Jonathan Hickman: The Renaissance Man of Marvel [Interview]
Since he first burst onto the scene with “The Nightly News,” a visually inventive Image comic with an anarchist bent, a penchant for statistics, and an eye for graphic design, writer Jonathan Hickman has always seemed a little different. After working in both advertising and CD-ROM development, he bet everything on a dream of working comics and ultimately came up a winner, finding swift success not only in his indie work but in the mainstream big leagues at Marvel Comics. Hickman now sits at the helm of monthly titles like “Fantastic Four” and “Secret Warriors,” not to mention the critically-acclaimed “S.H.I.E.L.D.” miniseries. And for the
obsessive detail-oriented among us, he’s even run a delicate thread of connected narrative through it all.
With “S.H.I.E.L.D.” #3 just hitting the stands, ComicsAlliance talked to Hickman at length about how he straddles the line between creator-owned work and work-for-hire, the daring experiments he plans to conduct with digital sales of his indie titles, his DC Comics reading list, and why no single idea for a comic is ever sacred if your imagination is big enough to hold more.
ComicsAlliance: The last time we talked was when “Nightly News” was coming out, which was very different place for you than now. What’s that transition been like from primarily focusing on creator-owned work to full-on writing “Fantastic Four”?
Jonathan Hickman: It’s been really interesting, and it’s all been really quick — the transition. That’s probably where all the complications have come in. I haven’t had storytelling problems, or professional problems where I don’t know how to behave with other people or stuff like that. [laughs] All my difficulties have been really first-class problems. I’ve got too many jobs. I’ve got too much work to do. It’s just an extension of how well things have gone, so I really don’t have anything to complain about. The transition has been pretty easy. One of the things that’s been really cool about working at Marvel is that they really hired me because of my indie work, and I never got the inclination from them that they don’t want me to just be me. So I really haven’t deviated much from how I do things. If anything, I’m just kind of evolving as a talent. I just turned in my 45th issue of anything I’d ever written a month or so ago, so everything is still so new… I’m still so much in the first subset of the learning curve. I don’t even know that I would classify – let’s see, if we were grading it on an education basis, I really feel like I’m elementary school as far as figuring writing out. I think I can be much, much better. But I’m very appreciative of how nice people have been up till this point.
CA: So you feel like transition is still happening for you?
JH: Oh yeah. I feel like I’m in a serious formative stage. It’s weird, because I’m older, but I’d never written a script until I got my first gig. There were no scripts for “Nightly News.” That all came together on the page. Probably the first script I wrote was an issue of [the creator-owned Image series] “Transhuman.” And obviously that process has gotten formalized at Marvel. There’s still so much that I’m learning. And I’m curating it mentally as a learning exercise and it’s – I don’t really see the Marvel stuff and the indie work as really different.
CA: On the Marvel side, you’ve got “Ultimate Thor” coming out later this year. We’ve seen a variety of interpretations of Thor over the years… How do you see the character, particularly in the context of the Ultimate universe?
JH: This happens to be an Ultimate Thor origin story, so we end up where he is at the beginning of “Ultimates.” Saying that, I’m very mindful of some of the things [Jeph] Loeb has been doing and we’ll echo a big chunk of that as well. It’s a very different project from anything else I’ve done. It’s strange starting with an end point already defined. Saying that, I’m actually already done with it and I’m fairly happy with how it came out.
CA: These gods have been around for eons, so why did you pick World War II and the Nazis as the flashpoint that incites Ragnarok?
JH: Lots of reasons. The iconography and occultism of the National Socialists was heavily influenced by northern mythology. It “worked” within the timeline I had constructed. And, most importantly, I really wanted to see [artist] Carlos [Pacheco] draw Nazi Frost Giants.
CA: With “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” that started out as an idea for a creator-owned book that ended up coming a Marvel book. How different would it have been if it came out as an indie title?
JH: I think the scale would have been the same. I think the idea, the thematic crux of the book would have been the same. Some of the trappings would be different. There’d be no Galactus in the book, right? …I think the ending probably would have been a little bit different, and some of the middle act stuff clearly would have been different because it’s tied into S.H.I.E.L.D. proper. But the vast majority would have been the same. Listen, Marvel’s let me dance on this one. I tell you one thing that wouldn’t have been the same: I don’t think it would have been drawn anywhere near as kick-ass as what [artist] Dustin [Weaver] did. He and I are pretty simpatico when it comes to what the point of doing all this is, which is that we should enjoy ourselves, and do thing that we love to do – only take projects that we really, really want to do. Dustin has done, in the past, things that he care as much about, and this is clearly something that resonates with him and something that he cares deeply about. And I think the life that is in the work is a big part of why he’s just killing this stuff in such a heartless and brutal manner.
