As the controversy around Howard Chaykin‘s “The Divided States of Hysteria” continues to reverberate throughout the comics’ industry, the creators of another Image Comics book, “Moonstruck,” have released a statement on their reaction to the series, the firestorm, and their feelings about working with Image. The statement from Grace Ellis, Shae Beagle and Laurenn McCubbin offers more than rebuke, with several proactive suggestions on how Image and comics can be more considerate in the future.
Howard Chaykin is no stranger to controversy, of course. His work has often deliberately pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable content in mainstream comics, particularly when it comes to depictions of sexuality and violence in the medium not to mention the socio-political undertones he often includes in his work. But nothing compares to his most recent series, “The Divided States of Hysteria”, a story of a dystopian future where the ugliest elements of American society (racism, bigotry, islamaphobia, ignorance) has been taken to its extreme, resulting in a repressive and nihilistic America. When the title’s first issue dropped back in June, it was immediately met with outcry over its depiction of a transphobic hate crime as the inciting action of the book. Many people, fans creators and commentators alike, saw the scene as exploitative and offensive. Here’s a response from Eisner-nominated creator Magdalene Visaggio:
Can we just fucking not? How fucking hard is it to lay off putting trans women at the center of hate crimes in fiction ?
— Magdalene Visaggio (@MagsVisaggs) June 9, 2017
Chaykin and Image responded to the outcry by defending their series and Chaykin himself penned an essay that didn’t seem to really respond to issue that infuriated people in the first place:
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.
Things didn’t improve when Image released the cover for the fourth issue of the series, which featured a brown-skinned man hanging from a noose, with a racial slur written on his shirt and his genitals mutilated. This graphic lynching image ignited yet another firestorm of recrimination. This time, Image and Chaykin issued a more apologetic statement, which included this passage:
People have described the cover to DIVIDED STATES #4 as distasteful, and they’re right, in that: ALL hate crimes are horrifying, dehumanizing, and distasteful, and the intent of this cover was to challenge people to look at what we as a society have become.
But detractors claim that this cover and the previous depiction of the hate crime against a trans woman are exploiting bleak hatred for shock effect, not an honest examination of the issues. And that position has now been given an eloquent voice in a statement from Ellis, Beagle and McCubbin, creative team for “Moonstruck.”
In their statement, the creators state:
There is an obvious pattern here: a pattern of sensationalizing hate crimes, a pattern of using minorities as props meant to shock white/cis people, a pattern of refusing to acknowledge the harm that these depictions do to their respective communities. Violence against trans women is an appalling, widespread, real life epidemic; invoking images of these acts without any reverence or weight or care for real-life individuals who experience this type of violence is unacceptable.
While Chaykin’s heart and politics may be in the right place, our current political climate and cultural landscape demand that allies listen and understand minority voices and viewpoints. There may have been a time when including minorities in literally any context may have been seen as cutting edge, but today, trans people are seeing the stories of their traumas used for shock value, rather than as an avenue for empathy. It is necessary for creators to take more nuanced and thoughtful approaches to these stories, and we hope our concerns will be taken to heart.
The creators go on to discuss the corporate culture at Image that led to this controversy, admitting that the Image’s attitude of being hands-off and the facilitating unfiltered vision of their creators has led to both Chaykin’s series and their own. “Moonstruck” is an all-ages book with LGBTQ characters, as well as characters of color and is created by an all-queer creative team of primary non-male creators. The same attitude that provides one of the most effective and successful homes for unfettered creative freedom in comics also provided the space for Chaykin and his title to, in the view of many, cross the line.
The “Moonstruck” team does more than speak their mind, however. They are also offering, to any Image staff or creators, the opportunity to attend a “Trans 101” seminar that the “Moonstruck” team will pay for themselves. They claim the idea is supported by Image publisher Eric Stephenson and they also assert that Stephenson is seeking out more avenues for cultural competency training for the Image staff. If this offer is followed up on, and if Image takes the “Moonstruck” team’s further suggestion to actively try to bring more trans voices and people of color into the Image Comics fold, then maybe “The Divided States of Hysteria” will accomplish something positive after all.