An Hour In the Car With Jonathan Hickman: The Post-Comic-Con Interview
I don’t live that far away from Fantastic Four and S.H.I.E.L.D. writer Jonathan Hickman, so it wasn’t all that surprising that we ended up on the same flight back from San Diego the day after Comic-Con International. What was surprising, though, was that he offered to give me a lift home from the airport, and sitting in a car next to the writer of Marvel’s FF right after the biggest convention in comics was too great of an interview opportunity to pass up.
I left my voice recorder running for the whole trip, and in among jokes about how he paid for his car by killing off Johnny Storm, a recap of the food we ate out west and a trip through the Bojangles drive-through, we talked about his three upcoming creator-owned books Feel Better Now, The Manhattan Projects, and Secret, his plans for the Fantastic Four, the way that he thinks comics does it all wrong, and his answer to the question of who ranks as the greatest comic book writer of all time.
CA: You told me while we were waiting for the plane that you had as many people in your spotlight panel as were in the Marvel panel… Did you get a lot of FF questions?
JH: No, that’s the thing. I signed a ton of Image books during my Marvel signings, too, which makes me really happy. That’s the stuff that got me my jobs, and that I love the most, generally. People were asking what I had planned coming up, so I talked a little about Red Wing and Feel Better Now, which are out or getting ready to come out, and then I talked about two books we’re going to do later this year at Image, Manhattan Projects and Secret, with Nick Pitarra and Ryan Bodenheim.
CA:Tell me a little more about Feel Better Now.
JH: That’s the thing I’m writing and drawing, it’s a one-shot. It’s about a bunch of psychiatrists that screw around and get bored, so they start screwing with their patients. It’s like the opposite of [your comic] Awesome Hospital.
CA: [Laughs] In terms of new books, you’ve also got Manhattan Projects.
JH: Yeah, they’re all right. They’re so far off that I hate talking about them. Manhattan Projects is going to be like, The Manhattan Project, the atomic program, was like a cover for all the crazier, cooler experiments that were going on — all the other Manhattan Projects, which is where the S comes from. It’s bad scientists — like the Thunderbolts of science. Lots of Oppenheimer.
CA: So it’s all about real people?
JH: Yeah. I mean, I’m still making sure that I’m not going to get sued. I’m pretty sure I’m cool there, but yeah, there are people that you can’t get. I don’t think the Oppenheimer estate has a very active litigious nature. [Laughs] Wernher Von Braun is really going to come after me.
CA: [Laughs] Better watch out.
JH: I’m not really set on the cast yet. We’re launching it as an ongoing, so I’m not sure how far I want to plan, and again, I need to make sure I can use everybody I want to use. And then I want to talk to Nicky a little more about it. Red Wing is his first book he’s ever done.
CS: You told me that earlier and I was shocked.
JH: He’s very talented. He’s got a big future in front of him. Right now, he’s just drawing. He’s learning what a grind it is to produce a book a month, but he’s very fast and very proficient. That’s a wonderfult trait, and I hope he keeps that up and doesn’t overthink things too much. But he’s a real artist, so as he gets more involved and better at what he’s doing, he’s probably going to want more input, and we’re still filling it out. I want to make sure he’s included in that process, especially with a book he’s going to co-own.
CA: And you’re doing Secret with Ryan Bodenheim?
JH: Yeah. It’s a corporate espionage book. I’ve been wanting to do something up that alley for a while. It’s going to be like a crime novel set in corporate America. Rival corporations, a group of highly specialized professional covert operatives who are really thieves. They make their money stealing technology from one company and giving it to another. I’m pretty excited about that, Ryan’s drawing really well, probably better than he ever has. He just called me up one day and said “I don’t want to do anything else but work on books that I own, and I really want to work with you. I really enjoyed it.” And I said “fantastic, let’s go.”
CA: The last time we talked, when I interviewed you for War Rocket Ajax, we talked a lot about the idea of going back to doing your creator owned stuff.
JH: What’d I say then?
CA: You said you knew you weren’t going to be at Marvel forever.
JH: Well, that’s true.
CA: So you’re talking about a bunch of new indie books. Is that you moving back towards doing more creator-owned, non-super-hero stuff after your exclusive’s up at Marvel?
JH: Well right now, I’m planning on continuing at Marvel for a while. I love the books I’m writing at Marvel, and Marvel’s been incredibly good to me. The goal is to do both. I’m going to be doing Ultimates and Fantastic Four for a while, and there’s another book that Tom Brevoort and I are cooking up that’s too great of an idea to not do.
