The Ten Best Jonathan Hickman Comics of All Time

Main Art by Alex Ross

Comics Galleries
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The Ten Best Jonathan Hickman Comics of All Time

Cerebral scribe, artist and designer Jonathan Hickman has tended, in his career, to commit to long runs on a handful of related books over short stints on a wide variety of properties, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise that the same titles repeatedly floated to the top when Paste asked its contributors to rank the creator’s best work to coincide with the release of the first issue of The Black Monday Murders, his new Image “crypto-noir” series with artist Tomm Coker.

Hickman, who broke into the public eye with 2006’s Eisner-nominated The Nightly News, which he both wrote and drew, recently concluded what turned out to be one long Marvel Comics epic told throughout various titles spanning 2009 through 2016, and seems to be focusing his efforts on creator-owned comics for the foreseeable future. The interconnectedness of his work for the House of Ideas made ranking this list difficult: are some of these sister titles even appreciably distinct stories? Sound off in the comments if you think we got it wrong, and let us know about our most egregious omissions.

10. Ultimate Comics: Ultimates

Artists: Esad Ribic, Brandon Peterson
Publisher: Marvel Comics

In Ultimate Comics: Ultimates (yes, we know), Hickman embraced his inner Jack Kirby, unleashing a host of engulfing sci-fi concepts to rival The King's latter-day creation of the Fourth World at DC. The alternate versions of the Avengers were the least interesting players in this title; Hickman's point of interest is an ever-evolving super-humanity, a terrifying Petri dish cultivated by an evil version of Fantastic Four patron Reed Richards. And under Esad Ribic's pencil, this pocket population truly looked enhanced. Though this comic only lasts two arcs, it serves as an invaluable chapter of Hickman's mega-Marvel myth that eventually culminates in Secret Wars. It's also the most logical, disturbing extension of Richard's detached emotions—a man willing to pursue innovation at the cost of the antiquated. Sean Edgar

9. Avengers

Artists: Jerome Opeña, Adam Kubert, Others
Publisher: Marvel Comics

"It began with two was life, and the other death." Hickman's Avengers run starts out as cosmically and grandiose as so much of his other work, bringing a reverence and loftiness to the Avengers' caped antics. The entire run, from Hickman's assignment of alpha and omega, life and death to the Avengers' two moral touchpoints (Iron Man and Captain America), feels like church—like a parable told in strange, echoing hallways about legacy, opposition and brotherly love. And for all of the high-minded intellectualism and necessary exposition to get from the first arc, "Avengers World," to the reality-warping Secret Wars, Hickman's Avengers works just as well when he zeroes in on new recruits like Cannonball and Sunspot goofing off and enjoying the ride. Tini Howard

8. The Nightly News

Publisher: Image Comics

Hickman's first comic, which he wrote and illustrated, is startling both for the boldness of the subject matter and the confidence of the creator. This is one of the most unique comics of the past 20 years, and it feels more relevant today than ever.

The story involves a terrorist group, led by a mysterious person known only as the Voice (which only speaks on cheap tapes to acolytes). The Voice, just like any good cult leader, has a mission: killing journalists for their complicity in keeping the world fubar. The story delves deep into the worlds of terrorism, cults, journalism and conspiracy, creating a brutal, bloodthirsty satire. Hickman reels the reader in with work that's multidimensional, to say the least. The writing is somehow both hard-boiled and academic, and the art is photorealistic yet abstract as hell. The overall effect is a dense, information-packed comic that could have been preachy but is actually fact-y and thrilling.

This comic is even more necessary today, as media bias and gun violence have both gotten much more attention. If you enjoy this series (and Pax Romana), you'll be happy to know Hickman is returning to illustrating his own work in the forthcoming Frontier. Mark Peters

