Last week in my review of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips new series Kill or Be Killed, I discussed the trap of consistency, where creative collaborations can reach a point of technical mastery that becomes nearly claustrophobic, so it’s almost comically coincidental for Image to be publishing another work by a master whose style is so consistent it supercedes the material to a point of making narrative nearly irrelevant. The difference is that this time around it’s not a duo but Jonathan Hickman, a comics auteur if there ever was one, whose knack for iconic design and tyrannical framing makes his actual writing nearly secondary.
Don’t take that as a dig on Hickman, necessarily; Hickman’s scripts almost always serve the function of Allowing Cool Shit to Happen and his obsessive use of geometric patterns on a style and narrative level turns his stories into Jenga-esque challenges. Hickman’s work can always be distilled to the same basic questions: Will these symbols ultimately mean something? Do these patterns offer profound insight or are they symbolic of the human mind’s need to create structure out of chaos? The Black Monday Murders is no different on this front, but there is some curious alchemy on display that enables it to be more engaging than it should be, given that it is essentially a Real World, Financial Noir spin on East of West’s Dune-gone-Sergio-Leone style. And I think you can lay the credit for that almost exclusively at the feet of artist Tomm Coker, whose grimy, punk zine aesthetic continuously spars with Hickman’s fascination with clean lines and graphs.
Where East of West itself served as a foil for The Manhattan Projects, right on down to its minimalist packaging and the hyperdetailed, flatly colored work of the Nicks Pitarra and Dragotta, The Black Monday Murders is dark, spotty, coated in the grime and blood of financial crimes. Structured as a “realistic” peek behind the curtain of financial firms who have made deals with literal devils to claim riches and power at great personal cost, Black Monday Murders brings back the xerox vibes and political venom of earlier Hickman Image series but with more potency thanks to the confident swagger of Coker. In tone, The Black Monday Murders isn’t too dissimilar from The Nightly News, but that was a work that frequently reached far beyond its means and The Black Monday Murders is a high stakes chessgame between two craft titans. This isn’t to say that Hickman’s recent star collaborators haven’t been able to get their personalities to shine through Hickman’s design and writing– Pitarra and Dragotta in particular are vivid illustrators whose linework is always recognizable– but you always got the sense that they were tools for executing Hickman’s concepts whereas The Black Monday Murders has a delicious antagonism running through it, making it feel as though this is a creative partnership built around pushing and pulling and all the better for it.
This is immediately noticeable in the diffused palette of The Black Monday Murders, with Hickman’s design layouts favoring eroded textures and splotches of black ink while Michael Garland’s coloring is sludgy and sepia toned. Most of Hickman’s recent series have been expansive and open even as they reach for epic scope, but every page of Black Monday Murders is crowded and tense. The opening sequence is split between the bottom levels of Wall Street and fanciful but cultish offices, where the heads of the powerful Caina firm meet and discuss the coming market crash of 1929. There is a mysterious, mute woman in white a la East of West, and there are devil masters to make sacrifices to, but the cast of characters is decidedly human in comparison to that work’s forces of nature. The more we learn about Caina, the clearer it becomes that they are greedy and powerful but fully aware of their limitations and of the danger they are perpetually in because of who and what they’ve sworn allegiance to.
When Coker does open up his panels, it’s almost always to depict some act of savagery, be it the falling deaths of low-level stockbrokers or the bloody sacrifice of one of Caina’s figureheads. In the 21st century, mainstream comics have gone navel gazey, pointing towards super heroes as the mythic figures of our time, and thus in need of deflation and deconstruction. But Hickman has Coker fuse an Alan Moore-like fixation on arcana with money instead, the item that Hickman says mankind has had a relationship with for longer than any other, more than gods of either the Olympian or Marvel variety. Nearly no one in Black Monday Murders is clean in the way that even fallen super hero gods are, instead everyone is either covered in or rising out of the filth of the market and Coker’s style is the perfect fit for that, situated somewhere between Alex Maleev and Michael Lark, the balance shifting closer to the latter when the story moves to the current time and an investigation of a fallen Caina operative.
Obviously I have no real knowledge of how Hickman and Coker collaborate, but what I can say is that Coker’s looser, more explosive style seems to provoke an unusual level of narrative focus in the sometimes overreaching Hickman. In its first issue, The Black Monday Murders is disciplined and refined, presenting clear flashbacks that establish the status quo and then efficiently moving forward to the present to give us a sense of the current stakes, players and challenges. Even Hickman’s infographs, which are always pretty to look at but usually provoke more questions than they answer, are streamlined and actually informative, filling in gaps in the reader’s knowledge quickly and with little distraction. Regardless of whether Coker’s art directly inspired this approach in Hickman, it’s clear that Coker’s renegade style and contrast to the more lush, painterly collaborators Hickman has been partnering with works so well with the narrative that many of Hickman’s worst tendencies are either not present or barely noticeable. You get the sense that The Black Monday Murders has a dirty story it needs to tell, and needs to tell quickly and clearly, and that while it’s a story with a lot of angles and chapters and players, it’s not a story that will come at a leisurely pace.
Kill or Be Killed served as an example of creators resting on their laurels and not challenging themselves in the right way, but The Black Monday Murders is an example of how creators can remain easily distinguishable and iconic but shake up the right elements of their work to make new, more engaging iterations of their style. Hickman’s willingness to work with new collaborators more regularly is one of his greatest, most consistent traits, but his partnership with Tomm Coker is particularly remarkable because of how engaged Hickman seems to be with the challenge of fitting a story to the style of a collaborator who is so different from him in so many ways.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover