Jonathan Hickman has been one of Marvel Comics’ chief architects over the last few years. He’s shown immense range, seen early on in his indie days, and waxed poetic on just how lengthy stories could be engineered to fit a monthly schedule. He’s a master of long-form comics, blending science and art, which popped up on books like “Fantastic Four” and “Secret Warriors.”
Hickman’s one of the few industry writers who reels in major respect for being able to deliver on big comic events. Interestingly, though, many of his high-concept and outside-the-box stories can be found at Image Comics, which lured him back over from Marvel, as he wanted to focus more on his creator-owned stuff than mainstream material. As a result of his pedigree and his achievements as a writer, CBR decided to look at 15 of Hickman’s books that can be considered his very best!
SPOILER WARNING: Major spoilers ahead for several Jonathan Hickman books!
15. FANTASTIC FOUR
Hickman knew this team was meant to be explorers of the unknown, both in space and on Earth, while never losing the essence of what made them Marvel’s first family. Almost everything he did on “Fantastic Four” was gold, especially when the book didn’t have the benefit of piggybacking on a successful cinematic franchise. He took over where writers like Mark Millar and Mark Waid floundered, just after the “Dark Reign” event, with artists like Dale Eaglesham and Steve Epting helping to deliver gold.
His “Three” arc killed off the Human Torch in an emotionally-charged affair in the Negative Zone in issue #587, only to bring him back in #600, where it was revealed he was resurrected as a gladiator for the entertainment of Annihilus. Even in this played-out trope of impermanent death in comics, Hickman still had fans in awe. When he departed the book in #611, what resonated most was how Hickman had Spider-Man counseling Franklin Richards on coping with losing an uncle, illustrating how he wrote his characters filled with heart and soul.
14. SECRET WARS
Hickman continued his fascination with the Fantastic Four, using them as a major part of “Secret Wars” in 2015 with Esad Ribic crushing it on art! In this crossover event, Hickman fiddled with so many elements that it wasn’t a surprise that it took longer than expected to finish. It boasted the Avengers, Infinity gems, the Beyonder, and a ton of other heroes and villains from multiple universe thrust into a new reality where Doctor Doom ascended to godhood, creating a Battleworld to rule over.
Hickman ended up using Molecule Man and Reed Richards to save the day, while offering Doom a redemptive path as he subverted the original event Marvel churned out decades ago. It was also the culmination of his entire Marvel work, and showed that his long-form approach to narrative was meticulously curated. The story took the Fantastic Four off the table, as they set out to rebuild a fractured multiverse in a move that many assumed was done because of Fox’s handling of the movies. Nonetheless, Hickman taught us how to do an event with a huge ensemble, while ensuring that the integrity of the story never got comprised. It had action, depth and blockbuster spectacle with B-listers and A-listers all playing prominent roles.
13. EAST OF WEST
Image Comics’ “East of West” started in 2013 and is currently 32 issues deep thanks to Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s magic, and it’s showing no sign of slowing down! They created a dramatic, action-packed sci-fi destruction myth focusing on the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, particularly Death, who has relinquished his job for a simpler life with his erstwhile wife and child. Hickman scripted an epic that tied in cyber-mystic Native Americans, death cults, love affairs and a deep look into the politics of a pre-apocalyptic America, which in this alternative history, finds itself a completely fractured country.
Death, himself, has an undeniable swagger and comes off like a Clint Eastwood lone gunman character, ruthlessly navigating the brutal world like a true renegade. This Western-infused re-imagining boasts a lot of rich culture, as Hickman has seamlessly transitioned into a style of storytelling that sets his world away from mainstream superheroes and capes. However, he has created something that is clearly a passion project, filled with his regularly prevalent themes of life and death, and his evocative style that always keeps your mind ticking.
12. ULTIMATE COMICS: HAWKEYE
“Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye” was a four-issue run featuring incredible art from Rafa Sandoval. Together, the creative team gave great insight into Hawkeye’s origins in the alternative Ultimae universe, including his recruitment and his life as a family man, which would all help inform the MCU’s depiction later on. Hickman hit all the right notes in this spy thriller, with Hawkeye having to head to Asia to retrieve an anti-mutant virus, find a serum needed for creating a new breed of super-soldiers, and work together with Nick Fury’s mutant team (Ultimate X) to tackle the People (a.k.a. superpowered villains).
It went from a covert ops mission to one of pure chaos when the Hulk (part of Fury’s team) unleashed his rage, but it also painted Clint Barton in a light of leadership, which we didn’t see much of in his regular-universe Avengers stint. Hickman took Barton and dissected him to the point where the audience understood why he was a soldier in Fury’s war. It scrubbed off most of the humor, which allowed Hickman to show just how high the stakes were in this universe.
11. NEW AVENGERS
Brian Michael Bendis started “New Avengers” in 2005 and in the team’s third incarnation, Hickman took over, shortly after ending his “Fantastic Four” stint. He started with Steve Epting on art and dove into the politics of the Illuminati (a secret organization that took it upon themselves to keep safe the infamous Infinity Gems), with Black Bolt, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Mister Fantastic, and Namor dealing with the threat of potentially world-breaking, universe-shattering incursions from other dimensions.