7. Secret Warriors

Artists: Stefano Caselli, Alessandro Vitti, Mirko Colak
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Working from an idea created by Brian Michael Bendis, a then-little-known Jonathan Hickman hit the ground running at Marvel with Secret Warriors, the spiritual successor to the greatest Jim Steranko S.H.I.E.L.D. stories ever told—and a preview of the complex, interconnected storytelling Hickman would soon bring to the wider Marvel Universe. "Wheels within wheels" became an important phrase throughout the series, illustrated by Stefano Caselli, Alessandro Vitti and Mirko Colak, and it just as easily describes Hickman's entire oeuvre. At the time, though, Secret Warriors was simply a pitch-perfect spy action series starring Nick Fury and a squad of "caterpillars": new characters recruited from the children of existing Marvel heroes and villains. That premise has gone on to heavily influence Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show, but the live-action equivalent pales in comparison to the source material. Secret Warriors is also notable as perhaps Hickman's most self-contained Marvel work; while it references his never-quite-finished S.H.I.E.L.D. series, its various threads weave together into an explosive climax that wraps up all major storylines and lets its surviving characters, most notably seismic secret agent Daisy Johnson, loose in the 616. Steve Foxe

6. Pax Romana

Publisher: Image Comics

Jonathan Hickman's fondness for bold design elements, incorporation of other media into comics storytelling and head-twisting alternate histories can all be found in abundance in Pax Romana. It begins halfway through the 21st century, where a faction within the Catholic Church uses time travel to send a group of long-lived, genetically-enhanced mercenaries to the days of the Roman Empire in the hopes that they will change history to the Church's benefit.

What follows is a saga of betrayals both personal and ideological, as a group of military strategists bends history to take a very different path. The framing story, in which a new emperor is told the history of the world so far, promises plenty of bizarre imagery and technology (the phrase, "A Series-7 Gene Pope" is used). At times, Hickman shifts from comics to timelines; several of which could be expanded into gripping storylines in their own right. Overall, the book stands as one of his most successful blends of dynamic characters and bold concepts. Tobias Carroll

5. The Manhattan Projects

Artist: Nick Pitarra, Ryan Browne
Publisher: Image Comics

The premise of this Image series is delicious: what if building the atomic bomb was the most innocent thing the scientists of the Manhattan Projects were working on? In this alternate history, we see actual historical figures behaving in ways I hope to Thor are not accurate. The group of scientists—including versions of Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Harry Daghlian and ex-Nazi Wernher Von Braun—explore portals to alternate universes, commit genocide on other planets, murder Presidents and form a secret alliance with equally shady Russian scientists. They utterly live up to the series' blurb: "Science. Bad."

Nick Pitarra's art is very influenced by Frank Quitely but not a ripoff: I can't imagine anyone else drawing an out-of-control AI with FDR's brain or a chainsaw-wielding Albert Einstein with such detail and gusto. Colorist Jordie Bellaire does some of her best work, moving between vibrant palettes and two-color simplicity. The reds and blues of the Oppenheimer brothers give the series a distinctive look that's as unhinged as most of the characters. Oh, the series also features a civil war taking place inside the brain of Joseph Oppenheimer, who ate his brother Robert and absorbed his mind. Guest artist Ryan Browne (God Hates Astronauts, Blast Furnace) makes these Oppenheimer's brain issues a trip down the most psychotic-yet-enjoyable rabbit hole ever. Mark Peters

4. Secret Wars

Artist: Esad Ribic
Publisher: Marvel Comics

While it's fun to talk about "event fatigue" and both Marvel and DC's reliance on nonstop event-comic buildup and fallout, the nuance missing from that criticism is that readers aren't opposed to big stories, but to the often-subpar execution. In too many events to name, the inciting incidents feel contrived and the characterization of popular characters goes out the window to service the status-quo-refiguring "plot." Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic's grand treaty Secret Wars is the largest-scale event comic Marvel has published since House of M, but it's also one born out of half a decade of careful planning, from the Council of Reeds in Fantastic Four to the intergalactic interference of Infinity to the treacherous decisions of the Illuminati in New Avengers. The stunningly illustrated nine-issue epic not only pressed the soft reset button on the entire Marvel Universe, uniting the salvageable elements of the Ultimate Universe with the core 616, it also closed the door on all of Hickman's Marvel work up to that point, rewarding his longtime readers with a poignant and powerful arc for the Richards family and Doctor Doom, perhaps one of the most complicated characters in Marvel's stable thanks to Hickman's deft handling. Secret Wars warped reality without ever losing sight of what matters most in superhero storytelling: character. Steve Foxe

