The Fantastic(?) Jonathan Hickman
So it appears that Jonathan Hickman is taking that next big step in Robert Kirkman's infamous how-to-make-a-living-in-comics-without-selling-your-soul-for-thirty-pieces-of-silver plan, having parlayed his string of successful creator-owned series into a deal penning one of the highest profile books in American comics. By most reasonable reckonings, this is pretty good news. Hickman is one of the more innovative talents in American comics to come up in recent years and his selection to write the main Fantastic Four book will not only bring him huge exposure and a considerably larger income, but it may also turn out to be the moment when mainstream superhero comics entered the 21st century.
Hickman's best work reflects a clear grasp on the notion of genre elasticity. In books such as Transhuman--art by JM Ringuet--and the as yet unfinished Red Mass for Mars--art by Ryan Bodenheim--Hickman plays fast and loose with genre conventions, refusing to pigeonhole his stories and often defying readers' expectations by introducing dramatic tonal shifts in the narrative.
Transhuman, which is probably the most fully realized of Hickman's completed series, begins as a more or less typical philosophical science fiction narrative--a near future world in which two companies are competing to corner the market for human improvements, the so-called "transhumanist" movement--with a satirical edge. This is familiar literary territory, but Hickman sets the book apart from similar stories by his employment of a complex narrative structure which takes advantage of the series's "documentary" format by gradually increasing the satire to the point of self-parody--making the series both a comment on the dangers of unchecked technological advancement, as well as the incestuous corporate and media systems which serve to self-legitimize these advancements in the eyes of an unwitting public. Moreover, the sense of whimsy maintained by this relentless self-examination prevent the book from falling into the sort of over-seriousness that generally plagues fiction of this sort.
As good as Transhuman is, Hickman's Red Mass for Mars has the potential to be a masterpiece--whenever the interminably delayed concluding issues make it to the stands. The latter series is a chaotic hybridization of speculative history, mythical narrative and space comics. There is enough going on in each of these narrative strands to make the series intriguingly confusing, but not so much that it comes off as pretentious and unreadable, a la Final Crisis.
The common thread running through these two series is that both were written, but not illustrated by Hickman. Hickman has a great sense of design and when used judiciously, it adds to the experience of reading his comics, as in the case of the informational pages appended to the first issue of the Secret Warriors series he is currently writing for Marvel. Be that as it may, there can be too much of a good thing and this is generally the case with those series Hickman has written and illustrated himself. Nightly News and Pax Romana suffer from an over-reliance on these "designy" elements--to use Hickman's own term--at the expense of visual narrative. This is not to say that neither of these series has something to offer, but simply that when too little of a comic's narrative is conveyed by its images, what you have is more of a novella with illustrations, rather than narrative sequential art, per se.
Unsurprisingly, there are naysayers out there who are lamenting Hickman's move into the big leagues of American comics. One commenter even expressed his wish that Hickman become an Alan Moore style "Fuck-the-Man" figure. Not only does such an attitude wildly exaggerate Alan Moore's supposed outsider status, but it would also seek to deny Hickman his right to develop himself fully within his chosen medium. Not only that, the restrictions inherent to signing on to such a major franchise as Fantastic Four are often precisely what an emerging creator needs in order to refine his art.