The Architect of the Marvel Universe
Jonathan Hickman is in charge of laying the groundwork for the future Marvel Universe. He opens up about Secret Wars, the MCU, and what’s next for your favorite heroes.
Over the past decade, Jonathan Hickman has taken the comic book world by storm. From groundbreaking titles like The Manhattan Projects and East of West for Image Comics, to the more recent epic runs with the Fantastic Four, Avengers, and the already critically acclaimed Secret Wars for Marvel, Hickman has seen and done it all.
He’s designated as the main writer for Marvel’s Secret Wars event that is resetting the entire comic book universe, adding a refreshing dimension of drama to many of your favorite superheroes. Hickman’s tales aren’t mere good vs. evil fare—they’re layered stories imbued with shades of gray where you, against your better judgment, can find yourself sympathizing with the most cruel, sadistic villains and questioning the most heroic figures.
The Daily Beast sat down with Hickman to discuss the epic conclusion to his story in Marvel Comics’ Secret Wars, how movies have come to influence comics, and what is next for one of the most talented and thrilling writers in the business.
How has it been working on Secret Wars?
Well, Secret Wars has been nice for a couple of reasons. One, it’s been radically different to the work schedule I had leading up to it, which was doing an ungodly number of Avengers during a 2½-year period of time. You could take five years to do a 60-issue series and we did more than that in half the time. So, the velocity of the work I was doing that led up to Secret Wars was kind of insane. And with Secret Wars I’ve been able to take the time and really put a lot of love into it and do it the way I wanted it to be done. The other cool thing about it is that it is the culmination of a ton of stuff I’ve been working on for years. It’s good to get to the end. It feels good to stick the landing.
Did you propose Secret Wars and the events leading up to it, or was it something that Marvel brought to you after you introduced the idea of the multiverse early in your Fantastic Four run?
Marvel didn’t really propose it. There are times when Marvel will say, “This is an important property for us and we need to do a book about this, this way.” I’ve never gotten any of that. I always bring stuff to them, including Secret Wars. Now, they saw the opportunity of it because that’s what they do, right? But, Tom Brevoort and I came up with the germ of what Secret Wars would become years and years and years ago, when I was working on Secret Warriors and had just started Fantastic Four. It’s been in the works a long time but we didn’t know it was going to become this big. I always knew I was going to do a final arc of the story I was telling; I didn’t know it was going to take over the entire Marvel universe.
How did you decide which characters would be part of the story? Obviously, since the idea of the multiverse began in the Fantastic Four, Reed Richards had to be a part of it.
Some of them come from the story I’ve been telling all along. Doctor Doom, Reed Richards, Black Panther, Namor, Captain America, and Iron Man didn’t make it all the way, but they were a huge part of the events leading up. Those were just the characters that I was writing during Fantastic Four that then took over the Avengers books. But Secret Wars being a big huge thing, you want to give it as many entry points as possible. The Guardians of The Galaxy had been really, really successful, so we wanted to have some of those characters in it. There were other characters that we wanted to elevate. All the big, huge, main characters—I picked them all. But we still came up with a list of characters to choose from in addition to the ones I had been using that we wanted to stick in there, Star Lord being a good example.
There’s overlap between the characters Marvel has plans to develop in the cinematic universe and some main characters in Secret Wars. For example, Black Panther has a movie in the works, as does Captain Marvel. Are there any plans to introduce Secret Wars into the MCU post-Infinity War?
Oh, I have no idea. That’s the movie side of things. I’m in the writers’ rooms with the creative suits that we do, so I know what the publishing arm is doing months or years in advance. In some of those we get heads-up on what the studio is going to be doing. But for the most part those things are so sprawling and large that there is a really small group of people that are responsible for the synergy that goes on between the two arms, and I am absolutely not part of that.
You’ve crafted this huge world in Secret Wars that will serve as the starting point for the new generation of Marvel comics. With the Fantastic Four having played such an important role in the events leading up to Secret Wars, can you talk about why Marvel decided to discontinue the franchise?
All I can say is that there may be story reasons for that and people will have to read on to find out…
Ah, OK. So then, as a fan and previous contributor to the Fantastic Four canon, did you get a chance to check out the Fantastic Four movie that was just released?
I did see it. It’s tough because of the times we live in; it’s not like I went to the movie and was unaware of the drama surrounding the movie. It was almost impossible to avoid the fact that the studio was not getting along with the director. There was all that Hollywood drama on the production side in the news before the movie even came out! You can’t help but go into it and see something in the movie you didn’t like and, of course, wonder if that was a studio decision or a director decision or was this a compromise that neither one was happy with and was the only common ground they could find. In something that was clearly a big problem, you go see the movie and then it accentuates it. I think that movie was one of those things that people set up to get the hell beaten out of it, and so it did. It’s tough to talk about the Fantastic Four because I’ve done so much of it, so of course I have really strong opinions about how it should or shouldn’t be done. But that has nothing to do with other people’s creative vision for how Marvel’s First Family should be portrayed. I think it was a failure, but I don’t think there is any way to know whose fault it was. I don’t think it was a very cool environment to work in.
