Image Comics is celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2017, and among their many forms of celebration are the Image and Skybound variant covers for LGBTQ Pride Month. Available only in stores, the variants celebrate the LGBTQ community and the progress made by the Gay Liberation movement. 100% of the proceeds from the Pride variant covers will be donated to Human Rights Campaign! And Geeks OUT is reviewing them all!
Happy Pride, everyone! Every year, amidst celebrations of how far we've advanced and reflections on how far we have to go, corporations hope to capitalize on this atmosphere by slapping rainbows on their products and hoping we won't notice how abysmal their queer representation is for the next eleven months. We attend parades with sponsored floats and endure politicians who strain to pat themselves on the back for showing up to events despite terrible records on gay rights. At first glance, the 11 Pride variant covers offered by Image and Skybound comics this month are similar publicity stunts. But in the case of The Divided States of Hysteria from writer and artist Howard Chaykin, there is some substance behind the sheen.
"A month ago, the elected President of the United States and most of the cabinet were assassinated in an aborted coup d’état." These are the words of the opening caption, placed in a DC sky that has as many drones as birds, and suffers the ubiquitous scrawl of social media and intelligence gathering. The setting and tone of The Divided States of Hysteria could not be clearer, and the next twenty-two pages are a breakneck introduction of half a dozen characters and the world they inhabit. We are taken from DC to Toronto to Barbados and back while CIA Field Officer Frank Villa attempts to thwart a terrorist attack. This book has much to say and more to show. It's as much an anguished scream as an artistic statement.
In an essay included in the back matter, Chaykin describes his mindset when he initially conceived of the book back in the early days of 2016: "I still felt that Hillary Clinton had a lock on the Democratic nomination and a pretty good shot at the presidency, and that the Republican nominee would be Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or heaven forfend, Ted Cruz… Hey, who knew, right?" While those do sound like halcyon days, to almost shrug them off reads as a betrayal of a certain level of privilege. Chaykin uses the phrase identity politics more than once in this essay, singled out as a cause for Democratic loss, but also in the issue itself during the pages set in Las Vegas.
It’'s there that we meet a trans woman sex worker, "the number one cocksucker in Vegas." She is eventually brutalized by clients, and takes drastic but necessary action to defend herself. We never learn her real name; she is deadnamed obviously in a mug shot, and this may or may not serve as a punchline. Unfortunately, this is part of what makes The Divided States of Hysteria, for lack of a better word, problematic.
Like the phrases politically correct and identity politics, problematic is a word often deployed by those who wish to decry progressives as hopelessly spineless and weak-willed, a group of mush-mouthed cowards trying too hard to offend no one and therefore saying nothing. Unlike the sentiments of such straw men, though, sometimes problematic is an accurate description of how a creative work has praiseworthy attributes at a cost that makes it difficult to endorse.
For example, the justifiable action of self-defense mentioned above is likened to the ignoble acts of murderers and sociopaths within the context of this issue. Likewise, the only minorities to appear in the issue are a spree killer and terrorists. In fact, the entire premise of the book could feed into paranoid fantasies that America will be the target of a devastating attack at any moment, which in turn fuels some of the policies Chaykin intends to criticize.
Nevertheless, the pacing is tight and the world in which this book is set is fully realized. For better and worse, this is a perfect showcase for Chaykin's talent as a writer and artist. Likewise, the colors of Jesus Aburtov are stunning, and work perfectly at orienting the reader to each new location introduced. At times, his work is reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's film Traffic. Letterer Ken Bruzenak makes spinning several plates at once look effortless, as almost each panel is stuffed with the whirr and click of machines in addition to all the dialogue. He provides an additional essay at the end of the issue with invaluable insight into comics creation (simply put: you may have drawn a perfect panel, but is there room for the dialogue?) and graphic design.
I was glad to see Image provide Pride variant covers, and thrilled to find a queer character within the pages of The Divided States of Hysteria. As hesitant as I am to read about certain ways this story develops, I'm still deeply invested in how it does.