EXCLUSIVE: Comics legend Howard Chaykin on his explosive new Image series

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Apr 8, 2016, 5:49 PM EDT

America’s future will explode into civil war in the hands of veteran comic-book writer and artist Howard Chaykin in his new series from Image Comics, The Divided States of Hysteria. Image announced the new series today in Seattle at Image Expo, and I was lucky enough to talk to Chaykin about the project, which will be hitting comic-book stores this winter. Here’s how Image describes the book:

In the aftermath of a dirty bomb that wipes New York City off the map, what will come to be known as the Second American Civil War shatters the domestic landscape in isolated pustules of violence...and a team of five private contractors is charged with stemming this tide of rage and bringing the bombers to justice.

Writing and artwork will be provided by Chaykin—whom readers will know from a more than four-decade-strong body of work that includes the original Marvel Star Wars, American Flagg!, The Shadow, Satellite Sam and much more—with colors by Jesus Aburto and lettering by Ken Bruzenak, who Chaykin called “giants in their respective crafts.”

Chaykin’s work and no-punches-pulled personality has often proved controversial, and he expects The Divided States of Hysteria will elicit strong reactions. We talked about the book’s themes and origins in America’s highly charged political climate and in Chaykin’s own ideas of America. Check out Blastr’s exclusive interview with one of comics’ most influential creators and a first look at promo art for the series, featuring the main cast in front of an ominous backdrop of the United States.


First off, what an evocative title! It immediately calls to mind the polarized political atmosphere in the country today. How much does The Divided States of Hysteria draw inspiration from America’s current volatility?

CHAYKIN: I've never lived in a time where the country I love was so polarized. Naturally, there have been events that were more than equal to the state of the union today—the Civil War, for obvious instance—but as domestic and international terrorism have replaced world communism as the most potent threat to our way of life, paranoia and fear have been amped up to an utterly untenable level.

It's a shitstorm...and The Divided States of Hysteria tells the story of what happens when a catastrophic act of terrorism make all that paranoia and fear seem like nothing more than good common sense.

The series follows a CIA officer and a quartet of serial murderers tasked with finding those responsible for the bombing, what makes them the right—or wrong—people for the job?

CHAYKIN: In the nearly half century of the international beauty and popularity contest known as the Cold War, the United States maintained what was called a policy of containment—based on what was called the Domino Theory—ie, lose it here, and the dominoes start to fall. In The Divided States of Hysteria, the ripple effect of the terrorist attack creates a groundswell of chaos...

...And while addressing this mounting chaos is a Federal issue, it's left to NGOs to address redress--and to enact revenge.   Enter Frank Villa and his charges.

What kind of locales will Frank’s team’s mission take them to beyond the ruins of New York City? And how much will we be seeing how the Second American Civil War is affecting different parts of the country?

CHAYKIN: In truth, we'll see very little of “the ruins of New York City." Our story plays out, for the most part, in the American heartland—so it's more the effects of that attack—the ripple effect, to be specific—that will be the backdrop for our manhunt. What begins as a diversion becomes the real—and to say anymore would blow some significant plot points.

Over the years you’ve written and drawn many stories that have taken a hard look at America and war, from American Flagg!, to Power & Glory, to American Century, and others. What keeps you coming back to these themes and ideas, and what new angles will you be exploring in this series?

CHAYKIN: First and foremost, thanks for noticing—I'd like to think what separates me and my work from much of the rest of comics is a point of view.  That said, I regard myself as both deeply patriotic—despite the far right's bludgeoning attempts to hijack the very idea of patriotism for its own self service—and deeply skeptical.  As a kid, like nearly everyone else I knew, despite growing up in poverty, in a tenement, in a family that put the dys in dysfunctional, I truly believed that I, as an American, was the envy of the world—and that every kid in every country would kill to take my place.  When asked, at ten, to name my favorite song, I responded America the Beautiful—and that's a fact.

So the very idea of America—this complex and contradictory landscape, both literal and figurative—is the single most compelling element of any story I tell.  For the past few years, I've done a series of historical fictions in comics, exploring a United States and a world that preexisted my own. Divided States of Hysteria is an opportunity to play in a modern arena--in a story that addresses issues that are more like viewed as "when" than "if."


Shifting over to the art, what drove the decision to present this story in color, as opposed to keeping it black and white like Black Kiss or Satellite Sam?

CHAYKIN: As we speak, I am working on the artwork for the fifth issue of the first arc of Midnight of the Soul, a book that's a tribute to the great films noir of the forties and fifties. I had every intention of doing Midnight in black and white, until Thomas K, editor on all the work I've done for Image, as well as on other projects there, convinced me to do it in color—and he was right.

When I developed The Divided States of Hysteria, a narrative that takes place here and now, there seemed no other way but to go full color.

Speculative tales of a fallen America have taken countless forms over the years, and there’s no shortage of non-fiction warning about possible futures. Are there any particular books, movies, comics or television that have influenced Divided States of Hysteria?

CHAYKIN: Not at all—I no longer read speculative fiction of any kind. The Divided States of Hysteria is inspired by reading the New York Times daily, and paying attention to trends as they develop on real, satirical and psychotic news sites of all political bents.

Anything else you’d like to let readers know about The Divided States of Hysteria while they anxiously await its release this winter?

CHAYKIN: I'm trying to visualize anybody actually anxiously awaiting anything I do...but I digress.  

Some years back, I was branded a "...Left wing faggot..." by some internet shitweasel who took exception to my point of view on a series I'd just rebooted.  If that rather innocent comic book created that kind of reaction, I can't wait to see what The Divided States of Hysteria will do to both polar edges of the political stretch.

But hey, I've built an interesting career on an evolving skillset in the service of an occasionally contrarian point of view, so what the hell, right?

One way or the other, I guarantee an entertaining, exciting, surprising and intriguing read.

And one final question: are we truly f*%ked?

CHAYKIN: Yes.  And how we address that reality is what my life, and this book, are all about.