The media is the message
I really had every intention of skipping the presidential debates this year. It’s not as if I am an undecided voter. Far from it, as I consider many of my inherent civil rights to be at risk this year more than in any year past. And it’s not as if I don’t enjoy a good argument. Ask my husband, my best friend, my father — pretty much anyone who’s met me — I consider political and philosophical debate a contact sport, and I play to win.
The anxiety of the last few weeks, amid a barrage of media coverage for the American election, has started to get to me in a way it hasn’t in prior cycles. Maybe it’s because I feel like this country is starting to see real change toward marriage equality and treatment of LGBT citizens, so that any movement backwards is all the more crushing for the steps already taken. Maybe it’s because my tolerance for those that disagree with my point of view lessens for every year I grow older. Either way, the tension is palpable every time I turn on a television or obsessively compare polls on CNN with FOX and The Huffington Post. I have no idea how I’ll manage the next ten days, but I can safely say it won’t be by avoiding the media. To paraphrase the great 1976 satire film Network, I’m mad as hell, but I’m just going to keep on watching. I’m not built for avoiding spoilers, polls, or other foolishness that I could get worked up about. I can barely wait until Wednesday to read my comics, and I’m not about to lose hospital visitation rights from this month’s Superman.
This is not a healthy information ecosystem we’re living in, where one feels compelled to follow the news, jumping from channel to channel, to pick up every last sound bite to exploit or laud for the sake of peace of mind. The experience of an election build-up is barely about politics at this point. There’s no question real differences exist between candidates or parties — I believe now more than ever. But the process of engaging these figureheads from the comfort of our homes isn’t about defining the differences in any productive sort of way. We are living in an age of 24-hour infotainment designed to simultaneously engage and distract its viewers. The concept of fact checking as a point of contention rather than simply rote only magnifies the circus atmosphere — masters of illusion follow acrobats of policy, all careful to draw our eyes away from what’s lurking outside the spotlight. One wonders what happens when the tightrope inevitably snaps and the audience can’t unsee the tragedy in front of them. Something much like The Nightly News, I’d wager.
In his debut comic book work, writer/artist Jonathan Hickman sculpts a world so completely like our own that, were it not for the central narrative, one could almost consider The Nightly News a piece of educational non-fiction. Published in 2006 and 2007 by Image Comics, Hickman’s tale centers on a small band of citizens who have been marginalized for one reason or another by the news media. Discredited newsmen discarded only after fulfilling corporate-driven expectations join the ranks of journalistic subjects whose lives have been torn apart by reports gone unchecked. A cult arises, led by a man known as the Hand, who answers to and spreads the instructions of the Voice — the undisputed mastermind of what becomes a systematic bloodbath of the media, those used to being the manipulators themselves.
Hickman lays out his premise systematically, fact checking his own thesis on media control through a juxtaposition of character monologues with infographic-style presentations — topics ranging from monetary globalization to Ritalin prescription among pre-teens, media credibility surveys and more. His protagonists are notably terrorists, even gunning down an innocent man to draw out their supposedly guilty journalistic targets. Yet the case is made so eloquently for their cause that one can’t help but rally them on and experience some amount of disappoint as the first cracks in their mission planning appear. Clearly, the cult at work here mirrors the agenda of its own targets. It is a subversively appealing set of heroes, conveying exactly what its members (and the reader) wants to hear, with the vigor of righteousness behind every word. Violently eliminating one reporter after another may seem unjustifiable, until one is a fly on the wall of backroom dealings and private barroom boasts. Newsmen and senators speak glibly of educating and entertaining the masses as if they were a mob in the Coliseum. Nevertheless, it becomes clear as the series goes on that far more subtle manipulations are at work than the patently obvious, leaving the reader to question revolution as profoundly as the threatening institution itself.
Further complicating the message behind The Nightly News is Hickman’s unbelievably stunning series design, a perfect metaphor for the glossy veneer coating both media presentation of the news and the captivating direction of a cult. Drawing on his own career as a graphic designer, Hickman wraps his story in an unbearably beautiful style reminiscent of the very pop culture-infused structure he’s critiquing. Repeated patterns of circles within circles — reminiscent of the Target brand logo — combine with painstaking photo-reference. Captions litter the page in perfectly chosen positions, breaking to detailed charts and figures in a style most commonly found in a corporate annual report. The tightly controlled color palette (warm for the events of today, cool for those of the past) and meticulously aligned text boxes make for an almost perfect page structure, if not for the aggressive breaks Hickman employs to let us know nothing is truly that pristine.
Shattering the seamlessness of each page, the Hand and his followers appear as solitary figures with ragged white halos, almost crackling with energy against the graphic conformity expected of them. Apparently random white specks grace nearly every page, as if blood drops or paint splatters intended to mar the cleanliness of the carefully planned artistic canvas. Detailed backgrounds are replaced with repeated line pattern fading to watercolor brushed hues, seemingly an artist-saving device, but in fact serving a greater purpose: characters can appear simultaneously solitary and agitated against an ever-changing kaleidoscope of cultural detritus. The convoluted gestalt of the page layout alone could tell the tale of a society going mad on its own twisted communication framework.
The Nightly News, even five years later, stands as a dire warning not just against blind trust in media, but against blind faith in revolution as well. There are no bad guys or good guys — angels or demons — unilaterally fit to decide what is best for the whole of society. What we have instead are agendas, forthright or masked, for a savvy audience to determine, with most assuredly more than two on the table at any given time. As certain as I am about my allegiance in this forthcoming election, I am much less convinced of the impartial delivery of its facts and conclusions than ever before. The truth is, whether I choose to tune in or out on the evening of November 6, it’s unquestionably going to be a very long night.
Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He works a day job as an art director for several non-profit organizations, but spends his dark nights and weekends fighting the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.