On today’s Pull List, where we cover first issues of new comic titles, we’re reading Jonathan Hickman’s The Dying and the Dead, a grandiose conspiracy tale of ancient civilizations and immortals.
It’s easy to get a misconception of the book from just the first few pages, where a bloodstained wedding and Cobra-style commandos conjure a strange mishmash of Quentin Tarantino and G.I. Joe. Honestly, I had a skeptical smirk when the cookie-cutter henches took the signet-key off the dead groom’s finger and opened a hidden room of ancient treasures, but keep reading: the Jonathan Hickman magic is upon us, and it is potent.
Like East of West and Manhattan Project before it, The Dying and the Dead aims for high sci-fi that rewrites the world into a tense snake-pit of action and moment. In its debut issue, a Nazi-like cadre obtains an artifact of unspoken power, which puts an esoteric civilization of white-skinned immortals in an uncomfortable spot. Enter the retired Colonel Edward James Canning, a man in his 50s who’s about ready to settle into his twilight years, albeit alone, after doctors concede hope for his cancer-stricken wife Clair. And so the Colonel’s ancient associates strike the obvious offer: undo their enemies, and Clair will be saved.
If I had to name the one thing that convinced me The Dying and the Dead is worth the $4.50 for the 60-page deluxe issue (and several times over), it’d have to be the words used to describe our roughened protagonist: “… the Colonel is someone who does exactly what he says he is going to do—an extinct species… what his people used to call a hero.” It doesn’t feel groundbreaking to type it out like that; you have to factor in the unaffected assurance on his face and the quiet fire in his words, as the Colonel’s led into the subterranean lair of his marble-white associates, called simply The City. He’s over the hill in the midst of demigods, yet retains his moxie and mien. He’s just the kind of hero that Hickman’s become so good at making: an unbent line in a depraved, daunting world.
Hickman described The Dying and the Dead as “Indiana Jones for old people,” and age is definitely a big theme in the book; the slaughtered couple in the opening scenes weren’t blushing like fresh apples, they were as matured as the Colonel, and that lends a fragility to the whole book, and an urgency to the Colonel’s predicament. To watch young people save the world is to watch the right person for the right job in action. But to see a man in action at the Colonel’s age, when our society expects nothing of them but slow death and irrelevance, well that just rounds out the heroic package for me. He’s working against time, biology, destiny, and of course, hordes of henchmen.
Aside from the sterling writing, artist Ryan Bodenheim’s work is just plain tops. Nice bold lines with sparse, strategic detailing makes for a jaw-dropping dynamism; I remember breathtaking panoramic shots over a mountainside German village, where the foliage and mountain crags looked vivid and animate as a Hokusai woodcut. And the first time we see The City? Fuhgeddaboutit. It’s a two-page spread of an Italian/Greek/Atlantean river civilization underground, with temples, arched bridges, and villas woven into the massive tree trunks and stalactites. It’s breathtaking, and I can see why they went for a 60-some page debut issue—the presentation demands a “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY” response.
Jonathan Hickman simply shows no sign of slowing down. Fans of East of West, Indiana Jones, or plain ol’ dynamic action comics with a philosophy, should be clawing their way to a copy of The Dying and the Dead. The title embodies his trademark mixture of epic scales, iconic characters, and smart writing.