"Rowdy" Roddy Piper Reported Dead at 61
The Nightly News by Jonathan Hickman (writer/artist/colorist/letterer).
Image, 6 issues (#1-6), cover dated November 2006 – June 2007.
Some SPOILERS below! And please click on the images to make them larger. Some of them are hard to read, I know!
Hickman’s very first comic was this incendiary tract that promises more than it delivers and isn’t quite as ballsy as it seems to be, but still shows a remarkable talent trying something wildly ambitious and mostly succeeding. Hickman’s design work is so strong on this comic that the minor deficiencies in the plot are easily glossed over. This remains one of the most astonishing debuts in comics, and it’s not hard to figure out why Marvel snapped Hickman up not too long after this series came out.
The plot of The Nightly News is simplistic: a terrorist organization, the First Church of the Brotherhood of the Voice, begins killing journalists. They’re the heroes of the story. According to the members of the group, the media and the government is controlled by the rich, who use the media outlets to indoctrinate the populace and keep them docile. This is not a terribly original idea, but it’s not a bad one by any means. Hickman gives us the Hand of the Voice, a man named John Guyton, who begins the comic by shooting protestors outside of a meeting of the World Bank/IMF/WTO heads. He does this only to draw the attention of the media, and then he starts shooting reporters. As Guyton narrates, “You want to change the system; it will require one innocent bystander. Any true believer will do.” The Brotherhood does not believe in innocent bystanders; everyone is complicit. They don’t kill children, but everyone else is fair game.
The characters in this book don’t really matter, as Hickman is writing a polemic, so he simply slots types into their roles. That’s not to say that he doesn’t do some characterization, it’s just that it’s not the primary focus of the book, so he doesn’t worry too much about it. Interspersed with the present are flashbacks that show us some crucial information – we see how John Guyton is recruited to the organization by Alexander Jones, the previous “Hand,” after Guyton’s life has been ruined. It’s important that the Voice recruits only people whose lives are in disrepair – they need to be desperate and angry in order to carry out his wishes. So Jones brings Guyton in, trains him, and then kills a long-time television journalist, David Allen Kite. The book alternates between Guyton planning his major strikes and Jones’s journey through the criminal justice system until those two threads hook up at the end. Hickman introduces a disgraced reporter, James Andrews, who is recruited by the group and whom Guyton takes under his wing. This becomes a problem when the group kidnaps one of Andrews’ friends and tells him to kill the man. What will Andrews do? Meanwhile, the heads of the media conglomerations are lobbying a senator to help them with the problem of, well, all of them getting killed. None of these characters, as I noted, are all that deep, but Hickman’s plot keeps moving nicely, which helps cover that up.
The fact that the plot is simplistic doesn’t matter, ultimately, because Hickman is much more concerned with writing a savage satire than a true plot-driven narrative. He satirizes the media, to be sure, but he’s also deft enough to satirize the Brotherhood, which is, after all, a cult – one that does to its members much of what Hickman accuses the media of doing. That’s Hickman’s point, though – Guyton and Jones claim to be free only because the Brotherhood has lifted the veil from their eyes regarding the media’s influence, but have they substituted that indoctrination for a different one? In issue #4, a psychiatrist, Dr. Thaler, reveals to Guyton his situation: “Control of environment, creation of external monolithic fears, suppression of old beliefs, establishment of a new belief system, a closed system of logic …” These are all hallmarks of the Brotherhood, and they are all hallmarks of a cult. Dr. Thaler “cures” Guyton, but we soon learn that either Guyton was faking it or the Voice is just that persuasive, because he’s soon doing the Voice’s bidding again. However, just because Guyton goes to his death with his eyes wide open doesn’t mean he wasn’t “brainwashed.” What’s truly subversive about The Nightly News is not that the Brotherhood kills members of the media and mostly gets away with it, but that Hickman makes it clear that they can only achieve what they do through a hierarchical structure similar to the one against which they are rebelling. The mastermind behind the Brotherhood doesn’t really kill members of the media for any other reason than boredom – he gives a fairly vapid reason, but it’s really just boredom. The fact that the Brotherhood has no real agenda might not be problematic if they were committed to spreading chaos for its own sake, but Hickman doesn’t really imply that, either – the entire plot is driven by one person’s need to overcome suicidal ennui. That’s part of what makes this such a wonderful comic – it’s cynical to the bone, and Hickman implies that not only does the power structure currently in place not matter, but not even tearing it down matters. The Brotherhood achieves its goal, to be sure, but Hickman makes it clear that it was always secondary. The Nightly News is, at its core, a temper tantrum. It’s part of the reason why the critique Hickman offers is so devastating, because it’s so pure in its rage.
