MAD AS HELL: Hickman talks "The Nightly News"

"When killing activists, never shoot for the head, always aim for the heart" says The Voice, before Brother John does exactly what he's been programmed for two years to do: pull the trigger. A protestor falls, just to get everybody's attention. By the end of the day, 35 journalists are dead.

And that's just Chapter 1.

"The Nightly News" is the auspicious debut graphic novel by writer-artist Jonathan Hickman. Originally published in six-issue installments and now available in a collected edition from Image Comics, Hickman's book has earned deservingly hyperbolic praise across the comics blogosphere and from creators including Brian Michael Bendis, Brad Meltzer and Stuart Immonen. Additionally, "The Nightly News" will be listed among the best comics of 2007 as determined by the CBR News staff -- quite a feat for a comic that draws damning parallels between the media and its viewers and cult leaders and their followers.

Two years ago, John Guyton was living on the street, a financial manager in disrepute, the victim of a zealous, lying reporter. Now Brother John is The Hand, a central figure in the cult of The Voice, an unseen force dedicated to the destruction of The Press as we know it. Brother John was recruited by Brother Alex, the previous Hand, and the only cult member to have ever seen The Voice. Brother John became The Hand when Brother Alex was arrested for assassinating Walter Cronkite (or a fictional version of him, anyway).

Lusciously depicted entirely in two-page spreads adorned not just with line art but also with intricate iconography and integral-to-the-story info-bytes, "The Nightly News" follows both the forward path of Brother John and The Voice's war on the Media as well as the past experiences of Brother Alex as he moves from villain assassin to infotainment darling. All the while, the omnipresent Voice watches and instructs, leading Brother John on what is revealed to be an exquisitely elaborate mission of revenge set against a mosaic of black-and-white statistics, grey philosophies, ugly politics and gorgeous graphic design.

In short, "The Nightly News" is "'Network' meets 'Fight Club,'" said writer Andy Diggle ("The Losers," "Adam Strange: Planet Heist") in his introduction to the collected edition.

Like those classic films, Hickman's graphic novel is an important narrative work about the American media and its uncomfortable relationship with the Truth (not to mention the government). "The Nightly News" confronts its audience with tough questions and ideas, most of which will leave readers either furiously angry, passionately inspired or profoundly depressed. In any scenario, "The Nightly News" readers have been and will continue to be thorougly engaged, entertained, and treated to the most classic ending in recent comics memory.

With 2008 on the horizon and Jonathan Hickman's new project "Pax Romana" debuting this week from Image, CBR News re-connected with the former Comic Book Idol finalist for an in-depth conversation about "The Nightly News."


Where were you and what were you doing when you came up with "The Nightly News?"

I had made a decision, professionally, that I was going to be a comic book writer/artist/whatever. I was going to quit being an advertising guy. Comics are what I've always wanted to do. I was 33 years old and I decided I wanted to have my first book out by the time I was 35.

I did the first 48 pages of a graphic novel. It was really safe. I told kind of a formulaic story and I was using standard archetypes for characters. My plotting was very pedestrian and my dialogue was very primetime-esque and not very sophisticated. I was also doing that stupid thing that a lot of first-time creators do; I was trying to finish this whole product to send-in to somewhere like Image or Dark Horse or whoever, to show the people at those companies how industrious I was. There's a reason they only want five pages -- because they don't want you to put in a ton of work just so they can say "no."

I read through the whole thing and it was terrible. It was really terrible. I don't know if you've ever heard this story about how Tarantino was working at the little stupid Movie Hut place and he was renting a camera on the weekend and making this masterpiece (he thought), and when he looked at the film it was terrible. But it kind of got all the junk out of the way [so he could go on to make "Reservoir Dogs"].

I realized that if I was really going to make a career out of it and if I was really going to do work I was going to be proud of, I didn't need to follow a lot of normal conventions or normal story types. What's the point of telling a superhero story at Image unless you're really going to tell it in a really original way - and even that's becoming more and more difficult because you've got guys like [Robert] Kirkman that are already knocking stuff like ["Invincible"] out of the park.

I sat down and decided I was going to do a book as good as possible. I was taking a shower one morning and I thought of the ending of "The Nightly News." I was thinking about what kind of story I wanted to tell and what I wanted it to look like. I knew I wanted it to a graphic design kind of thing. This was 2004, so this was a politically interesting time. There was a whole bunch of garbage going on. I was pondering how ridiculous most activism is, so I thought maybe I'd do something with that. So I was taking a shower and the rest of it just came to me. That's kind of how I get ideas. I get the whole arc immediately.

What exactly did you send to Image Comics executive director Eric Stephenson?

