So I’ve been distracted from the funnybooks here lately, but some interesting stuff’s been happening. Secret Empire continued to cause controversy with its very existence. But first, one of comics’ most enduring creators has been accused of some pretty nasty stuff with his newest series. Just FYI, the discussion of that book is going to get a bit ugly, and a bit NSFW. So, you know… Trigger warning, spoiler warning, suggested for mature readers, etc. You have been warned. But if you’re good with all that… Let’s dig in.
The Divided States of Hysteria 1
by Howard Chaykin
These are a few of the criticisms leveled against the first issue of The Divided States of Hysteria, Howard Chaykin’s new series taking aim at the increasingly-hysterical atmosphere of 21st-Century America. And I must admit, I was a little surprised at the vitriol. I mean, a Chaykin comic being tasteless and shocking, I could totally believe. But the rest…
I only know Howard Chaykin through his work, but from that, here’s what I would tell you about the man: he’s cynical, jaded, and a bit of a libertine. But he’s also an old-school leftist with a strong belief in personal freedom. He thinks you should do what you want to do, be who you want to be, and fuck who you want to fuck. And anybody who wants to stop you is probably an asshole, a fascist, or out to make a buck off your oppression. Maybe all three.
So I was confused by the accusations, based on reputation alone. Plus, I had already read the comic, and didn’t get that out of it at all. It’s definitely designed to push people’s buttons, playing as explosively as it does with issues of race, class, gender identity, and terrorism. And, Chaykin being Chaykin, there’s a healthy dose of sex and violence to go along with it. If I don’t see a garter belt and a bare ass in a Chaykin book, I wonder if he’s feeling alright. He can be a bit crass, in other words, and that all by itself sometimes turns people off. But racist? Transphobic? I can’t see it.
But, hey. I’m a middle-aged straight white male. I have no idea what it’s like to be black, Muslim, or transgender, so… What do I know? Maybe the folks complaining have a genuine beef. So I dug a little deeper into the arguments. Mostly, they seem to center on transphobia. There’s a scene with a transgender sex worker named Chris Silver, who is viciously attacked by three men who’ve hired her for the evening and are angered to discover that she has a penis.
She assumed they knew, and they may or may not have. We’ll never know, because once the beating starts, Chris fumbles in her bag, pulls out a pistol, and shoots all three dead on the spot. The scene ends with her being arrested for murder. So it’s an ugly situation, and though Chris is not the most likable of characters, her arrest still seems like a miscarriage of justice. Chaykin’s clearly on her side. But that’s not really what’s at issue here.
The original complaints centered on the fact that Chaykin went with a “tranny hooker” stereotype. There are very few depictions of transgender people in popular fiction, and the few that do appear tend to be sensationalized and violent. Lots of tranny hookers getting beaten up by their johns, in other words. It’s tired and annoying, but it’s also something that normally might not receive much more than an eye roll from the LGBT community. At this point, they’re used to it. But this book was released during LGBT Pride Month, with a Pride Month variant cover…
…and that is the real source of the friction here. The book was, essentially, advertised as being simpatico with gay pride, when it really doesn’t give transgender readers much to feel very proud of. So, yeah. I think that’s a valid criticism. That Pride Month cover was pretty tone-deaf, and I don’t have a problem with people calling out Chaykin, and his publisher, for doing it.
Now, that said, I also don’t think there was any evil intent behind it. In fact, I think it may have been done with the best intentions in the world. Because this series has been in the can for a while, and they’re thinking about it as one whole piece. And down the line, it seems, Chris Silver is going to be recruited into a Dirty Dozen style anti-terrorist team. She’s going to become a transgender action hero, for god’s sake, and that’s definitely not the standard depiction of trans characters in fiction. So it probably seemed like a GREAT idea to launch this series during Pride Month.
Of course, she still starts off as a hooker. So maybe they should have gotten to the actual “action hero” part before slapping that Pride Month cover on it. By all of which I mean that, in spite of the good intentions, I still can’t say that the initial complaints were entirely out of line.
But as the social media attacks ramped up (as social media attacks tend to do), they got a good deal more harsh. This is where the transphobia accusations were raised, with some critics going so far as to suggest that Howard Chaykin has harbored a secret hatred of trans people throughout his career. Some of them tossed in racism and Islamophobia, too, just for good measure. Others went even further, suggesting that Image Comics should have chosen not just to avoid a Pride Month cover, but also not to have published The Divided States of Hysteria in the first place. And that’s where I part company with the outrage.
