Comic Relief with East of West and Avengers writer Jonathan Hickman

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Paste: How did you come up with the initial concept for your Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Western, East of West?

Hickman: The book is really about how society is now, and how we’re obsessed through various channels, either societal, religious/spiritual, or even geopolitically, with end-time scenarios. And it kind of grew out of that observation. Then I wanted to do a love story at the end of the world. I wanted to do a book, that thematically, was about how we all hate each other. And that’s not how it should be. A lot of different things were pulling at me, and it just took the shape of the falling out of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the end of the world, and the only hope being love.

East of West

Paste: Is the love story between two Horsemen (or people) of the Apocalypse?

Hickman: Maybe! As all good love stories should be, there are complications. And shunned lovers, and people who are left behind by the supernova that is two people coming together.

Paste: Right, and one of those Horsemen is noticably absent in this first issue.

Hickman: It’s all there.

Paste: I’ve heard rumors about your intense researching methods and prewriting/designing periods. What did research for East of West consist of?

Hickman: A lot less than other projects have had. Of course, there is the historical aspect of it that I dug into. From the alt-history point of it, you’ll find a departure, and from there on out it’s an extrapolation on the story that I want to tell. But compared to Nightly News and Pax Romana and a bunch of my Marvel work, and especially Manhattan Projects, where I did a ton of research just so I could throw it away, this is different. This is honest fantasy that’s a projection of how I feel about the world, and where I think it’s going and how I think it should be.

Paste: I think it’s interesting that your recent Avengers work is inspired by creation myths, personified in the characters of Ex Nihilo, Aleph, and Abyss. Now you’re focusing on the Apocalypse. This project is like the omega to that alpha. Was East of West born out of the same research that influenced your inaugural Avengers arc?

Hickman: I don’t think so. Certainly, as a person, I’m reacting to how I feel about the world. There’s not much you can do about that but remove yourself from influences so that you get rid of them, but it’s hard not to live in the world, right? So in that sense, I’m sure it all comes into play. But there is a big difference.

East of West is a much more personal story. The things that I’m doing in Avengers and the binary nature of the setup is presented to get us to certain places so that we can do certain kinds of stories down the road. When New Avengers and Avengers, the alpha and omega and the life and death versions of that superhero group, smash together a year or so down the line…the fallout is going to be a really big deal in The Marvel Universe. So it really is kind of different. One is thematic stuff that we’re using to set up the binary nature of the two teams. East of West is more…this is how the world is, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Avengers #1

Paste: I’ve noticed in your books, especially Manhattan Projects, how important the use and symbolism of color is. But with East of West and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, color is also one of the main ways The Bible recognized the riders. It looks like you’re playing with this concept, as the riders look like they’re reincarnated into different roles and colors. Is there a rhyme and reason to these shifts?

Hickman: There is a rhyme and reason behind the color theory that we’re using in East of West. We haven’t gotten into it yet, but people might pick it up. We’re also playing with an elemental motif there as well. War just isn’t red, he’s fire. That kind of stuff. So we punched four colors out of that. But yes, there’s a whole other thing going with that, that obviously I don’t want to spoil. But we put a bunch of thought into color in all of these Image books. Even if you look at the flashback sequences in Manhattan Projects, how they’re all blue and red. Or even look at the really limited palate that we used in Secrets. It isn’t important how an individual color is, but it’s more about the scene that it exists within. It’s super important, of course. I like to be part of projects where we play with that as much as possible.

Paste: How religious is East of West? One interpretation of the White Horseman is that he’s a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Does that aspect of the source material inform the book at all?

Hickman: No. The religious aspect of East of West, and it is certainly there, is that all of the world’s religions are things that we’re going to be playing with. The ‘isms’ of the world are all part of the same, quote unquote, message. You can take pieces of them, and if you put them together right, it predicts exactly how the end of the world is going to come about. Which is “the message” in East of West. We’re not looking at one holy scripture as the correct interpretation, so you’re not going to see Christ coming down from Heaven and the Great Beast emerge. There’s a patina of all of that, but what we’re doing is specific to the story that we’re telling.

Paste: You’ve said that East of West is about “now” and how we all hate each other, which definitely echoes in the opening quote “The Things That Divide Us Are Stronger Than The Things That Unite Us.” What conflicts do you see as the most toxic to America right now?

Hickman: I don’t think there’s any contest between the fact that somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that, politically, binary positions are the best across the board. You’re either on team Republican or team Democrat, and it’s the idea that one of these sides has a perfect record of being correct, and is worth supporting on 100% of the causes. I find that kind of thinking extremely dangerous and very intellectually dishonest. I find it very disappointing that very smart people who I know will limit themselves by thinking about the issues like that. I think it’s impossible to get anything done. We’ve created two adversarial forces inside the United States. They’re at war with each other, and they’re not going to be happy until the other one’s destroyed. The other one is ourselves. It’s fucking lunacy. I think it’s crazy destructive and incredibly disappointing.


Paste: Are any of these issues going to play into the East of West apocalypse?

