When I was young, I lapped up science fiction like it was mother’s milk. (It was the ‘70s. Science fiction and mother’s milk were both a lot weirder back then.) As an adolescent, I was impressed to no end by the sheer possibility and inventiveness of the genre, but as I got older, much of the stuff I read lost its appeal as I started paying less attention to intricate plots and big ideas and more attention to, well, actually good writing. As another classic work of science fiction put it, I thought as a child, but eventually I put away childish things. I still enjoy science fiction, but it’s not the backbone of my cultural consumption anymore.
In this, I am (surprise, surprise) out of step with the rest of the culture. Science fiction has never been bigger, and most tentpole franchises in film these days have at least some flavor of the extraterrestrial. What’s more, with some notable exceptions, the genre has moved towards the epic, the sprawling, the multigenerational, and away from the personal, the intimate, and the focused. Science fiction has become as vast as the universe, when I usually prefer it as cramped as a sleep pod.
Enter Decorum, a new Image series that backs into epic storytelling like a dump truck in reverse, spilling its worldbuilding all over the place. Decorum is the product of celebrated author Jonathan Hickman (who earned an Eisner nomination for his writing) and the stylish and versatile artist Mike Huddleston. Originally released as an eight-issue mini-series from Image in 2020-21, it’s getting a deluxe hardcover treatment this May. It was one of last year’s most buzzed-about limited runs, and it’s a curious specimen, ranging all over the map of modern sci-fi while never quite settling in one place.
Briefly, Decorum follows the arc of one Neha Nori Sood, a cynical, desperate young courier–or more accurately, smuggler–who finds herself in a precarious situation from which she is extracted by Imogen Smith-Morley, a fearsome assassin swimming in noblesse oblige and married to a dead ringer for the ghost of Prince Charles. Imogen is a big wheel in the hilariously named Sisterhood of Man, a group of all-female intergalactic assassins, and she decides to make Neha her new protégé, despite the courier’s indifference, insouciance, and general diffidence to the prospect of murdering people for profit. It’s a pretty wild ride from there, but a strangely familiar one.
Again, with a few exemptions, I tend to like my science fiction tight. I like stories that place me right in the quick of the action and leave me nowhere to go, nothing to escape to from the business at hand. That’s not Hickman’s fault, nor should my personal preferences be read as universal, but it does place me at odds with the present tendency towards broad, sweeping sagas - like, well, Saga, which Decorum resembles in more than a few ways. There are all sorts of reasons for this shift in the genre, ranging from the economic motivation for spinoffs and sequels to the personal ambition of writers, but it often tends to leave readers in a situation where the story expands so much that they eventually find something to dislike.
That’s certainly the case here. Decorum is all over the place. Only Hickman's skill as a writer saves the book from being completely self-indulgent, and while the story is absolutely brimming with ideas, there are so many of them that even over the course of 400+ pages, none of them stick around long enough to truly immerse the reader. What’s more, the sheer quantity of world-building—the blessing and the curse of contemporary genre fiction—is simply bananas, with endless text features on everything from the various religious and political factions to star maps, recipes and dream journals clogging up the flow of the story and adding very little to the narrative.
Luckily for the reader, Mike Huddleston’s art is simply terrific, papering over the clunkier bits of the writing and illuminating and elevating the best bits. Huddleston works in multiple gears here: cartoony action, stately black & white segments, painterly portraiture, cosmic excess, and lots of the patented Kirby Magic that gives Decorum an intriguing whiff of old-school weirdness. It’s the art that spares all the interstitial stuff from bogging the whole series down, and instead lets the book share focus with some of the great comic book sci-fi epics of previous generations, especially the cosmic glop of Marvel’s drug-soaked, colorful ‘70s, plus Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, and, especially, Mike Baron’s & Steve Rude’s Nexus.
If Huddleston is playing the role of Rude, providing grounded, thoughtful layouts and unique visual markers to complex story ideas, then Hickman is doing the same to Baron: overflowing with clever ideas and fascinating characters, but not always the best at making sense of their relationships to one another. A lot of the padding put in place by the innumerable bits of lore could be stripped away in favor of telling us why exactly Imogen was so drawn to Neha, or what exactly the appeal of the Sisterhood is to either of them other than generic bad-assery, or how and why we should relate to some of the central conflicts in the narrative. (Of course, there’s already a sequel in the works, but that’s just deferring the satisfaction that could otherwise be had by telling a simpler story.)
But every time it looks like some of this self-indulgence or neglect is going to bring down the story, along comes Huddleston with a magnificent panel or two, or an intricate frame around a detail-filled panel, just boosted enough by some quality dialogue or a puzzling piece of evidence from Hickman that keeps you involved in the plot. The end result is a book that’s difficult to love, but impossible to hate. Like many of the epic science fiction stories it most resembles, it may not answer all of our questions, but it sure is nice to look at.