A friend once told me that, despite what you might hear, Life is not short. It is, in fact, the longest thing you will ever experience. I always found that to be an interesting viewpoint, and, really, an optimistic one. But Life is not so individual an experience - no man being an island, and all that - and its length cannot be measured without a sense of relativity. In a lot of ways, the same could be said about reading Jonathan Hickman. Let’s be honest, it can be a pretty daunting affair. The by-now notorious complexity of his concepts, his often rich dialogue and heady exposition, have all garnered him a lauded, yet equally contentious reputation in the industry. His style is both challenging and thoroughly gratifying, and at times almost too provocative. However, it’s the combination of these factors that makes me a loyal fan, and others so understandably critical. It’s all relative. Comics, son.
With that in mind, it is my view that this comic - The Dying and The Dead #1 - shows signs of being Jonathan Hickman’s most ambitious creator-owned project to date, and quite possibly my favorite yet of his first issues. Of course, whether it will remain that way as a series is something that only time will tell; which, incidentally, is also the point.
The Dying and The Dead #1 features a great many threads, from Persephonean visits, to dueling illuminaties, to silkily insidious immortals shifting through infinite cities. And while its weave is certainly complicated and often verbose (a typical Hickman device, which I clearly enjoy), I never found it discombobulating. The knots between the plots remain loosely tied in this first issue, but the intricacy with which they are fastened are enough to keep me suitably gripped by its narrative noose. This is not a book you can escape reading just once. It demands better than that, and more from you as a reader.
At the center of this issue is a Faustian pact filled with theological high sentence, and in its unfurling - along with the issue’s constantly changing, but always thematically-focused narration - is its real conceit. As its name implies, this is a book about both death and dying, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read Hickman’s body of work in the last few years. While maintaining its own tenor and tone, The Dying and The Dead follows suit, exploring death and dying not so purely in the traditional sense.
Sure, there is a twist-riddled mass murder, a shocking bit of sororicide, and a no-less-gruesome or terminal battle with cancer, but this issue also establishes an elegant argument around the mortality of faith, the death of ideals and what happens when your life outlasts what you love.
Is it esoteric? Arguably. Could it come across as preachy in parts? Some readers will think so. And it’s also not without its clichés, featuring a MacGuffin in a similar mold to Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase, and the old “Man caught in a war between gods” riff. But that framework, tried and true as it may be, heightens the intrigue by offering a few new wrinkles, and sets the story in an admittedly elaborate, but equally well-structured mosaic. Of course, no such tapestry could exist without an equal visual presence.
Ryan Bodenheim, who has worked with Hickman a few times in the past on things like Secrets and A Red Mass for Mars, proves once again to be the writer’s perfect storytelling accomplice. His style in The Dying and The Dead #1 is infinitely well-manicured, a turn of phrase I use with purpose and will come back to momentarily. What I mean first is that, in everything, from expressive figure work and deft character acting, to sprawling and breathtaking vistas, his art is immaculately sculpted in the wear of time; a topiary of in-some-way-or-another withering forms. He can also draw the fuck out of some old planes, mythical underground metropolises and, as weird as it may sound, hands.
There is a six-page scene in this book between its apparently main protagonist and the purveyor of his temptation, through whom Bodenheim conducts one of its many philosophical points of conversation. On one side of this interaction is just a pair of pale, skeletal, Howard Hughes-style hands. And it’s just ... so goddamn creepy. You almost recoil yourself while reading it, like the hands might be just about to caress your own cheek in the dark. Well-manicured, indeed.
Of course, Bodenheim wasn’t alone on art duties here, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Garland’s contributions. I fell in love with Garland’s work on the exceptional Boom book, Deathmatch, but with both Hickman and Bodenheim (with whom he worked on Secrets), he has created something truly special. His colors don’t just accentuate, but in many places outright drive the drama of the story.
This is immediately apparent at its outset, as he filters Bodenheim’s images through oscillating veneers, sifting the narrative through moonlit blues and rose-tinted shades before bleeding red swathes across the page. Each color helps set the tone of the story beautifully: the ill green hue of a hospital, the creams and golds of The City and her people, the sunburnt stretch of desert populated by red vultures eating red carrion. The juxtaposition when these different worlds/colors collide in-panel becomes that much more startling and impressive.
I’ve tried to stay away from a linear description of plot in this review, since getting a taste for what is building here is part of the experience, boasting articulate dialogue, an exciting narrative build and some incredible art. Even still, a few readers might balk at the $4.50 price tag, but you’re getting a full 60 pages of solid gold comic bookery here. And believe me, it’s worth it and then some.
It may just be the start, and it’s nearly impossible to say where this will lead, but I found The Dying and The Dead #1 a satisfying amuse-bouche for what promises to be a decadent narrative feast.
Writer: Jonathan Hickman Artist: Ryan Bodenheim Colorist: Michael Garland Publisher: Image Comics Price: $4.50 Release Date: 1/28/15 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital