EXCL.: Hickman & Coker's "Black Monday Murders" Builds a World of Mystery, Magic & Money

The power of money is almost magical. With enough of it, you can accomplish just about anything, from buying a political office to covering up a scandal, or even getting away with murder. But what if that connection wasn't just metaphorical? What if Money was "the physical manifestation of accrued power," and the billionaires that ran our world secretly had the ability to alter and shape reality itself through sheer force of will? That's the premise behind writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Tomm Coker's new creator-owned series for Image Comics, "The Black Monday Murders."

The series kicks off in August, when a New York police detective's murder investigation immerses him in a clandestine world of high finance and magical covens. CBR News spoke with Hickman about the titular real world event that inspired the series; building a world that mixes fantasy with finance, and how the series marks a new point in his career which will focus on creating stories with immersive worlds and feature issues with larger page counts.

CBR News: Some readers might not be familiar with the actual real world Black Monday event you're referring to in the "The Black Monday Murders." So let's start of by talking about what that event was and why you used it to launch this new series.

Jonathan Hickman: Black Monday was an economic event which led to a global financial collapse in October of 1987. It started in the US, and directly resulted in massive economic and political upheaval around the world. You could make the argument that the biggest scalp was the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States and other Western nations had a little more fat to make it through the winter, and shortly thereafter, we started down the globalized path we're on now.

It was basically the beginning of a series of shifts that resulted in huge socioeconomic change. The end of the closed market. The death of the Nation State.

What sets your story in motion is a murder tied to the titular financial meltdown.

Yeah, the premise of the book is that the great economic leap forward that began with the Industrial Revolution is actually the result of a bunch of schools of magic congregating their influence in the world. 

How I try to explain how the book works is that, "The Black Monday Murders" is like any traditional story about magic, except in our story, all of the houses of magic, or secret schools of magic, are actually financial institutions; big banks, hedge funds, oligarchs, aristocrats, treasury-raping dictators -- things like that. Money is just the physical manifestation of accrued power.

The story is about a bunch of calculated murders that happened and led to globalization, which was the consolidation of all wealth and "power" in the world into a new group of plutocrats that aren't beholden to nations or anything other than themselves. It turns out that it was a big magical/financial scam.

God, this sounds like nonsense. [Laughs]

I recognize that it's a hard thing to talk about in the abstract, and people won't really understand the book until they start reading it, but it's just the most fun ever.

A lot of recent explorations of magic in fiction have looked at it from a cost-benefit aspect, so it seems like magic and high finance kind of go hand in hand.

Sure. What's interesting is, when you're talking about magic in terms of what it has the ability to do, it's really just hacking reality through language (spoken or implied); it's communicating with otherworldly powers in order to facilitate a transaction.

The interesting thing about language is, almost all of the earliest recorded instances that we have of the written language have to do with finance. I love the idea that we invented written language as a way to record the exchange of money. That, right there, is the soul of the book.

It sounds like "The Black Monday Murders" will be a lot of things: a murder mystery, a conspiracy and a supernatural thriller.

[Laughs] Yeah. I've taken the proverbial deep dive into this stuff. So much so that I really had to pull it back or it was going to descend into a gaming system or something. Tomm and I basically built a whole world around this idea, but we knew we had to narrow our focus. When we did that, it basically became the story of two characters: the detective trying to solve the book's initial murder, and the sister of the victim -- who just happens to be part of this global financial coven.

The main narrative is super tight, but there's a lot there if readers want to go deeper. That's kind of the stories I want to tell right now. This is very much what I want to do going forward; not just 20 pages of art, but all of the world building stuff along with the story. I just want to make things people get invested in, and have them be an exercise in real escapism. I would like for people to pick up my books from here on out and not be limited to a five to ten minute distraction.

I would like them to be like a really good book, where you can lose yourself in it. That is kind of what I'm going for.

How fantastic is the world you're building, here? Is magic the only otherworldly element, or might we see other creatures and trappings from horror and fantasy stories from time to time?

I think with anything interesting, it's all in the contrast. I don't think people throwing fireballs at each other for 20 pages is dramatic. [Laughs] I think, though, if it seems like the mundane world we live in, and then you throw in a sudden moment of illumination, or excitement, that's where the good stuff is. That's kind of what we're going for.

So we might see things like vampires and other monsters when we least expect them?

Yeah, that would be the good version of the story. [Laughs] If I did it the other way, I think I will have failed.

[Laughs] What can you tell us about your detective protagonist? The preview art suggests he already has a toe dipped in the world of magic, because in it, he rolls a cup of bones.

I think the character would describe himself as a curious skeptic; like an atheist who shuns religion, but is totally interested in spirituality, kind of fascinated by what people are "looking for." He's kind of like that. 

Curious about the bullshit until, you know, he finds out it's not.

What about your other protagonist? The family member of the murder victim?

She is someone who used to be in the world of wealth and high finance. Some bad things happened, and suddenly she was cast out. Then, when her brother dies, she gets pulled back in.

She comes from generational wealth. She finds herself dropped right back into a very familiar world that doesn't want her. Surrounded by people who are not happy that she's back.

