The Nightly News | Jonathan Hickman

“If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”

–          Benjamin Franklin

Funny that comes from him, though: a guy who had no trouble suggesting lifestyles to people as well as hinting at how they should treat the money they earn. But, hey, hypocrisy’s everything, and no matter the source, the point of the quote does fit the point of the comicbook, as Jonathan Hickman’s masterpiece certainly chases individuality in spades. It lives and breathes the quest. And while Hickman denounces all theories of cathartic involvement, it’s hard to read this work without seeing a guy chasing something.

Because past the rage you may or may not feel necessary to explore, the controversial subject matter, and the facetious subtitle “A Lie Told in Six Parts,” The Nightly News is still very much a part of its creator; a book which clearly suggests an artist cutting his own path and not giving a fuck what anyone thinks.

It spells out everything that Hickman is – from the design to the choice in storytelling. And at a time in mainstream comics when the writer spit unquestionable dominance while the artist became sort of a cast off, this book came to and broke many of the standards set. All the way from the blunt impact of a quick glance, to the actual reading process – tearing the traditional comicbook page apart and rebuilding it, The Nightly News wants nothing to do with the majority.

It is, in essence, the true individual, and I think in a day an age when we’re so quick to label the new thing “brilliant” or a “game changer,” this comicbook might actually live up to the labels. Yet, no matter its place in the grand ol’ scheme, Hickman clearly crafted a comicbook without any peers and did so without holding himself to any predisposed expectation. As Hickman notes in the trade paper back’s afterword …

“ … I’m telling a story.

And it’s one I expected more of you would hate.”

Yet he told it anyway.

As the afterword continues, he then goes on to list the book’s unmistakable qualities as reason for a potential backlash, and ends his authorial footnote by summing up his completed work.

“Concerning The Nightly News, for me it’s about believing in something so much you have to do it regardless of the cost.”

That “something” would be storytelling – his way; the “cost” is an unreceptive audience.

This may be a very “in-head” reading too closely associated with the author, but as for my personal stance on the work, the author cannot be removed from the picture. Know that.

Plus, Hickman says …

“Enjoy The Nightly News for what it is to you. That’s how it should be – it’s yours now.”

By those words, I’m OK with where I stand.

Jonathan Hickman claims to have been reborn in March of 2006. As he words it on his website

“After a certain amount of time you get tired of wasting talent. Of being part of a fraudulent profession — or actually being a fraud. And, most importantly, not living the life you are capable of having.”

Now, while it’s debatable he ever really escaped the “fraudulent profession” (Kirby supporters, unite!), the quote simply suggests Hickman didn’t enjoy his career previous to breaking into comics. And when you take the entirety of the bio on his website into consideration,  it’s clear that by being “reborn” a comics writer, his life now is more suitable and in line with his actual desires.

He also states in the afterword of The Nightly News’ trade paper back that, “All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell stories – it’s what I was meant to do (emphasis his). I know this because I spent ten years trying to convince myself I’d be happy doing other things.”

While the biography on his site comes off as romanticized and somewhat story-like, it works well enough to paint the usual picture of someone discovering themselves. The claim of “rebirth” may be a tad dramatic, but the adoption of a creative lifestyle that truly fits you after years of a soul-sucking job, I guess, would probably incite such a feeling of anew purpose. Because you’re going in an entirely different direction than you once previously were, and with the critical response that The Nightly News garnered,  you would have to suddenly feel at home. As if the community you’d been searching for all along just opened its arms to you and drew you in.

The same year as his apparent rebirth, The Nightly News saw publication. The book marked Hickman’s first major work in the medium, and it detailed a plot centered around a mistreated individual who seeks revenge on journalists and the media because he cites them as the source of his misfortune. It’s a very sardonic work, riffing on things such as Network and the story of Richard Jewell, the Olympic bomber.

If you’ve ever been on the comics internet, you know all of this already.

You probably even know The Nightly News as a unique piece of fiction – something that changed the idea of comics – and know it for its unorthodox visual style. But in this age of hyperbolic comicbook “journalism,” well, do you really know all the arguments behind these praises? Or that they even exist? Because the comics internet’s not wrong, but neither has it really broken down this work. And it should be broken down because The Nightly News isn’t just another Image comic that excited some diehard DC reader because he finally read something “indie.” No. It’s an actual machine complete with all the necessary gears, yet gears in need of a new inspection.

