Interview with Jonathan Hickman (2009)
In January 2009 I interviewed Jonathan Hickman, whose debut series for Marvel, Secret Warriors, was about to drop. Back then I’d known him from some pretty stellar Image mini-series’, namely The Nightly News, Pax Romana, Transhuman and Red Mass for Mars. Now of course he’s one of Marvel’s players, being the current writer for Fantastic Four and the excellent (well, inasmuch as one issue’s been released to date) S.H.I.E.L.D. and keeping on with Secret Warriors as well. Just met him face to face at C2E2 as well, real nice guy. And possibly the biggest soccer fan in the industry, at least until *I* get in.
This is the first of three interviews I did for Comics Bulletin, which should have been more but that’s a story for another day.
What can you tell me about Secret Warriors, was this something you pitched or did Marvel approach you?
Marvel approached me. I was bugging Brian Bendis for us to do a project together and I knew he had liked my stuff (he had mentioned it online). One day I emailed him an idea for doing a Secret Invasion tie-in book, and then he emailed me back saying he had something better. We talked on the phone, it was Secret Warriors, and soon after that I had the gig.
So it was as simple as chatting up Brian Bendis then.
Yeah, but I’m sure that won’t work for someone to randomly do that. It obviously helped that he liked my stuff, but Brian’s really good, if a new kind of voice or a new person comes along whose work’s simpatico with how he thinks comics should be, Brian’s pretty good about recognizing new talent and trying to push it. He’s helped launch plenty of people’s careers.
How do you see the Marvel Universe right now, post-Secret Invasion, with Secret Warriors, and the Dark Reign storyline in general?
Bad things happening is always a very good thing for a writer, it makes it easier to come up with pretty good storylines. I think it works specifically for Secret Warriors very well, because we’re talking about Nick Fury; we’re talking about a guy that came directly out of Secret Invasion, and a guy that was standing right there with Norman Osborn toe to toe at the end of the thing, so I think it works perfectly well.
So as far as what I think of the world… I’m not having any trouble with it, I’m not struggling with writing it. I’m certainly not opposed to the setup as I think it works especially well for me.
There’s going to be accusations made by some readers of Marvel trying to make real world parallels with “The bad guys are in charge,” especially with the mood that this country’s been in the last 8 years. Do you see it as Marvel making direct attempts to parallel that, and how do you see that as changing over the course of the Obama administration?
Well, you know, Marvel takes place in the real world, that’s the big thing – You know, New York is New York, Cleveland is Cleveland, that’s kind of the power of the background narrative that’s going on in the Marvel Universe. As far as the condition of our world and the US and how that’s going to be reflected, I think generally, well, it’s my opinion, that people are way too pessimistic and way too alarmist. There seems to be a sense of hysteria that people think the world has never been in worse shape or in a steep decline. I just think that kind of language, that kind of thought process, especially in relation to events like the Civil War, World Wars, the Dark Ages… pretty much anything that’s come before, is silly. You know, a life expectancy of 40 years, that wasn’t that long ago.
I just generally think that human civilization and humanity in general is still trending upwards in a rapidly increasing manner. Relatively, things are so good that people naturally have a palpable fear that progress can’t maintain itself. I’m not saying things are GREAT right now, they obviously aren’t, but I am saying that compared to the history of Man our bitching is childish.
With relation to Secret Warriors, do you think there’s any repetition of themes for a Marvel audience as opposed to your indie projects like The Nightly News, Red Mass For Mars, or Pax Romana, where there seems to be someone or a group of someones trying to destroy an institution somehow, be it the media, religion, or like in Transhuman where a set of chimpanzees mucking with superhuman experimentation. Is there any correlation to Secret Warriors as far as a general theme?
I believe in thematic writing, I think that if you’re going to tell a story you should have a theme. I think that I try to do that with everything that I’m working on. I don’t believe that I’ve written anything yet that I’d say I subscribe to as a personal ethos or ideology. It doesn’t mean anything to me personally, but I think it’s important for the book to have some meaning, and I think writing with themes is one of the easiest ways to do that, and we absolutely will have that in Secret Warriors.
So depiction isn’t necessarily endorsement, in other words?
No. Look, I lie profusely whenever I’m writing. I would say I lie the majority of the time. I think that’s what telling a story is, I’m making up these elaborate interconnected lies that people find interesting, or entertaining, or amusing. I think that if I ever took the mentality that I was doing something noble, and that I was such a special, special writer that I was going to change people’s lives, I would hope readers would immediately stop buying what I’m doing.
You’ve had rave endorsements from Mark Millar, Brian Bendis, a lot of the established “hot” comics talents are saying great things about you, how does that make you feel?
Of course, it makes me feel good! I’m very appreciative of that stuff. I’m certainly not a guy that’s immune to flattery, or not grateful whenever people say nice things. I think that if you stay true and try to tell the stories you want to tell, & aren’t trying to please other people, I think you can do credible, quality work, and I think that becomes obvious to other people, I would hope. But it means a lot. A lot of people have said a lot of nice things and I appreciate each and every one of them.
What’s the creative environment been like at Marvel working on Secret Warriors versus working on your creator-owned stuff for Image?
Well, Marvel’s a very successful company and there’s a good reason why that’s true. It certainly isn’t because they have market dominance, and it isn’t because they make so much money that they can just throw it in a bunch of different directions or buy up the competition. The guys at Marvel work really hard, and the editors are very talented. I’ve worked with four editors now, and every one of them has made me a better writer. I’m better because of the editorial process, I haven’t found it hindering or irritating. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like rewriting my stuff, who does? But I’ve found with revisions my work gets better, and their input is valid. I think if you feel good about your work, and the goal is to produce good work, talking with other people in general is not a bad thing. It’s just all part of the process.