I sent him the first five pages. I sent everything up to "When killing activists, never aim for the head, aim for the heart." That was the little thing that kind of got him interested in it.

"The Nightly News" is a story largely told in the medium of graphic design, as opposed to the form of traditional comics. What's your artistic background?

My background is graphic design. I tried to get into the comics industry right out of college. When I didn't, I hooked up with a guy that was really interested in starting a company. That was back when interactive CD-ROMS were a big deal; right on the cusp of the Web. This was around 1995. That turned into Web design and that turned into motion graphics and that turned into advertising.

I don't have any formal training. My degree from college is in architecture. I'm sure there's a crossover in a design sense/aesthetic there, but as far as formal computer graphic design garbage, no I don't have any. I'm kind of self-taught.

Do you have any specific graphic design influences?

Joshua Davis, he's the guy who worked at Kioken. He's a big Flash designer and he's pretty amazing. His website is joshuadavis.com Mike Cina and Mike Young of weworkforthem. I've always liked their stuff. I'm not as keen on their stuff now as I was on their early work, but they were pretty influential. Anybody that was really, really big in Web design early on I was pretty big fan of.

It's exceptionally clear right away that you as the author of "The Nightly News" are very concerned about the motives and opinions your readers might ascribe to you. Each of the six chapters begins with a tiny infographic disclaimers reminding readers, "I'm telling a story." What is it about "The Nightly News" that makes you address this over and over again? Did you receive the kind of reactions these disclaimers appear to anticipate?

I knew that people would have a pretty visceral reaction to the book. I didn't expect as many people to like it as did. I was expecting an even distribution of feelings. I expected more would hate it and I didn't get as much of that, so it's been really, really nice and rewarding. It's really easy whenever you're writing something like that for people to get confused between the author's voice and the characters' voices. I wasn't interested in a lot of the angry sentiment that kind of bubbles up from that stuff. Don't get me wrong, some of the stuff in the book I agree with. Certainly the stuff about education and drugging your children a lot of this stuff that's in chapter three. I'm obviously pretty furious about that, I think that's pretty tragic stuff. But a lot of the Media stuff, people ask for that. People turn on their TV's every night.

Along those lines, "The Nightly News" is very sophisticated; you go through a lot of trouble in this book not to make the story fall into a black or white, right or wrong kind of place. Did you find any readers just not getting it?

Yeah, I got plenty of e-mails from people saying, "Let's get militant!" and "Hell yes, let's break some shit!" I got plenty of that stuff. After issue #3 came out, I got a lot of, "My parents put me on Ritalin" and shit like that. That was very heartbreaking stuff. I got a lot of that.

Obviously, "The Nightly News" is heavily informed by contemporary journalism and books about journalism, as well as books about politics, statistics, cults and other subjects. Were you reading these books to help you write the comic book or are you just a news junkie?

"The Nightly News" is the first thing I've ever had published that I've written; it's the only thing that I've ever written, comics-wise, from start to finish. I'd never even come close to finishing anything like this. Same thing's true for drawing a comic. I'd never started and finished a complete comic. It's one of those things, when I sent it to Image and they said "yes" I was kind of like, "I'm in it now, right? I better perform or I'm screwed." But that's okay, I don't mind being in that position. I got the approval from Eric Stephenson and Erik Larsen, sat back and did just a ton of research on it. I'd already started doing some, but I've read three or four thousand pages worth of stuff. It fleshed out the world of "The Nightly News."

Did Senator Rector really care for Brother John? He obviously has a relationship with Alex and David.

He obviously has a preexisting relationship with Alex, and not only that, Alex is a fully informed co-conspirator; Alex never bought the message, he was always acting out. And David had the same appetite; kind of a reckless, homicidal, sociopathic kind of thing. I think Rector cared for John, but in the end, his agenda was more important than anything else. He used John. It doesn't matter how much a cult leader actually cares about his flock, it's always an abusive relationship.

So it is a real cult, it's not just sort of a mechanism by which Rector has his revenge?

No. The road that they had to go through, the things that Rector put them through are step-by-step indoctrination techniques. The way they all wear the same clothes everyday. The way they all eat the same food. The way they all listen to the same thing. All of that stuff is step-by-step indoctrination. Yeah, they were actually members of a cult. He preyed on their pain. He took advantage of the situation that they were in. Which makes him an even darker character because they had actually gone through the same thing that he had, but instead of it being a nurturing, healing thing, [laughs] he doesn't care even though he's a victim himself.

Is there any temptation to return to the surviving characters, particularly Alex and David? Despite their being so wrong, they're the most charismatic characters in "The Nightly News." The scenes with Alex and his psychiatrist and his trial are particularly entertaining.