In this world of multimedia and visual mandates, it makes sense for Hickman to display this comicbook the way he does. If anything, he’s riffing on the state of things and bleeding into the info-graphic culture we inhabit. You could even say he’s using the weapon usually aimed for us and turning it back on its handler, subverting the norm as well as casting his own brand of spicy propaganda. This mindset works to the book’s cynical attitude as it furthers its point about the hypocritical cult, that no matter what side you choose, conformity’s on your mind and the same tactics are in use, all leading you no further from your enemy.

The entire visual layout is a representative piece, and while it livens up the overall style and contributes to the subtext, it also roots itself in the very foundation of the actual pages and transforms the reading experience. Because by doing what Hickman does he must rearrange the typical components. From word balloons, to gutters to the overall layout, things have to shift, but Hickman’s smart enough to not let these fundamental comicbook elements suffer because of a desire for a standout look. Not a sacrifice is made, and everything comes together for sort of a new reading experience.

As Hickman describes it

“One of the things I’m able to do is make a cohesive page instead of a panel a page with the whole spread working together. Now even though the pages are presented as two-page spreads, there’s enough stuff going on in the pages and there’s even panels in certain pages that makes it work like separate pages.”

Or as I would describe it …

“His pages ignore the typical grid expected of a comicbook page, and instead, a viewer’s eyes just flow to the appropriate moments or where the dialogue rests. Rather than the typical left-to-right, top-to-bottom, it’s more a top-to-bottom reading order, and your eyes just leap from scenario to scenario. All the while, extra tidbits work their way into the picture, offering these optional side thoughts within the narrative.  The Nightly News’ pages work more like advertisements than comics, giving it that extra splash of media ties.”

There’s a functionality here, but you can also see these pages as complete images, as if Hickman’s work carries Steranko’s love of a stylish and bold appearance but ignores the obsession of the image and doesn’t loose sight of the story. It’s really more J.H. Williams III that way, or even Sienkiewicz, when you consider the sense of atmosphere. I’m not so sure Hickman’s an excellent draftsman, though. While his layout and pure design appears top notch, I feel once you would take away the dressing, his line work wouldn’t impress. The artwork is so dependent on what decorates the surface. Although, it could be Hickman laid down a weak base intentionally, knowing for this particular project things would work out.

I guess you’d have to ask him.

It’s a very impression effort, overall, but that’s one large reason I’m upset with Hickman because he never continued this train of thought past Pax Romana. It’s something that, with proper time and energy given to it, could have really progressed into something. I hate to jump up and be the guy crying “why’d you ‘sell out’,” but man, “why’d you ‘sell out’?” Or even past “selling out,” why not illustrate another project? You’re burning the creator-owned torch once again.

I assume the guy may have, like Brian Michael Bendis, fallen into a train of thought in which he’s convinced himself he’s more comfortable as a writer, but I say fuck comfort. Go back to this. You were on to something.

. . . . .

So let’s consider Hickman, the writer. How’s he fare here? I’d say well.

From start to finish, The Nightly News already exemplifies the traits that now rest synonymous with Jonathan Hickman. Between the fascination of men in power, down to characters as embodiments of concepts, you’ll read this comicbook and distinctly know who penned it, but opposite works like The Red Wing, The Nightly News doesn’t find itself caught up in a weak cast or ill-used environment. In fact, things work very differently, and Hickman’s ticks as an author come together and perform here. And I think it’s all because of the actual passion in the work as well as the cultural zeitgeist anchored to it.

But let’s break down some stuff.

First, we have John Guyton (who oddly resembles Hickman, as well as shares a first name – interpret at will), our neither good guy nor bad guy who instead acts more as a puppet, up until the climax. Then there’s Alexander Jones, another puppet, but one who doesn’t escape. Both men are Hands of The Voice, an invisible messiah who encourages the rebellion, but they are entirely different people. Because both John and Alex are us – the reader – but they represent separate choices. Our potentials. John and Alex serve the The Voice, but only Alex falls completely into the cult while John realizes the hypocrisy of it and, in the end, breaks away by choosing for himself (although, you could debate this) in a final fiery gun fight.