As far as the process goes, has it been a different process writing Secret Warriors, where there’s always the possibility of it being a more open-ended, continuing series even without Jonathan Hickman writing it, as opposed to your Image minis where there’s a definite beginning, middle and end?
I’ve wanted to do an ongoing series since I did my first book, it’s just the economics of it didn’t work at Image. I was a new creator and there was no way I could launch a book at a level that it could sustain itself. But as far as understanding the machinery of corporate comics and knowing that someone might follow me on a book, that’s OK. I just try to put as much into it as I can, and we’ll see what happens afterwards.
Going back to where it all began, you broke in through Comic Book Idol 2004 as an artist, but the focus seems to be on your writing right now. Was it always your goal to be primarily an artist or where you more interested in the writing aspect?
Well I always thought I was going to be an artist, that’s the entirety of my background and my training. But I think now looking at it, I always just wanted to tell stories, and Comic Book Resources gave us this cool opportunity to have our work critiqued by some pretty talented editors. There were a lot of talented guys in the contest, I certainly wasn’t the most talented, but it was a cool experience! I was just getting back into comics, I stopped reading them for 8 years, and it was rewarding and exciting – inevitably not fruitful – but it definitely spurred me on to get more serious about it, and I went on to do my Nightly News pitch the next year.
What prompted you to actually go ahead and enter Comic Book Idol 2004?
A buddy told me about it, and I wasn’t doing anything else, so I just sat down, and drew some art. And I didn’t think I’d get accepted, and I got accepted; and I thought I’d be eliminated fairly quickly, and I kept surviving the next round until it was pretty obvious I had a chance to win it. I didn’t, but it was cool, it was fun!
Did you ever think there was ever going to be a progression from Comic Book Idol to Secret Warriors?
No, probably not. I really think that was a dead end road for me, to be honest, I think the reality of CBI was that a bunch of other people in that first contest got gigs and I didn’t. That’s because editors know what real talented artists are, and which ones are not, and, the truth is, I’m not talented compared to a lot of those guys. So, I knew I was never going to get a gig just being a penciller or something like that for a comic company, so I had to look at creating my own stories, and that is kind of what lead to me doing my own stuff. And through that, I realized that I wanted to tell my own stories, not draw for some other dude. Or dudette. Whatever.
Do you find it different writing when you know you’re going to be the artist as in The Nightly News, and when you’re writing for someone else?
Yeah, when I’m writing for someone else, I write a script that I know I couldn’t draw. If I’m writing something for myself, I make it easy. Otherwise it would be a disaster.
As a writer, what are you most inspired by? What’s the genesis for a story for you?
Mostly random crap. You know, I’ll watch something on the news and it’ll spurn an idea, or I’ll be reading a book and a certain sentence hits me the right way. I’ll see something posted on a message board, or I’ll read an article online, or I’ll pick up a magazine… I really don’t know where it comes from, I try not to think about it because then it might lose its magic, but I just don’t have trouble coming up with story ideas. Right now, I feel like I could always just tell a story. I don’t try and crack the code of it, really.
Do you think any sort of topicality in your work may date your work somewhat, make it less readable 10, 20 years down the road?
I don’t know, maybe? I don’t really think about that too much. I don’t know that The Nightly News, just because I put stats in there from 2006, is going to date it, I think the media is always going to suck. Matter of fact, I think The Nightly News may be bulletproof, as far as lame-ass media, but I really don’t think about those things. Brian Bendis told me I should never show the President in a book because that’ll date the book, but I don’t know, people are still reading Watchmen, right? That’s obviously pretty time-period sensitive. I don’t know that I buy that theory. I’m not writing a book about OJ Simpson or Paris Hilton. I’m not dating it through characterization, but a historical event is a historical event.
So putting Ronald Reagan into The Dark Knight Returns didn’t date it too much.
I don’t think so, no. I think Dark Knight stands up. I think you can read The Dark Knight Returns, and you can get it, pretty easily.
If there was one writer you could draw for, or there was one artist you could write for, who would it be?
I’d love to write for Barry Windsor-Smith. I don’t think I could do it, but I’d probably like to draw one of Matt Fraction’s scripts, that would be fun. Or you know what? I like real stark stuff too, I’d like to do an Ed Brubaker script too.
Any particular characters you’d like to write or draw?
I’ve been thinking about Captain Marvel a lot lately.
The Kree one or the Shazam! one?
The Grant Morrison one, Marvel Boy.
Are there any comics out there that Comic Bulletin’s readers may not be reading and should be?
I picked up Jonathan Lethem’s Omega the Unknown and I was blown away. I thought it was hands down the best book that came out last year. I thought it was amazing. Usually when I read something and I really, really like it I don’t get jealous, it just kind of inspires me to do something cool. But I would say when I first read Casanova by Fraction, and when I read that Omega the Unknown, I was really jealous. So probably those two books, although who ISN’T reading Casanova right?
So is jealousy a good motivator for the creative process?
Yeah, I’m pretty competitive, I always want to get better, but I just read those, and besides being blown away by those two books, I was like “God, I wish I could write that!” Honestly, there are just a lot of really good comics out now. There are a lot of really good writers writing really good books. Comic readers are fortunate. I know people bitch about the surplus of books that are coming out that are crap or mediocre, but, you know, hey, dumbass, don’t buy those books – buy the good ones. Go get some great stuff. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, I don’t know.
Finally, what’s “Pronea”?
It means “forethought” in some foreign language. That it? Okay, talk to you later.