Monday, 10 December 2012

Why Jonathan Hickman’s “The Nightly News” is one of the worst debuts ever

A sniper begins shooting journalists and anyone connected to the media, journalists, cameramen, sound guys, all in the name of an obscure cult leader called The Voice. John is recruited to join this mysterious and deadly organisation after a news story destroyed his life where he meets similar people who've had a rough deal from the news companies, wrongful accusations, etc. They begin the fight back against the information monopoly the media corporations hold and the way these corporations abuse this power to mould our reality.

I've enjoyed Jonathan Hickman's work a lot - his FF series with Marvel, his books with Image - they're great, so it made sense to me to pick up his critically acclaimed debut comic book which writers like Andy Diggle and Brian Michael Bendis positively gush about in the blurb and Brad Meltzer even says "This is what the future looks like". Well, if this is the future of comics then I can only imagine that in the future we've all become significantly stupider.

You know how some kids go to college for their first term and return completely changed, believing that having heard a lecturer talk of big ideas and treat them like adults for the first time, they now know everything? This is the impression Hickman gives in this book. Reading "The Nightly News" is like reading someone who has just read Noam Chomsky for the first time and is clumsily fashioning a story around his barely-digested teachings.

Here's Hickman's take on news reporting: journalists and everyone in the media are evil. So evil they deserve to be shot in the head with a high-powered sniper rifle. And to make sure the reader is on the side of the lunatic with the gun, he makes every single journalist evil too. He makes them say things like "I tell people who to pick as the next president, what stocks to buy, what to think about foreign affairs. The Japanese have a saying `The press leads the public'. They're goddamn right." So they're all amoral and deluded with god-complexes: they deserve to get shot right? Especially when they're in collusion with the politicians who are even more evil and scary.

Like cartoon Bond villains the politicians make toasts such as "To the violence that makes peace possible. To the true power that makes market economies stable" and say even nuttier things like "We destroy people without fear of retribution or litigation. It's what we do." And when the evil media types and the even more evil politicians get together Hickman has them literally quoting Goebbels and Hitler along with exposition like "our revenues are tied to our dominance on the front line of ideas". Yeah that's convincing dialogue, Jonathan, they would really be saying that to one another.

But we're clear so far, class? Media and political types are just bad. They deserve all the bullets and bombs the cultists throw at them. Because the cultists know what's really going on, they're the smart ones. They're so smart they say things like "We call them programming facilities. You call them public schools. 99 of 100 students are automata. They are careful to follow prescribed paths and customs, not by accident but by the result of ample education." Riiight. We're all "automata". Thanks guys, for lifting the veil of deceit and showing me the truth - now I see the world for what it really is.

Hickman sprinkles info dumps in each chapter showing charts, figures, and stats in the midst of the story with a snarky and smug disclaimer along the lines of "To find out more about poverty/hunger/rape/genocide read below, however if all you're concerned about is entertainment, skip this and continue reading the next page." He also includes smarmy comments throughout like an un-asked-for commentary along the lines of "here's why I made this artistic choice because you wouldn't be able to handle anything more challenging". It's so unbelievably patronising.

On the one hand you have more-evil-than-Darth-Vader politicos and rich media types vying for some kind of Orwellian future and on the other you have brain-dead anarchists represented here as heroes looking to create a utopia through nihilism. And then between the two you have an author sneering at the reader with an array of facts lecturing you that you're a bad person because you bought this comic book for entertainment and that unless you're fighting the system and the corporations, you're an "automata". I don't know which I disliked more, the authorial voice, the characters in the book, or the story - I just know I hated them all.

I get that 6 giant corporations owning all of the media outlets in the west is a bad thing, but Hickman's solution in the book is "shoot them all". For a book posing (and boy is it posing) as intellectual and knowing, that's a pretty trite answer. Why put so much effort into making yourself look educated and smart when your only conclusion is chaos - surely it undermines the entire point of the book? If you want to address serious problems and talk down to people who ignore them, you can't then turn around and claim the solution is out and out violence, some brainless bang bang boom. It betrays the central premise that this is an adult book with adult issues if you supply childish answers. How about saying something intelligent and/or original? Hickman subtitles this book "A lie told in 6 parts" to cover himself from critiques about his actual political stance and the fiction he's writing. He can make a political statement and then back away from it claiming "hey, it's fiction, it's all a lie!" - in other words he can have his cake and eat it. It's a cowardly approach.

And a hypocritical approach too. Hey Jonathan, if corporations are so bad, why do you work for one? Marvel is owned by Disney who are owned by Buena Vista, one of the Evil 6 you singled out. Writing "The Nightly News" and then going to Marvel to write "Fantastic Four" is like if Tyler Durden made his "you are not a beautiful or unique snowflake" speech and then put on a suit and went to work for Goldman Sachs.

But political posturing aside, how's the story? Well, tedious to be honest. The - and I say this very loosely – “heroes” of the book kill journalists and media types and then the book ends. They're not "characters" as Hickman doesn't really give them character, they're just ciphers at best. There are other plot-holes in the book which I won't go into but are glaringly obvious if you choose to read this.

There are a couple of good points. I liked Hickman's art. I didn't even know he was an artist but he draws pretty well and sets out the pages like graphic design rather than comics layouts and it's quite effective. At times I felt the pages were a bit overstuffed with boxes of information but I suppose that's Hickman educating a robotic schlub like me to think than just read a comic for entertainment. Thank you sir, may I have another?

Overall, this book is astonishingly crap. Bad story and even worse characters aside, being condescended to on every page became very tiresome very quickly and I struggled to make it through the end. This is political thought as written by an immature, thoughtless half-wit who is parroting back ideas bigger than he conceive in a convoluted and messy way. Hickman's response to 21st century media saturation is to throw his toys out of the pram while mumbling banalities about how everyone's an idiot. I cannot believe writers I respect are in cahoots on this book, that a good writer like Hickman wrote this and that Bendis and Diggle praised it. "The Nightly News" is one of the dumbest debuts I've ever read and the kind of book a 15 year old would think is cool and righteous because they're 15 years old. Jonathan Hickman, if this is you trying to prove your intellectual veracity, shut the hell up and get back to writing about the Thing and Spiderman, ok? You're embarrassing yourself, mate.

The Nightly News

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