Jonathan Hickman kicks off another decades-spanning and world-traveling epic in the double-length “The Dying and the Dead” #1, illustrated by past creative partners Ryan Bodenheim and Michael Garland. Best known for his far-reaching high concepts, Hickman delivers indications of the same kind here but also provides an accessible introduction that readers might not have expected.
The comic’s sixty pages help this along by providing a deeper look at some of the disparate elements comprising Hickman’s story; instead of short, mysterious snippets that could alienate the audience just as easily as attract them, Hickman gives a satisfyingly lengthy look at a still-mysterious sect that seems to be populated by human clones and another even stranger tribe that appears to be on the opposing side. The opposing side of exactly what remains unknown, but that’s perfectly okay as this snack-sized chunk succeeds in establishing a premise that’s intriguing while remaining clear enough to understand.
Wisely, there’s no flood of overwhelming big thinking to start off the story; instead, Hickman trickles it in by way of a luxurious but otherwise seemingly pedestrian wedding reception that is stormed by some unwelcome visitors. The mystery seeps in early as a strange connection is revealed in addition to implications that go far deeper. The introductory narration, voiced by a character introduced later in the issue, adds to the suspense with a foreboding parallel between the events of the opening sequence and the ones pending in the narrator’s words.
Hickman and Bodenheim let events unfold slowly, establishing a happy and celebratory tone with plenty of detail, albeit one with cryptic flashes elsewhere that make the violent outcome seem all the more brutal. Bodenheim takes several panels to focus on the aftermath of this brutality in painfully gruesome but equally exquisite detail that makes the gravity of these events readily apparent. Bodenheim times this aftermath perfectly; fewer panels would have understated the threat, while more would have just made the scene just gratuitous.
Bodenheim really excels when Hickman introduces a new set of players with a far more exotic locale: the ancient and possibly extra-dimensional realm simply known as the City. His double page layout of this location is most impressive, an almost M.C. Escher-esque interpretation that’s so finely rendered that it demands readers stop momentarily so that they may study its detail. Like the rest of the issue, this spread is colored by Garland with contrasting monotones, allowing Bodenheim’s facets to stand out without the distraction of excessive color. It’s a technique that Garland puts to great use for the entirety of the issue, adding some warmer tones to the art without overpowering it.
Both Hickman and Bodenheim give the god-like inhabitants of the City a collective and decisive personality. Their natures are tolerant, yet almost dismissive; their interactions with men appear to serve some higher purpose, yet they seem to have no ulterior or altruistic motives of their own. They aren’t without emotion, displaying both a cold kind of compassion as well as perturbed annoyance. Bodenheim exacerbates this in the form of the Bishop, the City’s apparent highest ranking presence. The Bishop uses his withered, gnarled hands extensively in conversation, and Bodenheim focuses on that aspect as much if not more so than the Bishop’s expressions. It gives a flavor to both this important character and this portion of Hickman’s story.
“The Dying and the Dead” #1 is another compelling start to an enticing series from Hickman, Bodenheim and Garland. Fans who enjoy Hickman’s grand landscapes will find plenty of grandeur here.