No matter the fictional details, John and Alex break down to a core. John’s the individual who breaks away while Alex represents the man who went with the crowd. From the get go, Hickman zip ties these two together and weaves his larger narrative around them. It’s a smart way to construct the story because the structure allows a reader to peak into and read both sides of the argument evenly. We spend time here and there and see just how John and Alex differ while relate. Hickman even throws the audience into the boardroom and places you with the men in suits, and while you’ll quickly denounce them, he does represent their side and let you sneer into their thought process.

But while the back-and-forth covers all grounds of the plot, I would suggest it’s really about putting you into a place of making a decision. Especially with John and Alex. Do you act as Hand to The Voice and lead the revolution? Does it seem the thing to do? Or can you spot the hole in the cause?

The whole work begs you to ask questions, as all good journalism should.

But even though concepts, those characters are actually characterized by Hickman from a simple showcase of actions and decisions. Even consider the use of dialogue. Each character has their own tone, but John sort of fluctuates throughout the piece. In service of The Voice, his speech reads a little more stern and programmed because he mostly speaks from a position of being the PR man, but once he’s out of the trap, thinking for himself, a more personable tone resides with the character. These details from Hickman just go to show the concept of humanity, and that when you live by someone else’s rule, you sort of lose it.

You also have to consider Hickman’s use of the setting and how he builds it. The Nightly News resides in New York City, the media capital of the world, and while that’s obviously coherent with the subject matter, Hickman really uses setting to suggest a tone and fuel his characters’ motivations. By just implementing a caption that reads “News Capitol of the world” at the start of each issue, Hickman automatically creates the pulse of the world. You’re not reading from some safe distance; you’re at the fucking heart of it, and that should tell you how wired this cast will be. Because as characters they’re living there, fully exposed to what occurs in the “Capitol.”

From there, Hickman earns a little of the leeway to work in the info-graphics and graphs that he does, because with New York City as the setting, let allow a “News Capitol” New York City, you’re expecting it. The factoids and flashy signs complete the picture as well as flesh out the overall identity and none of it feels inappropriate. And the use of orange, a searing orange, ties it all off and shouts every ounce of frustration exerted by the grinding gears and minds existing in that space.

It’s an angry, busy body city, and in Hickman’s portrayal, the environment’s inescapable just like the media.

Which, we can’t forget, is a subject of this piece.

“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”

–          Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman

Could I sit here and express my own personal opinions on the matter? Sure I could, but in the end, it wouldn’t add much to this essay about a comicbook, even if the subject of the book is journalism – my chosen field of study while in college.

No, what I think is more important to understand is why this book focuses on such a topic. Or why any story of this type – be it Network, Serpico or anything else – tackles some large subject of corruption. It’s about the questions asked, not the next step offered. Because our society’s so bent on taking anything that’s fed to it. We’ve unlearned critical thinking and instead look toward the multiple choice test for an answer. Narratives like these, though, wake us back up and put doubt in our minds, and that’s why they’re valuable. No matter their place as fiction, they still cause doubt.

And doubt is good.

Because like the Franklin quote up top suggests, a society of like minds is a mindless one at that.

Along with his subject, Hickman takes The Nightly News and uses the experience of creating it as his own chance to break away from the crowd and think for himself. It’s a tale of individualism fully realized  both by fictional character and author, who just happen to both share a first name.

As a comicbook, through craft and voice, it stands as a new favorite of mine, and while I left most of my own personal connection to the book aside – out of this essay – I can say it’s anger and bold personality do find a home in my own, lanky frame.

I was a little riled after setting it down, and to me, that’s the sign of a great comicbook.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Nightly News | Jonathan Hickman

  1. I just finished this book myself I and am riled as well. There are so many levels to why I dug this book whether it be the design, the art, the story etc., but I’ll work to not speak in too much hyperbole. Your analysis is sharp and astute and I commend you for leaving your personal bias and education out of it. I think this book transcends political divide because it addresses a problem and ends with questions. It’s not any artist’s place to tell us how to fix a problem rather show a reflection so ugly that we get prompted out of passivity. I look forward to reading more of your work and I am glad you dug it as much as I did.

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