CA: Looking at “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” though, it still feels a lot more like your creator-owned titles than your other work at Marvel.
JH: I would agree that “S.H.I.E.L.D.” feels like the first thing that I’ve done at Marvel that on the surface appears to be like the marriage of my indie work and my Marvel work. It’s probably my more natural state, but again, I’m not quite sure what that is yet. [laughs] The idea for “S.H.I.E.LD.” was warmly received, and the pitch was put into immediate production. It took us a lot longer to get it started because of rights considerations and what Marvel wanted to do with it as a property beyond the comic. But no, Marvel jumped all over it and really liked it. For a mid-list book, it’s been a pretty fantastic success, and everybody at Marvel is very happy. And I would assume that would lend itself to me getting to do more of that work. The trick to that, the lesson to be learned is you need to be bold in your pitching. People miss the fact that although Marvel is a money-making company first, and it is important that we sell a lot of comics, they’re also an R&D [research and development] wing of Marvel Entertainment. I think that there’s a place for R&D development, which is kind of what “S.H.I.E.L.D.” is.
CA: So you could see it branching out into movies or other platforms?
JH: No, I just mean as a company Marvel needs to come up with new ideas. Even though they make most of their money off of their pre-existing ideas that have been around for 40 or 50 years, they’re conscious of the fact that they need new ideas. We all clamor for new ideas even though we buy the same books every month, year on end. I think there’s a place for that.
CA: It’s been pretty cool that as a fairly new creator, you were able to go in a create what a friend of mine referred to as the “Hickmanverse,” with these interconnected elements that run between books like “Secret Warriors,” and “S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Fantastic Four.” Is that something that you pitched, or just something you worked in on your own?
JH: Some of that stuff is formalized. Some of it is me just writing. There’s been no resistance to those types of things. I kind of put it in there as a thank you to the people who read everything I write for Marvel. It’s a neat way to marry it all together. But some parts are way more important than others. The Nathaniel Richards stuff in “Fantastic Four” and “S.H.I.E.L.D.”, that’s important. That’s going to matter. But some of the stuff doesn’t matter as much. What’s in the box in the “Secret Warriors,” the fact that it’s the ancient from the Brood spaceship that crashed in “S.H.I.E.L.D.” #1 — that’s absolute nerd garbage, but it’s fun, right? [laughs] I have an excess of ideas and that kind of stuff just rolls out. I’m not a big believer in holding things back. I don’t believe that every idea is a precious idea that needs to have an entire issue devoted to how clever it is. I think it’s ok to throw some of those things out, and they matter, but they only matter for one panel, and then we have to get on with the rest of the story. I think the good ideas resonate, and the other ones are just one-liners, kinda like jokes.
CA: Well, if the story threads are there you could always pick them up later.
JH: Yeah, but the reality is that I won’t, because I get bored really easily. I just want to move on to other things and try out new stuff. That lends itself to the job when you’re working at Marvel on a mainstream book, on these continual second act comics. How long are you going to stay on “Fantastic Four” or whatever book? And I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of conversation with Brian [Bendis] and Matt [Fraction] both about how long to stay on a book or what’s natural. Matt wants to stay on “[Invincible] Iron Man” and Brian wants to stay on “Avengers” and “Ultimate Spider-Man.” They just want to keep telling their stories. I don’t know if that’s for me yet, and there’s no way for me to know until I get to the end of it, to a certain point. Every new issue of “Secret Warriors” that I write is one issue longer than any series I’ve ever written. There’s just nothing to judge it against. I try and take that stuff day by day. I have a rule, that I’d buy it. And if I ever get to the point where I get to the point where I feel like it’s not worth buying because I’m just running out the clock, then I’ll quit the book.
CA: How far are you planning in advance, particularly as your books are quietly intertwining?
JH: I’m planning pretty far in advance. I have a pretty good grasp on what’s going to hit when. Writing ahead isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s really more of a workload thing. It’s something that you don’t know before you get the gigs but once you get the gigs, it’s something that you have to manage properly, and I’m finally getting to where I’m on top of it. That’s one of the benefits of how I work, because when I come onto a book my pitch usually isn’t one story or one issue or one arc. It’s usually elaborate, multiple arcs. It’s one story I want to tell, but spread over 30 issues or something like that. Like “Secret Warriors” isn’t a bunch of arcs. I mean, that’s how we sell trades, and that’s what we put on the front of the books. That’s how we market it, but it’s not. It’s one story. It’s a 500-something page story.
