Jonathan Hickman (EAST OF WEST, THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS, AVENGERS) demands reading and re-reading. His creator-owned work presents philosophy with nut-punches of viscera and it stays with me long after I close the cover. A lot of things entertain you, but few of them alter you, leaving you with a little more than you had before you read them.
When I got a chance to take an early look at Hickman’s new Image book THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS written by him and illustrated by Tomm Coker, I had to bother him about it. It’s a murder mystery, but much more than that, a book about the power of money, the legacy that power creates and where little people like you and me fit into the world left in its wake.
Here’s a conversation I had with him about THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS, what he’s learned during his career, and how substance always, always, ALWAYS matters more than style. – BH
Bryan Hill: Jonathan, on the surface THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS Is very different than EAST OF WEST (which everyone should read), but there’s a unifying theme about occult power, hidden power, that’s determining the fate of the world in which we live. The theme of a powerful group that works with its own esoteric means, to its own end is in even in your MARVEL work. So my first question is what made you want to explore these themes with THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS, in the context of the stockmarket crash of the 20’s, and the fundamental elements of our global economic system? Why this story, this way, now?
Jonathan Hickman: I’ve wanted to do a story about magic for a while now, but without the wink to the reader that they were reading a work of total fantasy. I mean, the really cool thing about clandestine stories is that they can either tear down or reinforce how you view the real world, so if I wanted to do a story about magic which had that trait, it seemed to me that I had to come up with a system which integrated magic with an existing mechanism of power. Which brought me to money.
I suppose I’m doing it now because it feels relevant, but if I’m being completely honest I like it because sometimes it reads as the exact opposite of its intent. Like, if I wrote this as some kind of occupy screed it isn’t like people wouldn’t get it, but the devil has always been cooler than god, so why not go that way?
I dunno, maybe I have a problem.
BH: I don’t think you have a problem. I think you’re doing exactly the kind of work that I want from a Hickman story. I want to get into the details of the concept, but for people coming to this discussion, looking to understand why this book should get on their pull list, why should readers, both who follow you and those that have never read a Hickman story, pre-order and hunt down THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS?
JH: Ha! I’m terrible at the high concept pitch, but here goes… The book basically takes the introductory elements of most magic stories and melds them with non-traditional elements. So, for example, instead of threshold-crossing as a way of stepping into the world, there’s a noir-ish murder mystery to solve and the clues lead you in, and instead of learning the secrets of your craft at a school of magic, you cut your teeth working at a global banking syndicate.
Anyway, someone murders a financial titan and the detective trying to solve the case gets pulled down the rabbit hole into a world where pagan-like human sacrifice is the quickest way to become a multi-millionaire. Or something like that.
Oh, also, if you’re a student of weird comics storytelling, there’s a lot of outside-the-panels design work that informs the story and expands the world, because THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS is really an experimental book at its core. Each of the first four issues is 56 pages, so they really don’t read like the normal 20 page jaunt.
BH: Yeah, I noticed how you’re pushing the form. That’s important to me, seeing someone engaging what can be done with a book. It reminds me a little of HOUSE OF LEAVES, something that feels almost tactile in how it combines formats to deliver information. You, Tomm Coker (Pencils), Michael Garland (Colors) and Russ Wooten (Letters) balance three genres, really. It’s a noir. It’s also a horror story. It’s also an alternate history story about America in the late 1920’s. You’ve always seen genre as a place for possibility, not a fixed story type and that makes your work more interesting than a lot of things, to me at least.
True to noir form, the protagonist, THEO, is a police detective, but he’s not your average noir gumshoe. You have a world of occultism and it seems Theo is a little familiar with the occult. Although he’s a working class fella, he’s also a student of the same ideology that the ruling class of THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS shares. In the first issue, as he views a murder, it’s almost like he’s reading a message in the details, like he can “speak” their language. As a guy who studies occultism and the esoteric, I really dug him. Can you tell readers a little more about Theo and what his role is in the story?