Hickman: Oh no, God no. If I’m reduced to writing about politics, I might as well go ahead and kill myself. I can’t imagine a more disappointing creative outlet than becoming a political commentator/artist (laughs). I can’t imagine that would be in any way emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually fulfilling.

Paste: Comics have addressed politics successfully in ways that aren’t quite as blunt. Transmetropolitan did a great job of balancing fiction and politics.

Hickman: Of course, but it was written a decade and a half ago. If (Transmetropolitan writer) Warren (Ellis) presented that stuff right now, the response to it would be radically different. And, within the company that he would have it made, the response would be radically different, and the readership would be instantly polarized looking for his secret reasoning for doing the book: which side is he really playing for? It’s crazy how everything is filtered through a reaction of “our team.”

**Paste:* Shifting onto Manhattan Projects, we saw the Oppenheimer twins’ struggle renewed, with the dead twin Robert fighting back against Joseph in his mind to regain control. First off, we’ve seen two sets of twins with the Oppenheimers and the Einsteins, with one twin blue and the other red in both cases. Does the symbolism translate to blue equals benevolent and red equals evil, as inferred by the character’s actions? Or is there more to this?

Hickman: No, I don’t think breaking it down to good and evil is accurate. Let me answer it this way: I do not think that the story of Joseph and Robert Oppenheimer ends well. Just like I don’t think that the story of the impostor Albert Einstein ends well. The main protagonists in Manhattan Projects, while they are very naughty and a lot of fun to watch be self-destructive with science, I don’t think you’d classify them. The point is that these great, good men were very evil. At some point, the evil will out. You’re in a room full of brilliant, evil men, who have a common aligned goal. So at some point, they’re going to turn on each other. And when we get to that point in the story, all hell really starts to break loose. The deconstruction of these characters is going to be glorious and awful.

Manhattan Projects #1 Interior Art

Paste: On the coloring, The Bible and Einstein’s sketch of the cross were rendered in red. So what exactly does the color red mean in Manhattan Projects?

Hickman: Well, I think what we’re going for color-wise there, is we’re just using blue and red as a flashback mechanism, and we want the point of interest of each of the flashbacks to be red and the background to receive blue. Now when we’re inside Oppenheimer’s head, it takes on a secondary meaning because of what happened in issue #1. For the other flashbacks, generally what we’re looking at is contrast, storytelling clarity, and point of interest.

Paste: I’m probably incredibly gullible asking this, but in the afterward of the first Manhattan Projects collection you mention that you have a twin who won an Olympic Gold Medal in fencing. Should I even ask if this is true? It would be so perfect for the twin theme.

Hickman: Well if you look in the back of each of my trades, you will find that my fake twin brother is a phenomenal individual. He’s been a covert spy, I think he played professional soccer in Japan for a couple years…

Paste: So this is definitely me being gullible.

Hickman: Yeah, yeah. I don’t have a brother. (Laughs)

Paste: That would have been amazing in the context of the book.

Hickman: Well, I don’t have a twin. Let alone a brother.

Paste: In one way or another, every title you’re currently writing (Avengers, New Avengers, Manhattan Projects, East of West) involves the government or a leadership agency attempting to protect the public. It’s an interesting perspective shift from Nightly News. What’s your personal view of government and how does it translate to your writing?

Hickman: Well, I think good government is good and bad government is bad (laughs). I think liberal democracy is the highest form of government that our planet has ever seen. I think it’s very, very easy for liberal democracies to get off track and that’s a shame. I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish that everything was based entirely on the universal truth that the government should exist to reinforce and reenable the inherent creativity of its citizens, expressed through the free society, and it’s just awful when we get off that path. I don’t think that there are big mysteries about this stuff or that people are confused about whether we’re getting good representation in government or bad representation in government. Look at how poorly people think of our government. Look at every poll, about how good of a job they’re doing. Everybody knows they suck. If you ask almost everyone how they feel about society or how their government is doing, and the overwhelming majority of them are dissatisfied and think that it’s bad, then it’s OK to think that it’s bad. It’s not out of step with reality. I wish it was better. I believe it will get better.

Paste: Lastly, if you were interviewing yourself and you wanted to ask a question that you couldn’t find in a press release, what would you ask?

Hickman: I suppose it would be about soccer, but I don’t think anyone cares.

Paste: Let’s talk about soccer. Big fan?

Hickman: Yes, I am a quote unquote superfan.

Paste: Who’s your favorite team?

Hickman: Well I’m a big supporter of our U.S. Men’s national team. Beyond that, I’m a purist, in the sense that I like watching beautiful soccer gameplay, and so I don’t really have teams that I support. I just want to watch the game being played the way it should be. Whoever’s hot, whoever’s pleasing to the eye and all that stuff, I will tune in.

War, famine, and pestilence also describe Sean Edgar’s love life. The Ohio-based journalist ruminates on comic books for Paste in addition to writing and photographing for other fine publications scattered over the globe. Though his Apple II can barely run it, you can find his Twitter account here.