And the problem with that is that — people kind of hate that? [laughs] In the sense that if you’re buying a monthly book, there are certain monthly expectations that they have. If they’re buying things in trade, there are certain expectations they have, and you have to balance that. And “Secret Warriors” is structurally nothing but a straight line progressing upward and at whatever degree for however long, and that’s the story. There are peaks and valleys and midpoints, but as far as the way it’s told, it’s strictly linear, and the momentum is consistently increasing. And what I’ve learned is that you can’t do that, because it freaks people out, and they’re not used to reading stories fashioned in that manner. I didn’t know that. [laughs] I just thought it was a really cool, clever thing to do. And it may live on in the omnibus format forever, but I don’t think so. That’s something that I’ve cycled differently into “Fantastic Four.” Now, I still did the same thing with “Fantastic Four,” but it was shorter linear chunks. I’ll probably do something different in the next ongoing that I do. I wish I sounded like I knew what I was doing.
CA: When I read your work, you at least project the sense that you have some sort of master plan.
JH: I feel like story-wise, I do. What I am unsure about is the delivery method. The methodology of the monthly dose. Don’t get me wrong, I like what I’m doing. I think it’s decent, and I’m getting better. I get pretty good press and pretty good critiques. I don’t think it’s crap storytelling. I wouldn’t write it if I thought it was bad; I wouldn’t turn the script in if I thought it was bad. I’m just very conscious of the fact that I’m in a primordial state right now… I’m just hyper self-critical, and hyper-competitive too. And those two things combined make me obsessive about being better. And it’s also fueled by the fact that I’ve waited my whole life to do this. I’m older, and I have a family and responsibilities. So winning means success, but it’s also a necessity. It just kinda defines who I am right now. But I’m having a hell of a lot of fine and I think I’m doing some decent work, so take all of that with a grain of salt.
CA: I think it’s great that you’re never satisfied, that you don’t want to rest on your laurels.
JH: I cannot relate to other creators who get on a book and feel like they’ve made it. I don’t understand that mentality at all. I can’t relate to [seeing] any gig as the ultimate professional accomplishment. Getting to tell stories for the rest of my life, that I can get down with.
CA: Are there specific things you want out of your development and your future in comics, or is just a general sense on onward and upward?
JH: No, I’m pretty big on planning. As soon as I got my first gig at Image, and they said, “Jonathan, we would love to publish ‘Nightly News,'” I said thank you, and I quit my job to do comics full-time to either sink or swim. And I sat down and wrote down a 5-year plan for myself, and then I got everything I wanted in 5 years in a year and a half. I was very thankful for that, and very fortunate. I had some good breaks and some creators like Bendis who have a lot of pull and was an early proponent of my work. I got a gig at the House of Ideas, and I turned in a good first script, so I got more gigs. You make your own success, but you need some breaks. So a year and a half later I had to write a new plan, and that’s what I’m in the middle of right now. I think you constantly have to be goal-setting; you constantly have to be re-evaluating where you’re at.
CA: In terms of your non-Marvel work, what are you focusing on right now?
JH: I’m doing a bunch of creator-owned stuff in the next little bit. I’ve got three one-shots coming out, and what’s up in the air right now is that I haven’t decided whether I want to publish them traditionally, or whether I want to be very aggressive and only publish them digitally, and see how that works. We’ll have some incentives in there and some tricky marketing garbage. [laughs] And we’ll find out what that market is like and test that out. I’m also doing an OGN that Oni’s going to publish, and I’m pretty excited about that. I’m trying to always stay busy and constantly not be bored. That’s the big thing for me. I’ve done enough Marvel work now that I have a pretty big creator-owned itch, and so I’m getting ready to do some more of that stuff.
CA: With the three one-shots you mentioned, what’s the advantage of doing a digital-only release?
JH: There is no advantage. I’m just inquisitive. I want to know. There are ways to test these things. It’s going to be “Plus,” with three 22-page stories in one volume. They’re three different stories, all drawn in a different way, and I’m doing all the art and all the scripting. It’s all me. I want to do an annual self-anthology kind of deal. But one of the things that I want to do is see: If we sell this as a 60-page chunk does it sell better that way digitally, or does it sell better as individual issues? What if we do added content and we offer all of it for the same price as the individual collected price? I want to try five or six different variations of it, and see how people like to consume their digital media. I think you have to be aggressive, never settling, and always trying to do new stuff, to do more. So we’ll see.
