Saturday, March 07, 2009

Jonathan Hickman Hits THE SPLASH PAGE

This week, Chad and I decided to look at the Marvel work of Jonathan Hickman and try to figure out whether or not its a good start, or a sign of increasing mediocrity. Later in our conversation, we tackle the problem of great writers doing sub-par work on mainstream superheroes, and you may not exactly agree with our conclusions! (Or maybe you will, probably, sort of.)

Chad Nevett: This week, Jonathan Hickman had two Marvel comics come out, "Secret Warriors" #2 and "Dark Reign: Fantastic Four" #1. I've been a fan of Hickman's since reading the trade of "The Nightly News" and was curious to see how his style would translate over to the Marvel universe -- and I think I can say that it does quite well. Do you agree, Tim?

Tim Callahan: I don't feel the Hickman-ness at Marvel, yet. "Secret Warriors" is fine -- maybe my problems are on the art side, because I think it's a terribly ugly comic -- and "Dark Reign: Fantastic Four" is a step below "Secret Warriors" (with art that's not ugly, but isn't very good at all.) (For the record, I think Stefano Caselli is a good artist, but I think he's the wrong fit for "Secret Warriors," or maybe it's just Daniele Rudoni's garish colors I have a problem with, while Sean Chen isn't the right fit for anything.)

But we're here to talk about Hickman.

I, like you, really liked "The Nightly News," and, honestly, I haven't loved the rest of his work. His other Image comics seemed underdeveloped or more like outlines than real stories, and this Marvel stuff is merely okay. I highlighted him as a "creator to watch" in an early-2009 installment of "When Words Collide," so I'm certainly rooting for the guy to write great comics.

Maybe he needs to pick up some more momentum on both of these Marvel titles, because I definitely don't hate either one. I think they're worth reading. It's good stuff, just not great. And they don't seem to have much of a unique voice to them. If you said Dan Slott wrote these comics, I wouldn't say that you were wrong. I mean, you would be wrong, but you wouldn't feel wrong.

What is it that you like about Hickman, past and present?

CN: Well, with his Image work, I really like that his books are about ideas with characters secondary -- and that he makes that sort of story work. It's a really unique manner in which to construct a story, mostly because it goes against all common sense in writing. If you asked me about the characters in "Pax Romana," I would probably give a couple of vague impressions spaced out over a few dozen "Uh"s, "Um"s and "Er"s. But, if you asked me about the ideas behind the series, about the moral questions in time travel, in society-building, in governance, and what is right, I could go on and on. "The Nightly News" was the same way, as was "Transhuman." Also, if Hickman is doing the art, his unique design-driven work that emphasizes the overall look of the page and the placement of text and overload of information is more important than traditional page layouts. Really, there's no one else doing what he does (or, maybe there is and I just don't know about it, which is possible).

I liked "Secret Warriors" more than you, even the art, which I didn't like in previews, but doesn't bother me while reading the issues. I think Hickman is trying to shift from idea-centric writing to character-centric writing, but, thankfully, this book really allows for a lot of big concepts and big questions. Honestly, if he wanted to spend an issue of Nick Fury and Daisy discussing the moral ramifications of killing thousands of innocent people to stop Hydra, I think he could get away with it. In fact, my one complaint for that title is that he's not drawing upon his unique manner of writing enough and is trying to do things too traditionally. Which is definitely the problem with "Dark Reign: Fantastic Four" (besides Sean Chen's art). He does cookie cutter characterization of the group, not really getting it wrong, but falling very much into the typical FF ideas. Though, his plot involving Reed trying to fix the world is great, although I'm not sure how that will play out, because Reed obviously won't succeed, but failure doesn't seem an option. I'm not sure his Marvel work quite lives up to the promise of his creator-owned stuff, though. I do wonder if it's possible for Hickman to do his best work at Marvel since his style is so different from what's typically done at Marvel. Will he rise above that or begin to fit in?

