With the biggest comic event of 2015 (and possibly of all time, for Marvel) under his belt, Jonathan Hickman is quickly cementing his future status as superstar writing icon in the annals of comic history, and for good reason. Aside from scribing what many consider some of the best Avengers and Fantastic Four runs since Marvel’s inception, Hickman has a wide array of fantastic independent series as well. He’s become a pro at “epic” comic stories (I hate that word so much now, but used in its literal sense, it’s the only fitting descriptor for much of his work), able to inject a sense of urgency and high stakes into anything (case in point, his great FF run which places the family of scientists in the middle of a massive war spanning the planet and multiple empires).
Hickman is a great writer, most would probably agree, but that doesn’t mean he’s any more free from criticism than any other mortal writer. Looking at any of his stories alone, many of his writing quirks may go unnoticed, but once you cover enough of his material, a number of weirdly specific trends seem to thread their way through all of his runs. Some recurring topics are common enough; for example, massive multi-sided wars and a prevalence of cults are hardly a rare occurrence in fiction. The items that follow go a bit further than that though, and the magnitude of his obsession with using them may begin to become clearer the more you think about them.
From the Black Swan in New Avengers, to Death and Wolf in East of West, to the Baduri society introduced in The Dying and the Dead, Hickman’s penchant for snow white outsiders is more than apparent. We see the pure white skin and hair and we know right away that these people are strange, even in worlds that are overrun with strange. If only there were some other easy way to immediately have your characters seem more supernatural or mystically creepy to distinguish them from the normal folk!
Death As a Major Theme/Plotline/Actual Character
There’s no way to sugar-coat it: Jonathan Hickman is beyond passionate and utterly fanatical about the idea of death. It’s not a strange topic in literature or fiction in general, and is something that’s been tackled by most of the greats at one point or another, but Hickman takes it to another level of devotion. A number of his series involve the afterlife or fighting death in some way. East of West follows Death, who is the literal personification of it. New Avengers centred around the theme of death heavily and involves Hickman killing off the entire Marvel multiverse. I won’t even delve into The Dying and the Dead, its more-than-on-the-nose title says it all (it’s almost like a boardwalk caricature artist interpretation of what a Hickman-created series should be).
Alternate History Conspiracies
I’ll admit that this is one of the more enjoyable of Hickman’s idiosyncrasies; I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a good alternate history retelling? The Manhattan Projects covers the cover-up of a super-secret science society including Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Werner von Braun who change the face of physics and the role of Earth in intergalactic affairs; SHIELD features the enigmatic history of Marvel’s intelligence organization, which relies on crucial roles by Leonardo Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Nostradamus; Hitler and Hirohito are at the centre of a secret plan to gain artifacts of power in The Dying and the Dead. Even the colourful future of East of West hinges on the American Civil War having taken a different outcome.
Despite how interesting these rewritings of history can be, it can sometimes be a crutch if relied upon too heavily, and Hickman is coming close to full saturation with this trope.
Jonathan Hickman has definitely anchored himself as the Nietzsche of the comicbook world (having surpassed probable mentor on the topic, Garth Ennis). His characters always see themselves either trying to become gods (very often figuratively, and occasionally literally), trying to control them (I’m mostly looking at you, older Franklin Richards) or trying to off them (and the offing happens in abundance). East of West (again; it seems to be one of his main offenders for these tropes) has different characters at different times trying to murder each of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as well as the anti-Christ. His Fantastic Four run has Reed(s) going head-to-head with the Celestials. Marvel’s Secret Wars begins with Doom obliterating the beings that created the multiverse, becoming a god himself, and then moves on to the efforts of many (many) others trying to take down God Doom. And once again Hickman comes through with the almost-humorously-explicit titles with God is Dead, which involves the human race going to war with pantheons of gods (that series HAS to get you a full row in Hickman bingo). Bonus Hickman drinking game: take a shot every time a character says “I am a god”.
These topics aren’t the only ones that get rehashed and recycled in his stories; there are a few other tropes that might get honourable mentions. Alternate universe versions of characters interacting is a common enough sci-fi event, but plays a vital role in Fantastic Four, Avengers and New Avengers, Manhattan Projects, and is the entire premise of Secret Wars. Characters get banished to doomed hellscapes through portals, only to survive and return stronger than before; see: Namor, Johnny Storm, and Albert Einstein. Arabic-sounding words are chanted to conjure an atmosphere of mystery and deep importance (Bah al’Sharur! Rabum Alal!). I’m as big of a Hickman fan and proponent as they come, and I could make an even longer list of his strengths as a writer. This article isn’t meant to disparage the man. Hopefully this acts as a warning to any potential writers out there: try to diversify your stuff a bit, or some of us might take notice.