Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Sci-Fi
By Andy Frisk
February 8, 2012 - 20:32
My first exposure to Jonathan Hickman’s work was via The Nightly News from Image Comics. To me, it was an absolutely brilliant commentary on modern media and society that read like a more intelligent and even more disturbing Fight Club (if such a thing is even possible). Irreverent, mind bending, and packed with some of the most funny and poignant social commentary every printed in graphic novel form, The Nightly News was just the beginning of what readers would come to expect from Hickman on a regular basis. Not long after The Nightly News, Hickman would be awarded the writing duties on Fantastic Four, one of Marvel Comics’ founding titles. While the Fantastic Four, as a comic and a franchise, often vacillated wildly from one end of the quality spectrum to another, under Hickman Fantastic Four remains a consistently high quality read. In fact, Hickman’s work on Fantastic Four is so good that, for the first time as far as I can remember, the titled has actually birthed a successful spin off title, FF (Future Foundation). Currently, Hickman helms both Fantastic Four and FF as well as S.H.I.E.L.D. and successfully guided Secret Warriors from inception to completion. As Hickman branched out, his storytelling began to take on a super-hyper-theoretic and historically speculative science fiction theme. It is not irregular to see guest stars such as Nikola Tesla, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Isaac Newton in action alongside Nathaniel Richards and Howard Stark in the pages of S.H.I.E.L.D. The stories he weaves in Fantastic Four, FF, and S.H.I.E.L.D. are a speculative historical fiction (and Marvel Universe) fan’s dream. Imhotep battling The Brood? Da Vinci facing off against Galactus? Reed Richards teaming up with his multiverse counterparts to “Solve Everything?” It’s all here. Rarely have I been as excited over a creator’s new project as I am over Hickman’s Manhattan Projects, a new ongoing series from Image Comics that has all the earmarks of being Hickman’s magnum opus. A series that focuses on the “real” super scientific projects that the scientists behind the historical Manhattan Project were working on and which stars the likes of General Leslie Groves, Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Wernher Von Braun, Einstein, FDR, Truman, Yuri Gagarin, and Richard Feynman is just screaming for my vote for next year’s Binnie Award for Best New Ongoing Series…and I haven’t even read a page of it yet.
Speculative fiction with a super sci-fi bent can be poorly done, if the encapsulating theme or story itself isn’t strong. Here’s where Hickman sets himself aside of the rest. Hickman’s first Fantastic Four arc, “Solve Everything” set the standard that Hickman has, to this day, lived up to. “Solve Everything” employed the classic Fantastic Four tropes including parallel universes, theoretical physics, super science, and plenty of heady sci-fi gadgetry, gimmicks, and gaggle. The difference was that the focus of the story was more on the heavy burden that scientific genius, such as Reed Richards’, can be when the “answer to everything” is seemingly within their grasp, yet cannot be fully implemented. Reed struggles to solve everything, but ultimately cannot since humanity is too unpredictable and some problems have to work themselves out. Short cuts to a solution don’t work. It also brilliantly answered the question of why Richards hasn’t solved everything, given the incredible stature of his intellect and ability. Basically, “everything” can’t be solved, just as a unified theory is an incredibly hard thing to envision, let alone prove.
The same theory of speculative fiction with a super sci-fi bent being poorly done due to lack of story NOT being the case where Hickman is involved applies to S.H.I.E.L.D. as well…to a point. While S.H.I.E.L.D. is an incredibly high concept work of brilliant art, it suffers from Hickman’s existent, but oftentimes rare, inability to get to the point. The storytelling in S.H.I.E.L.D. is so dense that in order to understand, or even remember, what happened in the last issue(s) that lead to the current issue’s developments, one often has to go back and reread multiple back issues. This can be frustrating to the average reader because Hickman obviously has a grand scheme whose revelation will be well worth the payoff, but getting there in a timely enough manner to keep the masses interested has been a problem. Hopefully, it will be one that he has figured out how to overcome with Manhattan Projects.
Manhattan Projects might sound thematically similar to S.H.I.E.L.D. in scope, but it will have the benefit of existing outside the constraining mythology of the Marvel Universe. As Hickman stated for CBR, "For the reader, it will be familiar structurally -- a series of one-and-dones that exist independently of each other and build to an underlying larger plot, but done a bit more… I dunno, enigmatically. This is the first ongoing I've ever done outside of Marvel, so I'm very excited about both the possibilities of the story itself and the potential of that structure on an independent project. Should be fun." His emphasis on a series of “one and dones” clues the potential reader of Manhattan Projects in on the fact that Hickman seems to have learned from his mistakes (and I use the word lightly) on S.H.I.E.L.D If anything S.H.I.E.L.D. is as far from a string of “one and dones” as one can get in the comic book genre, to its sales figures detriment. I’m getting the feeling that Manhattan Projects will have, potentially (and hopefully) a structure much like that employed in classic long running sci-fi television shows like The X-Files, Lost, and Fringe. These shows, especially The X-Files, unfolded their overlaying mythology slowly over the course of several seasons while driving the narrative forward on the strength of powerful characterizations and a series of “one and done” stories that built upon each other. Hickman, if he employs this strategy, will definitely have the kind of hit on his hands that he never could have had with S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as one that is much more daring than what he’s masterfully built within the Marvel Universe/Fantastic Four framework, as great as that structure is.
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