If you were, hypothetically speaking, to be involved in a Fantastic Four movie, having so much experience from the comic books, how would you tell their story on the big screen?
I have no idea. If I had to distill it down to one thing, I would say that it would be a more successful franchise in general if you give them their kids and skew Reed and Sue a little bit older. It would work more as a family movie, since that’s the crux of the story. There is a reason why The Incredibles was so successful, other than being well done.
Speaking of the Fantastic Four as a family, why break them off in Secret Wars? Without giving much away, there was the scene with Reed, Sue, and the kids in the ship during the incursion…. But after that you still have them exist in all these different parts of the world.
Well, Secret Wars is not a Fantastic Four story—it’s a Doctor Doom story. And the point of Secret Wars is to prove, “Is Doctor Doom a better Reed Richards?” Is it because he is a megalomaniac? Because of who he is he constructs this scenario where he takes the place of his archenemy. And he is completely genuine; it’s not delusional.
What role do the different tie-in stories in the Secret Wars world play in the overarching story? Are you directly involved with those?
Some of them I am involved in. The vast majority I am not. I built the world, made up the vast majority of the rules, and I laid out who is pulling whom. There was a big creative summit where a bunch of people pitched a bunch of cool books and that’s what ended up on the stands. There were a bunch of stories that were equally as awesome and didn’t make it because we can only publish 70 books.
How did you decide who got their own comic book series in the all-new Marvel universe, post-Secret Wars?
Basically the same way. There was another summit later on and everybody talked about the future and pitched more books—some were fantastic and others got beat up by everyone in the room until they were good. I was there and gave notes and liked a whole lot of it. That’s usually how the planning process goes. With the individual stories, for example, it is unto Jason Aaron to figure out what he’s doing with Doctor Strange. He would come into a room and pitch what his Doctor Strange book would be and everyone either loves it and has a few notes, or loves it and has no notes, or hates it and has a bunch of notes, or there is a huge disagreement. In the end it’s up to the writer to decide what they are going to do with their editor.
Did you know how Secret Wars would end?
I always knew how it was going to end—or at least hoped to. What happens is either you think of something better or the story progresses in a manner you weren’t expecting, surprising and wonderful. This was the case of a bunch of stuff coming together that I can’t really talk about until it’s done. This was like 80 percent planned and 20 percent good fortune.
Back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Which of the characters in the movies have you been the most satisfied with?
There is no question that Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark now. There is no one working on an Iron Man book that doesn’t hear his voice when they are writing. It’s so pervasive. He is so good that he has consumed every single aspect of the character and it has permeated everything, which is fantastic for him and Marvel. But I think the tangential stuff is interesting. It was obvious that the big Marvel characters—Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, or Hulk—were going to work. That’s easy. It’s all about layout. Guardians of The Galaxy was revelatory for Marvel. It gave them a lot of confidence to say, “We can take stuff that isn’t our A-list characters, do interesting things, and make them just as important to the company as anything else.” Right now it feels like Marvel is in an interesting place where a lot of stuff on the creative side is changing, even what you can or can’t do. It’s a transition period that is cinematically driven. On the creative side of the comic we are not there yet. But probably in the next two or three years stuff is going to be really interesting in the kind of books they are going to be producing and the kind of content that will get elevated. It’s awkward right now, but it’s getting ready to be really fascinating.
In terms of the symbiotic relationship between the movies and the comic books, and going back to what you mentioned about Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark, do you think Marvel movies are starting to influence the comics more than the comics informing the movies?
I think that’s inevitable. The cinematic stuff has started to inform the comics and the comics have started to take it in a new direction. The Agents of Shield comic, for example, will be very interesting. It’s all a feedback loop. One will inform the other, and vice-versa. If it is managed properly it will be a very positive thing, if not then they will have to figure out how to make it work.
What’s a B-list character that you would love to see represented in their own book or movie?
I have no idea. [Laughs] If I was to choose from stuff that hasn’t been done, or is planned… Obviously I am stoked about the coming Black Panther stuff. I think everything from the movie to the comic line will all be very exciting. That said, I would like to see some of the Celestial/Eternals high-end Jack Kirby stuff done. That’s something no one has really put their fingers on yet.
What are your plans after Secret Wars is over?
Well, I’m going to take a break from Marvel for a little while because I need a break. East of West is going to continue with Image and I’ve got some other cool books coming through Image that I’m really excited about and can’t talk about yet. I’m feeling good. I’m in a solid creative place. I’ve been sleeping for a couple of weeks, catching up. [Laughs] Eating better, exercising and trying to get the batteries juiced up to do some really cool work.