Friday, March 11, 2011

The Nightly News (Jonathan Hickman)

by Thom Dunn

"The VOICE says: When killing activists, never shoot for the head, always aim for the heart"

Jonathan Hickman has received a bit of attention as of late for killing off the Human Torch in the monthly ongoing Fantastic Four comic book series. But before becoming one of the Architects of the Marvel Comics Universe, Hickman first made his mark on the world of graphic literature in 2008 with a creator-owned book called The Nightly News.

The Nightly News is the story of a cult of domestic terrorists referred to as the Brotherhood of the Voice that is determined to take down the American news media. Each member of the Brotherhood has had his or her life destroyed by subjective reporting — by becoming stories, rather than facts. The book deals heavily with themes of indoctrination and control — both the ways in which the news media influences the masses, and the ways in which The Voice (standing in for any cult leader) manipulates his own subjects. It is propaganda about propaganda, a sprawling conspiracy thriller set against a backdrop of contemporary politics and frighteningly modern issues, full of ideas that challenge and question the status quo.

But not without challenging and questioning itself first.

From the book's subtitle, "A Lie Told In Six Parts," to the clever footnotes on the first page of every chapter ("Note: All violence in this book should not be considered a reflection of the author. I give to charities, play with children, and love cooking"), Hickman constantly calls his own authorial reliability into question, which only further enforces the labyrinthine manipulations and wheels-within-wheels that the narrative claims to be exploring. For the most part, the story is told from the point of view of the leader of the cult, The Hand of the Voice. Thus, as a reader, it is our initial inclination to accept or agree with the things that we are being told — but then something about the narrative makes you realize that this is precisely the kind of dogma fed to and by fanatics or extremists. And then you realize just how easily you went along with it yourself. And worse, that maybe there's a part of you that agrees with these extremist views.

This opaqueness and ambiguity is greatly assisted by Hickman's incredible artwork. It is not a comic book, nor a sequential narrative; The Nightly News is an impressive piece of graphic literature. The artwork is a breathtaking amalgamation of infographics (charts and facts that are just as apocryphal as the rest of the narrative), photo-renderings, comic art, and words that together weave a story of intrigue and deception that constantly looks back in upon itself. A single page might treat you to talking heads with dialogue bubbles, first person narration from The Hand of the Voice, interjections or "facts" from the Voice itself, plus facts about corporate ownerships, and a few witty asides from a disembodied "authoritative" first-person (whom we are led to believe is Hickman himself, but can we ever really be sure?). The sequence of events in a given page is often ambiguous, which echoes the theme of manipulation within the story and recreates the experience for the reader while also rewarding multiple re-readings. Jonathan Hickman truly pushes the limit of what is possible with graphic narrative.

The only real drawback of the story is in the development of the characters. Hickman himself claims in the afterword of the book that the large cast is "often intentionally ambiguous," and while this certainly resonates with the thematic nature of the story, it makes it difficult to connect with any of the characters. The highly stylized nature of the artwork also makes it difficult sometimes to distinguish between characters (note: pay close attention to the limited color palette used in each scene). It is the ideas that drive this story forward, with help from the plot; the characters only exist as a means to deliver both of these things to the reader. Still, I cannot help but think that an emotional anchor with which a reader could more easily sympathize would have greatly helped the story. While I do not doubt that this was at least somewhat intentional on Hickman's part, it nonetheless makes it harder for a reader to get a grasp on an already challenging and onerous tale.

The Nightly News
by Jonathan Hickman

Story: 5.7
While a story told (mostly) from the point of view of political extremists is certainly intriguing, Hickman loses points in this area due to the lack of distinct character development. As mentioned, it is the ideas that drive the reader's interest more than the story.

Style: 10
Simply put, The Nightly News is absolutely unlike anything you have ever read. It is a unique marriage of graphic design and words that sends you spiraling down a rabbit's hole that lands you back on top of yourself, before falling through the hole again in an endless loop.

General: 7.8
The Nightly News has layers enough to captivate nearly any willing reader, and while it might seem off-putting at first, it is well worth the journey. It doesn't answer any questions, and it's possible it won't even give you any new ideas, but it will certainly make you think. Some people might scoff at its dogma, but once you reach the end, you'll find yourself wondering just what Hickman's agenda was along...

Overall: 7.83

Read a free preview of Chapter 1 (pdf)

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