“Everything Dies,” “Infinity,” “Other Worlds,” and “A Perfect World” were the poetic titles of his run, which focused on Black Panther and Reed Richards discovering Earth was the focal point for universes colliding with each other. With the threat of Thanos also looming, Hickman stretched his roster into battle, but also into making thought-provoking, critical decisions that could destroy other parts of the multiverse. This drove a serious wedge amongst this secret cabal. Hickman had heroes making genocidal decisions and disagreeing in what was a breath of fresh air away from civil wars and beating each other down. It was a gut-wrenching read centered on flawed superheroes and desperate measures.
10. PAX ROMANA
“Pax Romana” is one of Hickman’s earliest creator-owned works and some of his most provocative. He carved out a big name for himself at Image Comics through this title as he dealt with the Vatican’s clandestine research, which ultimately allowed its agents to use time travel to manipulate things in their favor. The Church proceeded to use this secret tool to fix the weakened state of Christianity in the future by sending enhanced soldiers back to the past in Rome to ensure their stranglehold would live on centuries later.
This plot touched on the sci-fi genre but was steeped heavily in religion, politics and of course, history. Hickman also drew the book himself with the art more illustrative and grid-based (classic visual elements to any Hickman book) than the panel-based stuff of mainstream comics. It was a very text-heavy book as well, giving it a prose feel, and really highlighting that Hickman was all about long, complex stories that needed space and proper elaboration. It was an early sign into how cultured and expansive his mind operated, which saw SyFy vow to bring it to life on TV (although we’re still waiting on that!)
9. THE RED WING
Hickman reunited with “The Manhattans Project” artist, Nick Pitarra, on another Image Comics title that managed to push the envelope of time travel a la “Pax Romana.” In 2011, they jumped into “The Red Wing,” just when Hickman was picking up steam at Marvel, but this book showed that the big company wasn’t diluting his indie mindset as he picked up right where he left off at Image. In four issues, he chronicled the struggles of temporal fighter pilots, saving the world by battling through time.
Hickman expanded on winning and losing across the spectrum of time with the pilots also resigned to the fact that they came from a generation of fighter pilots (aka, their parents) who failed in their own missions. It wasn’t just about remembering family, this was about the fear of failure as one. Pitarra’s art was utterly breathtaking, reminiscent of Frank Quitely, and truly helped carve out a sci-fi thriller that felt like “Top Gun” meets “Starship Troopers” meets “Time Cop.”
8. ULTIMATE COMICS: THOR
“Ultimate Comics: Thor” was another four issue run from Hickman that showcased the origins of an Avenger in this alternate Ultimate universe. He blended Asgardian lore with that of the modern Earth realm, as he dove into Ragnarok and Loki’s endless lust for war, as well as Odin trying to shape Thor to rule. It also elaborated on how Thor was actually a god and not a lunatic as Mark Millar hinted when he wrote “The Ultimates.”
Hickman added twist after twist (alongside artist, Carlos Pacheco), with reincarnation playing a big role, as well as Loki’s masquerading as Baron Zemo, which all fueled the genocidal vibe of the story. It was Hickman at his best, writing a war story, but also sprinkling in Norse knowledge as part of a mystical balance with the real world. The writer married both realms well and kept the drama of Asgard’s first family deeply intact, while creating turmoil that could only be stopped by Thor. Hickman was all about building a hero up from scratch and he excelledin doing so here.
7. THE NIGHTLY NEWS
In 2006, Hickman burst onto the Image Comics scene by writing, drawing, coloring and lettering “The Nightly News.” It was a media-driven book with huge sociopolitical missives, all done via engrossing infographics and illustration. Outside of the book’s fabulous design aesthetic, this polemic focused on terrorists and journalists in a war that was all about the media controlling how society was functioning. The Brotherhood (aka, the villains) shed blood in this story as part of a military protest against the system, which felt like Hickman personally raging against the machine.
Looking back, it was ahead of its time, and Hickman showed a resolute and fearless approach to storytelling that undoubtedly caught Marvel’s eye. This book felt like a big conspiracy in how quaint yet effective it was in telling us what we really already knew, but failed to accept, regarding the media fraternity throughout the world. This book was Hickman at his most uninhibited and delivered a rallying call to wake up.
6. FUTURE FOUNDATION
The “Future Foundation” started off in the Fantastic Four books, but Hickman expanded on its philosophy with Epting once more directing his story visually. The FF served as a philanthropic organization created by Reed Richards to better serve humanity’s future. It included Reed’s dad, as well as Zero-G (Alex Power), Dragon Man, evolved Moloids and Bentley 23 (a clone of the Wizard) as the first recruits to the society.
Leech would enlist later on as Reed boldly took them to the fringes to make the next big discovery or make a big breakthrough in the world. It was another sci-fi epic (in the classical sense) that also roped in kids such as Franklin Richards and his sister, Valeria. Hickman added senior members later on, only to see the “Secret Wars” fallout sending Reed’s entire family to rebuild the multiverse as part of a galactic field trip. “FF” (as it’s known) was a heartwarming blend of action, science and mystery, highlighting Reed as a father and mentor to the new wave of heroes.
5. THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS
“The Manhattan Projects” was Hickman totally freeing up his mind, blending science and history, and really prodding at our notions of human evolution within the setting of yet another alternate history. Pitarra’s art — with frequent help from Ryan Browne — was similarly spot on, and first had fans seeing how well he evoked Quitely. It was quite a treat seeing these two tackle Hickman’s take on scientists like Einstein, Oppenheimer and Feynman as they navigated aliens, inter-dimensional rifts, time travel and mental civil wars.
At its heart, this was a story about global superpowers, with Russia and US politics factoring in heavily within its historically divergent retelling of a much more fantastical past, as Hickman continued to subtly weave sociopolitical views into his odd tapestry. He subverted the history of world science, but it was remarkably well-executed, giving readers a fun ride as well as a compelling character story. The book blended action, drama and a whole lot of cerebral jabs, which continued to push Image as the high-concept, unconventional home for thinkers at the time. This book felt like history rewritten in a cinematic, sci-fi way, with dire consequencesas famous men played at being both gods and monsters.
4. GOD IS DEAD
“God Is Dead” is yet another of Hickman’s critique on global religion. The narrative focused on gods coming to Earth to claim dominion, with a pantheon that contained deities from Greek theology, as well as from Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. They all engaged in a huge war, with Gaia (Mother Earth) playing a crucial role as well, and casting humanity as bystanders. He set the stage at Oni Press with the first six issues, with the likes of Alan Moore and Simon Spurrier following later on.
The book ended in 2016 after 48 issues, but Hickman’s run is hard to forget because it deconstructed the sometimes troubling paths that religion, as with any institution of belief, can lead mankind down sometimes. It was filled with action and provocative doctrines that not only humanized the gods, but showed just how fragile mankind was in the grand scheme of things. This was yet another big statement made from Hickman in 2013, heralding how ahead of the curve he truly was.
“Infinity” is one of the best Marvel Comics events in recent history, with Hickman working alongside Jim Cheung, Jerome Opeña and Dustin Weaver to paint his expansive space crossover in 2013. It built on the foundation of books like “Avengers” and “New Avengers,” with powerful extra-dimensional aliens known as the Builders factoring into a huge novel that also saw incursions harming the multiverse. Also folding into the story was Thanos, who used the distraction the Builders provided in order to undertake a much more intimate mission, finding his long-lost son, Thane… and killing him.
This careened into Thanos’ battle with Black Bolt, who unleashed Terrigen Mists on the Earth, increasing his people’s population in the ensuing “Inhumanity” arc. Clearly, this was an ambitious project, but Hickman pulled it off with what seemed to be relative ease. He may have taken longer than expected, but the story never dragged; this was a well-oiled machine of a story, with dynamic set pieces and an intimidatingly big, but never unwieldy narrative. Truly grand in scope and filled with bombastic action sequences, it toyed with almost all of Marvel’s big names, showing Hickman could hit anything out of the park.
Hickman wrote the first two volumes of “S.H.I.E.L.D.” between 2010 and 2012. The book was then passed off to Mark Waid, but what Hickman did was really dive back into the past and stitch what the organization meant as it evolved to the present. He went as far back as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Newton as he built the group up as something scientific yet mystical in nature, and revealed that its purpose was always about safeguarding Earth. He made S.H.I.E.L.D. more than an army or a spy organization, basing it on a more global heritage and the evolution of culture.
From aliens to Galactus’ invasion in the early days to time travel, he really showed that heroic forebears like Howard Stark, Nathaniel Richards and Nick Fury left a lot to live up to. This felt like an indie book at Image, only this time he was using the big name characters at Marvel. When he first started the title with Weaver on art, it quickly showed that they both had a rapport unlike any other duo out there on the comic market at the time (or arguably since), as they created wonders and expanded S.H.I.E.L.D. beyond our wildest imagination. Now, if only they can come back and finish it!
1. SECRET WARRIORS
“Secret Warriors” was created by Brian Bendis for “Secret Invasion,” but Hickman quickly made it its own thing. With Norman Osborn’s “Dark Reign” in full swing, Fury assembled this young team as his own black-ops squad to take down HYDRA as he couldn’t trust anyone else. Apart from helping end the Skrull invasion, Fury saw them as a bigger cog in the machine, which is why he had a couple teams secretly working for him.
The likes of Quake, Phobos and Gateway were all involved as he sought out young talent or villains’ kids who wanted to make things right. Hickman then weaved them nicely into bigger arcs, such as “Siege” where Phobos saw Ares (his father) killed by Sentry. What he also did was transcend the Howling Commandos past a military unit, making this new roster what he always envisioned the Commandos to be. This book had so many secret factions, twists and turns, that it was tough to keep track, but almost every last page was jaw-dropping enough to keep you hooked. This remains the standard for Marvel’s spy books and has proven to be a massive influence on the MCU.
Let us know in the comments which of Hickman’s books are your favorites!