CA: So this had to be a big San Diego for you, announcing all these new projects.
JH: I wasn’t going to announce anything. These are 2012 projects, so they’re quite a ways off. But Eric Stephenson, he knew that Brian K. Vaughan was going to announce, he knew Jonathan Ross was going to announce some stuff, Frank Cho’s book was going to come out, so they wanted to make a big deal about it. It’s Robert and Eric’s thing, you know? “This is what everyone should be doing: Books you own. Be men of your own destiny and whatnot.” And I get it, I agree. But also, it would be foolish for me to pretend that the numbers I was doing on, say, Pax Romana and the numbers we’re doing on Red Wing, that the gap between had no effect on it, especially since they increased by quite a bit. So it’s good for Marvel for me to be writing Marvel books, and it’s good for me to be writing Marvel books, and I continue to be successful there. I love all those guys, man. They’re fantastic.
CA: A lot of guys are die-hard creator-owned guys, and a lot of guys, the only thing they’ve ever wanted to do is super-hero comics —
JH: Sure, like Dan Slott. Dan’s a good friend of mine, and he loves Spider-Man. Dude just straight up loves it, and he’s on his dream gig right now, writing very well. He’s totally that kind of guy.
CA: Do you think that those two extremes are sustainable, or that there needs to be a balance?
JH: I don’t understand why you can’t do both. And I don’t understand why when you do one, you kind of pretend like the other is lesser than the one you’re doing. Much like the two-party political system that we currently have, I get the separation between the two, but I like to pick and choose. That’s kind of how I am politically, too, I mean, I’m completely back and forth on everything. I’m also wishy-washy and a total flake.
JH: I’m not a man of conviction at all. I just tell people what they want to hear.
CA: So do you think we’ll ever see more Big Max? Dan Slott’s book about the gorilla super-hero?
JH: I’ve never heard of this!
CA: I think there was only one issue. It’s what he did between Batman Adventures and Spider-Man.
JH: Was it a creator-owned book of his?
JH: –a gorilla suit, right. [Laughs]
CA: And his girlfriend didn’t know he was a gorilla.
JH: That’s fantastic. I think Dan should do more autobiographical works. I asked Dan if he was going to do some creator-owned books. He should — Amazing Spider-Man usually charts in the top ten twice each month, and that’s a lot of clout for Dan. He could probably translate that into some stuff that he owns. So maybe. I’m going to ask him about that next time I see him.
CA: Please do. I’d love it if there was a big campaign to get more Big Max. Did anything else notable happen for you in San Diego? Is this your first Comic-Con since the big Johnny Storm issue?
JH: Listen, nobody really cares. There’s usually one person who asks a question about it. “Why Johnny Storm?” or “Why not Reed,” you know? But I think most people realize that it came out of the story.
CA: Sure, but why do you hate Johnny Storm?
JH: I don’t hate Johnny Storm! He’s probably my second-favorite.
CA: Who’s your first favorite? Reed?
JH: Yeah, Reed. If you don’t count the kids.
CS: I talked to Mark Waid last week about his big run on Fantastic Four, and he said Reed was his favorite to write, too. I had always just assumed it would be Ben for everybody, because I love Ben in Marvel Two-In-One so much.
JH: Well I’ve certainly grown to love him more, but Reed’s my favorite character.
CA: What is it about him that you guys love so much?
JH: I don’t know why Mark likes him, but I like him because… there’s a lot of stuff. After I got the gig and laid out what I wanted to do and did all the research, I realized nobody’d used Nathaniel, and there was a huge father-son story to tell there that nobody’s really done. Nobody’s done that. So I started there, and I also felt like I had to fix Reed in a way, and make him a more likeable character again. Because of Civil War and all the stuff that had happened, he was kind of a dick, right? People thought he was a dick.
CA: I certainly know a lot of people who don’t like Reed as a person.
JH: Yeah, right, because of all the stuff that’s gone on. He made a Bad Thor. So I felt like I had to start there.
CA: So how do you do that with a character like Reed who has that stuff in his past?
JH: Well, I did it by making a hundred of him and showing that he was the good one of all the Reeds. I did this orphan story where all the Reeds don’t have fathers and it kind of explains all of their behavior, but our Reed chose his family.
CA: And that’s a really important moment for him?
JH: I get that it’s not a logical moment, so it’s kind of outside the choice that he might’ve made, where you choose the good of everything over the love of your family, but those kind of irrationalities are what make us human, and people inevitably identify with those in the characters.
