A month ago, the elected President of the United States and most of the cabinet were assassinated in an aborted coup d’état. The nation’s intelligence services and all their resources are on high alert. Americans, who in more than two centuries of self-mythologising history…finally found their exceptionalism soured, unable to raise their eyes from their self-mythologising, self-serving, self-obsession to shake off the post-crisis malaise and move onto whatever shitstorm lies ahead.
So begins Howard Chaykin’s 2017 comic book series, depicting an America in chaos, with every ethnic and cultural group attacking and killing each other. It has been the subject of numerous ‘controversies’ over its initial run (issue four had a cover which was withdrawn due to complaints, a Pride issue saw the character of Chrissie, who identifies as trans, getting a kicking) and reviews were mixed.
As you can see from the opening, the America depicted in Divided States is a fraught one, still recovering from the attempted coup. The main protagonist, CIA man Frank Villa, is convinced that another, much grander attack is imminent. Unfortunately, he gets the location wrong and New York City is decimated by militant Islamic suicide bombers armed with nuclear devices.
Unsurprisingly, Frank is rendered a scapegoat. With his family dead (as well as his mistress) and his career fubared, he accepts an offer from River Run Inc, an OCP style corporation that is contracted to run and maintain the country’s prisons. Tasked with organising and leading a covert unit to hunt down those who planned out the attack, he selects a group of prisoners who have minor links to the group behind the New York atrocity and they set out on their mission, all while knowing that River Run will massively profit from their successful action.
It’s a strange graphic novel to review, as it straddles a line between a kind of Dirty Dozen style action/thriller and Trumpian satire (with a heavy dose of sexual/identity politics). Taken purely as an action/adventure tale, it is entertaining but doesn’t really set the imagination on fire. Looked at with the satire, it’s a more enthralling read but the lack of likeable or engaging characters mean that you view events with a detached, almost apathetic perspective.
The reader never feels anything for Frank, who goes from being an arrogant hotshot to a slightly less arrogant hotshot as the book progresses. His main character arc is his relationship with Chrissie (presumably that, by sleeping with a trans woman, he redeems himself) but it’s shoehorned into the script in such a way, there is little to no room for introspection or actual character development. The role filled by Chrissie could be filled by anyone, not helped by her character (as well as that of the other members of the team) being flat and one dimensional.
Chaykin’s artwork remains a thing of beauty and while his eye for satire isn’t quite what it used to be; he does a great job of depicting an America which has become a place of nihilistic violence. You do get the sense of chaos running through all of this, as the shackles are off and attacks on police, other minorities etc become more and more brutal.
I don’t really know if I enjoyed it or not. I was certainly entertained in places, and I was enthralled in other places, but the overall feeling once I finished it was “ach, it was ok.” And yet, that is too faint. It seems like Chaykin was determined to write a “State Of The Nation”, but without the focus, the drive and a tip of the hat to identity politics.
Simply put, it’s an ugly, postmodern mess. You should read it and see what you get out of it.
Howard Chaykin (writer & artist), 2018, The Divided States of Hysteria, Image Comics ISBN-13: 978-1534303836
⏩Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.