CA: Has your success at Marvel Comics had a significant impact on the sales of your creator-owned work? Is that part of the appeal?
JH: Sure. The trades of “Pax Romana”and “Nightly News” have been very successful. “Transhuman” has not been up till this point, but I’m really hoping that my Marvel work will help us a move a little bit more of those. We’re getting ready to reissue all of that stuff because the “Red Mass from Mars” trade is gonna hit, because we finally finished that. And by “we” I mean “me.” [laughs] But yeah, I think there’s something to that. To talk about digital a little bit more, I’m not sure what format a “back list” of somebody’s catalog is going to look like two years from now. I do think that “Nightly News” and “Pax Romana” are both very, very print-friendly, and I don’t think they’d lend themselves to digital quite as much because of the way that I laid out the pages, and the miniscule fonts that I used. I think that print is the ultimate format for those.
I think the real test of how my creator-owned work is going to be received is when we actually launch new stuff at the end of the year, and see how that does. I think that’ll be a better barometer. I don’t think I could sell less [because of my Marvel work]. Listen, I know people lose their shirt over at Image because they’re not aware of the financial realities of publishing an indie book. There are tricks that you can do when you publish and when you print and all that kind of stuff that most people don’t take into consideration, or [else] they’re not very good at accounting. I’m fortunate to be married to a nice lady who is very good at that stuff. I’ve made money on everything I’ve done at Image. The only thing that hasn’t made good money has been “Transhuman,” but again, I think that book will find its audience with time.
CA: When you mentioned marketing before, I immediately thought of that “Nightly News” contest you held where readers competed to get drawn into the comic as a shooting victim.
JH: Some of that is just, I’m taking a shower and thinking about the book, and I have an idea. And I can just implement that immediately. That’s the beautiful thing about independent publishing; you can do whatever you want at whatever time you want. Marvel, it’s not like that. It’s systematic and it’s got its own culture and a vast number of checks and balance before a book goes out the door. “Nightly News” shipped with all the typos. [laughs] But it also shipped with all the raw ideas just dancing and seeing what happens. “Nightly News” was the first comic I did, and to say that I was obsessive for 6 to 8 months when I was working on that book, when I lived and died with every page, is not an exaggeration.
CA: And you did everything on that book – writing, art, coloring, lettering, everything. Was it hard to give up some of that control when you started doing Marvel work?
JH: There isn’t an artist at Marvel that I’ve worked with that wasn’t better at illustration [than me]. [laughs] So that hasn’t been so hard. And the colors have been pretty good, especially Paul [Mounts] from “Fantastic Four,” who’s amazing. But the design, the logo treatments, the layout, the graphic novels and all that kind of stuff – I stick my nose into all of that and I don’t really ask for permission. I just kinda do stuff. And the cool thing is that Marvel understands that I am who I am, and whether they like it or hate it, they tolerate it because they understand me. I think that the “Secret Warriors” trade and the “Fantastic Four” trade… they’re really unified top to bottom. They’re really cohesive packages. That stuff matters. It matters, it matters, it matters. So I don’t think I given any of that up; I just don’t do all of it. But it’s an itch I have to scratch, which is why I’m doing all the “Plus” stuff.
CA: Would you ever consider illustrating one of your own scripts at Marvel?
JH: Well, the first thing I did at Marvel was that “Legion of Monsters” thing, where they did have me do everything. And then that was the last time that’s ever happened. [laughs] Marvel has pretty much the best artists in the business, so there’s just no demand for me to try anything. I’m sure at some point down the line if there’s a vanity project that I really, really want to do, I think I could weasel my way into that, but then you have to ask yourself, is that really smart? Is it smart to pour that kind of time and effort and devotion to a book at Marvel and you don’t own any of it? I don’t know that the answer to that is ever going to be yes. It’s a cost-analysis thing.
CA: There are a lot of creators today who seem to be splitting their time between superhero work and creator-owned work. How do you negotiate that, in terms of your ideas? How do you know when to keep an idea for your own projects, or when to use it in your work at Marvel?