CA: When you look at those characters, all the sort of “Bad Guys” of Civil War, Hank Pym turned out to be a Skrull, and Fraction sort of hit on a solution, and I’m not knocking it because I think it’s a good comic, but that Tony Stark essentially dies and gets his brain backed up from before Civil War. With Reed, it’s an equally comic-booky moment with all the evil Reeds, but I think that with that and Fraction’s Iron Man moment, there’s a really good revelation of humanity. Was that your plan? To bring them back to square one? Or did it advance him further to a point where you could relate to him?
JH: That was always the plan, but I also always knew I was going to do the Future Foundation stuff as well, so I had to get to a certain point. All of it was structured to make Reed more relatable again, and to make the entire Fantastic Four more relevant, and that’s the point. Everything I’ve done on that book up to now is to make it a franchise that’s important again. And then when it gets that way — and it is now, because clearly we’re selling copies and they’re showing up in other people’s books — when it gets to the end of the first big story that I’m telling, then I get to take the Fantastic Four in an entirely new direction, which is the Fantastic Four stories that I want to tell. That was my thinking there.
CA: For a while, there were a lot of runs at both Marvel and DC where guys would show up and do their six-issue or twelve-issue stories, and in a lot of ways, that gets repetitive because if you take over Batman, everyone wants to do their Joker story, so you get that story over and over. But at Marvel now, you’ve got these really long runs. Bendis on Avengers, obviously, Fraction’s been on Iron Man for years —
JH: He’ll be on Thor for a while, too.
CA: –Slott’s been on Spider-Man, Brubaker’s been on Captain America probably longer than anyone expected, and that’s not a complaint at all. So do you see Fantastic Four as something you’re going to be doing for a long haul?
JH: Well, I’d planned to just go until what would’ve been #600. But I fell in love with it at some point along the way, and it became the most personal book I write, so I want to stay on it for a while. I’ve got a ton of cool stuff to do.
CA: What kind of cool stuff?
JH: I want it to be about fantastic explorers again, but before I can do that, I felt like I had to do a lot of rehab and make the book important again. I hate to keep saying that, but that’s what the whole point was. So that when they have these adventures, they feel big. They don’t feel big if nobody’s reading it. They just don’t. You can put the same thing in two different books, one that’s selling 5,000 copies and one that’s selling 70,000 or whatever, and they just don’t feel as big because they don’t feel important. The audience keys onto that. So that’s the reason for that and where I’m heading.
CA: Is it frustrating to know where you want to go, but you have to do the rehab? To have to get to the point where you can tell the story you want?
JH: I didn’t have to do that. I could’ve just done my 12 issues and jumped off. There’s a certain reason why writers do short runs on books, you know? What we’re doing is serialized fiction, it’s forever second acts. So it doesn’t matter how many times you reboot a book, there’s no true first act but the first act. You have the origin of the characters, everyone knows who they are, that’s the first act. Then you get into the years of continuity that we’ve done, and nobody’s writing the last. I didn’t write the last Johnny Storm story.
After I get fired, somebody’s going to bring him back, and he’ll be back in the book. There’s no end to these intellectual properties. There’s no final X-Men story coming. So everything is just eternally second act, serialized, and that’s not a gratifying story a lot of times. So coming onto a book, you know, like Mark Millar does. Mark does it all the time, where you come into a story, it doesn’t matter what issues of Wolverine you’re getting ready to do, and you do “Enemy of the State.” There’s a beginning, middle and end to that story, and it works. And people remember them more because they have a more natural, less teasing structure. It’s different.
I could’ve done that coming on the book, like when I took over Secret Warriors, I wanted to do a Nick Fury story that everyone would remember. When you get offered Fantastic Four, you don’t want to do a Fantastic Four story that ten years from now, everyone’s still talking about the work that Mark Waid and John Byrne did. You want them to mention your story up there with them. So you have to act accordingly.
CA: Is it difficult to go to that idea while you’re simultaneously doing your creator-owned work, which does have a beginning-middle-end structure? Or in Red Wing‘s case, Middle-Begining-Later Middle-End-Beginning?
JH: They’re different muscles. It’s an entirely different type of storytelling. You’re still technically doing a lot of the same things, you introduce a character, try to turn a phrase and all that kind of stuff, but in regards to structure, they’re radically different, so they don’t really have that much in common.
CA: And you prefer them equally?
