March 11, 2020

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REVIEW: Decorum #1

Decorum #1
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Mike Huddleston
Published by Image Comics

Here's an axiom that's true about me.  If Jonathan Hickman writes a book, I'm going to write about it (as you can see here, here, here, and here). His work speaks to me in a way that few other comic writer's work does. He's up there with Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis as far as comics that are as complex as they are engaging. I find his interest in systems. structures, and hidden elites to be fertile ground for storytelling, whether it's an alternate-history apocalyptic Western, World War II, or dark magic controlling international finance. But, what I also love even more than all of these things is being surprised.  If a writer I love can zig when I expect the ot zag, that's even better.

Which brings me to issue 1 of Decorum, Hickman and artist Mike Huddleston's new creator-owned series. While the scope of this story feels incredibly vast, it also feels like a totally different focus than I've come to expect from Hickman. Rather than a look at the people behind the curtain moving the levers of society, this feels like a much more ground-level portrayal of someone operating within that structure. However, this being Hickman, there's also weird and intriguing hints at a much larger picture of society.

But honestly?  As intriguing as the story is (and it does seem quite promising), the chief selling point for this comic is the stunning art of Mike Huddleston. I'd never seen Huddleston's work before, and it's an absolute revelation. He is in complete visual command of this issue, displaying amazing skill in a number of completely different artistic styles that he blends together. 

As shown above, Decorum begins with what appears to be an illustration of European Conquistadors arriving in "The New World" centuries ago. But no.  You think they're Spaniards, but they're actually robots. The next thing you know they have floating ships that appear to have been teleported in, and the Natives are returning fire with laser cannons and riding Pterodactyls (because of course they are). This battle continues for a number of pages, until the conquering forces make their way to a city and retrieve a valuable artifact, which is then flown away off of this world.

The story then moves to a completely different setting. We're with Neha, a human courier on a sophisticated urban world, taking on a job that's risky but lucrative. She stops for Chinese food and shows up to her drop-off location, in the middle of what appears to be a tense standoff.  A woman named Morley representing a group known as the Syndicate Major has come to see a local crime lord named Doman. Doman is a business partner of the Syndicate, and apparently they're not happy with him. Then in walks Neha with her package, into this tense situation. From there, things get messy.  Morley wonders what to do with Neha, and Neha is wondering what she's gotten herself into.

So as I mentioned, prior to hearing about Decorum I had never heard of Mike Huddleston. Turns out, thats my loss, because he does stunning, varied work in this first issue.  The first part of the comic is pure painted science-fiction wonder.  Huddleston very quickly ramps up the action from the beginnings of first contact, to an intense battle between flying sail-ships and natives riding giant Pterodactyls. It sounds absurd, but Huddleston brings this incredible series events to life with remarkable skill. In these pages, I'm reminded a little of the wonderful work of artist Matteo Scalera in Black Science; that's also a story of weird incongruous worlds, and he has a somewhat similar, angular style. I'm particularly reminded of the early issues of Black Science where Scalera's art was colored by the terrific Dean White, who uses a painted style to great effect, evoking the classic work of Frank Frazetta.

Huddleston's also not just a painter of beautiful images but also clearly a skilled sequential storyteller, as the action, while chaotic-seeming, never becomes hard to follow. As seen in the above and below pages, Huddleston mixes up his painterly style for certain scenes, either to emphasize certain points, or establish mood.  In those sequences, he shirts to black & white, or more limited colors, and goes from a gentle, painted feel to much thicker, more intense linework.  We follow the colonizer robots (?) as they seek out some sort of key knowledge/artifact from the native population, and it's only 7 pages in that any characters in the story actually speak for the first time (and then, only briefly).  And Huddleston's imagination is on full display here, as the maybe-robots are stunningly weird and dissonant figures as contrasted wth the native, human-seeming population. They're vaguely human shaped, but pitch-back and highly geometrical in shape. They're weird and unsettling in the best possible way; they very much convey the *wrongness* of these beings' presence on this world. 

