You don’t get to the top by being complacent. You get there by fighting like hell. You take the hits, and you keep moving forward. You don’t let critics stop you. Critics complain because that’s what they do. If you’re a writer or artist that gives it all from the heart, you listen to the critics, and then decide if they’re worth listening to given what you want to do with your ideas. Great art comes from passion, not caution. And if Howard Chaykin is one thing, it’s that he’s not cautious. It gets in the way of getting things done.
What Howard Chaykin has done lately is called The Divided States of Hysteria (9781534303836, $16.99), where he puts forth a cast that operates in our current politically dysfunctional world that exists on your radio, Internet, and television. In this interview, Mr. Chaykin explains his thinking at the time of this project, and we leave it to you, the reader, to do your own thinking about what he says here in this interview. And then we urge you to pre-order this book from Image Comics before you hear that it’s sold-out at the comic shops.
The Divided States of Hysteria (9781534303836, $16.99) will be available January 16, 2016.
Vince Brusio: Politics and comics aren’t regularly seen at the shops on Wednesday, but when a splash does occur it’s given us things like Rick Veitch’s The Big Lie or Frank Miller’s Holy Terror. Those two books, as examples, took on the topics of 9-11 and the war on terror. As the cover for issue #1 of The Divided States of Hysteria (APR170684) features a woman in a burka, and the burka replicates the design of the American flag, we can assume that your book is also going to focus on the subject of Islam and its relationship to America. The question is why are you going there? The subject is an incendiary one. So why are you jumping into the fire?
Howard Chaykin: With all due respect, this contributes to my near permanent state of simmering bitterness. This sort of thing happens in what is basically a one trick pony business. I seem to be relegated to a legacy that will apparently consist solely of the hackwork I did on Star Wars, and drawing oral sex.
I've been doing political material since the early 1980s, when after ten years of lameness and mediocrity, I found my narrative and visual voice with American Flagg! — a strident and enraged political satire that took place in the first third of the 21st century, but was all about the eighties in general, and the sort of country we'd become under the narcissism engendered by the Reagan administration.
You're talking to someone who's been called a "Left wing faggot" by some shmuck on the internet, after he read and apparently comprehended my reboot of The Challengers Of The Unknown.
City Of Tomorrow, a six-issue series I did for Wildstorm, is very much a reflection of the emergence of identity politics and politics in general.
I've not read Veitch's book, but Holy Terror left me feeling that Frank seemed to take the 9/11 criminal act by these murderers as a personal attack.
For the record, it's not a burka, but a niqab.
And no, I have no intention of dealing with the subject of Islamic hostility to the west, at least not as my central issue. It seems to me that most comics that address "controversial" subjects seem to be about nothing but the controversy — this shows up systematically in the transparent pandering to various aspects of those caught up in the game of identity politics. Back in the sixties, if a character was black, that was all he was. The seventies brought us Asians. The eighties gave us homosexuals.
These characters were no more than plot devices to soothe one cohort or another — just as the current trend is no more than liberal self-congratulation for showing up. Characterization was no more evolved than, say, the guys who showed up behind the door in Mystery Date.
Today we have a ridiculous slew of hyphenates, each with more sensitive and tender feelings, begging to be hurt, than the other — and for the record, this idea that one has the right not to have one's feelings hurt has equal footing on the left and right.
The protagonists of The Divided States Of Hysteria are far from what anyone might identify as heroic in motivation. The antagonists operate, for the most part, from a perspective of genuine conviction and purpose. I might point out that only in comic books, and of course in comics' apparent literary equivalent, YA fiction, would such an issue be worth pondering.
So despite your assumption about The Divided States Of Hysteria is somehow just one more book about Islamic terrorism, rest easy and forget about it. Sure, there's an element here of that issue, but there really is so much more — I promise.
Vince Brusio: The book’s solicitation text offers how America is “enraged” and “terrified.” The cover to your book could be used as an example of what might stoke this rage. What does terrify people. Or someone could say that there’s no difference between the cover to your book and how Larry Flynt wore a diaper that was also designed like the American flag. What would you say to such a charge? How would you argue with such a critic that made this charge? Is it just simply that your cover is a precursor to the book? Or is there more to it?
