I'll admit that nostalgia plays a part in this, but I have very fond recollections of hanging out at my local comic book store in high school. It was a genuinely exciting time to be reading comics—not because that era was especially rich in great new works, but because most ideas appeared new. Without an oversized knowledge of what is being homaged or when a certain technique was first used, everything felt like a discovery. It's rare to rediscover that feeling in 2020 for me, and it's why I was so thrilled to read Decorum #1, then read it again, and again, and again. Decorum is a comic possessing proper ambition, toying with the possibilities of the medium on each page.
That description may give the impression that Decorum #1 is a cerebral comic. It can be that, evoking clear critiques of imperialism and capitalism and carefully constructing a vast interstellar history, but it's just as often a ridiculous amount of fun to read. While the first issue serves many masters, delivering a fractured story with major characters only beginning to emerge on its final few pages, it always provides some sort of visceral pleasure to accompany even the most dense infographics. Sasha E Head's designs are due to delight an audience who prefers a visual medium like comics to prose. They are sleek, clear, and wonderfully integrated into the more familiar modes of comics storytelling that surround them.
There's no better example of how the intellectual and ridiculous meet, and how different modes of storytelling engage one another, than an infographic detailing one character's lunch. Each element in a tonkotsu ramen dish is distilled into their most essential appearance. These ingredients are fun to parse as a hidden recipe within the book, but small changes to what we might find on Earth, like the description of "Tempork" or use of algae, also help build the world that surrounds this minor meal. This one page is both a carefully considered, wonderfully illustrated examination of a dish and a funny inset panel that leads readers eye to the next sequence. If this much consideration is due to what is essentially a single-page gag, imagine how rewarding the entire 50-page reading experience turns out to be.
The story being presented is a thrill too, although that statement should possibly be modified to reflect plural stories. Decorum #1 is divided into three chapters. The first segment sketches out the shape of this sci-fi epic, offering readers a mixture of history, maps, and one bit of bloody conflict to build out a world spanning thousands of planets and years. Readers of Powers of X are likely to see some intersections between the two comics, as both are interested in how advanced, spacefaring civilizations develop and define themselves. This also sets the tone for the much more focused narrative that unfolds in the latter half of the comic—it makes clear that the universe is an uncaring place and that advancement in science rarely sees similar advances in ethics or empathy. It is in the latter chapters that the heady, sci-fi focus is paired with crime genre tropes as a courier and assassin cross paths in a properly wretched hive of scum and villainy.
This is where the character from the solicits makes her appearance and the exceedingly well-mannered assassin is exactly the sort of idiosyncratic and exceptional character that readers have come to expect from Hickman's writing. However, Decorum #1 doesn't hang its merits around any individual character, sequence, or idea. Every bit of action and tough-talking conversation brings its own appeal. Mike Huddleston displays a massive stylistic range, sometimes in a single panel. Every choice and contrast serves a clear purpose though, allowing room for grimy deals that take an indie, Campbell-like approach and far more flashy moments that will leave jaws hanging. Each moment extends the world these characters occupy and naturally develops a larger plot that is still unfolding when the final page is turned.
The most difficult part of writing about Decorum #1 is defining exactly what this series is. It's a critical examination of systems of power through a sci-fi lens; it's a comic that reimagines its style and design every few pages; it's a scintillating crime story filled with assassins and secret packages. There are so many appealing facets to this debut, largely because every element of the comic itself and story it's telling are considered on each page. Each read through of this issue offers new connections and levels of appreciation. Decorum #1 is a reminder of the immense possibilities held in the comics form and how a work being "smart" doesn't mean it can't be a lot of fun. This is the sort of comic that can make even the most cynical critic remember why they fell in love with the medium. I suppose the only response for that is: Thanks.
Published by Image Comics
On March 11, 2020
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Mike Huddleston
Letters by Rus Wooton
Design by Sasha E Head
Cover by Mike Huddleston