“You’re free… to do what we tell you,” Bill Hicks.
Despite starting with a Bill Hicks quote, this is nothing to do with the late comedian (and for some of us soothsayer for the modern world) – but if, like me, you loved Hicks’ work and biting stance on all that was wrong with modern society, you’ll buy into this deeply cynical tale. And a bonus it is also a very early work (both the writing and the art actually) by a man who is now one of our top flight of the new generation of creators, Jonathan Hickman, a creator equally at home shaking up major titles like FF or SHIELD as he is with creator-owned, wonderfully individual series like The Manhattan Projects (which I’ve previously recommended).
“I love these guys. I love their passion. I love their sit-ins, their slogans, their protest songs, I love their believing they can change the world. I hate their weakness. Understand this: their cause here today is just. But these people just lack the backbone, the will, to do anything about it…
… The point is this: you want attention; you better have a high-powered rifle. You want credibility; you better have a body count. You want to change the system; it will require one innocent bystander. Any true believer will do. Breathe in. Breathe out. I’m gonna make your life mean something. Breathe in. Breathe out. Squeeze…” BLAMM!
All of this is going through the mind of John Guyton, Hand of the The Voice, a brotherhood that has seen through the veil of lies, the murky backroom conspiracies that the elite use to not only maintain their power over the masses, but to make the masses think that this is all fine, it is how society is meant to be, from school programmes designed to turn out identikit good little citizens who will grow up and be productive, never questioning, never troublemaking, to a mass media now concentrated in the hands of a handful of mega corporations run by billionaires in close cahoots with other leaders of huge industries, financial companies and politicians.
Not Guyton, recruited off the street at his lowest ebb by the previous Hand, after his life fell apart – in fact we soon find that all the recruits to the Brotherhood of the Voice are all desperate in some way. And between that and the violence they are so willing to dole out it isn’t long before the reader realises the supposed ‘good guys’, the rebels fighting the Matrix of control here, aren’t actually very nice. They claim to be aware of the lies and controls government and industry and the media create and perpetuate upon society (and let’s be honest, we know some of that does happen, politicians in bed with rich captains of industry or in thrall to media magnates, we’ve endured years of revelations of such scandals, after all) but unlike the protestors they don’t just march, oh no, direct action must be taken. And if that involves shooting a protestor in the head (laid out like a hunter’s ‘Judas goat’) to draw in the vultures of the mass media so you can then pick them off (live on streaming, 24 hour news!) then so be it…
It’s not just their methods which are off-putting though – Hickman makes it quite clear that while the Brotherhood may indeed be right about the conspiring rich people, corporations, giant media and politicians, the Brotherhood have rejected one system of control and basically replaced it with another, their own cult. And like any cult it hammers in its take on the universe that the believer must accept and use to justify anything they in turn do. Which leaves the reader wondering if they are any better than those they just declared war on…
Throughout this moral quagmire of a tale this early Hickman showcases some of his love for breaking up layouts and pages into unusual configurations (and his interesting little info-graphic insertions), something he still does frequently now in his better known works, but here it is in an earlier attempt, a bit rough and raw in places (likewise plot and the idea behind it are not without rough edges) but for what was essentially his debut it’s pretty amazing, not just a sign of a newly emerging talent but one who wanted not only to spin intriguing stories that left the reader thinking about them afterwards (and having to make their own minds up about some of the morality of the characters) but to push, graphically, how a comic unfolds those stories, eschewing for the most part the usual panels and speech bubbles approach for more broken, dynamic layouts, mixing in photo material but filtering and over-drawing to subsume it into the art in a way that doesn’t jar. Like looking at McKean’s innovative layouts and mixed media art in early works like Signal to Noise, it’s fascinating to see this confident approach from a creator at the start of their career. It doesn’t always hit the mark, but it is always intriguing, and an important stepping stone for a now major talent in the industry, in effect his calling card that caught the attention of major publishers – although I am glad to see he still mixes his output with creator-owned series where he can indulge himself. And despite being from 2007 it still has a lot of relevance to current events and contemporary society. A powerful and unusual debut from a now stellar creator and one that belongs in your collection.