Jonathan Hickman, Ryan Bodenheim, and Michael Garland, the team behind Secret are reteaming on January 28 for the debut of the newest Image Comics series The Dead and The Dying. The Dead and The Dying #1 is in many ways exactly what you would expect from this creative team and, specifically, from a Hickman comic. There is a convoluted collection of mysteries, conspiracies, and secrets composing a world that borders upon being inexplicable. Hickman and Bodenheim reveal an unexpected center to that complex landscape, showing the series to be about something far more personal and human than the Machiavellian machinations that surround it.
It’s not until about a third of the way into this issue’s massive 60 pages that the series discovers its heart in the form of The Colonel, a WWII veteran caring for his cancer-stricken wife in the year 1969. He is equal parts John Wayne and Paul Newman, placed firmly in the realm of American myth and legend. The Colonel is direct in both speech and manner, wasting neither his time nor his breath. Hickman has written him to be a hero in the tradition of the Silver Age of Hollywood and Bodenheim has captured that essence in his face while adding a few decades.
His appearance and attitude establish the tone of the series, presenting the world from his perspective as the story continues. It is equal parts Western and pulp adventure, two genres defined and loved by baby boomers. Embracing tropes from both genres creates a story defined by the history that produced the Colonel’s generation, aka the “Greatest Generation”. There is a sense of admiration for this man and when he comes from in The Dead and The Dying #1. The wonders of secret societies and underground cultures all look at him eye-to-eye. He is never shown to be awestruck or dazzled by what he encounters because his accomplishments are held in the same regard as the wonders Bodenheim creates on the page. Hickman’s focus lies not on the genre elements themselves, but on the man with which they are connected.
The heart of The Dead and The Dying can be found in the Colonel’s journey and the choices he makes in this first issue. In fact, it can be glimpsed in the title itself. The Colonel is a man aged past his prime and forced to reflect on the ephemeral nature of life as he watches his wife succumb to cancer. This simple and very real conceit lies at the center of everything he does. It is what digs into the concepts of accepting death, letting go, and coming to terms with our own mortality. Although their connections to the Colonel have not been established within the story, the appearance of supernatural or science-fiction oriented characters all connect to the ideas of death and dying as well. No matter how complex the plot becomes, this comic is centered on whether it is more noble to accept death as a natural part of life or to fight it until the last moment in spite of the costs.
That question and its presentation is fascinating. It makes much of the world building and mysteries presented in The Dead and The Dying #1 feel cold and removed though. The fantastical and conspiratorial sequences are disconnected from the Colonel and his human tale. They function as distinct components of a complex machine that has not yet been revealed, like small wheels and cogs of clockwork. Like clockwork, they lack humanity and are left removed from the passionate center of this issue.
The opening sequence of The Dead and The Dying #1 takes place during a luxurious wedding at a remote estate in what appears to be the Mediterranean. This wedding is presented as both a fanciful and loving affair, the kind of matrimonial ceremony that many couples may dream of but discover to be unrealizable. Joy is quickly subverted by the appearance of a team of assassins who descend upon the estate. What follows is quickly paced and extraordinarily brutal. There is no feeling to the sequence outside of the shock at the loss of human life itself. As beautiful as the wedding is, the attendants, bride, and groom have no more personality than a commercial for a bridal store. They are merely pieces in a chess game that has not been revealed to the reader.
Bodenheim’s construction of this sequence is excellent. He builds tension as the threat is revealed rising from the ocean, punctuating moments of joy with glimpses of the doom moving towards the party. When the action begins, it is juxtaposed between happy panels of the wedding night. Violent displays of invasion rattle across the page like bullets. It is the purposeful destruction of the serene opening setting of the comic and it makes the entire sequence more painful than the script would allow.
The opening sequence also introduces Garland’s use of coloring in The Dead and The Dying. He applies a variety of monochromatic palettes as the story progresses. Throughout the wedding he makes use of shades of blues, reds, and a muted red that almost appears gray. Blues are used to evoke the tranquil wedding preceding the attack, while reds denote moments of violence, pain, and confusion. It is the panels in which these colors combine that are most noteworthy. The top panel of page two presents a sunset over the bay. The bay and wedding participants are shown in blue, but the sunset and sky are red foreshadowing the misery that waits just beyond the horizon. The use of monochromatic palettes to denote thematic meaning is a theme that runs throughout many of Hickman’s creator owned series (e.g. The Manhattan Projects), and is applied by Garland to great effect here.
Bodenheim makes the most of the fantastical settings provided within the story. There are two spreads in The Dead and The Dying #1, and they make for an excellent balance of one another. One is placed on terra firma reflecting our world and the other shows a secret society known to only a few human beings. The former is sparse and open, while the latter is an intricate construct of a people who have carefully crafted the facades of their society. It is beautifully drawn and detailed, showing the culture of this mysterious place instead of telling about it.
He attempts to make other less visually engaging sequences interesting as well. In a six page conversation between two sitting men, he alternates the point of view and reveals details of the mysterious Bishop in order to maintain some variety. It’s a difficult sequence to make engaging and represents a significant slump in the comic where Hickman’s scripting devolves into a talking heads scenario.
These conversations, assassinations, secret societies, and other clockwork constructions are all facilitating the heart of The Dead and The Dying. They are there to help tell the story of the Colonel, a relic of the “Greatest Generation” forced to confront the nature of mortality. That is the story Hickman and Bodenheim are most interested in telling here, and it is one worth reading. Focusing on that, The Dead and The Dying #1 is the beginning of a comic that will explore our most primal fears and drives, and will tell it in impeccable style.