Advance Review: The Dying and the Dead #1

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Published by: Image Comics
Story by: Jonathan Hickman
Art by: Ryan Bodenheim
Coloured by: Michael Garland
Lettered by: Rus Wooton

The Dying and the Dead is Jonathan Hickman’s new series published by Image. Even though he’s the biggest name over at Marvel right now, thanks to his work on Avengers and New Avengers, as well as preparing for being the grand architect of the end of the Marvel Universe as we know it with Secret Wars, he is no stranger to creator owned works. Having already penned (and drawn, lettered and coloured) The Nightly News and Pax Romana among others for Image, he is also currently scribing ongoing titles East of West and The Manhattan Projects. It is not really an understatement to say that he is quite the legend, and The Dying and the Dead makes it his fifth concurrent monthly title.

This will probably not dilute the quality of any of his writing though; Hickman is a master of multitasking and spinning loads of plates all at once, as evidenced by his outstanding work on almost all his previous books. Pax Romana rewrote the the entire history of civilisation in four issues, and East of West: The World did pretty much the same with its detailed timeline of the Apocalypse and fact files on all the major players of the political sphere. Even Marvel’s Secret Warriors detailed a global conspiracy by HYDRA, which served as inspiration for the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While The Dying and The Dead might not reach the magnitude of these books (so far), the globetrotting theme is very much present, as this first issue alone shows us scenes in several countries that will all clearly come together and make sense eventually.

The tale begins with a love story. Man meets girl, they fall in love and then get married. Things take a bizarre turn though when armed gunmen arrive on the wedding night, and steal something from a secret hidden room in the house. We learn that the love story was not all it seemed at first, but we still don’t know what was stolen. What we are shown though, is that it was that the stolen thing was in a lockbox, and the secret room was filled with odd wartime artifacts (a Nazi Reichsadler, ancient samurai armour. a portrait of Mussolini etc).

Readers of The Manhattan Projects are no doubt used to far more graphic and violent scenes in Hickman’s stories than he does over at Marvel HQ, and The Dying and The Dead is no exception, as within the first few pages we are greeted with Game of Thrones levels of death. The next thing we know, we are somewhere completely different- a hospital room, where an aged grizzled man sits beside his wife who is dying of cancer – Colonel Edward Canning, our protagonist. There is also another present, a bizarre chalk white fellow (very similar to East of West‘s Death, and slightly reminiscent of New Avengers‘ Black Swan) who by the end of the issue we still know nothing about; we are not even sure that the doctor can see him either. He proposes a Faustian pact, and comes bearing a message that “The Bishop” wants to meet him.

As the story continues, some of that global theme I mentioned earlier starts to rear its head. From Greece, to New Mexico, to Germany, to Texas, to….somewhere else entirely, we are already travelling the world despite it only being the first issue. In Germany, we learn the destination of the lockbox thieves from earlier, and learn something bizarre about the gunmen and their femme fatale leader. Whatever was in that box is still a mystery, but it is very important to a very bad group of people – think of Hitler’s supposed obsession with the occult and you’re somewhere close.

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Our protagonist is driven with our chalky white friend to what looks to be a church in the middle of nowhere, sort of like that one in Kill Bill. Once they enter, yet more mysterious chalk white people are encountered, and we encounter another mirror of Black Swan (it is safe to say that Hickman seems to like certain ideas and goes with them), whose name we don’t really learn because her introduction gets interrupted, but she serves a gatekeeper role between our world, and another, hidden land (more on that later).

If you’re expecting majestic worldbuilding here like Hickman’s other work, don’t be silly it’s only the first issue. Hickman is very much a “long haul” crafter of stories, but manages to do this without dragging the whole ordeal out for longer than necessary. The first issue only gives us scattered details of plots that might yet be, and characters that have yet to show their true colours, and yet the story still feels like it’s an epic saga dropped fully formed into our hands. There are already suspicions of betrayal, and hints of a great war coming (and one in the past), and the official solicitation describes the series as “…Indiana Jones for Old People…no fedoras, only bedpans.” so we know that we will eventually see more people join Colonel Canning on his quest.

The art is provided by Ryan Bodenheim, and is stunning in its simplicity. We don’t necessarily need to see every crack in the brickwork, or every cloud in the sky, to appreciate the backdrops, yet they set the scene perfectly. On the other hand, faces are very lined and show emotion (or lack thereof) very well. The juxtaposition of a very “plain” world with very detailed characters and objects serves to illustrate the mundanity of this world, and how the real interest of the story is from the characters within it. That said, the double page spread of the hidden city bucks the trend and shows it as a very otherworldly, Escherian landscape that defies the laws of physics.

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Michael Garland’s colours are also deserving of merit, as they complement Bodenheim’s linework sublimely. On most pages, the colours are all of one hue, yet serve as a moodring of sorts; the wedding party in shades of pink, possibly denoting love, with the approaching gunmen coloured with blood red. This same red colouring of death resurfaces to set the scene when Canning is told his wife will not make it.

The first issue of The Dying and the Dead hasn’t yet addressed that Indiana Jones comparison I mentioned above, but will no doubt satisfy readers anyway. Despite the slightly-more-expensive than normal price tag, this is justified due to the fact this is a 64-page bumper issue. Needless to say, if you’re a fan of Hickman, (or even if you aren’t just yet) this new title is set to become (and already is) just as enthralling and intriguing as his previous works.

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