Jonathan Hickman, whose Image Comics series The Nightly News has been drawing attention and good reviews from the comics and mainstream press since it debuted in November 2006, may have written a horror story that bemoaned the state of the American media-but he doesn’t think that the situation is totally hopeless. “There’s a lot of [lazy journalism] and it’s incestuous,” Hickman says. “It’s going to be played out soon, though. I think we’re about five years away from a major reorganization of what it means to be a reporter.”
An odd mix of dark comedy, social commentary and actual journalism, Hickman’s book is sometimes scattered, but often very clever and most of its observations are on-target. “The meta-narrative of The Nightly News is distilled down to their essence, there’s no difference in the relationship between the news and their viewers, and cults and their followers,” Hickman explains. “The whole essence of The Nightly News is making this comparison.” He also puts the blame for what he perceives to be an irresponsible media on the financial demands that the owners place on the media. “The commodification of media completely devalues the virginal state of the news,” he explains.
The series, collected in a trade paperback format in September, follows the exploits of John Guyton, whose life was shattered when false accusations about him surfaced in the media and he was convicted in the court of public opinion, not unlike Richard Jewell or other people who have endured “trial by media,” to the detriment of their personal and professional lives. Incensed by the seeming impunity with which the media gets away with flagrantly ignoring its responsibilities and hurting people in the process, he is a perfect candidate to become The Hand, the violent, obsessed agent of a cult-like, shadowy figure calling himself The Voice.
The Voice and his followers declare war on the media, and not in the metaphorical sense; the first issue depicts Guyton’s predecessor going to a college journalism class where a respected, aging anchorman (an obvious Walter Kronkite analog) is speaking and, confronting the man, accuses him of acting on behalf of the government in a secret capacity-and then killing him and turning himself in. With the previous Hand undergoing a public trial, Guyton gathers a crowd of followers around him and starts taking out reporters himself en masse.
Where most anchors don’t command the public’s respect like Walter Kronkite did anymore, there is no love lost for the veteran newsman in the sequence that shows his proxy’s murder, as the old man sputters and stammers, struggling to assert his value to society. “I don’t think Kronkite was credible,” Hickman says. “I think he was just a piece of the machinery that made him appear credible.” He attributes the public’s more nuanced understanding of the media for the fact that today’s anchors don’t have the same relationship with their audience that Kronkite did in his day, and adds that Kronkite’s behavior as a public figure and media critic in the years since stepping down as an anchor has been embarrassing, in Hickman’s estimation. “It’s almost similar to Presidents who don’t know how to behave when they’re out of office,” he quips.
During the course of the title itself, Guyton goes from being essentially brainwashed-following the orders of The Voice without consideration for the ethicality of what he’s doing-to realizing the questionable nature of his own actions, and then finally to realizing that he was right all along. He may be “deprogrammed,” but it doesn’t mean he’s going to apologize for what he’s doing. This, according to Hickman, is when he’s the most dangerous; “Now he’s a true believer,” the writer explains. Ultimately, Hickman sums up the character: “Even though he was truly a victim, he’s moved past that….Even though he had behaved wrong, his cause was right.”
But Hickman isn’t. On the one hand, Hickman says, “I don’t buy into a lot of stuff I see in the nightly news. Disinformation is something we expect – we don’t believe anything we hear unless it’s of a tabloid nature.” Still, he isn’t on a mission. “To be completely honest and fair,” he explains, “some of what I’m writing and some of my positions, are not completely genuine….I’m certainly not engaged in trench warfare in regards to this stuff. I do think some of the stuff accurately reflects y disgust, but character and plot always drive what I’m trying to do first and foremost.” Hickman says that while the idea of The Nightly News occurred to him because of his feelings on the state of the media, it’s not something that keeps him up at night now that the book is over. He works alone, reads a lot and while it was passion that led him to this project, his primary focus had to be on making characters and stories that made sense. “If you make a pool of research you can dive in and it’s just getting character voice right,” he explains.
Frankly, he doesn’t always get it 100%. As the series progresses, Hickman matures substantially as a writer (it is his first project, after all). The first chapter (or first issue of the floppies) is kind of all over the place. While it’s clear he has a lot to say, Hickman’s attempts to eschew the traditions of traditional sequential art fall somewhat short and his visual vocabulary is scrambled. Research charts (including one lifted from an essay by Greg Palast, whom I work with) are incorporated into the narrative a little clunkily, but the overall effect is that the collected edition is a great book and that the story overcomes any obstacles that style might place in its way. These criticisms are not lost on Hickman, who has heard them before and dismisses them. In a nutshell, “Our media savvyness in entertainment is pretty complex and people appreciate stories that demand more of the reader.”
He’ll have a chance to prove it – in the next year or so, Hickman has an incredibly busy schedule. He’s currently working on a book called Pax Romana, which he describes as “kind of a world-building exercise,” wherein Islam has taken over most of the world and The Vatican develops a time machine and travels back in time to more nip the growth of their “competition” in the bud. He’s also working on a series called Transhuman, a sort of comics mockumentary about genetic engineering and pharmaceutical companies; Red Mass From Mars, which will see print in June and deals with man’s evolving perception of Utopia; and works for Top Cow’s Pilot Season and Marvel’s Marvel Comics Presents. There’s also another Marvel project which Hickman isn’t at liberty to discuss. Most of these seem to have a sociopolitical bent, and will likely cement Hickman’s niche as a Thinking Man’s Comic Creator even while he works for the mainstream publishers, where he says there is “a lot of s–t.” “There’s a lot of mediocre work that gets done because the editors have a certain amount of stuff that they need to get out,” Hickman says, but he insists that he won’t become part of that system.
“I’ve waited so long to do this,” Hickman says, “I’m not going to throw stuff against the wall.”