Vol 3: Jonathon Hickman’s “The Red Wing”
The Red Wing #1-4
Jon Hickman is a talented guy. So talented in fact, that he parlayed a successful career in advertising (evident in the branding and layout of all of his books, a style that has been ripped off to widely varying degrees of success), into arguably the most influential careers in comics since Brian Michael Bendis. He is one of the big guys at Marvel (though not as big as the Hulk, that guy’s huge!) having taken on the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Ultimate Thor, Ultimate Hawkeye, and others I’m certainly forgetting. He’s written for TV, penning work for Da Vinci’s Demons. He’s likely writing something both disarming and engaging as I make you read this. But what we’re getting into is his creator-owned work.
The well here is deep. His current books, Manhattan Projects and East of West are potential masterworks still under construction, as well as the long hibernating The Dying and the Dead. He has, if in brand only, the long running Avatar series, God is Dead, a remarkably un-Avatar story, which is a feat in and of itself. But in the wake of those, he has many of what may be the finest examples of modern mini-series comics out there.
Arguably the best known of these is Nightly News, his initial political thriller (and farce), that put him on the map. This is for good reason. The Hickman we meet in even the first caption of Nightly News is intense, intelligent and pointed in a way that while not redefining the medium, was absolutely adding a new texture. This voice expanded in scope and intent as it went, through the high concept of Pax Romana, the mythology of Red Mass for Mars, the satire of Transhuman, the just okay-ness of Secret, and the big, beating heart of our subject today, The Red Wing.
Hickman gets accused of being kind of a cold writer sometimes. This is largely due to the complicated nature of his storytelling, particularly in big picture projects. There just isn’t room, as the stories need to be working on a mechanical level complex enough that the human factor gets squashed. There is a constant care for the humanity of his characters, but not always as explicitly as it should be to balance out the Hulk (the big guy at Marvel) that particularly his Marvel work generally ends up being. But, good God is there a warmth in The Red Wing.
Ostensibly a time travel, war-in-space story, The Red Wing picks character over concept pretty quickly, taking a training and murky war background (that recalls Ender’s Game in a big way), and shifting it into a story about inheritance, and what that means to the inheritor.
Our leads, Valin and Dominic, are both legacy pilots, as both of their fathers died in duty, as heroes. With that, both characters inherit an endless war with an unbeatable enemy, and a void where that parental guide should be. Stuck in the middle, they can only continue what their fathers started, without the wisdom, or the reasoning as to why. Nothing in the world they fight for is truly theirs. So while there are crash landings and lasers abound, the real war here is internal, and with that, unwinnable. Valin and Dominic are left picking up pieces of time, both in duty and personally, trying to make sense of where they fall in their prospective futures and storied legacies.
What Hickman, and recurring collaborator Nick Pitarra do so poignantly here is latch on to the hope, devastating though it may be, that either character can understand legacy, and how they’re shaped by it, alone. Within the impossibility of that angst and loss, there is still the want to do the right thing, and make a world for themselves if they can’t fully come to grips with the one they’ve been given.
There is a relatively opaque bent to some of the thematic stuff here, many times rendered in more expressionistic paneling and sparse caption and dialogue work. It works beautifully, visualizing the grief and anger at the heart of the narrative, but conversely to Hickman’s more mechanical “big picture” work, doesn’t pay a great deal of attention to structure. Many critics take this as unfocused or messy storytelling, but that misses the point. Yes, Jon Hickman works primarily in complex story structures, but here he reverses it, instead delving into complex characters. It may be a creative flaw to work only in the extremities of mechanics and emotion, but regardless, his emotional work is equally as impressive and effecting as his world building and interwoven storylines elsewhere.
I could go on about any of his Image miniseries. Transhuman just barely missed the cut this month, and really all of them deserve some time in the sun, but Red Wing is something special. The well rounded story teller sprinting towards mastery in Manhattan Projects and East of West, really showed his emotional range for the first time here, making it pretty important for general readers, Hickman fans, and really any non-sociopath (or non-sociopath-curious) parties.
It’ll make you cry, everyone. I’m crying right now, but that’s unrelated. Once I get a hold of myself, I’m going to crack open The Red Wing again though. Keep this cycle going all day.