Because, while the Chris Silver scene may very well be upsetting to some, this is not hate speech. This is, at worst, a writer falling back on a central casting stereotype. And it’s not even that, really. It’s a three page sequence that Chaykin uses to quickly establish a surprisingly layered character. So even as the tired “tranny hooker” scenario is playing out, there’s a discussion of gender identity, social perception, and the affect that perception has on Chris’ life.
There’s also a discussion of Chris’ past, which involves teenage statutory rape charges. Those charges may or may not have been fair, but the punishment she received for them was definitely made worse due to her gender identity.
What we’re left with is a character who’s sympathetic, but far from a saint. Her shooting of the violent johns seems pretty justifiable. But she’s jaded, cynical, and utterly unrepentant. She’d probably spurn pity, if anyone was available to offer it. But it’s hard not to feel it anyway, as the cops rush in and cuff her, and she’s left to be identified by the system under her male birth name.
I’m not saying it’s high art. And it’s definitely not sensitive to anyone’s feelings. But it is admirably complicated and messy, in a way that genre fiction seldom is.
That’s a pretty good description of The Divided States of Hysteria in general, in fact. All our “heroes” here are problematic, complicated, and morally compromised. They’re also, as I said earlier, designed to push people’s buttons. Especially John Henry Noone, a black spree killer who shoots only white people.
Another cast member is an Italian serial killer who thinks he’s gaming the system. A third is a Bernie Madoff style Jewish con man who goes to the extra step of covering his tracks by committing mass murder. Then there’s our apparent main character: Frank Villa, a CIA agent who’s cheating on his wife.
I share that scene not just to establish Frank’s duplicity, but also to point out a couple of the neat storytelling tricks Chaykin’s pulling off here. This is a busy comic, fast-moving with multiple story threads and zero hand-holding. Drones buzz back and forth everywhere. The action moves from location to location, with the whereabouts of this character or that sometimes filled in by passing mention in conversation. All the information you need is there, and it’s not hidden, but you need to pay attention to follow it properly. And it’s not always easy to pay attention, because as you can see above, the panel borders are filled with streams of text and tiny social media balloons that encroach on the action.
The signal to noise ratio favors signal, but the noise is still just distracting enough to throw you if you’re not careful. I was three-quarters of the way through my first read when I realized that I was going to have to go back and start over. And that’s not because the comic is that difficult to understand. It’s because I hadn’t approached it with the proper respect. I was breezing through it like it was the sort of fast food popcorn comic Chaykin turns out when he’s feeling lazy (which, in my defense, is increasingly the case these days). But that’s not what’s happening here at all. Here, he’s distracting us to make a point.
Because that’s a great way to get across the sea of data everyone is immersed in, the information-and-opinion overload that keeps so many from seeing the forest for the trees. This seems especially true for Frank. He’s juggling two women, calling each one “sweetie” in an effort to make sure he doesn’t call either by the wrong name. He’s got two bratty kids that he loves but never sees because his job keeps him so busy. And that job is as a counter-terrorism analyst who’s gotten on the trail of a planned terror bombing. No one else believes him, but he’s sure that it’s happening, and he’s equally sure that it will take place in Washington, DC. He’s so sure, in fact, that he gets his mistress on a plane to New York (where his family also lives) before going out in search of the lead bomber. Or rather, before sending armed drones out in search of the bomber while he directs them via laptop from his own “getting out of DC” plane seat.
But he loses his lead, and the bombing goes off as planned. Just not where he thought it would. New York is the target instead, and we won’t know how bad the devastation is until next issue. But I suspect that Frank may have lost both his family, and his lover. That’s tragic, but from a storytelling standpoint, it’s also a nice bit of misdirection from Chaykin. Frank is being set up as the typical maverick hero. He’s figured out something that no one else sees, and every action movie ever made has taught us that the maverick outsider is always right. Except this time, he’s not. And it’s that very overconfidence in his own abilities that makes him fail.
Frank’s fatal flaw, then, is hubris. And Frank’s hubris is also, it seems, the hubris of America. That’s implied in that first Frank page up above. Because alongside that telephone conversation with his wife, we get a running narration about the myth of American Exceptionalism. It’s the kind of “narration-and-conversation” text that I normally think is a terrible technique. Each distracts the reader from what the other is saying. You lose the flow of both, and because of that you also lose the meaning.
