Defending Depravity: Image Comics and The Divided States of Hysteria
Divided States of Hysteria Divides Comic Fans
June 7th marked the release of Howard Chaykin’s latest Image series, The Divided States of Hysteria. Our regular new comic book day was tainted with this stand-out example of racism, transphobia, and faux-political, crass storytelling. Since the books release, comic fans, professional, and creators have stepped up to convey their disgust and alarm that this book was published by Image Comics. Image produces some of the best comics on the market as far as positive queer representation, diversity, and thoughtful content. The fanbase has come to rely on Image to publish great comics that span the divide between the white, cisgender, straight, testosterone-laden male superhero comics that flood the market and a new, diverse readership. In publishing this comic, and refusing any apology besides a re-publishing of Chaykin’s own curse-laden essay from Issue #1 and a tone-deaf response to criticism, Image has failed to address their part in negating their own self-professed allyship and commitment to diversity. The Divided States of Hysteria is a slide backward, to a world of comics we do not need or want to be prevalent in the modern industry. This book is violent, discriminatory, and unnecessary. And Image’s reaction to the offensive content of this book is unacceptable.
Chaykin himself states that this book will have no “trigger warnings”, and he shouldn’t have pulled the trigger on this book. Coming from Chaykin, the violent and political nature of this book is no surprise, but neither is the rampant racism and transphobia. Chaykin is famous for being crass and gross, for mistreating characters and presenting them in a dark light. When that becomes an issue is when an author purposely chooses to abuse and defame underrepresented groups, and expect no consequences.
In The Divided States of Hysteria, Chaykin claims he is being bold, pushing the envelope— but he is not. He is hiding behind a veil of edginess that does not conceal the dangerous stereotypes he is consciously choosing to perpetuate with his writing. As he states in his own backup essay for The Divided States of Hysteria #1,
“So instead of “Trigger warnings,” “Cultural appropriation,” “Safe spaces,” and “Social Justice Warriors,” maybe we on the left should have put aside all this balkanizing nonsense and been fucking Americans for fuck’s sake, instead of allowing this nihilistic shithead to mainstream and legitimize the racist, sexist, bigoted and flat-out moronic sensibilities that have always been there, but were held in check by a common understanding that one doesn’t get away with that shit in the United States of America.”
In a world where war, politics, racism, transphobia, xenophobia, and terror rule our daily lives, making it into a joke is not a brave move; it’s worthless, harmful, faux-humor at the expense of others. It’s a cheap shot to people and groups who are already suffering. It’s an old man, punching down for attention because he doesn’t know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of constant fear, violence, aggression, and terror. It’s easy to hurt people you don’t care about— and Chaykin makes it clear in this book that old white men are the ruling race.
Image Loses Face as A Progressive Publisher
The most disturbing and disappointing angle of this entire debacle is Image’s response to the rightful outrage against the content of this book. Image, at first, forwarded Chaykin’s problematic essay as a response. Let the creator speak for himself, around the foot that’s shoved down his throat. But it only got worse. As news about the comic spread, Image made the decision to publish a response, a statement from founder Eric Stephenson:
“The history of comics isn’t exactly filled with political thrillers, but Howard Chaykin made his name in the ’80s with American Flagg!, and The Divided States of Hysteria is very much in the same mold,” said Stephenson. “One of the things I’ve always admired about Howard’s work is his unflinching reluctance to pull any punches, and this series about a society, not on the verge, but in the midst of collapse is no different. If you’re looking for escapism, this probably isn’t the book for you, as its warts-and-all depiction of the modern world reveals it to be an ugly place, governed by hatred, fear, and intolerance. Rooted in the worst aspects of reality, this is indignant, rebellious fiction, designed to make readers both angry and uncomfortable, but more than that, it’s intended to provoke thought about how and why things have reached a state where the tools for progress – discourse, understanding, cooperation – are shunned in favor of treating anyone with an opposing viewpoint as an enemy combatant. If The Divided States of Hysteria prompts just a single productive conversation about the present state of our society, then it has succeeded in its goals and is a story worth sharing.”