Hickman still reserves his harshest criticism for the media, despite the implication that the Brotherhood is no better. He seems to have a personal hatred for Dan Rather, who is depicted very harshly in the comic, but it’s the story of James Andrews that shows whence his rage stems. Andrews, the disgraced reporter, is brought into the group by Guyton and eventually, in issue #3, presented with the man who ruined his career, Warner Rogers, tied up in an abandoned warehouse. To truly join the Brotherhood, all Andrews has to do is shoot Rogers in the head. After some brief vacillation, Andrews kills Rogers. It fits with the way the Brotherhood acts – some of their recruits are people who might have done some things wrong but didn’t deserve the intense scrutiny they received, and Guyton tells Andrews that he knows that the reporter was innocent and Rogers exposed him anyway, ruining his career. We think that’s the end of it, but Hickman later reveals that Andrews and Rogers cooked up a scheme by which Rogers would expose Andrews’ “poor reporting” and “ruin” him, which would make Andrews a prime candidate for recruitment by the Brotherhood. So when Andrews kills Rogers, he’s not killing someone who ruined his career, he’s killing a friend just so he can keep his cover and get the story of the Brotherhood. It’s a horribly calculated and cynical move by Andrews, and it doesn’t even work – Guyton knew all along what Andrews was doing. His arc in the series is Hickman’s bleak look at what motivates the media – nothing but the story and ratings. Despite the cult-like nature of the Brotherhood, they don’t betray each other. In this way only are they morally better than the reporters that they’re slaughtering.
Part of the satire stems from the design of the comic, which is a marvelous visual treat. It’s a shame that more comic book artists don’t try something along the lines of what Hickman does in this comic. One interesting device he uses, which he’s transferred a bit to his Marvel work, is the use of diagrams and graphs to convey lots of information. Even this is satirical – he acknowledges that readers don’t always want context, they just want to be entertained. So by each graph/diagram he writes disclaimers like “To find out more about globalization, read below. However, if you’re like me and only care about your own personal entertainment (certainly not anything like children dying of dysentery in Togo), keep reading on the next page!” In this way, he not only comes across as self-deprecating, useful in an angry story like this, but he also indicts the readers as part of the problem – we don’t want anything too “real” to interfere with our escapism, so Hickman shunts that stuff to the side and doesn’t let it interfere with the tale of people killing reporters.
Hickman also uses photo referencing to good effect. He doesn’t simply plop photos into the text, he filters them somehow (I don’t know how; I’m sure smarter people than I do, though) so that they fit well into the entire scene. He generally eschews traditional panels, making each page a holistic picture punctuated often by talking heads on television screens (which Miller used to good effect in the 1980s, of course, but which can still be done well) and interesting descriptive tags. Hickman uses shadows and colors well to hide the photo referencing and make it more a part of the whole. As there is not a ton of kinetic action in the book (violence, sure, but not kinetic action), the way he constructs the art works well. He switches color schemes too, from a sepia tone for the present and a blue for the flashbacks, which helps guide the reader through the shifts. Of course, there are also the circles, which are a stylistic touch that occasionally work as guides for the eye but just as often serve as decoration. Part of it, of course, is to make the photo referencing a bit less noticeable, and it does that well. In terms of straight linework, there’s nothing about Hickman’s art that is particularly revolutionary. Hickman’s design of the pages, however, is what makes this a visually fascinating comic. It helps mask the polemical aspect of the book, which might get a bit tedious. Hickman knows just when to switch things up, add some violence, drop in a informational graphic, or veer off on a brief tangent. It’s a good way to keep the book fresh.
While The Nightly News doesn’t quite hit all its targets (so to speak), it remains a bold and experimental comic that gives us new ways of telling a story. The fact that it doesn’t reach the lofty plateau Hickman wants to reach all the time doesn’t mean it doesn’t approach it, and that’s more impressive than a creator and a comic that sets the bar low and easily clears it. Hickman remains an ambitious creator, but because he’s constrained by corporate comics these days, his work doesn’t feel quite as impressive as it did just a few years ago. He brings a crazy energy to this series, and he does something that far too few comics even attempt: He creates something that’s a tiny bit dangerous, which is always a good thing in art. The Nightly News isn’t as anarchic as Hickman might want it to be, but it’s far more revolutionary than most comics, and that’s a good thing. Hickman not only rips through the hypocrisy of our media culture with verve and aplomb, he shows other artists a visually interesting way to create a page and a series. The combination of these two approaches make The Nightly News one of the best comics of the past decade. It’s available in a trade paperback, and there’s really no reason you shouldn’t own it. So get buying!
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