Having even a slight interest in comics while being active on Twitter means witnessing more or less nonstop conversation about the industry, its works and the creators living within it. Comics is in a state of constant discourse, partially because even as its impact on culture grows, its world remains unbelievably small, making it easy for pros, amateurs, fans and critics to engage with one another, for good and for bad. So it was a little odd to see Image Comics respond to the controversy surrounding Howard Chaykin’s upcoming Divided States of Hysteria with a press release patting itself and creator Howard Chaykin on the back for “sparking conversation” (and apparently provoking the need for a second printing in the process).
Of course, if you really think about it, it’s not hard to see why publisher Eric Stephenson views Chaykin’s work as sparking the first “productive” conversation on subjects that have been going on for quite some time. Fans and critics in comics have been forcing the industry to be more accountable than it has ever been before, but for the most part, pros in comics have kept their blinders on, either actively attempting to shut down conversations that make them uncomfortable or refusing to believe there is any productive discourse happening at all. You can, in fact, see this in Stephenson’s apparent lack of awareness of Image’s own recent history with problematic trans representation in works they release.
The outcry surrounding Divided States of Hysteria has mostly focused on two things: the prominent use of a scene critic Emma Houxbois described as “a brutally violent trans panic assault” and Image’s decision to release a comic with such a scene during Pride Month and market it with a special Pride variant cover. As Houxbois pointed out on Twitter, there are numerous other issues with representation in the comics, particularly in regards to Islamic culture, but Image’s decision to capitalize on Pride and connect a comic they knew would be, at the least, controversial in its queer rep struck a number of critics and fans as exploitative and malicious.
As critic Sarah Horrocks said in a Twitter thread on Image’s statement, “How far up your own ass do you have to be to think that Divided States of Hysteria represents any of the actual horror people are going thru, or that this horror exists so that you can get a conversation started, like we’re not already talking about it?” Horrocks’ point is particularly important to keep in mind since she recently provoked this conversation in the industry when she spoke up about Drawn & Quarterly’s decision to publish Berliac’s Sadboi, despite the fact that he had made a number of questionable statements equating his desire to be mangaka with transitioning and attacked Horrocks for questioning that. Unlike Image, Drawn & Quarterly listened to the conversation that developed and chose to drop Berliac’s Sadboi, a move that many critics and fans viewed as a positive step, even though a disturbing number of pros viewed it as censorship.
Image seems to lack any awareness of the Berliac conversation that just happened, but what’s worse is that their statement also makes it clear that did Image not learn anything from a similar outcry over trans representation almost exactly two years ago with its own Airboy (bafflingly also released during Pride, albeit without a Pride variant). Stephenson’s remarks about “sparking” a conversation make it obvious Image doesn’t even respect the queer community enough to remember these previous conversations, or even the more positive steps the creators of Airboy took in an attempt to make up for their irresponsible content. In other words, Image is fine with the idea of conversation, but has no interest in taking the hard steps to learn from conversation and would rather forget these conversations ever happened.
This obstinance and erasure from Stephenson also makes his statements about Image’s intent with the Pride variants all the more questionable:
“It’s never been a secret that Image Comics is supportive of creative freedom, but it’s important that we also make it clear that we stand for inclusivity, diversity, and equality, now more than ever. We hope these variants will serve as a positive display of that ongoing commitment.”
Breaking this down, it’s necessary to point out that the support of “creative freedom” is the first thing Stephenson emphasizes, far above the needs of the queer community he’s hoping will financially support his company. Stephenson is clear in his desire to support queer needs only as long as they line up with his personal view of what creative freedom is– the right for straight white creators to say and do what they want with no consequences. Nothing about Divided States of Hysteria can be viewed as inclusive, and Chaykin and Stephenson’s only value the notions of diversity and equality as terms that support their right to display problematic representation. And by donating the proceeds from the variant covers to the Human Rights Campaign, Stephenson and Image literally hope to be able to buy the right to be immune to criticism.
They also have the convenience of being defended by the comics creator community for what continues to be viewed as a “war” on freedom of expression from artists. Any time a situation like this arises– and at this point, it arises monthly, at the least– creators spring up to defend the cherished right of the straight white male to say whatever he wants without consequence. The talking points are always the same. Any critic suggesting a publisher should consider whether a creator’s work must be published, or even must be published at this time, is reconfigured as “censorship.” Works like Divided States of Hysteria are held up as “bold” and “challenging” for their straight faced depiction of what is basically status quo in Trump’s America. Stephenson even leaned directly into this with his statement gleefully bragging about the need to reprint Divided States of Hysteria:
“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…”
Putting aside the question of whether or not anything about scenes of trans panic and queer victimization are really all that bold, the necessary question this statement prompts is why making people “both angry and uncomfortable” is something that should only be defended when the people in question come from marginalized groups. The responses to criticism of Chaykin and Image from pros in the industry make it clear that suggesting Chaykin isn’t the right person to tell this story (especially given his history with poor trans rep) and that Image is in the wrong for trying to use Pride Month to further profit of it makes the industry itself “angry and uncomfortable.” In fact, the mere notion that these kinds of works are regressive and publishers should think before publishing them seems to make straight white male creators feel more uncomfortable than any scene of intense gore or perversion ever could.
So the message from Image isn’t “we welcome conversation” but “we welcome conversation, as long as it’s on our terms and as long as it isn’t critical of our actions.” Image is extremely happy to capitalize on its unearned reputation as a queer friendly publisher (“look, we’ve even rainbow-ized our logo!”), but it doesn’t value the queer community enough to take steps towards repairing that reputation whenever they misstep. Fans want to view Image as a “good” publisher, an entity that values diversity and inclusion as much as they claim to. But instead, situations like this prove that the company can be as craven and exploitative as the mainstream publishers its founders fled. Until Image can actually engage in conversations of all kinds, and not just the ones that serve their commercial interests, they will remain all talk and no action, which means it’s all the more important we keep the conversation going.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover