Monday, May 27, 2013

Opening Contract - The Nightly News #1

The subject of this weeks column is Jonathan Hickman’s The Nightly News from Image Comics, a comic that was responsible for dragging me back to the medium after almost a decade away (the other was Identity Crisis, but the less said about that the better). With this first panel Hickman established himself as a creator to watch with a groundbreaking visual style that I still consider to be ahead of its time.

The left side of the page is white space and a series of captions running down it vertically. The right side of the image involves a shot of the New York skyline. Then, towards the bottom, we get a new voice (literally), a warning sticker and a footnote.
Hickman’s opening page shares some similarities with the subject of a previous Opening Contract, Brian Wood’s Channel Zero. Wood’s style was born of an art school background and used elements that, whilst different, were still very much of an analogue era. Hickman’s own origin story involves more commercial, modern design which is reflected in both the look of the page and the methods that were used to produce it. Photo reference was initially used by Hickman before images were moved to a lightbox, pencilled and then inked. From there on it would be converted to vector and imported into Adobe Streamline, Illustrator, etc. All of this comes across in the images; crisp, clean and slick.
Hickman himself when asked about the influences on The Nightly News responded by saying:
”I would say that the Nightly News was kind of Jae Lee meets Mike Mignola meets the We Work For Them [design team], Mike Cina and Mike Young.”
These influences all combined to form a hybrid style. If you look further into the narrative you can definitely see the Mignola/Lee influence in Hickman’s use of shadow, thick dark lines and the realistic rendering of character’s expressions, facial tics and the world around them.

If we look at an example of work from Cina (a piece of design work he produced for Computer Arts Magazine) we can also see where some of the more modern, design-centric, influences come from. We have images/pages broken into sections by clean lines. There’s the use of realistic images and photographs and their juxtaposition against minimalist interpretations of objects and shapes. These elements, in both images, have a visual coherence to them despite the disparity of the various elements being used. Hickman too achieves this by placing the objects and text on the page across either the vertical or horizontal axis.

It’s also interesting to note the colour choices here. In his subsequent work, such as The Manhattan Projects, colour plays an important part in the narrative. Throughout The Nightly News Hickman uses two distinct tones to suggest timeframe. Orange, brown, warm hues are the present as we see here, whereas the past is imbued with a colder, almost metallic blue. Whilst there’s no way of knowing that at this point in the story, Hickman uses this first panel/page to establish those rules going forward.

The content of the captions themselves are also interesting to note. They explain how New York is the nerve centre of the world’s media. They also get across one of the central themes of the book, the idea of the media as a controlling, oppressive element of society (another aspect shared with Wood’s Channel Zero).

Beneath this last set of captions we also get the first appearance (albeit in text form) of The Voice an integral character to the plot. His first caption ties directly into the ones preceding it, asking:
”Are you tired of being lied to?”
This caption is accompanied by a “The Voice Says” graphic, providing an excellent prompt and page turn for the reader. It also insures the text stands out and that The Voice’s message is seen and read.
Beneath, and to the right, of this is a warning ‘sticker’ explaining how large parts of “this work” are plagiarised, misinterpreted, factually incorrect or complete fabrications. If that’s not enough we also get a small footnote that reassures the reader that the book and its contents should not be considered a reflection of the author.

The fact that this page is made up of so many disparate elements forces us to pay attention, the minutiae of the page demands it, making us revel and focus on the details, to notice and nitpick. In a way Hickman is training us to pay attention to what we’re being told, to see how such things can contradict themselves; a message central to the themes of the book.

The captions themselves shift slightly, indenting further and further across the page until they cross the axis down the middle (a black line) and move towards the image of the city itself. The white space is before; ignorance, lies and the old world. The captions move into the centre, on the boundary that divides the page, across the axis, in alignment with the first words of The Voice, the first question asked of us, the first poke at the established fabric. Are you ready to have your eyes opened? Good. Here we go.

In addition to all of this there’s also a fantastic piece of mirroring going on with this opening, one that we only see come to fruition in the last issue of the series (Issue #6). The opening page of #6 is mirrored in almost every way until the captions begin to deviate slightly.The Voice’s text is lower on the latter page, and the footnote about the author is now completely self-contradictory, hinting at a darkness, truth and nihilism not present on the first page.

This page is a great introduction to the world Hickman establishes in the book, a perfect example of the eponymous opening contract in almost every way. Hickman not only introduces us to a brand new form of comic illustration and storytelling but also begins to train us how to read it as well as tying it back into the themes of the story.

Are there any other examples of wildly 'out there' first panels you can think of? Or even any other examples similar to Hickman's in style and execution? Comments and discussion are welcome as always.

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