JH: I think you’re kinda asking me two things. You’re asking me about hoarding ideas, and you’re asking me about contractually what I can and can’t do. I’ll answer the second one first. I’ve only ever signed one contract with Marvel. I’m exclusive with them until the beginning of 2012; they offered a three-year deal after I wrote maybe my second issue of “Secret Warriors,” which was jaw-dropping and amazing. I don’t know if you remember, but the world was f*cking ending when that was going on, when the stock market was crashing and everything. I was asking for a raise… and I went into to talk about that, and they sat me down and said they wanted me to be exclusive. They made me an offer that was both generous compared to what I was making and [offered] such peace of mind with what was going on – it was so unbelievably considerate. Don’t get me wrong, Marvel had its own best interests at heart, but them offering me that when they did for the term that they did – I’m still very appreciative and thankful for what they did for me. Having said that, when my contract’s up, I’m sure we’ll punch each other a little bit, or hug, or whatever. Actually, I saw you right after that all happened in New York, and I don’t know if you remember, but I was a little punch-happy at the time, because everything was spinning. That’s what was going on.
But as to the thing about hoarding ideas, I don’t do any of that. I don’t believe in the reality of the golden idea. “S.H.I.E.L.D.” was going to be a creator-owned book, but then [Marvel] asked me, “Hey, you got anything with Da Vinci?” And I said, “As a matter of fact, I do have something on Da Vinci!” So I moved it a little to the left and off I went. I have whiteboard next to me that I can turn and look at, and I have 23 books right now that I would like to do, that are not Batman meets Buckaroo Bonzai, not bullsh*t like that. It’s fully fleshed out. I don’t think I have an off-switch, and stuff just keeps popping up. So I don’t think any idea I have is precious or worth holding on to. I want to deliver a product every month. And sometimes I try to pack too much into an issue; I overwrite. But it comes from a good place. [laughs]
CA: Well, it’s a lot easier to pull back if you have too many ideas than try to come up with more if you have none.
JH: I can’t imagine being in this business and not having ideas, though. I don’t know what that would be like.
CA: Are all of these stories that you’re weaving together in your Marvel work heading towards some kind of climax?
JH: No, all of this stuff you can read completely separately, and you don’t need the other bits. I think I would be a sh*theel if I did it the other way. I think Shanghai surprising somebody at the penultimate part of the story where you [say], “Follow this in Fantastic Four #80!” — that’s such a massive dick move. [laughs] I can’t imagine writing that way. And so I won’t. Now if any of this stuff gets structured into a larger thing, then it’d be marketed and constructed in [another] way… We’re kind of building towards a big “Fantastic Four” story like that, and it’s really a story told in three parts. All of this stuff that I’m laying out there right now, all these seemingly random plot points and characters are structured so that we have a story about the world of the Fantastic Four, a story about the Fantastic Four in the Marvel Universe, and then a Marvel Universe story that is Fantastic Four-centric. It’s structured to make the Fantastic Four relevant again. Whether we succeed in doing that is up to the readers. And up to me. And up to [artist] Steve Epting.
CA: I think readers enjoy the depth it offers, though; I see people deconstructing your work sometimes the way I’m used to seeing them deconstruct Grant Morrison, for example.
JH: Grant does exactly what I’m talking about. You don’t have to read DC #1 million to know that “All Star Superman” is an amazing. But there’s a bit in “All Star Superman” where if you read DC #1 million you’ll know some little bit of knowledge and it’ll mean more. It’s a gift to a reader. If you read all his books, then that’s there for you because you’re in the Grant club. The story works with it or without it, and it doesn’t take away from the larger story.
CA: There are certainly people who really JUST read Grant’s comics.
JH: I’m pretty close to that right now with DC. I do pick up Geoff [Johns]’s stuff, and now that my good friend Paul Cornell is over there now… I think there’s a lot more air over at DC right now; a lot of the air gets sucked out of the room when Ed [Brubaker] or Brian [Bendis] or Matt [Fraction] walks in the room, and deservedly so. You know, you gotta go where there’s the potential to do your best work. I was a DC reader when I was a kid, and outside of X-Men that was all I read, so that stuff has a really fond place in my heart… I’m stoked about the fact that Jim Lee and Geoff Johns are bosses over there now, and I think that’s the start of some really good stuff.
CA: It’s a really interesting time for comics, with all the digital initiatives going on–
JH: It’s a really, really interesting time. It’s kind of like the pre-dot com period for comics right now. Everybody’s talking about “synergy.” I did interactive CD-ROM development and early web design before I got into advertising, and if you were around for any of that dot com stuff, all of what’s going on right now [in comics] is kind of funny, if you listen to the corporate speak. Endearing and very lovable… But it looks like we have the potential to be mass market again as opposed to just a small market business, and that’s really fantastic. I get that vibe; I think it’s real and I’m a big believer in it.