2015 is a big year for Jonathan Hickman, and he's starting it off with a bang with a book about death and one man's "personal crusade" to stop it.
In January with longtime collaborator Ryan Bodenheim, Hickman is launching a new ongoing series dubbed The Dying and the Dead that is a globe-spanning story filled with conspiracies, danger, and ancient mythology. At its core is Canning, a former Colonel whose wife is dying. He’s given an opportunity – one he could and probably should refuse – to save her. And to do so will put into up against forces unlike anything he’s ever known before.
The Dying and the Dead launches on January 28 with a super-sized first issue with 60 pages of story. We got an exclusive – we mean, literally just after the thing was lettered – first look at the first issue, nearly a month before it comes out. And we talked to Hickman about this new series, his plans for it, and have your first look at some of the interior pages for you.
Newsarama: Jonathan, though the title should make it obvious, The Dying and the Dead, with its narration and storyline, deals heavily with themes of mortality. What made you want to examine those themes?
Jonathan Hickman: I have a tendency to grab onto a theme and work it a bunch of ways before moving on to something else. There might be other small things I've done playing with the idea of “endings or death,” but the three projects I've mainly been working on for the last couple years all play with the same idea.
Avengers is about death on an oppressive and epic scale, East of West is about a literal, mythic Death, and The Dying and The Dead is about one man’s personal crusade to either escape or overcome it.
The next thing Ryan and I are doing is more of a dramedy, so, good news, we eventually pull out of it.
Nrama: This is also probably the most cinematic work I've seen from you and Ryan -- there's a mysterious element to what's going on, but the action and narration carry the story – in that we are introduced to all of them through the eyes of the main characters, and learn about things as they learn about them. How did you approach this differently than your other recent works?
Hickman: For the most part, I've mostly worked either full script, which is panel + dialogue, or Marvel method, which is where you outline a plot and then add dialogue after you get the pages from the artist, but Ryan and I did something a bit different here.
I would give him scene descriptions, and then just write the dialogue for that section of the script. Then he'd go in and decide how to approach the scene and how many pages it should be. So, it works like the Marvel method, because he's controlling the pace, but has the beats of a full script. It kind of feels like the best of both worlds.
It certainly makes the comic feel more organic. And while I think sometimes the word “cinematic” carries a dirty connotation in comics, it's certainly an accurate description of Ryan's art in this book.
Oh, this is how we're working on the upcoming Manhattan Projects relaunch as well. It's a lot of fun.
Nrama: You launch with a 60-page first issue -- that's a rarity in this day and age! What made you want to launch the story this way, and how long do you see the story running ultimately?
Hickman: Well, in addition to changing the method of how we're working, one of the ”'new rules” for both myself and my friends that I collaborate with is to not feel constrained by page counts this year.
Personally, I'm just so sick of writing everything in 20-page chunks. And, while I could be wrong, I think the market will accept a book with variable pricing that's $3.50 for 20-29 pages, and $3.99 for 30 pages and over.
Now, the first issue of The Dying and the Dead is the extreme version of that – 60 pages for $4.50 – and we won't – and can't – do that every month, but it does represent a hell of a deal at a buck-fifty per 20 pages.
As for how long it's running? Not sure, that really depends on Ryan's pacing, but it does end.
Nrama: What do you think makes you and Ryan good collaborators?
Hickman: Oh, the same stuff that make any partnership work – Trust, the ability to be honest, thoughtful and constructive, talent, effort…
The thing about Image is, like with Nick Pitarra on Manhattan Projects and Nick Dragotta on East of West, these are our books, so I'm only working with creators I really want to. And because that's how it is, the books are very enjoyable to create.
I should probably say something about how well Ryan is drawing too, so:
Ryan's drawing really well.
Nrama: Tell us a bit about the cast and their relationships – from the first issue, it looks like the relationship between Colonel Canning and Shurra, the Second is going to be a core part of the series.
Hickman: The structure of the book is really funky. The first issue basically the introduction of the Colonel and the big mystery of the book. Then the second issue is built to explain exactly who he and she are, and what drives them. Then the third issue pulls the rug out from under everything by explaining the mystery…and then chaos ensues.
So, yes, you’re going to get what you're talking about, but it's also much, much more. I just think that readers are so savvy when it comes to how to deconstruct – or predict – what kind of story they are reading and what to expect.
I strongly believe that if you have to play with both the story structure and the way you deliver information if you're going to offer a book that delivers a punch.
Nrama: The emotional core of this story is, "What would you do to save somebody you love, someone who is part of yourself?" And I have to ask you – what would you do faced with the choices you pose for your characters in this book?
Hickman: I think I'd fare poorly. Which is pretty much one of the main reasons why someone like me writes stories – to figure out how to be, or become, a better version of yourself.
Nrama: Image has been with you from the very beginning -- what's made this a good working relationship for you, and what's been the biggest challenge doing The Dying and the Dead among your many other projects?
Hickman: Well, I think Image is the best place for creative people to make hay right now, and I I certainly wouldn't have my career if Image publisher Eric Stephenson hadn't picked my Nightly News submission out of a pile.
Saying that, even if the market wasn't where it currently is, it isn't like I'd be doing anything different. Everyone at Image gets my sensibilities, and is interested in what kind of books I want to do. I appreciate that they get me, and as long as Eric is there, it'll be home.
I do think that going to Marvel is a very good move for some creators to make. It's certainly been good for me. And because they're double-shipping, you really can't simulate the volume and velocity of the work – it's like getting live reps in sports. Going to press isn't something you can practice.
Saying that, I'm on my last couple of issues of Avengers and I'm into the eight issues of Secret Wars, and after that I'm taking a bit of a break. I need it. The Image work will, however, endure nap time.
Nrama: Hard Sell: Why should readers pick this up, and can you provide a hint as to the scope of where this series will go?
Hickman: No hard sell. Buy it if you want to. And while it certainly will be the best value in comics the week it's out, I guess if you need another reason it really is a beautiful book.
Nrama: What are you enjoying right now in comics (creators/books/etc.) or other media, such as movies/TV? I was wondering if you'd enjoyed TV's Manhattan, as it's similar-yet-completely-different ground as The Manhattan Projects.
Hickman: I haven't watched Manhattan because of the subject matter, but – no surprise – lots of TV is great right now. Too much to list. I'm so behind on comics – and I want to read everything in order – that I can't even talk about anything that's come out in the second half of this year.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Hickman: Feel Better Now – written and drawn by me – will come out from Image in the back half of 2016, but other than that, sleeping. Oh, and catching up on comics I've missed.