Stephenson is right in one respect— Chaykin certainly doesn’t pull any punches. He chooses not only to viscously rape and attack a trans sex worker, but also to include a stereotypical “outing” scene that is harmful and played-out. He also chooses to portray this trans woman as a pedophile, criminal, and sexual predator. Chaykin punches down, again and again, perpetuating disgusting stereotypes against the trans community and playing into the real life violence that trans individuals face every day. This reality is not a joke. Humor like this, taking trans rights lightly and making trans deaths into a passing joke, actively contributes to the systematic, ingrained violence and discrimination that gets trans people killed. This is not a joke.
Trans characters aren’t the only attack Chaykin chooses to plan in this first issue. People of Color suffer under his deaf blows as well. The book is dominantly, painfully white, which should not be a surprise considering the content. Chaykin strays from his white protagonists only a few times, and never to the benefit of POC characters. Chaykin might claim “reality” or edginess again, but that tired, cowardly excuse doesn’t cut it here. Giving a young black man a gun, perverting racial justice and equality, butchering a heavy-handed version of Ebonics in an attempt to make a character sound uneducated or violent, and showing people of color actively being murdered is not a joke. Using racial slurs and dictating violent descriptions of people who already have to defend their religion, beliefs, and very existence every day is not innovative. Perpetuating a dangerous stereotype of violence at the hands of People of Color, and the dangerous, discriminatory assumption that Terrorism is not White, is abhorrent. It’s not edgy. It’s not brave. It’s a statement. A statement that People Of Color are less than, are violent, are disposable, are a problem. Chaykin chooses to portray these characters in a way that perpetuates dangerous stereotypes and vilifies People Of Color. Again, perpetuating the real violence and discrimination that People Of Color face is not funny, it’s a cheap shot that trivializes real fear, and real deaths. This is not a joke.
The cherry on top of this shit sundae is Image responding to this criticism and feedback with a tone-deaf, ham-fisted response. Yes, creators can create—this is not an issue of censorship. The issue is that Image, who portrays a facade of diversity and positive representation, made the choice to publish this work. Then, they made the choice to defend it. They did this all during Pride Month. They slapped a Pride Month cover on this book. They promoted Chaikin’s work alongside other Milkfed titles that are true representations of Pride comics. They responded blindly to criticism and dismissed the protest of affected groups from a Twitter and Facebook account with a rainbow Pride icon. We are not proud of Image– and Image is not an embodiment of what it means to be a Pride Ally. Image is disingenuously wrapping itself in the facade of a Pride Flag, while simultaneously choosing to publish and defend works that are a direct attack on the LGBTQ+ community. They are packing up transphobia and racism and touting it as Pride-branded, inclusionary literature.
In the past year, since Chaykin announced this comic to a dead room at Image Expo (I know, I was there), Trans folks and People of Color have been trapped in a cycle of unending violence, hatred, and fear. Our social and political environment is simultaneously contributing to and belittling their death and suffering. Transphobia, Xenophobia, Islamophobia, and Racism are not humorous concepts, they are dangerous and real. For Image to pass this book off as edgy, subversive, or humorous is a direct attack that is not unusual, but very unexpected.
When groups of disenfranchised people are taking the time and energy to reach out, to say this is not right, this is harmful, this is not a joke, the response of an Ally should not be to spin that fear and concern into a positive outrage that will sell more books. the next step should be to step back, self-examine, and APOLOGIZE. It doesn’t matter if it is edgy or subversive or funny, a room of old white men has no right to step on the concerns of actual, real-life people who are negatively affected by the perpetuation of these violent and discriminatory stereotypes. From a company that prides itself on being progressive and diverse, this comic, and the response to criticism, is a huge step back for a company claiming to value diversity and progress. Bundling up hate and calling it humor is unacceptable.
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