From there, the artifact is taken and flown into space, and there, Huddleston gives us a staggering view from space of the world we've seen and its place in the larger cosmos.  We watch an alien object (shaped like a diamond) leave this world and make its way elsewhere.  These gorgeous few pages remind me of the stunning psychedelic, cosmic work of Marco Rudy (particularly in the pages of Bucky Barnes: Winter Soldier).


But this trip into space is just an interlude and from there the story moves into a different location, and Huddleston adopts a completely different art style to suit the latter part of the story. As we follow Neha and then come to the tense standoff between Doman and his men, and Morley, Huddleston's art takes on a much more grounded feel. And the color palate becomes a lot more limited (at least most of the time). When we meet Neha as she's arguing with her boss about this courier job, it's almost a black & white comic, on faded paper, with dashes of red on certain objects. The change in style and color palate very clearly tells us we've moved into a different kind of story. Here, Huddleston's figure work is a lot more realistic, even in bringing to life non-human/alien figures. They sit and act and dress like people, and their humanity comes across (even in alien form).  And the setting is much more grounded and gritty than the first part of the story. Notwithstanding the futuristic setting, I'm reminded of the work of Becky Cloonan in Channel Zero or Riccardo Burchielli in DMZ

And remarkably, Huddeston shifts his artistic style again. It isn't dramatic, but actually feels like a synthesis of some of the various art styles that are shown throughout the issue. Neha leaves the Courier's office, and stops for Chinese food, and rides her motorbike/jet-ski across a waterway and towards the big city. Specifically towards the nightclub where Morley is about to confront Doman and his crew. In these pages, Huddleston maintains (for the most part) the more grounded, realistic style, but he gives the city skyline some bright, colorful, weird looks.  I feel like the introduction of this additional color serves to broaden the scope of the world.  As we're just inside a room, the color palate is minimal, almost nonexistent in some cases. But hen we move outside we can see that this is a city and a world that's part of a cosmopolitan, galactic civilization (hence the brighter colors).  And while the tense standoff is minimally colored, Doman's clothes have a remarkable, weird painted geometric quality to them. And there are other atmospheric uses of color, to indicate tension, or violence. 

So Huddleston really puts on a stunning, virtuosic display of artistic skill and versatility. But I don't just think Huddleston is showing everyone how talented he is (answer: very). All of the shifts in artistic style, tone, and color feel like they're in service to the storytelling.  These changes convey change in mood, action, location.



And what an intriguing story it is! I'm left very much wondering about the purpose of the initial part of the comic. Is this a specific scene of the past of the same world that's shown later in the issue?  Is this happening recently, or was it long ago?  In addition to Black Science, the whole remarkable sequence reminds me a little (in tone, more than content)  of the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey where the apes encounter the Monolith, and then the scene immediately shifts to the future and outer space. It's exciting to me that I really don't know what Hickman is saying in this initial sequence, or how it connects to the rest of the comic and the more specific story that he and Huddleston are telling. But I'm thrilled about this.  I really enjoy the themes that Hickman has explored in other comics (a powerful elite controlling society, or the economy, or science) and the way in which power corrupts them and turns them against one another.  But I don't feel like I need another story covering those themes.  And neither does Hickman, at least based on this first issue. I'm reminded of the recent Powers of X series written by Hickman and drawn by R.B. Silva, wherein Hickman and team take a deep dive into the distant future of mutants. Much like here, those sequences in Powers of X raised far more questions than they answered, but were really intriguing and left me wanted to know more. 

I do like a story that mixes the macro and micro, and this feels like it will work well in that regard. We've got big, cosmic ideas, but we've also got the story of a paid assassin with impeccable manners, and a courier who really probably wishes she'd said no to this particular job. Decorum was a delight to read and a serious feast for the eyes, and I can't wait to see where it goes. *

* [Note: The final version of Decorum #1 contains additional materials that were not included in the review PDF which was the basis for my review. The published issue contains data and infographic pages that provide some helpful context for the story.]