When did Tomm Coker become involved with "The Black Monday Murders?"

I'm a big fan of Tomm's. I have always wanted to work with him, and I was lucky that he wanted to be part of it. It's been very smooth sailing from day one. Tomm is very, very good. Way better than most comic readers are aware. It's my hope that this will be a really big project for him in the same way that "East of West" was good for Nick Dragotta, and "Manhattan Projects" was good for Nick Pitarra. I would very much like this to be really good for Tomm. We'll see. I think people are really going to dig what he's done. It's really strong stuff.

How much of the design work and world building was Tomm involved with?

He did the vast majority of it. I try and get out of the way as much as I can. Which is difficult. [Laughs] Because I kind of inject myself into everything.

Tomm is a pretty great designer as well. We're kind of shooting stuff back and forth on all the book design as well. We're trying to merge what we're doing together to make the best kind of homogenous package.

It won't necessarily just be your words and Tomm's pictures telling the story of "The Black Monday Murders" -- sometimes the tale will unfold using other narrative devices.

Yeah, this is kind of what I was talking about before. I believe (right now) each of the first four issues are over 50 pages. The comic art page count varies per issue. I think issue #1 is 30-something pages, and issue #2 is almost 40 pages of comic stuff. It's a big issue, and #3 is almost 30 pages of comic stuff. Issue #4 is over 30 pages.

They're bigger issues anyway, but then, on top of that, we're putting in all the information about the characters, the world and how it works; the various apocrypha and maps and things like corporate boards and who belongs to which coven, as well as the territories that belong to certain schools. It's all of that kind of information, but it's done in a way that it's part of the story. It's not all at the back, or all at the front or middle. It's interspersed. Merged with the art.

So if there's a scene about the detective, and he has a theory about why certain murders are committed in certain areas, the next couple pages will feature a map of the financial district, showing where the murders take place and what the basic timeline was. It unlocks more of the story. Again, we're just trying to make the narrative a deeper dive.

I wanted to go back to what you talked about earlier with the different magical covens and schools.What else can you tell us about these organizations? Will you examine magic traditions from different cultures in "The Black Monday Murders?"

Yeah, absolutely. I don't want to say too much about that, because I think it's more fun to discover while you're reading the book, and some of that stuff is really clever and I don't want to blow it for people. I will say this: it covers everything.

It's not just Wall Street. If you look at "Forbes'" Top 50 list, it's not just people who have built super successful companies like [Bill] Gates, or investment dogs like Warren Buffett. It's also people who have inherited amazing amounts of wealth. It's multigenerational. It's institutional. There are people like the Oppenheimers in South Africa with their diamond trade, which is basically a blood industry, and the L'Oreal family, who got rich off vanity.

For the story to work, you have to have a system where you can wrap all that into it. Sometimes it's very straight-forward. Sometimes these guys are just shamans from Goldman-Sachs. Other times, it makes a lot of sense to have other types.

You know, before the Berlin Wall fell, the Russian Oligarchs had slept for almost a hundred years.

Are you familiar with the writer Tim Powers?

Yeah, sure.

It sounds like with "The Black Monday Murders" you'll be telling a story that might appeal to fans of his work, since it gives real world events a fun supernatural twist.

I think that's a fair description of what we're going for. I don't know that we're trying to put as perfect a bow on it as he does. Powers always closes the loop.

Maybe it feels more like TV instead of how Tim Powers stuff feels like a movie. Anyway, it's very much in that vein.

Yeah, based on what I've read and what you're telling me, I would elevator pitch the book as "Tim Powers meets the book 'Confessions of an Economic Hitman' by John Perkins."

[Laughs]That's a terrifying and interesting book. You'll be happy to know that there are economic hitmen in the book!

You're famous for your big outlines and grand visions for comic stories. How far do you have "The Black Monday Murders" mapped out?

One thing to keep in mind is these books are bigger than normal books, so our first trade, which is going to be the first four issues will be, at least, 240 pages. So if I say we're going to issue #20, and we keep playing the way that we're playing now, that would be around 40 issues of normal comics.

Right now, we have a plan for 12 issues, which would extrapolate out to be like 2 years worth of comics. Over 500 pages.

We're also super-pragmatic, though, and we want to make sure the book works and is received well. So the plan is to put the first issue out and see what happens. We'll get our numbers here in a couple weeks, and if we're strong, then we're just going to go and see what happens. If we're not, we can put a bow on the book at the planned 12 issues. Then we'll move on the something else.

That's a lot of comic pages to produce in a short amount of time.

Yeah, this is not a short story. We're way ahead, though. Tomm is in the middle of Issue #4 right now, a month before the first issue goes to press.

So, you feel good.

I do. We're super-excited about this book. We think it's really good, but we know it's going to be a different experience than what readers are used to, so it's a bit of a gamble. But so what? Sometimes you have to try different things because that's what makes them interesting. "The Black Monday Murders" would definitely qualify as a passion project, and you can't do those if you're not passionate about them.

I'm going to try new things for a while, and this book is the first. It feels new, it feels interesting, and I'm pretty excited about it.

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