped in at the deep end and presented with no options other than “sink” or “swim,” and the creators trust us enough to navigate our own way out of the drink before we drown. Maybe we’re gonna make it, maybe we’re not, but we don’t need our hand held either way. The Divided States Of Hysteria makes it pretty clear that it thinks most of the American public is a bunch of shallow, self-absorbed, intellectually lazy, lowest-common-denominator idiots — but it doesn’t think you are. Take that as a compliment, take it as a challenge, but whatever you do, take it. We’re all in uncharted territory at this point, and our best bet to come out the other side is to hone and sharpen our critical-thinking skills with sharp, substantive, incisive works of art like this one.
Oh, and perhaps the most amazing thing of all? Chaykin wrote and drew this before Donald Trump was even the Republican nominee, much less the president. This guy is definitely still ahead of the curve.