The premise of The Dying and the Dead is deceptively simple: an aging hero embarks on a quest to find a cure for the cancer which is ravaging his wife, and is tasked to save the world in order to receive it.
Sound easy enough, right?
Jonathan Hickman’s latest series debut from independent publisher Image Comics takes this simple premise, wraps it in a tense narrative, gritty artwork, and beautiful color palette and delivers what may easily be the best comic book of the week. The cinematic storytelling style and broad scope of the story may also make it his best bet yet for a cinematic adaptation, due largely to it’s use of heroic archetype which was once a rarity in Hollywood, but seems to be coming into vogue, namely that of the grizzled and embittered adventurer at the end of his story, as opposed to the beginning. Colonel Edward Canning is a character cast in the mold of Duke McQueen from Mark Millar’s stellar Starlight series, but possesses a more grounded aesthetic and a far less vainglorious motive for setting out on his final quest, something which would make him a solid choice to carry a film.
The character of Colonel Canning marks somewhat of a departure for Hickman, in that he typically makes his protagonists the couriers of a series’ high-minded thoughts and deep examinations. One of the few exceptions to this being the interstellar gardener Ex Nihilo in his Avengers run. Canning, in The Dying and The Dead, is remarkably simple in his worldview and his attitudes, and that is the very point of him. As one of the other characters says, Canning is “someone who does exactly what he says he us going to do — an extinct species… What his people used to call a hero.” Canning is not just old, which would make this series an exercise in geriatric adventuring, but he is old fashioned. He is direct, no-nonsense, and brusque. He is the sort of man you could imagine Indiana Jones having evolved into were your brain not already tainted by the comical approach taken in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Like many of Hickman’s works, The Dying and the Dead has it’s roots in decades of conspiracy theory. More than any other writer working in the comic book medium, Hickman mines this fertile ground of fever dreams for interesting concepts and macguffins. In the first issue of The Dying and The Dead, several of these are on full display. We see Nazi breeding programs hidden in the mountains of Germany, pale-skinned ancient peoples living within a hollow earth, and a hidden history of which humanity is denied knowledge. For fans of this sort of fiction, seeing whether Hickman chooses to explore any of these elements in depth will be of utmost concern, but even if they remain simply a part of the backdrop, they create a rich tapestry for the story to rely upon. The primary and story-related mystery left lingering in this issue is the nature of the threat the world faces. While obviously legions of cloned Aryan warriors are cause for concern, the larger danger is what they’re chanting. “Bah al’Sharur.”
The Dying and the Dead is filled with Arabic-sounding names and titles, but some online research into the word “Sharur” reveals that the word is actually Sumerian. It describes an artifact which bears a great number of similarities to the hammer of Thor. It is a mystical mace, described as possessing the ability to return to the wielder when thrown, but possessing a far greater sentience than it’s Norse counterpart. The lone glimpse we get at the artifact itself doesn’t seem to resemble a mace, but something which is emphasized in the Bishop’s conversations with Canning is that none of the stories which humanity has told itself (or been told) can necessarily be trusted.
The association of Sharur with mountains and primordial elements is particularly interesting, given the subterranean nature of the people who dispatch Colonel Canning on his mission, and that the portal to their realm is shown to be accessible through the desert, something which defies many of the traditional conspiracy tropes which have this sort of people being reached primarily through the icy polar regions or via oceanic gateways.
Tangential concerns aside, the story flows very well in The Dying and the Dead‘s first issue. Where many of Hickman’s works suffer from the epidemic of decompression which has plagued comic books in recent years, this first installment of The Dying and Dead manages to hum along at a good clip, establishing all of the central elements of the world, the motivations of the hero, and the general nature of the challenge he will face.
Handling the art for this series is Ryan Bodenheim, who has shown that he has a perfect grasp on the sort of world which suits Hickman’s work. The two have worked together in the past, both on the long-delayed Secret and the high-concept science fiction epic Red Mass for Mars. In The Dying and the Dead, Bodenheim’s character models defy the double-triangle standard of comic book art, instead showing us real people with real wrinkles, sags, and blemishes. The exceptions to this are the freakishly smooth-skinned agents of the opposition, whose angular perfection lends them an otherworldly feel which makes them seem dangerously unreal.
On colors, Michael Garland does a remarkable job with a startlingly simple approach. Every sequence has its own dominant color and, as the story progresses through realms mundane and magical, the selection shifts, serving to create a unique aesthetic for each setting and enhancing the feeling of otherworldly transition as the reader moves between them.
Jonathan Hickman is currently the hottest name in comics, and The Dying and the Dead may be his most compelling debut issue in years. Beautifully aided by the perfectly complementary style of Ryan Bodenheim’s pencils and Michael Garland’s palette, it’s tight-knit plot, fleshed out hero, and the promise of an intriguing world to be explored earn it a solid 10/10.