By Jonathan Hickman, Tomm Coker & Michael Garland
By this point, it should not surprise anyone that Jonathan Hickman has a bit of an apocalyptic streak in him. The most obvious examples of this tendency would be East of West or Secret Wars (a series which both began and ended with the literal sundering of all reality). However, this strain of pessimism can be found in many of his other works, such as Red Wing or Manhattan Projects. Even arguably his most idealistic writing, Fantastic Four/FF, often felt the poignant weight of regret for past actions, especially in regards to the character of Nathaniel Richards. Father figures often fail in Hickman’s worldview and not merely on a personal level. Usually the entire system meant to keep society running smoothly is in danger of collapsing. And why not? “You have earned what is coming to you” East of West continually reminds its readers. Today Hickman revisits these themes once again with the debut issue of a new Image series The Black Monday Murders. Yet, skillfully written within a fresh context, these ideas never feel like old hat. Instead, aided by talented artistic collaborators, Hickman produces an excellent first issue for the series.
The Black Monday Murders opens in the past, specifically October 24th 1929. The stock market is about to take its’ most infamous nosedive and financier Charles Ackermann is calmly going through his morning routine. That is until the profuse bleeding commences. Brushing off the concern of his manservant, Charles rushes to consult with the other members of his wealth cabal. Hickman does a strong job of establishing this sequence with the proper balance between too little and too much background information. As the comic continues, Hickman does fill in some of the gaps while leaving plenty of mysteries remaining. What is clear, though, is that a group four people share an immense amount of money, and thus power, which passes from them to their heirs and so forth. There is also a heavy occult air to their actions, along with the insinuation that they owe their success to the demonic entity Mammon, a name long associated with amoral riches. In such a way, Hickman immediately grabs the reader’s interest with a concept rooted in both the natural and supernatural worlds.
In addition, the narrative spans the decades as well, with a large part of the story occurring in the present day. A powerful moneyman has been murdered in gruesome, showy fashion. Detective Theodore Dumas is assigned to the case. Dumas is an immediately fascinating character, sharing some traits with the protagonist of Fred Van Lente’s recent Weird Detective series. Both men have keen perceptions which are tied to forces outside of everyday experience. The differences, though, are quite telling. Where Van Lente’s book is defined by the goofy charm and eccentric personalities typical of his work, Hickman’s is much colder. Theo has a cynical (or is it realist?) disposition which could be seen as overlapping with the cabal members. The latter speak of laws and governments as irrelevant, the concept of public trust simply a naïve myth. Money, real billionaire level personal worth, is always made at the expense of others. It was as true in 1929 when the cabal patiently waited to gobble up all the bargain basement stocks as it is in a 21st Century full of shorting big and profiting on the misfortunes of others.
The most striking element of The Black Monday Murders is how Hickman is working within a more recognizable setting than his standard science-fiction milieu. True, there remains fantastical elements, yet, the narrative is grounded in something resembling the familiar. This allows for the themes to have a more immediate impact on the reader. It is one thing to listen as Reed Richards weighs the pros and cons of “fixing everything” or debating with Stephen Strange on whether Doctor Doom had a rightful claim to omnipotence. It is another to listen as a master of wealth explains how “insignificant the rules you have lived by truly are.” His audience of fresh-faced traders look the same as the business attired types fixedly striding the streets of Manhattan any day of the week.
Hickman has conceived a story which resonates deeply with the present moment. Many people believe that the system is rigged and Hickman is ready to show just how twisted the maleficence could be. As Theo, the closest individual the issue has to a sympathetic protagonist, observes everyone is susceptible to the temptation of living “a better life . . . in a better world.” Yet, to get there will cost quite more than a pretty penny. As the man said, “you have earned what is coming to you.”
There is a lot of information conveyed in this oversized debut issue, some courtesy of those very Hickman-esque graphic and flow charts. (Let it be said that Hickman has never found an abstract symbol set against a white page that he did not like). Keeping everything flowing smoothly is artist Tomm Coker. This could have been a very static comic full of talking heads, however, Coker’s art has a vibrancy to it from the first panel. His figures delineate sharply the personalities at play in the story, while also expressing the emotion of the moment. His scenes have a dramatic air to them, even if it something as mundane as the lecture sequence.
Part of this is due to the atmospheric coloring of Michael Garland. Garland does some excellent work here, particularly when rendering a blood red sunset along the Brooklyn Bridge. Both Coker and Garland capture the spirit of the script’s supernatural side faithfully. This is best demonstrated in the epilogue where Theo has a sudden revelation. Coker softens his lines as the room is bathed in streams of blinding, orange light. It is a stunning moment closing out the issue.
Given the material, The Black Monday Murders could easily have devolved into pretentious preaching. Instead it is an engaging tale about human nature, flavored with hints of the occult. This is a combination rich with potential. Seeing how Hickman, Coker and Garland mine it in future issues promises to be fascinating. For today, though, their debut is simply This Week’s Finest.