Here, though, information overload is kind of the point. Like Frank, you lose the thread of what it all means until it’s too late. For him, it’s a fatal mistake about a terrorist threat. For the reader, it’s the realization that Frank Villa and the American myth are joined at the hip. That connection implicates him in the social problems that lead to the creation of the four killers he’ll soon be recruiting to do the job his drones couldn’t. And that, all controversies aside, ties this book’s disparate parts together into a very satisfying whole.
Secret Empire 4
by Nick Spencer, Leinil Francis Yu, and Other Artists Who Helped Meet Deadline
And now, moving on to the other comic that’s caused the most fan controversy in recent weeks… It’s Secret Empire! I think my continued fascination with this book is at least half contrarian at this point. So many people hate it without even reading it that I want to like it just to spite them. And I mostly do. I’ve read worse GIANT CROSSOVER MEGA-EVENTS, anyway. It’s better than, say, House of M, for instance. And it doesn’t make me want to punch somebody like Infinite Crisis did, either. So I don’t get the hate.
Well, okay… I DO get the hate. The “Captain America ain’t no damn Nazi!” hate seems a little silly to me, but I do understand it. I understand the “Not another goddamn crossover!” hate even more. I just wonder what took everybody so long. I’ve been mostly skipping these things for ages now. I really had no interest in picking this one up, even, before everybody started bitching about it. But if that many people hate something, I figure it’s gotta be worth looking at. Even if it’s only for the laughs.
But, anyway. Where was I? Oh, yeah. I understand getting fed up with crossovers. And lord knows Marvel Comics is guilty of gouging its fans for every penny they think they can squeeze out of them. Five dollar comics, ten dollar comics, massive lines of books centered around one character or team, each selling a fraction of what a single focused title would sell but filling the Marvel coffers while bleeding their readers dry… They really do deserve the bloody nose they’re getting right now. So I do get it. I just don’t think it has anything to do with whether this is a good comic or not.
And, you know, it mostly is. Though this issue was a bit of a let-down for me. It had far too few scenes of people sitting around discussing fascism for my taste, because that really, honestly, is the thing I find most fascinating about it. How do you maintain Steve Rogers as “worthy” when he’s sitting at the head of an ideology that, in practice, tends toward abuse? That’s incredibly interesting to me, and I do wonder where and when the breaking point will come. When does he either cease to be noble, or betray his philosophy because it can’t withstand nobility? These are the things that excite me as a reader. Go figure.
Like I said, though, this issue has very little of that. Mostly, it’s about the race to find the lost fragments of the Cosmic Cube. Hydra Cap wants them to fulfill his destiny, to undo the change he believes the Allies made to the world back in World War II. And the resistance wants it to undo the change that the Red Skull made to the world back in… whatever comic he did that in… and turn Hydra Cap back into Regular Cap again.
As it turns out, Ultron’s got a piece. But Ultron got fused with Hank Pym in another story I didn’t read, so now he’s Crazy Ultron Pym! Who thinks he’s Hank Pym! And maybe he is! I don’t know! And I don’t care. So when the two super hero groups (Tony Stark’s Resistance Avengers and Hydra Cap’s Hydra Avengers) converge on his hideout, he forcibly sits them down to dinner and scolds them for arguing so damn much.
Which, as I’ve pointed out before, seems to be what Secret Empire is really about in the end, and which is pretty much exactly the argument the book’s biggest detractors have been making all along. Irony, fanboy, etc, etc…
If I sound a bit dismissive of this issue, that’s because I am. It’s got a lot of that flippant, in-jokey sort of dialogue that makes me not like Nick Spencer’s work as much as I’d like to. It’s got some super-fighting in it, too, and Spencer again proves that he can’t write a decent fight scene to save his ass. He makes some interesting match-ups (Ant Man vs Ant Man! Hercules vs Thor! Scarlet Witch vs Quicksilver!), but they all just kind of come down to characters generically flailing at each other, and it’s boring as all hell.
So. Not my favorite issue, then. I want more bad guys! More fascism! More Steve Rogers caught on the horns of a moral dilemma! More consistent artwork would also be nice. But considering the book’s bi-weekly schedule (SQUEEEEZE that cash out of the consumer!), I don’t think I’m going to get that. I also just noticed an ad for issue ten of this thing, and I’m not sure I’ve got it in me to go that far with it, either. Not if we get many more issues like this one, anyway.