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July 24, 2017

The Root of All Evil: The Black Monday Murders #1-2 (review)

The Black Monday Murders #1-2 (review)
Image Comics, September/ October 2016
Writer: Jonathan Hickman

If this title disturbs, it is because one of the most talented writers in American comic book industry, Jonathan Hickman, does a spectacular job of convincing the reader that he has kicked away at the topsoil of the falsehood of capitalism, humanity’s real and dirty habitat. Underneath lies a mouldy and parasitic truth to economics vastly terrible, and despite the black mystical elements of the story somehow it makes the world make perfect sense.

The methods by which the global capital markets work are a mystery to most. The idea of making money by moving money from one asset type to another by way of investment seems straightforward enough. But terms such as arbitrage, Libor, derivatives, hedge funds, short selling and, famously, sub-prime could just as easily be a foreign language to most people. The language itself does not mystify. The concepts themselves are alien.

As it turns out, in “The Black Monday Murders”, there is an indecipherable language at play, one as old as civilisation, and which is used to make wild amounts of money. But the possession and control of oceans of money comes with a cost: ritual murder, blood periodically spilled as the market crashes to appease Mammon. The first issue of the title reveals that stock brokers who threw themselves out of windows in the 1927 stock market crash were instead actually thrown out, as a way of appeasing the demonic forces of economics. The second issue features the murder of a Romani man, his death (magically?) facilitating access to a hellish lair.

Further, a debunking website entirely familiar to many people as a fictional version of Snopes.com, purports that the suicides of stockbrokers at the beginning of the Great Depression was actually the misinterpretation of a window cleaner’s demise by Winston Churchill. The truth is deliberately subverted. This alone, how those with intent and capacity could so easily change truth, is chilling.

The first issue sets up the premise: that a bank called Caina-Kankrin is the vehicle for power through wealth, the lens of a wordless force which must be appeased with blood. As the market falls, Caina’s executives must murder their own, in accordance with a Tarot-seque sequences of thrones and dominions, and also murder those further down the totem pole of money-making until the evil of the economy is satiated. At the nadir, Caina buys the ruins cheaply. “Caina-Kankrin is a den of industry,” says Caina executive Grigoria Rothschild (and that surname itself reeks of centuries of wealth). “See our teeth.”

But in this instance an horrific ritualised murder of a Caina executive has inadvertently brought in the police, and in particular, Detective Dumas. Dumas operates outside of the box. He sees patterns that others cannot in a way entirely reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes”. His colleagues seem not to like him – there is the arrogance of the very bright in his stiletto explanations. And he is eccentric: Dumas shakes the bones of his grandfather’s left hand in a vodou ritual seeking insight into the future, and he collects forbidden books. Dumas arrests Viktor Eresko, an arrogant Russian executive, for the murder. But it is plain to the reader from the elaborate set-up in the first issue that there is no mere individual involved in this: economics is a machine which needs to be fed blood.

The involvement of Russians in Caina is well laid out. After the death of the Tsar in 1919, the new Soviet Union still needed a bank. That bank slaughtered all competition in Darwinian economics much more dire than the ruthlessness of the Western free market. And upon the fall of the Soviet Union, what the conspirators call “the Eastern school”, the post-Soviet oligarchs, linked up to Caina.

It is possible that this is a vampire story. A pale woman bearing minor variations to the name “Abby” appears flashbacks to the 1920s and the 1980s, and during the contemporary 2016 events. She wears the fashion of the day, but speaks the black circular text which seems to be at the heart of the mystery of this title. But Abby is described in the para-literature surrounding the comic as a “familiar” – the human associate of a vampire, rather than a vampire. The character’s agelessness is not explicable, assuming of course that it is the same person throughout the ages.

A word about the written pages of text and diagrams inserted throughout the comics. These are presented as historical documents, often censored with heavy black ink so as to preserve mystery – there are secrets, Mr Hickman says, which no outsider should ever be able to read. At present many of these documents make no sense – in the arcane maps, why do the Russians now always sit in the Stone Chair, which seems to be the focus of the ritual murders? But the documents together paint a picture of black magic and of black-hearted participants appeasing Mammon.

Finally, Mr Hickman’s dialogue is both concise and wrapped in mystique. Dumas says, “I can assure you… I’ll get to the bottom of this.” Rothschild archly replies, “And what if there is no bottom?” “Well then, let’s see how deep it goes,” Dumas says. The characters peer over the edge into the abyss. One of them, Dumas, suspects that there are demons below – Rothschild calls Dumas’ vodou a “dithering around the edges”. The other, Rothschild, knows for certain because she has made a pact with them.

“Is there a reason you wanted to see me?” asks Dumas of Rothschild. “I wanted to get a good look at you. Decide what I was dealing with.” (Not “who” – “what”.) But in this very striking scene the reader gets to see both major characters, in their first skirmish, very clearly.

At the end of the first issue, in a single sentence sitting in an all white page save for the circular script, Mr Hickman invites his readers to believe. Is there a global conspiracy which creates money through blood? Are these people the heirs to the Templars, or are they Illuminati? Are they immortal? This title is compelling, ruthless, subversive, brilliant.

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