I’ve always viewed my media through the lens of music and, specifically, through that of bands. Very few musicians come out of the gate with Pet Sounds or London Calling – hell, very few musicians start off with a firm idea of who they are. But, with “The Nightly News,” Jonathan Hickman, more or less, comes out of the gate with his mission statement lofted in the air, with a book that feels like no one’s but his own. This comic has set the tone for one of the more important comics careers of the past decade, and does so with absolute confidence.
On his first try, Hickman made his White Album – and it’s not fair.
Written and Illustrated by Jonathan Hickman
“I’M MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” As an act of violence spirals out of control to encompass the entirety of the news media, a cult has emerged from the errors and retractions that have ruined careers, marriages and even lives. Under direction from his cult master, The Hand leads an army of followers committed to revolution, willing to die for their cause.
Now, before Beatle fanatics take me to task over calling The Beatles, colloquially The White Album, their best record, I want to say two things. First of all, it is. Grow up. Secondly, it is the Beatles record that has everything the Beatles can do on it. It has weirdness, it has hooky pop, it has loud songs, and quiet songs, it has unadorned acoustic guitar and lush orchestration – it is the glyph that helps listeners understand how the same band could have made “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Please Please Me.”
In many ways, reading “The Nightly News” gives you the same experience with Hickman. In this book, you can see the DNA of “East of West” alongside the spark that lit an Avengers world. It is all here. And, not to beat a dead horse, this is his first ever comic work.
The most noticeable element that leaped forth from here is Hickman’s graphic sensibility. Hickman’s books are some of the most meticulously designed and artfully packaged in all of comics. That is on display here from the first interior page of the book. Graphs, notes, unusual layouts; the book is presented as something entirely different than your average comic fare. That has its pluses and its minuses – on one hand, reading “The Nightly News” is unlike any other reading experience you’ve had before, and that can be exciting. But I can also see someone picking up the book, not ‘getting’ how it is telling a story, and moving on.
Luckily for us, more people had the former approach, and this book is perhaps the reason that Marvel is relaunching its books in a few months. This book gave way to Hickman’s Marvel work, and let him take point on “Secret Wars,” which is allowing this new onslaught of titles to come in a few months.
The story itself is one of a cult, built around the idea that the media, and the way the media is in bed with lawmakers, is ruining our world. Their answer? Murder journalists. I don’t want to dig too deep into the machinations of the plot, but the book’s six chapters present a pretty complete look at indoctrination, and present some truly horrific acts on the part of the members of the cult.
One of the central themes of the book is that everyone – good or bad – is capable of doing terrible things. Sometimes those terrible things are born out of good intentions, and some are simply terrible. This is something that we’ve seen across Hickman’s post-“Nightly News” work as well – from the Illuminati mind-wiping Steve Rogers, to just about everything that happens in “The Manhattan Projects,” we’ve see power and information corrupt the most noble people. Here, the idea is presented in a form that is closer to our everyday lives – there aren’t incursions to prevent, just the monotony and grind of modern life. How we react to those things tells a lot about us, and Hickman uses the Voice as a catalyst for people making rash decisions about their lives.Continued below
But don’t think that this is some moralistic treaty of the nature of the press, or on the need for violent revolution once and awhile – this refuses to give such clear answers. Sure, by the end of the book, we know the who, what, and why of the story, but we aren’t given a neatly tied-up story, where the bad go punished and the good are praised. Nor is there a real answer for ‘which side is good or bad’ – everyone is a mix of both, and Hickman wants you to know that, while some people have good ideas, these aren’t good people.
Which isn’t to say that this book is devoid of humor – whether in the snarky author’s notes, or in references to things like The Princess Bride, there are plenty of smirky moments. Hickman’s never been a ‘bwahaha’ style of writer, but his works have consistent humor present, and while has a little less than usual, it is still there.
What might surprise readers of Hickman’s more recent work is that he illustrated this book himself. He largely eschews panel layouts, revealing page turns, and the sort of slow motion movement that makes sequential art what it is. Instead, Hickman delivers a book that mimics the look of the, pardon the phrase, nightly news – there are graphs and charts, pop ups and a faux-news crawl. Not that he is expressly aping these things – none of it is presented as simple satire – but the effect is the same.
Readers have to make a choice – do I follow the story and ignore the rest, or do I delay the story to check out the charts and ephemera around the edges? Hickman himself tells you at some points, explicitly, that some of this is skippable. But to read that, you’ve already been jerked out of the story, and into the wash of information. Again, this mimics the way we watch CNN, or any news broadcast – if we choose to ignore the scroll, the constant movement still distracts us; if we give in and look at the crawl, we miss details of the current story.
As for his actual drawing style, Hickman has a little bit of Howard Chaykin in him, with a dash of Mike Dringenberg added in, but it is hard to compare his art to anything other than itself, as these pages simply don’t act like other comics. His technique is what makes this such a unique book; CBR did a great piece with him around this time, where he details his laborious and unique approach, and it is well worth a read, as it helps to give some context for the final product that you see on the page.
And because of that unique style, some people have a problem with this work. I’ve seen this book referred to as pretentious or difficult, and I can see where those folks are coming from. When I first picked up this book (at the recommendation of Multiversity publisher Matthew Meylikhov), the style threw me for a loop; I was expecting something that looked more like a traditional comic, and that isn’t what I got in the slightest. I’ve heard the term ‘style over substance’ tossed around in regards to the book, and I would argue that, in some ways, that’s the point.
The book is supposed to show us how shallow and cluttered and unfocused the media has become, and so Hickman does his best to replicate that on the page. Newscasts have long been style over substance, and so in presenting the book in that way, he has to cater to that concept at least a little bit. If you condensed the book to just the storytelling panels – no infographs, no sidebars, the book would probably be half the size. For those of us that grew up on a 9 panel grid, this can be a bit jarring.
It is because of that reason that I often lend this book out to friends who aren’t necessarily big comic fans – it makes a great gateway drug. This bucks just about every expectation of what a comic should be, and yet is still a perfect example of what comics can – and should – be.Continued below
But that isn’t to say that this is my favorite Hickman work – in fact, it is far from it. I prefer my Hickman stories with some hope present. Interestingly, this also may be the lowest stakes Hickman project, which is hilarious when you consider that the murder of public figures can be conceived of as low stakes. Not to be ignored is also the fact that Hickman has worked with some of the best artists in all of comics since this – Jerome Opena, Nick Pitarra, Ryan Bodenheim, Nick Dragotta, etc. While this book is interesting visually, it is not as stunning as many of the works Hickman did elsewhere.
Regardless of where this ranks in your personal Hickman order, the fact remains that it is a singular work, both in his catalog and elsewhere. The book, now nearing a decade old, rarely feels outdated, even though it is dealing with technology and current events. I can see this being the type of book being taught in both graphic design and illustration classes for decades to come, and yet will have almost no work that derives more than inspiration from it.
And the dude did this in his first work. Sheesh.