JH: People forget, Nightly News was the first thing I ever wrote. Technically I’ve only been writing, this November, for five years. I don’t feel like I’m at the top of my game, where I want to be, so I still treat all this as exercises in getting better, trying to get better every day. So any opportunity to do something different — and I get bored easily, as you know. I like to switch things up, so all that is good for me. There may come a day when I’m doing serialized independent books and nothing but limited run corporate books. That’s just as possible, again, because I get bored, and I want to change things up as much as possible.
CA: That’s a pretty good five years.
JH: Yeah, it’s been nice. It hasn’t sucked.
CA: I’m kind of surprised that you talk about not being where you want to be, because in terms of the history of Marvel comics, Fantastic Four is a big deal.
JH: It is! I’m talking about personally, as a writer. I’m not looking for bigger gigs, I’ve got a big gig. It’s not that. I know I can do better, not that I can have better.
[At this point, Hickman and I stopped at a Bojangles for fried chicken, something we’d been talking about for the entire car ride. As we ate, we got to talking about his love of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and my belief that they should always be teenagers, something that he called out as an example of the perpetual second act of super-hero comics.]
JH: I think we do comics wrong in a lot of ways. Like I almost think that when Brian Bendis comes on a book, it should be Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers, and then he does his 48 issues or whatever, his epic Avengers story, then he moves on to something else. His fantastic Four story. They all have a beginning, middle and end, and that’s what we do. Here’s a bunch of X-Men books, and they’re all satisfying and not just blocks of trades. Sometimes it collapses under its own weight, and that’s how we alleviate it. You see how much both companies are rebooting books to generate interest and we’re kind of reaching critical mass, where we’re going to have to say “all right, this is the new game. Tell your story, and when you’re done telling it, go work on a new property.”
CA: Do you think it’s possible to do that without lapsing into telling the same story over and over?
JH: No. As a matter of fact, I think that would be the best way to separate the bullsh** writers from the great writers. The good guys will always want to do something different. The guys that have just read a whole lot of comics and can put some words together, those guys won’t have much room. Their pool is a lot shallower. For example, I think Grant Morrison could do a run on about anything, right?
CA: I think that’s fair.
JH: That’s what I’m saying.
CA: But one of the things I think is great about Morrison in particular, when he does a run on a super-hero book, he uses everything. His X-Men stuff that he did used everything, down to the Scott Lobdell stories from the previous year that a lot of people reading that book hadn’t read. His Batman run is the Batman run that operates on the premise that everything happened. So would you have everyone start fresh?
JH: No, I’m saying there’s no rules. First of all, you’d have to pitch a story, not “You’re the new X-Men writer.”
CA: What do you mean by “no rules?”
JH: As I think about it, absolutely. I think somebody should be able to do a story where the X-Men are the bad guys. That was my rejected .1 pitch for Tom Brevoort. The origin issue of the evil Fantastic Four from another reality. And he’s like “That’s not the point,” and I’m like “I know, that is the point. Nobody’ll see it coming!” And absolutely everybody thought it was the worst idea ever. Even my wife said I was an idiot.
CA: [Laughs] These were the .1 issues where anyone was supposed to be able to jump on…
CA: And you were going to have something almost completely unrelated.
CA: What was going to be involved in that? What were they going to do?
JH: It was just going to be their origin story, and eventually they were going to show up in the other book, if I did it. I may still do it. Spoilers! Nobody would’ve seen it coming, right?
CA: Probably because that’s the exact opposite of what they said they wanted to do with those.
JH: Everyone else is doing that. I say go the other way. Speaking about Grant Morrison, Paul Cornell and I were taling about this over lunch, and Jonathan Ross’s review of Supergods is what started the conversation, so we got into a conversation about Alan More vs. Grant Morrison. Who’s best? Who’s the Heavyweight Champion of the World? And Cornell was like “Absolutely, no doubt, it’s Alan Moore.” And I said that certainly arguments can be made to that effect, but I think you’ll find that the younger the comic fans get, Morrison’s going to be considered the best. Except me, I’m old and I like Morrison.
CA: Why? What gives him the edge?
JH: I like his books better. I wish it wasn’t that simple. [Laughs] I wish I had an academic thesis of why, but I don’t. I just like his books better. I mean, Alan Moore’s awesome, no doubt about it. It’s not like I’m bagging on Alan Moore. But Grant Morrison makes me laugh when I read books. The things he does are such good ideas that it makes me howl when I read them. I’ve never met him, though.
CA: I think ComicsAlliance’s David Uzumeri got to interview him this weekend.
JH: Oh yeah? Did he keep his cool?
CA: Probably not.
Jonathan Hickman is the writer of FF and Shield for Marvel comics, and Red Wing for Image. He enjoys fried chicken and biscuits.