Image Month: Entering the Mind of Jonathan Hickman

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Jonathan Hickman is no stranger to Image Comics.  Beginning his relationship early as a fan, the now Triple-A writer was discovered by Image in 2006, where it became the home of some of his earliest works, including The Nightly News, Pax Romana, A Red Mass for Mars, and Transhuman.  Hickman’s heavy-lifting as both writer and artist, along with the unrestrained no-holds-barred direction, quickly garnered critical praise in the form of an Eisner Nomination for The Nightly News, as well as a dedicated following of fans.

As Hickman’s success and career continued to grow, Image remained the home of some of his most dynamic and imaginative projects.  Along with artist Nick Pitarra, Hickman released Red Wing, as well as the recent mad science meets alternate history world of Manhattan Projects.  If that was not enough, Hickman continues to pump out new works, like the conspiracy epic Secret, and the upcoming Feel Better Now.

BROKEN FRONTIER:  This year marks the 20th anniversary of Image Comics. From the perspective of a reader and fan, how have you seen Image evolve over the past two decades.

JONATHAN HICKMAN:  I guess in an abstract sense, Image has gone from being founded on the idea of a principle, to now actually being the embodiment of it. It's funny, because for a while there it looked like everyone was sailing for the new world, now we know that it's just this tiny, very important, island.

BF:  Were you into any Image books from the start?

HICKMAN:  I was right there. I remember buying WildC.A.T.s #1 at the comic shop my Junior year of College. 

BF:  Are there any series in particular in the company’s history that really appealed to you and helped form your own creative voice?

HICKMAN:  Too many to name. It gets ridiculous if you stretch it to Wildstorm's later stuff.

BF:  Image Comics published some of your earliest projects including The Nightly News and Pax Romana.  Both titles broke countless conventions of art design and page structure, and when the subversive story content was added into the fold, it is quite likely that few publishers would have taken the risk in publishing either title.  Was Image’s willingness to explore new creators and projects was vital to those books’ publication?

HICKMAN: The truth is I only sent my pitch to Image. The larger truth is that I wouldn't even have a career if Stephenson hadn't plucked my submission out of the pile and told me Image would publish my book. And, honestly, I really don't have any idea what is or is not a risky commercial endeavor. All I know is what I like, and at Image all they care about is putting out books that I feel strongly about -- books I care about -- books they know I'm going to produce because I have to. 

BF:  You actually first got noticed in industry circles because of your second place in Comic Book Resources’ first Comic Book Idol contest. Did it take you long to translate that buzz into putting The Nightly News in production at Image in 2006? How do you look back on your first contacts with the publisher?

HICKMAN:  I was the only one of the top six or so of those guys that didn't get a gig out of that thing. Now, the reason is they were better artists, I was just got as far as I did because I was a better technician and designer. Fans, the people that were voting, get confused by those things, the professional editors, don't. What I got out of that whole process was I needed to come at telling stories from a different angle. So I started to write. 

BF:  You’re definitely a star five to six years in, but did you ever fear that quitting your job and making the jump to creator-owned comics would prove to be too big of a leap?

HICKMAN:  No, failure wasn't really an option. And frankly, it was all too exciting for fear to really be a factor. There were certainly months where we were sweating for money, especially when my first few books made meager dollars, but I don't ever really remember being afraid. Actually, now that I say that, when the markets were crashing several years ago I do remember a bit of panic, but that was collapse-of-civilization type shit. Everyone was losing their minds. 

BF:  What was your motivation for doing something that looked (and read) quite different from your average US comic right from the start?

HICKMAN: I wanted to be noticed. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to break rules and be fearless. 

BF:  With your Image books, you’re the guy 100% in control. Not that we’re asking you to put a percentage on it, but to what extent do you have ‘creative freedom’ and decision making power for the comics you’re doing for Marvel?

HICKMAN: Probably more than you think. Marvel really hired me to be me. So, I went in there and did that, which turned out to work somewhat, I preformed, and now I have a decent amount of rope. By that I mean I have earned the trust of my bosses and they respect my opinion. It also doesn't hurt that I'm low maintenance. I act professionally. I don't cause drama. I do my work. I understand it's a business, and that part of my job is to make theirs easier.

I also understand a fundamental truth - I'm not going to retire at Marvel. So I never assume I'm safe, I never assume the next gig is coming. I try very hard to maintain a certain level of quality, and I'm always, always, always trying to brand myself through that work.

In short, I respect the machine. 