TC: I like the idea-centric approach too, but it can go too far and become a polemic instead of a story. Or it can become too shallow and read like nothing more than junior high-style essay writing. That's not Hickman's problem, though. His problem is that he is working in the Marvel Universe now, and that universe -- that company -- has a history of character-based drama. This is an overly simplistic perspective, but DC is seen as the more idea-based company and Marvel is seen as character-based, right? So, does Hickman's approach fit well with what's expected from him at Marvel? Can he turn his idea-oriented drama into something that has enough characterization to make it work? Or will he end up doing neither thing very well, straddling the soft, doughy middle ground where good comic book writers go to die?

Let's take a minute to look at Hickman's use of characterization in his Marvel books. While his Nick Fury and Reed Richards have strong, distinct personalities, what about the rest of the characters. How many of the so-called "Secret Warriors" can you even name without looking back at the comic? How many of them have any kind of personality at all? And what about the rest of the Fantastic Four? Is there anything going on with them that's the least bit interesting?

Now I understand that we're talking about the VERY beginnings of two comic book series, and it's ridiculous to expect that Hickman would develop his characters fully in just 22 or 44 pages, but I think the success of his work may depend on it. Or maybe not. Maybe the ideas are good enough to pull him through.

Then again, what are the great ideas which drive these comics? That Hydra has controlled S.H.I.E.L.D. all along? That Reed Richards feels like he should be able to fix things? Are there bigger ideas in play here, other than just things that will drive the plots?

CN: I can name a bunch of the "Secret Warriors" cast: Alex, Yo-Yo, Sebastian, JT, Daisy, Stonewall... am I missing anyone? Now, what they're like is harder to tell, but I have some ideas about each. Although, honestly, that's partly due to the Bendis/Maleev "Mighty Avengers" issues that introduced the characters. Your point is well taken.

Hickman seems to be playing with big ideas like in his creator-owned work, but framing these ideas through characters rather than simply presenting them. Both of these series look like they'll expand on the ideas I mentioned for "Pax Romana," about society building and the morality of it. In "Secret Warriors," it will come down to who has the right to rule the world? It already seems implied (to me, at least) that the question Fury should be asking, if Hydra has, pretty much, ruled the world for years (or decades), isn't that the status quo he should be preserving? What makes one entity's claim to power more legitimate? "Dark Reign: Fantastic Four" looks like it will lead to a similar problem, probably with Reed figuring out how to "fix things," and then wondering if he should. Is it moral for him to alter the world on a large scale? Isn't that what caused all of these problems? Granted, these ideas were much more interesting in "Pax Romana" where there isn't the requisite third-grade morality of superhero comics -- "Secret Warriors" could rise above that, I think, but anything involving the Fantastic Four is stuck there.

One concern I have for Hickman working at Marvel is that this writer whose work I loved before Marvel will gradually change and I won't be reading anything he writes in a few years. It happened with Matt Fraction, a guy who went from "buy sight unseen" to "when is 'Casanova' coming back?" Your opinion of Fraction's Marvel work isn't as low as mine, but do you think that's a concern nonetheless? I can probably rhyme off a good dozen writers who do great work outside of Marvel or DC, but churn out mediocre crap because of the constraints of the companies. Do you see that happening to Hickman in the future -- or, has it already begun?



Kyle said...

[in George Bush voice] You forgot Phobos.

Greg said...

Chad hasn't posted his yet (what's up with that?), so I don't know what your response to his Fraction question is, but I feel the same way. Why does Marvel (and DC) hire these guys and then not let them cut loose? Couldn't they just get Geoff Johns and Craig Yost to write every single book they have? Or do folk like Fraction and Hickman (although I haven't read his Marvel work) deliberately tone it down because they fear if they don't, Marvel will? I wonder.

Timothy Callahan said...

Just wait until you see my answer! It will BLOW YOUR MIND!

Chad Nevett said...

Kyle... Alex is Phobos's human name in the book.

And the second half is posted.

Greg said...

I read your answer, and it BLEW MY MIND. So thanks for that. Now I'm going to have to be institutionalized.

Kyle said...

That's what I get for not counting heads or reading those Secret Invasion tie-ins yet.

Dan Coyle said...

"Sean Chen isn't the right fit for anything."

I don't know which part of that sentence to correct first.