3. East of West

Artist: Nick Dragotta
Publisher: Image Comics

There's an unabashed romanticism to stories set in the Old West, or any reasonable facsimile of mid- to late-1800s America between the Mississippi and the Rockies. On the surface, East of West buys in to a lot of the mysticism and worship of that time and place that Hollywood started instilling in audiences decades ago. Hickman quickly turns expectations away from that well-trod pattern in a book that feels like The Man in a High Castle meets American Gods, but with more creepy not-quite-children and lots of guns. Set in a almost totally believable future on the verge of destruction, East of West introduces a world where the American Civil War never ended and the western U.S. was divided into seven spheres of influence that are fighting for survival. Artist Nick Dragotta and colorist Frank Martin Jr. are absolutely vital to the effort, serving up backgrounds and characters that wouldn't look out of place in True Grit, but with elements of magic and technology that would be better suited to The Fifth Element. Though the bulk of the plot focuses on political intrigue and historically accurate violence in the pursuit of power, there are love stories at the heart of nearly every arc, be it romantic or familial. Hickman's done a lot of fascinating worldbuilding that continues to twine the characters into tighter patterns of alliance and betrayal, as all the best Westerns do. Caitlin Rosburg

2. New Avengers

Artists: Steve Epting, Mike Deodato, Simone Bianchi, Valerio Schiti, Kev Walker, Others
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Jonathan Hickman takes a special glee in writing sacred cows—especially politicians and leaders—and leveling them down to their most vulnerable, emotional and ugly core. He's like the Inhumans character Karnak, if the anti-hero were a bearded, soccer-loving comic scribe who had a portion of his brain devoted exclusively to foreshadowing. That tendency falls on full display in The Manhattan Projects, which reveals humanity's greatest scientists as aliens, barbarians and evil twins. But Hickman's run on New Avengers performed a full autopsy on the personas of the Marvel U.'s finest leading men, including Mr. Fantastic, Black Bolt, Black Panther, Dr. Strange and Namor. Especially Namor. The series constantly questioned how evil a deed could get before the greater good was no longer "good." In this case, the clandestine team was forced to prevent incursions—events that collided two universes together, destroying both in the process. The only solution? Destroying a parallel earth. "Hero" is a relative term in the Marvel U. after reading this sci-fi Pandora's Box. Sean Edgar

1. Fantastic Four & FF

Artists: Steve Epting, Nick Dragotta, Various
Publisher: Marvel Comics

The Fantastic Four, as created so many decades ago by Stan and Jack, is about family as much as it's about big-idea science-fiction, and Jonathan Hickman proved across these two deeply connected titles that he understands that balance as well as anyone in the franchise's storied history. Hickman's Reed Richards is a hyper-genius torn between his informed rationality—he simply knows the correct course of action—and the emotional responsibility he feels toward the ones he loves, a conflict mirrored by his precociously intelligent daughter, Valeria. Yet as much as Hickman's tenure was a father/daughter story (and he provided not only a lot of Reed, but a lot of Reeds, plural), the writer also brought new complexity to the rest of the Four, characters who are too often flattened to Dutiful Wife and Mother, Flirtatious Brother and Lunkhead Best Friend. He even managed to make Peter Parker, who joined to fulfill Johnny Storm's dying wish, a compelling addition to the family dynamic.

We ultimately decided to split Avengers and New Avengers into distinct entries, despite both dealing with incursions and the lead-in to Hickman's two mega-events, but separating Fantastic Four and FF seems wrong, as the books amount to the adult table and the kids table of the same family feast. Spun off in the wake of Johnny Storm's heroic sacrifice, FF saw Reed attempt to make good on his promise to better humanity by creating the Future Foundation, a think tank for young geniuses from across the Earth. While Fantastic Four continued to deal with reality-threatening events, FF helped humanize these cosmic conflicts through the eyes of its young (although not always technically human) cast. Both books work in concert to set up the incursions that would later dominate Hickman's work with the Avengers and Secret Wars, but neither Fantastic Four nor FF ever feel like preamble without payoff. At the end of the day and despite many lofty high concepts, both books are about one very fantastic family doing its best to love and protect each other. Steve Foxe