BF:  Speaking which, did Marvel ever offer you to do any creator-owned work at ICON? If so, why did you choose to return to Image regardless?

HICKMAN:  Yes, they did. Marvel has been very generous. There were various reasons why Red Wing ended up at Image, one of them being Marvel allowed me to. It just went so well, I saw no reason to go back the other way. 

BF:  March saw the debut of Manhattan Projects, another of your exceptional mad-science-gone-wild titles.  What was the inspiration for the alternate-world that the famed Robert Oppenheimer inhabits?

HICKMAN:  Well, this is my first indie ongoing series, and Nick Pitarra and I have been cooking this a while. We wanted to do something we both were comfortable with. The subject matter is, obviously, up my alley, but Nick really digs drawing all this stuff as well.

I guess it just felt like the right book at the right time. I try not to over think these things. 

BF:  Most of your stories have a tendency to become quite grand in scope. With Manhattan Projects already bursting its universe wide open after two issues, where will you be taking readers next?

HICKMAN: Next we split the atom, and then after that, space and the future.

BF:  Since ‘grand, epic storytelling’ is somewhat of a common theme in everything you do, where do you draw inspiration from, for your creator-owned books specifically? Because it’s totally different than Fantastic Four and Ultimates and such, where you’re playing in pre-established sandboxes.

HICKMAN:  I have no idea. I'm sure it's childhood influences and particular books I've read that I love (like say, Herbert's Dune books), but I try really hard not to dwell on the creative aspect of my job.

I like not knowing. A little magic and mystery is romantic, as a creator I think I need that. 

BF:  Have you ever considered doing a quieter, more intimate creator-owned book vs going large-scale? Or is that just not you?

HICKMAN: Oh, Feel Better Now is exactly that. It just got too big for what was solicited to come out and now I have to find the time to finish drawing it. But that's exactly what kind of book that is.

BF:  Manhattan Projects is not the only title released through Image this spring. What is the mystery behind Secret?

HICKMAN:  It's a big spy story in a very modern setting. Countries and corporations as co-equals. Information wars played out in the public and private sector. Lives destroyed, fortunes gained. That kind of thing.

We're pretty happy with how it's coming out. 

BF:  Later on this year, we should also finally see the release of the aforementioned Feel Better Now, which is the first major story you’re both scripting and drawing since Pax Romana. How has that concept evolved from a one-shot to a graphic novel? What’s the projected page count at this point?

HICKMAN: It just grew out of control. It was simply bigger than I first thought. I've written, let's see, I'm over 90 pages written now. The art is where it was, 40 pages completed. 

BF:  Can you offer some more details at this point about the rest of the PLUS! line that Feel Better Now is the first publication of?

HICKMAN:  No. Not right now. 

BF:  At what time during or after Pax Romana did you decide you were going to be a writer first and artist second? What factors played into that decision? Was it mostly about having too many ideas with too little time to execute them all by yourself?

HICKMAN:  Yes. I had more work that I wanted to do than I had the ability to produce. Plus, four years ago when I made that decision it was really a writer's market, so it made sense. I'm actually happy it's pulling back the other way now. We desperately need more dynamic books in the market. 

BF:  Manhattan Projects and Secret reunite you with your Red Wing and A Red Mass for Mars collaborators in Nick Pitarra and Ryan Bodenheim respectively. How exciting is it to have a second opportunity to work with these talented guys? Can you point out how your matured working relationship translates itself to a better product on the page for both titles?

HICKMAN:  Well, Ryan and I are simply better than we were three years ago. So there's that in regards to Secret. As for Nick, I think because I've worked with a lot of different artists while at Marvel, I'm better equipped to cater to him stylistically. Set him up for his style, if you will.

I'm just lucky to be working with both of them. They're extremely talented guys. 

BF:  Both titles have been instant hits and sell-outs, as many of this year’s Image launches. What has changed about the comics climate that readers are flocking en masse to creator-owned books?

HICKMAN: Oh, I just think we're in a cycle. It helps that a lot of very talented people are putting out some very high quality books, but more than anything I think this is simply what people are in the mood for. And man, do we love giving it to them.

Secret #1 hit store shelves on April 11, while Manhattan Projects #2 arrives in stores today, April 18.  Don’t forget to keep your eye open for Hickman’s upcoming graphic novel, Feel Better Now, later this year.

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  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Apr 20, 2012 at 3:19am

    Nice one, one of my fave creators all around presenting constantly challenging projects.

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