Alex was definitely a lot of fun to write. David was definitely a lot of fun to write. They're easily two of the most entertaining people in "The Nightly News" and I can see why someone would want to see what happened to them, but the answer is no. I don't think I'm going to be revisiting it, and the story would be nothing good anyway. I mean, what are we going to do? The sequel would have to be killing lawyers, right? I don't know how you do that and not enjoy it. But it would be one of those things where it would be the same kind of story over again.

The icon of the church, the equals sign in the circle. Is that some kind of symbolism or is it just meant to look cool?

Primarily, to look cool. Of course, that is the #1 rule. I just wanted to go with a really iconic looking stuff that you would be able to easily recognize in the book when you saw the symbol; you would know it was cult time. And then if you look all the symbols for all the guys in the book, they all have that symbol as part of their other symbol. All of it was a kind of messaging system. There was no semiotic meaning to it. There wasn't a logic in the iconography beyond an identifying mark.

You mention the rules of design. What other rules did you make for yourself in designing "The Nightly News?"

I only used one font throughout the entire book. I only used two color sets. I only used the diagonal lines and circles as graphic elements, those are the only ones I allowed myself to use. I only used one sky throughout the entire series. Of course, every page was a two-page spread, that was a rule. And then I did the intentional thing by which I would use the horizontal layout and send a bar going horizontally all the way across the page, and intentionally make sure that page read up and down, to take advantage of the page break; to consciously make the viewer's eye take a more difficult path through the page, to make sure they were even more invested in what was going on. Andy Diggle actually commented that it made the book hard to read, but I disagree with him.

A lot of comic book artists and writers go with this convention that you have to read left to right, that you have to read top to bottom. These are the sets of rules that you can't break. And it's my contention [laughs] that if you maintain one of the rules you can break the other ones. But obviously, "The Nightly News" was an experiment in breaking just a ton of those rules anyway.

You also break a pretty big art school rule, which is that you can't start breaking the rules until you've learned all of them. For your first comics project, you skipped over much of that conventional comic book theory and created a very avant-garde thing.

Well, part of that is art school bullshit, anyway. [laughs] I don't mean that I'm too good for art school or anything like that, but a lot of remedial stuff like early design classes and stuff like the Grid and The Sanctity of the Grid and all that stuff; a lot of that stuff is just boring. When you're talking about comics readers, you're not talking about people that have only ever read one comic, you're talking about people that have been exposed to the grid system for years and years. They know how to read a comic inherently, so when breaking the rules, making them slightly uncomfortable; they still understand the underpinnings enough that you can get away with that stuff.

In his introduction, Andy Diggle seems to suggest "The Nightly News" is very angry.

Andy thinks I'm lying! [laughs] Andy thinks I'm lying about my detached nature from the work itself.

It is sort of curious that you can be so detached. I think the reader probably gets angry, especially when they read the statistics you provide and apply them to the story.

I think that's probably true. My perspective on that is I don't know why in the world you would believe the statistics -- even if they're sourced. It's like believing polling data, you know? It doesn't matter how well sourced it is. We live in such a fragmented society, culturally, right now, that everything is up for being questioned. If a Democrat says it, it must be a lie. If a Republican says it, it must be a lie. I'm so much in a place right now where truth is completely subjective. I think that's why it made it so easy for me to write angry on both sides. I think that's where that comes from. Andy's a true believer in something. I'm not, I guess.

Did you like the ending?

I did, I liked it a lot. I guessed it would be the senator. I don't mean that in a dismissive sort of, "Oh I figured it out, you were so obvious" kind of way. It made sense. He was the one we knew the most about. He was the one connected to the Rupert Murdoch types. I kept wondering why he did it, which you eventually explain in the back of the book. I liked that a lot. Really, I was very satisfied with the whole experience.

I think that's what surprised me the most. I don't want it to sound like I'm tooting my own horn. I don't know any other way to stay it, but I'm really, really pleased with how good of a job I did for being the first thing I've ever done.

Original miniseries covers by Jonathan Hickman

And that's nice and all that kind of stuff. But the thing that I take from that reaction is that it's really emboldened me to just kind of do things my own way; it's completely invalidated most of my concerns about me doing things my own way. If anything, this has been the most validating process I've ever been associated with. It's been incredibly rewarding.

Your remarks in the back of the book about commitment would seem to relate to that. It took you a long time to get to this place.

I was telling my wife the other day, "God, it just pisses me off sometimes that I'm the age that I am and I could have had ten years in the business, ten years doing really great work." But it's just not true. I would have tried to draw like Todd McFarlane or Jim Lee. I would have tried to write like Claremont or something like that. I had to get completely separated from any of my influences before I could do my own thing.


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