Howard Chaykin: The America I live in is enraged and terrified. As I've indicated elsewhere, I haven't been this scared since I went to bed nightly presuming I'd be glowing ash by morning. And much of what it is that scares me is about the unavailability of a prevailing definition of what is an American. The right has apparently hijacked patriotism — even as it makes common treasonous cause with our great global foe — while the left (by which of course I mean the center, as the right has moved the needle so far as to make actual leftism invisible) seems incapable of defending a position that has made the lives of so many of the willfully ignorant who voted against it in this current debacle livable and possible.
When I started this piece, I had one set of expectations, which were crushed by reality — a reality that is actually far more subtle in its evil than the events in the book. My big terror right now is finding out what is the contemporary version of the Reichstag fire. In a nation where no one believes the news, where lies are accepted as long as they support a point-of-view, where rationality and expertise are held suspect as signs of treachery, I have little hope for a positive outcome.
And as for critics — really. We live in a country of profoundly uninformed, deeply opinionated anonymous creeps who have been led to believe that simply having an opinion entitles them to express it.
Ever since that "Left wing faggot" nonsense, I've made a pledge and promise to read nothing about me or my work, positive or negative. I work in a business packed with people who take for granted the worship of an audience they frequently treat with contempt — then reject that same audience when it criticizes. It's remarkably liberating to take neither praise nor blame.
I try very hard every day to hold to the dictum that "What you think of me is none of my business." It's not easy, but it's awfully healthy.
Vince Brusio: The Divided States of Hysteria touches on how America has fallen to greed. Talk show host icon Phil Donahue once asked American economist Milton Friedman if he ever had a moment of doubt about capitalism, and if “greed was a good idea to run on.” Friedman replied with “tell me, is there some society that you know that doesn’t run on greed? Do you think Russia doesn’t run on greed? Do you think China doesn’t run on greed?” Does this book entertain such philosophical discussions, or do you walk a different path with your story?
Howard Chaykin: Actually, if you've read the book — and I don't know if you have, so forgive me — I don't really feel that I deal all that much with greed as a narrative factor in The Divided States Of Hysteria, so I'm not sure I can answer that question, other than to say that my editorial opens with a quote from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, to wit "The history of the world, my sweet is those who get eaten and those who eat."
Certainly, the dystopian reality TV series we now live in is far more greed specific in its details. Personally, I'm more selfish than greedy — which I guess makes perfect sense as a liberal — since those on the left seem to be selfish, while the right rewards greed — at the expense, of course, of that vast swathe of the opioid-dependent enraged who vote against their own best interests in the name of "values." Really.
Vince Brusio: America is said to be shattered by “nihilism” and “tragedy.” What period of time is being examined to put this catastrophe into perspective for the reader? And did you find yourself at any time encumbered by working within a specific time frame? Did you ever at times think that you were walking a fine line between writing an essay and writing/drawing a comic book? Is this book that personal to you?
Howard Chaykin: I regard the current state of the American polity to be a tragedy, a five car pile-up on a lonely stretch of road, and I think contributing factors to that tragedy include self-serving cynicism, fatuous nihilism, and a facetious, relativist diffidence that misidentifies itself as irony.
I specifically don't define a time frame in the book, so as to keep things from getting too specific.
And comics is jam-packed with talent willing to tell the same Roadrunner vs. Coyote, Good Guy/ Bad Guy, narcissistic Hero/narcissistic Villain narrative disguised as "edgy, or gritty, or dark" or whatever serves as the current justification for that sort of pandering to the audience.
My work, my personality, my career have always been characterized by a point of view. You may disagree with me, but if you think a comic book story with a genuinely worked-out idea and perspective is an essay, then there's always the same adolescent hooey you've been reading since you were fifteen —albeit, edgier, grittier and darker, of course.
Vince Brusio: What would you like to see this book accomplish? If you could ever hear feedback from readers that would bring a smile to your face, what would you like to hear?
Howard Chaykin: As noted above, I remain willfully removed from feedback of any kind. If someone tells me they don't like my stuff, I'm far from delighted, but with a little effort I can deal with it. If they tell me they like it, I have to remember that in all likelihood, they like or love work to which I am indifferent or contemptuous, so neutrality is a fine place to rest.
Vince Brusio writes about comics, and writes comics. He is the long-serving Editor of PREVIEWSworld.com, the creator of PUSSYCATS, and encourages everyone to keep the faith...and keep reading comics.