Review: I Am A Number by Rian Hughes

Rian Hughes is one of the greatest living comic book creators. A Renaissance Man, a master of forms, his work extends far beyond comic books into illustration and typography, and is a living legend in both those fields as well, but always returns to the comic book. Our pub meet-ups are better, or something.

You’ll see his mark across mainstream comic books, designing logos for all the biggest comic book publishers, including the company logos for Oni Press, Valiant Entertainment and Forbidden Planet. But his latest IDW comic book is a step beyond anything he has achieved in the form before, and that has been plenty.

I Am A Number, his new graphic novel – if that phrase can even apply to this book – is that rarest of things, a truly all-ages comic book. You could read this comic as an infant and get a lot from it. You can read ut as a fifty year old and have a completely different and just as valid experience. By removing words and sticking to just numbers and a few symbols, it needs no translation to be published in many international markets.

It also happens to be really funny, thought-provoking and poignant simultaneously.

In a style that is reminiscent of Spy Vs Spy via Kyle Baker and his own nineteen twenties advertising-styled colour blocks, Hughes tells many stories in this world, where everyone has a number, and that number dictates how people see them.

Beginning with people arguing over their position sitting on a bus, seems a deliberate starting point to tie this in with the American Civil Rights movement. But the allegory refuses to be tied down to one specific moment, time or country. 

Gender, class, race, religion, everything is stripped away, leaving an assigned number as the only differential. And what a difference it makes.

So is about race, it is about class, it is about caste, it is about humanity’s natural desire to pigeonhole people, to judge them, to make one superior to the other, to create the other. And so the higher the number, the more respected you are but the more is expected of you.

It has seemingly taken the ideas neatly expressed in the famous Class Sketch from The Frost Report and created an entire world out of that concept.

So politics, children, jobs, romance, all get placed through the number filter. Some stories are one panel jokes, others take pages to explore a specific aspect or story in this myriad of worlds. And we also get a trip to communist countries which reject such classification and insist that everyone be equal – with no discernible effect to the way people live.

We see what happens when aliens arrive, when superheroes emerge, and when digits get knocked about in transit. We see the history of this classification from prehistoric times through the centuries to the modern day.

It’s an excuse to tell some very silly and funny jokes. To emphasise physical comedy in comic books. But to also bash your brain in as you want to explore this world for yourself.

There are no words. There are just numbers. Welcome to my favourite comic of the year so far.

I Am A Number by Rian Hughes is published by IDW Entertainment.

About Rich Johnston

Chief writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. Father of two. Comic book clairvoyant. Political cartoonist.

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