Way back in 2009, Jonathan Hickman was a promising but niche indie creator known for thoughtful and complex works like The Nightly News and Pax Romana, but few could have predicted he’d be one of the most influential architects of the Marvel Universe for the next two decades. Before X-Men and Avengers, Fantastic Four and Secret Warriors, Hickman got the chance to stretch his legs in the Marvel Universe with a story about Roberto Da Costa and Sam Guthrie adrift in the Mojoverse.
Looking back, it makes sense that given free reign of the Marvel Universe, Hickman chose Cannonball and Sunspot given how much he obviously loves the characters. When he took over the Avengers franchise in 2012, he added Sam and Bobby to the expansive roster and gave them some genuine and long lasting character development. Sam married Smasher of the Imperial Guard and moved to space to raise their son while Bobby bought AIM and stepped up as the one person willing to stand for what it truly means to be an Avenger while everyone else was play-fighting another civil war. Then, when Hickman took over the X-Men line, he co-wrote the first arc of New Mutants which saw Bobby leading a team into Shi’Ar space to bring Sam home to Krakoa.
However, back in 2009, Hickman’s dreams of Secret Wars and Krakoa were still a long way off and even before Secret Warriors, which would come later that year, he had a chance to run wild in the Marvel Universe with “Bobby and Sam In Mojoworld”, six eight-page stories which ran in the second volume of Astonishing Tales. The series was an anthology that featured three recurring stories every issue along with a one-off short and it served as a platform for several future A-List creators alongside Hickman, including Kenneth Rocafort and Fiona Staples.
Hickman has a reputation for these big bold stories that he seeds over the course of years and I think a lot of people see him as a very serious writer, but he’s always had a major soft spot for comedy in his work. He wrote the sci-fi satire Transhuman which was published a year prior to this series and even his biggest Marvel stories have always had genuinely funny moments. Just look at how he writes Mr. Sinister in Secret Wars and Powers of X or the much-memed “We have money.” scene from Avengers #2. Hickman is a funny writer and Astonishing Tales gave him a chance to show that side of his work in an unrestrained way with possibly his wackiest superhero story.
The comedy in Astonishing Tales is a bit hit-and-miss for my tastes and skews a bit too broad in places, but when it hits it really hits. Sam and Bobby’s Civil War feature film, which mashes up the Marvel crossover event with the aesthetics of the actual American Civil War, is a highlight of the series and the Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey inspired game-off with Mojo is a lot of fun. However there are some duds in the mix; there’s a transphobic joke about watching out for the size of girls’ hands at Rio de Janiro’s carnival within the first two pages. It’s an unfortunate jab to kick the series off and too recent to be excused by “it was a different time” but it’s not the sort of humour that carries on through the rest of the series which is lot goofier and way more light-hearted..
Interestingly, Hickman himself pencils the bookend scenes in the first and final issues, bringing his unique, abstract style previously seen in The Nightly News and Pax Romana to the Marvel Universe. Hickman follows in the footsteps of other writer/artist creators who jumped to Marvel as primarily writers, like Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker, but it’s nice knowing there’s a small part of Marvel Comics where Hickman was able to make his artistic mark in addition to his written one. Hickman’s style maybe wouldn’t suit a full superhero story and these days he’s probably way too busy to consider drawing another book any time soon. He only draws six pages out of forty-seven, but as a fan of his work as an artist, it was a pleasant surprise to see.
Hickman’s art in the bookend scenes also serves as a brilliant juxtaposition to Nick Pitarra and Nathan Fairbairn’s art in the main story; Sam and Bobby’s abduction into a literal cartoon world is only amplified by the jarring clash in styles between Hickman and Pitarra. It’s a great way to reinforce the alien nature of Mojoworld and establish that Cannonball and Sunspot are out of place in the madman’s reality. There’s a great transition between the two pages where Sam and Bobby are literally morphed from one art style to the other and sucked into the Mojoverse, with the sequence cutting off at the bottom of page four and finishing up on page five, with the sound effect following them across the jump. It’s incredibly well done and just goes to show the kind of collaboration Hickman and Pitarra are going to have after this, reuniting for The Manhattan Projects at Image Comics.
There aren’t really many signs of the kind of creator Hickman is going to grow to be within the Marvel Universe, but there’s a deeper sense of what Hickman likes and the kinds of stories he enjoys telling in Astonishing Tales. I kind of want more stories like this; just give a creator free reign to tell a story with their absolute favourite characters, the characters that never get their own ongoing. Imagine that as a miniseries anthology; no restrictions, no limits, which character have you always wanted to write? That’s why “Bobby and Sam In Mojoworld” really stands out for me, it’s a creator just having the most fun possible with character’s he’s always loved. It’s the comic book equivalent of playing with action figures and isn’t that what we love about superhero stories, deep down?