Red Wing Marks Hickman’s Return to Image / by Alec Berry

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Jonathan Hickman was once synonymous with four issue, Image Comics mini-series. These days, I think his name sticks a little closer to Mr. Fantastic.

Before the checks with the Spider-Man letterhead and the PR-dubbed label of “Architect,” Hickman belonged to the “art house” era of Image. Those days of the early and mid-2000s when Image completely dumped its splash page, super hero power house look and instead published the cutting edge in mainstream comics. His debut book, The Nightly News, stood as one of the  prominent features of that short era, running right along side Matt Fraction’s Casanova. Nightly News dropped in 2006 at a whopping six issues, and it was followed by a stream of nearly annual projects--Transhuman, Pax Romana, and Red Mass for Mars. All of which followed the four issue, highly stylized protocol. Though a consistent output, Red Mass for Mars ended up being the “finale” in Hickman’s run of Image work. Started in 2008, the series didn’t reach completion until 2010.

The long delay and lack of follow up announcements seemed to mark the end of Hickman’s creator-owned comics career. It was if the House of Mouse broke his spirit and totally possessed him.

Well, as of 2011, Hickman’s back at Image.

So here’s where I discuss The Red Wing. It needs to be discussed, you know? I really haven’t seen anyone do so on a large scale as of yet. I mean, it’s not spectacular or even very good from a script standpoint, but this is Hickman’s return to creator-owned comics, dammit. That should be recognized in some regard, and past the first issue, I haven’t seen much of anything said about this latest Image Comics’ installment other than, “Hey, it’s interesting!”.

Truth is, Hickman pushed the boundaries while at Image. Not every series may have been a home run, but in terms of design and thematic focus, Hickman stirred things up. Everybody took notice of his work, and immediately upon his entrance the industry had itself a new “ it guy.”  It wasn’t long before Brian Michael Bendis picked him up and brought him to Marvel where he found a second wave of appreciation as he  “reinvented” things like The Fantastic Four and Nick Fury. Marvel readers got a taste of the diluted Hickman, but even so, the dude acquired a massive fanbase.

And hey, I even enjoyed some of the early issues of his Fantastic Four run, and I still dig things like S.H.I.E.L.D. Hell, Ultimates may be one of the best cape books on the market right now. And in a a larger sense, most kids who grow up wanting to write comic books don't say, "I really want to write creator-owned comics one day!" They grow up wanting to write the exact titles Hickman is writing now and I can do nothing but applaud his successes in being hired by a big two company and having such professional success with them. It's most comic writers' childhood dreams come true.

But my point is, as an independent, the guy made waves, and to not examine a return to form within this context only seems wrong. I mean, the Image stuff sort of defined the man. What will it say and do for him now?

Eh.

Before I type anything else, I’ll say that I don’t believe Hickman wrote this comic any differently than his other works. The Red Wing maintains that distanced approach to cast and character I feel Hickman is known for  as well as the prominent focus on concept and forward thinking ideas. It’s definitely a Jon Hickman comic book in that regard.  Problem is, the approach doesn’t completely work here. The Red Wing isn’t packing an idea that’s interesting enough to support the comic on its own.

The concept of the book is simple enough to understand. The story takes place in the future, and in this future wars are fought across time rather than countries. In Hickman’s story, time is nonlinear. Meaning, the past, present and future all happen simultaneously, stacked on top of one another like the discs in a hard drive. Among all  of this big thinking, a father disappears while in combat, leaving his son to take his place as a fighter pilot.

While, yes, the idea of time being circular and ever occurring can certainly cause me to stop and think ... think about the possibilities of such a thing and how that works and affects our real world ...it doesn’t necessarily mean the concept works as an exciting element within fiction. Nine times out of ten the two should sync, but in this instance what is fascinating in the real world doesn’t make the fictional sense of it so. Because honestly, this concept of time travel has been done, and it’s beginning to feel like a common plot device. Grant Morrison used it in The Invisibles. Matt Fraction continues with it in Casanova. Movies have used it--think Abram’s Star Trek--and additionally, it's not as if time travel as a major plot point is unexplored territory for Hickman (Pax Romana?).

Now, while it’s fine to reuse ideas, I don’t feel Hickman reuses the notion of nonlinear time well here. The fighter pilot element is a nice attempt to expand upon the idea, but like I said before, Hickman leaves a majority of the story’s focus on the time thing--as well as a theme of “what you do in the now affects tomorrow” which is, for lack of a better phrase, a “no crap” kind of realization. By keeping such a tight sight on the high-concept, essentially making it the star of the comic, Hickman pushes away all of the other factors within Red Wing. Namely, the cast, but also the atmosphere and world of the story.

I don’t know, I just feel as if what was created for the sake of the story was not completely utilized.  Issue one introduces all of the elements of Hickman’s futuristic world. We’re told how time traveling is done, the fact there’s a war, and the space station-type environment the cast lives in is discussed, but from then on very little of it seems to interact with the actual story. If anything, the world acts like a background set piece, simply put there in order to give artist Nick Pitarra something to illustrate.

Sometimes stories can use environments that way and be effective. In this case, because of the fantastical element, the setting needed to be more of an actual character in this tale.Especially when the entire plot derives itself from the environment.

And then there’s the disconnect of the actual cast. For a story centered on a father/son relationship, you’d think I’d place a strong amount of interest in the father and son. Nope.  Both characters are given panel time and both character’s seem to have their own motivations and hopes, but still, something of Hickman’s writing leaves the characters cold to the audience. And not in what I think is a purposeful coldness. I believe I’m supposed to feel something when these characters are pitted against one another, but I don’t. Hickman may technically “characterize” them, but he never writes these characters to show me a reason why I should care. The characters don’t act in any interesting or compelling ways. Instead, they come off as hollow. They appear as shells to transport Hickman’s greater theme.

Which can be an interesting tactic in telling a story. Hickman used a very similar approach in his first volume of S.H.I.E.L.D., and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. But here the cards are different. A relationship’s structured to be the  core of the narrative. Without a set of characters to invest in though, the core’s misplaced and weakened.

I’m not writing this work off completely, though. The art team of Nick Pitarra and Rachelle Rosenberg gives The Red Wing plenty of reason to spend time with it. Pitarra brings a style that’s easily the love child of Frank Quitely and Geoff Darrow. It’s that sort of soft, willow tree line which at times can drop the warm, gooey vibe to remind you of the dark and scary. His style gives the comic its identity, and it works well within Hickman’s collection of Image work--especially when you consider Red Mass for Mars collaborator Ryan Bodenheim.  Rosenberg fills the comic with an interesting palette of colors. Obviously, reds pop up, but she also works in a nice mixture of greys and browns. The comic book feels oddly earthy in parts. You can kind of forget about the white jumps suits and space ships at times.

What I find really interesting about the artwork though is the amount of white space left to flourish. Pitarra certainly brings the detail for backgrounds at points, but just flipping through issue two I noticed plenty of panels sport no background at all. It could be the artist’s own way of representing the story’s focus on time travel. You know, by placing the characters into a visual void.

Or it could simply be a stylistic choice. Or both.

The Red Wing could have worked if all its elements managed to work together better, but I feel Hickman sectionalized everything. The characters are by themselves. The environment comes off as a backdrop. The core, big idea isn’t interesting enough ... in a fictional sense ... to carry the piece. Together, as a team, bouncing off of each other, the three components could have produced a solid or even great work. Sadly, I’m not seeing it. Instead, Hickman leaves everything to a weak core focus, and the story ends at a point of uninteresting preaching, telling the audience to consider its present actions as they may affect tomorrow.

That’s the only thing The Red Wing accomplishes.

So, overall, I’d say this return to form was a little lackluster, but I still applaud Hickman for coming back to Image and showing some new enthusiasm for creator-owned projects. Granted, this comic isn’t very good, but it interested me enough for four issues, and it's not very bad either. It was simply... readable. The Red Wing isn’t writer/artist Hickman from Nightly News, but it’s certainly a step in a more potentially interesting direction.

I just hope this is a slight stumble as he regains his sea legs.

TL;DR The Red Wing possesses all the elements that should make it an exceptional comic, but none of these things seem to ever come together in any sense of harmony, leaving the book unintentionally cold and distant. Not a bad book, but not Hickman's best. The artwork, however, is quite brilliant.

The Red Wing was written by Jonathan Hickman, drawn by Nick Pitarra and colored by Rachelle Rosenberg. It is published by Image Comics. You can purchase the issues at any direct market comic book store, or look for the TBP, out last week. You can also support Spandexless by buying the trade in our web store.