Exploring Jonathan Hickman's Frontier [Interview]
November 2, 2016
IMAGE COMICS: Jonathan, the preview below isn't the traditional "panel with a character and a word balloon" storytelling. Readers have to intuit context and character from the dialogue. How do you know how far you can push a reader to keep up with your storytelling? Are you ever afraid someone just isn't going to get it?
JONATHAN HICKMAN: Well, the failure of previews is that, because it's so early, what we're looking at is essentially a beta test of the book. So this will get pulled apart and put back together a dozen times before I'm set on the actual book design, and because I'm doing everything, including the colors, lettering, all of it. And if it turns out that during that process I need to pull back a bit, then I will, but by the time this is seen, THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS will be out and that should help immensely with any lingering indigestion. What I'm going for will be a bit clearer.
But to answer the larger question you packed in there, no, I don't really worry about people "getting it." I've always said that while comics are most often compared to television and movies, the big advantage we have over those is that we know that our fans are literate. We can get away with a lot. I'd argue we don't push it enough.
I dunno, maybe I'm wrong. Thank God I've saved some money.
IC: You're good at coming up with out-there ideas that can be appreciated on multiple levels—EAST OF WEST, for instance, or PAX ROMANA. So: what is FRONTIER about? And then, what ELSE is it about?
HICKMAN: FRONTIER is about humanity finally achieving a perfect, utopian tomorrow and then having it taken away. It's about the death of future, the death of hope, and the terminal orbit of mankind. Basically, it's a book about trying to survive when you're a doomed culture.
Saying that, all the really good stuff in stories is found spinning against the axis of the main narrative. So FRONTIER is also about finding hope in a hopeless situation. It's about continuing to fight when you know you can't win, and holding out for any kind of chance. Because if you get one, you'll hold on to it with both hands. You'll die before letting go.
IC: You're writing and drawing this one, your first solo project in quite some time. What is it about a project that makes you want to take total control instead of collaborating?
HICKMAN: Oh, this is the thing I'll primarily be doing going forward. I've spent most of the last decade not being the cartoonist I've always wanted to be. So unless there are unforeseen complications gumming up the works, this is the plan going forward.
FRONTIER was just first in line. Plus I like making star maps, so that was a bonus.
IC: The preview states that "twenty years ago, the FRONTIER rejected humanity. They quarantined Earth and cut her off from all colonies." The FRONTIER—is it an organization, or something more abstract, like the idea of the frontier? Is it fair to assume that there are colonies of humans in space that have been severed from their home planet, too?
HICKMAN: Yeah. Totally cut off. They don't what happened to them. One of the big parts of the story is that many of the colonies were way better than Earth. They were idyllic and epitomized expansionist Mankind. All the best and brightest migrated towards the opportunity they represented. Earth was for the chaff.
The name "Frontier" is just how humanity refers to the Universe. The organizations and alien races all have different names.
IC: This sounds like a story of the outcast being found useful again, even if only as cannon fodder. What is it about humanity that's valuable in this war?
HICKMAN: Well, we got rejected because our nature. Man is a violent creature. But the thing that made us abhorrent to a truly civilized and enlightened culture is also what is necessary when the wolves come calling.
On a longer timeline, a super advanced society will be able to adapt and overcome any predator, so really all they need to do is buy time, which is where we come in. They want us to die for them. So we cut a deal.
IC: In fact, what are wars like in this far-flung future? Are you showing us massive battles, or is this more of a "boots on the ground" kinda thing?
HICKMAN: It's a mix. If you want to kill something from a distance, you can do that from very, very far away. If you want to occupy something, well, that's old school. Yes, "boots on the ground."
But as for mechanics particular to this book, there are lots of in-universe goodies as to how travel, communication, infrastructure, and combat work.
IC: The references to the Union and having a capacity to serve in the preview are interesting. What is human society like in this far-flung future? Are you approaching it from a utopian perspective, or has humanity made concessions for survival that, in the end, may prove untenable?
HICKMAN: Life on Earth is a lot like a failed startup. When expansion happened, we put everything we had into it, and for a century we used every resource we had to acquire other, far-distant resources. Which is a perfectly fine plan on a universal scale. But when your ability to expand gets cut off, and all you're left with is what you started with, then having completely used up all your initial resources up is a killer.
As a species, we're pretty great survivalists, so we've come up with some really interesting workarounds. But it won't be enough to save us. That's going to take something else entirely.
IC: How sci-fi is this one? The preview makes it plain that humanity has progressed a lot, but how far are you taking it? Are there aliens, sentient or otherwise?
HICKMAN: Yeah. Lots of other races and societies. It's a big picture story. And while Roman DeBeers would probably disagree, I do consider it to be traditional, non-fantastical science fiction.
Should be fun.
FRONTIER #1 arrives 11/23 and is available for preorder now.