When I was in college, I was a big Warren Ellis fan and my favorite comic was his Vertigo series, Transmetropolitan. That comic made me want to become a journalist. The story’s main character, Spider Jerusalem, became exactly the anti-hero that I was looking for at that point in my life. Jerusalem was basically Hunter S. Thompson living in a Philip K. Dick world, a drug-addled newspaper columnist who used his stream-of-consciousness, gonzo-style reporting to take down corrupt government officials and save his beloved city of apathetic, complacent media consumers. He didn’t need superpowers or martial arts mastery to fight the bad guys, he just used the truth. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a journalist.
Now some time has passed and I’ve worked at a few newspapers and I understand what journalists really do and what opportunities my degree has actually afforded me in the modern world, and it has left me a teensy bit jaded. That jadedness was justified for me recently when I read Jonathan Hickman’s scathing critique of the media, the Image Comics mini-series The Nightly News. If Ellis’ Transmetropolitan was the book that made me want to be a journalist, then The Nightly News is the book that makes me glad that I’m not.
I’ve written before about Hickman’s work, most notably on The Manhattan Projects, which I called one of my favorite comics of 2012. I’ve since tried to hunt down as much Hickman as I could find, ranging from creator-owned books like A Red Mass For Mars to company-owned titles like FF and Avengers. When a friend of mine was able to procure a copy of The Nightly News, Hickman’s breakout creator-owned series, and went on to describe it as Fight Club for journalists, I knew I had to get my hands on it.
My friend’s analogy was actually pretty accurate, but not in the way I expected. This wasn’t about some bad ass team of underground reporters dishing out their own brand of literally two-fisted journalism. This was a cult of people who had been screwed over in some way by the media and who were using terrorist tactics to exact revenge.
The story begins with the cult members opening fire on activists during a protest in New York City. The shooting spree of course attracts the attention of broadcast journalists, who turn out to be the real target for the shooters. Our focus then shifts to the man who orchestrated the attack, Brother John Guyton, codenamed the Hand, and his journey from panhandler to terrorist. This is where the Fight Club analogy comes into play, as he gets re-educated by a Tyler Durden type on how the media has lost its credibility and has become worthy of more violent reprisals. The Hand is the “instrument of vengeance,” whose job it as to act out the instructions of The Voice, and to pass those instruction onto the Voice’s other disciples. No one has ever seen the Voice, not even Guyton, but they believe wholeheartedly in what The Voice is teaching. All of them. Except for one.
Throughout the story we are also treated to infographics that illustrate a host of helpful facts to help ground the story’s underlying message of resentment toward the media in present day reality. These graphics discuss some of the media’s greatest screw-ups and blunders, present data on how little the media is currently trusted by it’s consumers, and illustrate which media entities are owned by which gigantic evil corporation. We’re also treated to a handy little formula for deducing how much your college degree has really paid off, something I found quite pertinent considering the boat that me and a lot of my friends are in. Hickman is a talented graphic designer, a skill that he continues to incorporate into his current titles, such as Avengers and East of West, and I actually found these little intermissions in the book to be my favorite part of the series.
For The Nightly News Hickman went the extra mile, and also did all of the illustration work on his own as well. From the scripting to the lettering to the drawing and the coloring, this book is 100 percent Hickman from top to bottom. It’s a Herculean feat, and given the overall clean, crisp look of the book, something he should be immensely proud of himself for. Unfortunately, for all the hard work he put into this book, I found this method to be not entirely without its flaws.
For one thing, Hickman really never uses panels in the traditional sense. His layouts are more layered on top of one another, sometimes using the coloring of the page to give your eye a hint on where to move to next, and sometimes using graphical elements to guide your eye along. The pages themselves are beautiful works of art, but they don’t always read well in a more sequential setting. This was remedied a bit for me by Comixology’s “guided view” mode for reading digital comics, in which the app takes you through the page one panel at a time. But even then many scenes lacked a narrative flow.
Another problem I found when I was reading the story was that Hickman really doesn’t like to draw eyes on his characters. He is a very talented illustrator and is capable of rendering very effective human likenesses in a gritty, Jae Lee-esque chiaroscuro style. But his characters don’t really have much about them that make them really stand out. This detracted from my experiences with certain scenes in the book, especially with a twist that happens toward the end. And in the b-plot where the dialogue is entirely between old, bald white men wearing suits and glasses, and with all of them being lit with the same color palette, I had a really tough time telling anyone apart. And with their eyes obscured by shadow in 95 percent of the scenes, I never felt a human connection to any of the characters. Who am I supposed to be empathizing with?
This lack of distinction and empathy was made worse when found in conjunction with another problem I tend to have with Hickman, which is that his dialogue is just a tad too cryptic. This isn’t the case throughout the entirety of the book, but there are certain scenes when a conversation ends and I feel like I was kept out of the loop. It’s as though Hickman knows so much about what’s going on, and wants to keep the dialogue as convincing and as non-expositional as possible, that he forgets I’ve never read the story before. I’ve had this problem before with his work on FF, The Avengers, and even East of West. I don’t know if it’s my fault or what, but there were definitely times when reading these titles that I felt frustrated because I was lacking context for parts of the dialogue. Like I said, maybe its me, I don’t know.
But for all those issues I had with the comic, The Nightly News certainly accomplishes its objective. There’s no question that right now the mainstream media (I hate using that phrase) is less trustworthy, less reliable, and less relevant than it’s ever been. I might have had some trouble with the technical aspects of the book, but I still came away from it feeling more distrustful and disdainful of the media, of the government and of higher education, than ever before. Which isn’t to say I would ever enact the violent tactics that were used by the characters within this story, but the subject matter definitely hits home for me. I mean, come on, this is a much ballsier subject than what we get in most comics these days, and for that Hickman deserves praise.
All in all The Nightly News is definitely worth a read. Hickman is experimenting with a lot of daring new ideas for not only what kind of story to tell in a comic book, but how to tell it. Even when the ideas don’t seem to work in practice, you can’t help but admire the guy for thinking outside the panel and wanting to try some new things. I certainly couldn’t hope to replicate the amazing work of art that he has achieved with this book. And as a work of media criticism that touches on hot-button issues that are increasingly relevant, I found this book to be the kind of comic I’d like to see more of.
Although, come to think of it, the guy behind it is now making a name for himself at a Disney-owned comic book company writing characters that are appearing in multi-million dollar Hollywood film franchises. Perhaps Hickman isn’t too worried about the media after all?