With his track record, any new Image series from Jonathan Hickman is a reason to get excited about. I was particularly looking forward to seeing how the full volume of “The Black Monday Murders” would read after I checked out the first issue several months back. Now that the final volume is here, it still represents an entertaining read. Though, that’s more because of the entertaining surface it presents than the world the writer is trying to create.
When “The Black Monday Murders” was revealed to the world last year, the pitch was that the world of high finance was secretly run by schools of magicians that have endured for centuries. It’s the kind of high concept that Hickman likes to serve up in his creator-owned work and it proves pretty easy to get behind here. After all, it allows the reader to buy into their worst impressions of the industry when it’s revealed that there’s some pretty dark powers behind these schools. The kind that demand stockbrokers be thrown out of buildings to their deaths to appease them during the Great Crash of 1929.
It’s a singular death that kicks off the main story in this volume. Daniel Rothschild, managing partner of the Caina-Cankrin Investment Bank, is found murdered in his penthouse apartment with his body and surroundings arranged in a macabre fashion. Called in to investigate this crime is Detective Theodore Dumas, who has a reputation for being able to successfully deal with this kind of strangeness. After all, he managed to avoid having to spend the rest of his life in prison when it turned out that a man he shot in cold blood was also a prolific serial killer. Though Theo knows that what he’s getting into is going to be out of the ordinary, he quickly finds himself at the edge of the abyss when confronting Caina-Kankrin and the power it represents. Power that its prodigal daughter, Daniel’s sister Grigoria, looks to inherit and wield to her own ends when she’s called back to the country to take up her brother’s place.
What “The Black Monday Murders” has going for it, in this first volume at least, is style. Hickman’s script is full of clever lines and memorable scenes where characters try to assert their dominance through verbal wordplay. There are also plenty of supplemental pages that are ostensibly there to give you some idea of how the financial schools work and provide additional information on certain characters, such as the diary entries that detail the very interesting upbringing of one of Caina-Kankrin’s board members. Tomm Coker’s art amplifies this style, giving everything a slick professional look. Yet there’s also a grit to his work that helps underline the nasty underpinnings of the story, whether it’s taking place on Wall Street, a police interrogation room, or an unnamed demonic realm.
The problem is that for all this style there’s not a whole lot of depth to the world that Hickman is building here yet. For all of the talk about magic, rituals, prices being paid, and demonic familiars the magical aspect of the story feels woefully underdeveloped at this point. We don’t get much of an idea of how magic has helped shape the history of finance, or of how it works in this world beyond the idea that sacrifice is necessary. Magic, along with the demonic forces at work here, feels vague and undefined as seen in this volume. Much in the same way that it was in Brubaker and Phillips’ “Fatale” all the way to the end. I’m hoping that Hickman was laying off on the worldbuilding with regards to magic in order to make for a more accessible read out of the gate. Now that the introductions are over, I want to see more of the development I know he’s capable of.
He at least manages to establish an intriguing cast of characters right out of the gate. Theo makes an impression as a cool and intelligent presence. Even though he’s clearly meant to serve as a point-of-view character for the audience’s entry into this strange world, it’s made clear that for all of his uneasiness he’s a smart man who can work out the right approach for situations like this. Grigoria also proves to be a captivating presence as we find out a good deal about her history -- equal parts tragic and morbid -- in this volume. It also looks like she’s going to make for an intriguing antagonistic force for the powers-that-be at Caina-Kankrin as she pursues her own agenda. This is against such people like board member Viktor Eresko, a man whose dials on “smug” and “arrogant” have been turned all the way to eleven and who is not afraid to let anyone know it. Toss in supporting and fringe characters like board member/teacher Alexei, flippant alcoholic Marco, and mysterious diarist Wynn and there’s plenty of potential for new stars to emerge in the narrative as it goes on.
Which is good because “The Black Monday Murders” does have some work to do from here. Its interesting characters have plenty of style to them, but the world they exist in doesn’t feel fully-formed yet. I want to see Hickman lay out the rules and history of magic in this world before I start feeling better about anticipating future volumes. Still, even I can admit that it’s possible to coast for a while on the level of style presented here assuming it’s to your liking.