[23 May 2014]
PopMatters Comics Editor
To begin, two recollections presented as vignettes.
The first, the more modern, sees Jerry Seinfeld host Patton Oswalt on an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Not familiar with Oswalt’s LA, Seinfeld allows himself to be led to South LA, where yet-to-make-it writers work on their scripts and treatments in coffee shops that appear as oases amid the urban industrial wasteland. In describing the neighborhood, Oswalt references the angst, the intensity, grittiness of someone attempting to write themselves free of the immediate circumstances.
The second, plays out generations ago, recalling generations before that. At the closing of “What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum”, (reprinted in The Great Shark Hunt) Hunter S. Thompson writes:
“Standing on a corner in the middle of Ketchum it is easy to see the connection Hemingway must have made between this place and those he had known in the good years. Aside from the brute beauty of the mountains, he must have recognized an atavistic distinctness in the people that piqued his sense of dramatic possibilities. It is a raw and peaceful little village, especially in the off season with neither winter skiers nor summer fishermen to dilute the image. Only the main street is paved; most of the “others are no more than dirt and gravel tracks that seem at times to run right through front yards.
From such a vantage point a man tends to feel it is not so difficult, after all, to see the world clear and as a whole. Like many another writer, Hemingway did his best work when he felt he was standing on something solid—like an Idaho mountainside, or a sense of conviction.”
It’s a vision of the writer across the chasm of the Long Meanwhile, the moment on opposite ends of a career, where a writer must deal with the problems of their chosen genre, and the socially-imposed limitations that come along with it. The moment where genre conventions and these socially-endorsed expectations that function as limitations must either imprison a writer, or crumble and free the writer, allowing them to assume the role of public intellectual. Writer Jonathan Hickman, before he becomes the more renowned writer of Fantastic Four and The Avengers, struggles in his early writings with the socially engendered limitations that arise from both writing from the genre basis of science fiction, and writing in the medium of comics.
Between 2007 and 2011, Jonathan Hickman releases four creator-owned miniseries under his own brand Pronea, and published by Image. Transhuman and A Red Mass for Mars are bookended by Pax Romana beginning in 2007 and The Red Wing ending and collected in 2011. Setting aside his corporate work in Marvel’s Fantastic Four (which reaches its first climax around the time of The Red Wing’s conclusion with the magnificent “The Last Stand of Johnny Storm”) and his work later in Avengers (which arguably has not yet peaked despite the breathtakingly epic “Infinity” storyarc), these four miniseries get to the heart of Hickman’s vision not only of science fiction as a genre, but himself as a writer.
On the surface of things, the four miniseries deal with remarkably regular science fiction thematics. Pax Romana deals with a near future in which the Vatican decides to make use of knowledge in its secret archives, particularly the know-how of time-travel. The specific intent—temporal security by way of an incursion into the past. The Red Wing as well deals with time travel, but to a very different effect. When the technologically advanced time-ship fleet invading the present are exposed as the characters themselves but from an alternate future, Hickman takes us on an exploration of the consequences of war fought for advantage in the timeline rather than for gain of territory.
The miniseries nestled between these two, Transhuman and A Red Mass for Mars deal with genomics and superiority (both in the physical sense of superheroes, and in the philosophical sense of egalitarianism). Told in the style of a documentary, Transhuman explores the collision (collusion?) of a society that is bioethically ready to embrace wide-scale genetic manipulation, despite any unknown or unforeseen consequences that might ensue, and a venal, greed-driven corporate culture.
As much as anything, these books stand out as literary in not being driven by concerns of their day. (Or at least not overtly, despite Pax Romana reading a little like a liberal critique of Bush II-era COIN policy). Unlike Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again which depicts the destruction of a city in the wake of 9/11 almost as a cathartic way of dealing with that psychic trauma, or Ed Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men: Rise & Fall of the Shi’ar Empire which deals with regime change, albeit at the level of galactic empire, Pax Romana, Transhuman, A Red Mass for Mars and The Red Wing deal almost exclusively with a kind of working through of internal wrestlings for Hickman. There are themes here in these stories that he will revisit time and again, workings-through, workings-out and wrestlings-with that almost begin to define him (although not type-cast him) as a writer.
But beyond the sense of timelessness of these books (in that they could be picked up twenty years from now and still be culturally relevant, or have been read in the 50 years ago in the ‘60s and the same would be true), two constant thematics emerge, one in terms of narrative ambition, and the other in terms of storytelling mode.
In the first, Hickman always presents a grandeur of scale, not only within the narrative aspect, but at the level of philosophical abstraction and theme. Take A Red Mass for Mars as example. On its surface the book is nothing more than a superhuman war in space against an unimaginably hostile and technologically superior alien race. But by adding in “Eternity” to the French Revolution’s battle-cry of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” Hickman leverages the genre conventions of scifi and the superhero story to be construct a kind of drama around egalitarian values from the Enlightenment.
Similarly, The Red Wing takes ecological concerns to the next level—what if, in manipulating the timeline, we must express ecological awareness and stewardship not only of the planet we live on, but of human destiny itself? Or with Pax Romana, the genre conventions of commando-style military fiction and broader science fiction become a foundation for a meditation on a metaphorical “retirement”—where outcomes (temporally securing the Vatican) become more important than process (whatever alternatives there might be, diplomacy for one, to actually making incursions into the past). In this regard, Pax Romana echoes themes encountered in Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider—a sense of loss of process-oriented lifestyle, one where doing something regularly to earn a living is preferable to doing something infrequently to ensure a lifestyle.
Of the four books, perhaps Transhuman plumbs the darkest literary depths in that time and again, at every corner, it refuses to outright demonize corporations, instead portraying them as kind of focused arena for the ethical and ideological battlefield humanity must itself deal with.
The second theme that appears in these books is Hickman’s unique take on the artistic aesthetic, one that seemingly blends together transmedia concerns (like Transhuman mimicking a documentary but on paper, or these days on computer-screen), and postmodernist concerns (like involving the reader through foreshadowing as in A Red Mass for Mars). Hickman books have a distinct look to them, fans and casual readers alike learned as early as 2006’s The Nightly News, and as recently as the concluding chapter of Secret. Infographics become art, fourth walls get broken down.
But beyond thematics, Hickman’s work stands out almost the coming round of an old comics promise—one from the ‘90s and even earlier. Can comics be literature? Can the work produced by a certain writer push beyond the socially-imposed limitations of a medium (limits that come from generationally-imbued expectations) and explode beyond? In Hickman’s early creator-owned work (not to discount his current work or corporate writing), the answer seems to be a resounding yes. And in that regard Hickman writes himself into very exclusive fraternity that includes greats like Philip K. Dick and William Shakespeare, where the writer is recast as public intellectual.