JH: Well, he’s us. While the story does have twin protagonists, you’re not supposed to relate to the other one. She’s a Rothschild. One of them. She gets wrapped up in the whole affair because she’s the black sheep in exile from the magical/financial coven, and the murder pulls her back in. At the end of the day, she’s really only invested in ‘why’ and the fallout of what that ‘why’ means.
Theo wants more, just like we do. Sure, he wants to catch the person who did it, but he wants to understand what happened fully. He wants to understand this world he’s caught a glimpse of. We get into his actual background and motivations more in issue two, but the people he works with think Theo is special, or strange, because he sees the world in a slightly different way — he makes connections between what’s real and what’s hidden.
He doesn’t think it’s special at all, it’s just who he is. You know how it is, Bryan, like when someone asks how you come up with all those ideas for stories, and they look confused when you say, ‘they’re just in there’ as you point to your head. Anyway, he’s holding our hand as we walk into the woods. He’ll show us the way. He’ll solve the case. But, you know, it’s not called the Black Monday MURDER, it’s the Black Monday MURDERS.
BH: It’s funny you say “pulled back in” because when I was reading Grigoria Rothschild, I thought of Michael Corleone a little. The character pulled from exile that has to assume the power vacuum. Early in the story, you have these two characters who are (seemingly) unaware of each other but you really want to see them get into a room together and have a conversation. The strength of your conversations is really on display here. Every page has something that makes me stop and think, in a good way, and then I re-read the page after that reflection.
THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS seems a pretty massive undertaking, in terms of research. Are the occult and the hidden history of America’s power structures things you already had an interest in, or did the story come first and then the research came later? I like to imagine you sitting on some porch somewhere, thinking about the world, surrounded with old books and once you’ve found your narrative you head back into the house and start the task of writing (laughs).
JH: I came up with the idea for the book when I was on vacation at the beach with the family. I was reading a book on economics (I mean, that wasn’t all I was reading. It was my ‘serious’ book. If I remember correctly I think I was also reading Claire North’s, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August [which is just fantastic], and the latest Expanse novel, Nemesis Games) and there was a section on the contrast of what money used to represent and what it represents now.
What the author was talking about was how, now, what we call money is just an ethereal unit of wealth — it’s not real, it’s illusory — it’s measured in binary code, bytes, electrons. Units that are not rare. They’re common. Real money, real wealth used to be something you could physically posses. Gold, Silver, Diamonds, Oil, etc. It was pulled from the earth by hands, and it was measured in the human cost of doing so. That wealth had a blood cost attached to it. It involved sacrifice.
Which is what led me to the magic connection. It’s the same concept. Accruing power in that world always requires a blood sacrifice. The price, the cost, whatever you want to call it.
Anyway, once that clicked I was off to the races.
BH: I was JUST having a conversation with Nelson Blake II (comic artist) about Nixon moving us off the gold standard and how money became something that represented nothing inherently, and the value of it is completely arbitrary. Personal experience has taught me that within the power structures of the world, the deepest and highest, there is a different view of the power of wealth, almost like it’s a divine right, but that divinity isn’t always benevolent. I think that what resonated with me when I was reading THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS, how completely possible I think your world might be. There’s a speech a character gives in a lecture that I have heard in person, but not in strictly occult terms. Real magick wasn’t mentioned, but that philosophy was identical to what I heard in a lecture hall when I snuck into a graduate economics classroom. Frankly, your fictional ideology was more coherent (laughs)
Did you know diamonds actually aren’t rare? Their entire value is manipulated by hoarding. It’s insidious and hiding in plain sight. Anyway…we’ll finish that conversation over a beer. Let’s talk about the art. Coker is a genius and you guys really seem to be in sync. How did you and Tom work out the look of the book? I see art deco, and a precise color palette. Sort of reminds me of the cinematography of Gordon Willis. How did you guys set your style for the book?
JH: Well, Tomm has a clearly defined aesthetic, and the tone of that style matches the story perfectly. Michael Garland’s colors work with, not against, that, and then overlaying those things, is a book design which adds a sense of both ‘mystery’ and ‘hidden knowledge,’ also serving the story.
THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS is the epitome of how I think a comic should be constructed. Now, none of that matters if the magic between the pages isn’t there, but if I diagramed a four-quadrant design for a comic, this would be it.
Specifically about Tomm, man, I’ve wanted to work with that guy for a while. I’m a big fan. For me, this is really an exercise in getting out of the way. Beyond working through the mechanics of making the page work, something like this is a stylistic layup for him. As for Mike, he and I have been working together for a while and he knew what we were going for. If I remember correctly, almost all of the palettes we’re using were ripped from paintings from the depression era 30s. Basically, art work from a society reacting to a market crash. Which was a clever choice, I thought.
BH: It shows. There’s a power to the art, panel by panel and as sequential storytelling. It’s really like reading a creative team firing on all cylinders. Well, if you don’t mind, let’s go with something a little more personal, and give people a window into you as a creator. You’ve been writing great stories a long time, Jonathan, and I’m sure you’ve learned a lot as a creator about yourself and comics. I learned a lot from you just speaking with you at Image Expo this year. What’s one of the most powerful things you’ve learned in your career, either about the craft or yourself?
JH: It’s important to remember that the first comic I wrote was published at Image. And outside of pitches abandoned or stuff that didn’t go anywhere, almost everything I’ve written in the past decade has actually been published. Now, I don’t know that this is a good thing, some people that have read my work might argue it’s definitely a bad thing, I dunno, your mileage may vary, but it definitely does mean that I’ve grown up as a writer very publicly.
As such, my opinions on comics as a profession have changed considerably over that time. Sometimes it’s because I’ve figured things out internally, other times it’s because I’ve gotten hit over the head with reality. I remember that I used to think talking about process was important. I don’t think that matters much anymore, there’s no right way to create a comic. For a long while, I used to think I was, as a person, just as entertaining as the books, and I know I don’t believe that now.
In fact, I think that’s kind of the most important thing I’ve learned. If I’m an artist — if that’s who I am — then the evidence of that is art. Anything I do that obscures or diminishes the art causes harm to the very thing that defines me.
Most of the younger creators I talk to feel like they have to have a brand. A persona they can slip on to serve the thing they really are. I’m not sure that’s healthy, because it colors the work. I understand it. I myself have done it in the past, but I think, if I’m being honest, it’s harmful.
I think a subset of this is I’ve tried to stop publicly shittalking other artists when they fail. Privately, as artists I understand that we want to deconstruct these things and try to understand why they didn’t work, or even hold it up as ’this is what failure looks like,’ hell, we do that all the time. But to do it publicly when you know how hard it is to make this stuff decent? I dunno, seems like a karmic disaster waiting to happen.
Okay, that’s all I’ve got. Maybe I should be a monk.
BH: As long as you’re a monk who keeps writing, I’ve got no problem with that. A lot of folks with your status could go for the lay up, but you never do. What keeps you pushing yourself?
JH: I just want to try new things. I want to make books that don’t feel like other books, and stories that have a different rhythm than what people are used to in comics.
It might work. It might fail, but at least we’re gonna try.
BH: Right on, Jonathan. Thanks for the time.
Hickman’s modest, but THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS really is something remarkable. If you’re interested in supernatural thrillers and the hidden history of the occult in our world, I strongly recommend it. It uses the raw force of sequential storytelling to unfold its world, and if you’re looking for interesting protagonists with hidden worlds inside them, it’s got that in spades. Pre-order it. Seek it out. Add it to your pull list.
It’s good enough to make me stop writing and read it. That’s best praise I can give.
THE BLACK MONDAY MURDERS #1 releases August 10, 2016, Story by Jonathan Hickman, Art by Tomm Coker.
To pre-order, use the Diamond ID: JUN160575
Buy comics. Read comics. BH
Bryan Hill is a comic author and screenwriter. His book POSTAL is available now, and his new book ROMULUS debuts in October, co-created with Nelson Blake II. Both are from Image Comics/Top Cow Productions. He lives and works in Los Angeles.