Posted by: Brian Hibbs on October 31, 2007
Since I’d thoroughly enjoyed 52, and especially the storyline that involved Renée Montoya and the Question, Greg Rucka was kind enough to pass along some photocopies of the first two issues of 52 AFTERMATH: THE CRIME BIBLE: THE FIVE BOOKS OF BLOOD. (I may have the title wrong: some sources say “Lessons” rather than “Books,” and I haven’t seen a finished copy yet.) The first one, drawn by Tom Mandrake, comes out today; despite the fact that she’s not mentioned anywhere in its tripartite title, this is the new Montoya/Question story, and it’s really satisfying to see Rucka writing her again.
For those of you who didn’t follow 52, one of the odder additions it made to the DC universe was the idea that there’s a religion of crime that has its own Bible. We saw fragments of it in that series (where Montoya’s investigation of its links to an Apokolips-related scheme began), and it’s also quoted in passing in the Keith Giffen-written 52 Aftermath: Four Horsemen miniseries. The venerated figure in this religion is, naturally, the original criminal, Cain, who’s referred to as the First. It’s worth pointing out that Cain himself is actually a recurring character in the DCU; we haven’t seen him lately, but we saw the House of Mystery he maintains in 52. We also saw allusions in 52 to the Book of Moriarty and the Book of Kürten, both of which reappear here, the latter rather prominently; Moriarty was, of course, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis (and is also an in-continuity character in the DCU!), and Kürten was an early-20th-century German serial killer.
A bit of this issue is given over to some necessary exposition: a professorial character, Stanton T. Carlyle, notes that the crime religion is prima facie ridiculous, and also explains that the Crime Bible concludes in four homiletic “Books of Blood,” based on the pillars of deceit, lust, greed and murder. (I wonder if Carlyle’s first name comes from Question creator Steve Ditko’s former studiomate and occasional collaborator Eric Stanton–link potentially NSFW.) This would be the “deceit” issue, hence its twist-ending structure, and if you’ve noticed that there’s a numerical disjunction between the concept in the story and the title of the miniseries, bingo; I’m assuming there’s some kind of hermetic-gnostic fifth Book we’ll find out about. Mandrake’s specialty is establishing a shadowy, uncertain mood–in some ways, he’s the closest thing to Gene Colan working regularly in comics now–and that fits nicely with the theme of the issue, too. (The big twist two pages before the end, though, is drawn with a peculiar gimmick that doesn’t really work.)
The Question, in the Denny O’Neil incarnation that Rucka’s taken after, is a detective whose investigations extend outward and inward: he (and now she) is interested in understanding complicated systems more than solving mysteries, as such, and one of those systems is his (and now her) own inner self. What Charlie kept asking Montoya in 52 was “who are you?”; she’s still figuring that out. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in this stuff and haven’t read Rucka’s interviews about the Question at the dedicated fan site vicsage.com, they’re pretty fascinating.) As in the O’Neil series, she has neither a real face nor a full identity; nobody ever refers to the Question by that name, except indirectly. Carlyle asks “Are there any questions?”; Montoya steps forward.
The premise of 52A:TCB:T5BOB–and doesn’t that sound like a good name for a designer drug?–is that the crime cultists think the new and not-fully-formed Question might in fact have potential as one of them (their religion includes a “parable of the faceless”). One of their leaders, a guy by the name of Flay (which just made me think of the great character with the same name in these books), even suggests that her familiarity with the text of the Crime Bible makes her one of its adherents, and that she’s “looked upon the red rock, bathed in the blood that soaks it.” She’s acquainted with things that can be framed as deceit through her double life, lust through… the same way everybody’s acquainted with lust, and murder very very tenuously through her killing of the suicide bomber in Kahndaq–although it was hardly premeditated, and inarguably defensible. Greed? I don’t know if she’s ever done anything that can even be construed as greed, other than dating somebody from a rich family, but on the other hand we don’t know what she’s been doing for money since 52 ended. Or even since 52 began.
Now, there’s one thing that’s still frustratingly opaque about Cainism (does the religion have a name among its adherents? is it the Order of the Stone, as Montoya suggests this issue?): what its adherents believe, and why. There’s a pretty strong division between the religious concept of sin and the secular notion of crime, and the crime religion muddles the two. (There’s some story I read a few weeks ago in which a religious sect believes in sinning as much as possible in order to better be able to humble themselves before God when they die; if you substitute “committing as many crimes as possible,” that no longer scans.) Carlyle’s lecture this issue proposes that the attraction of Cainism is somewhere between the freedom of the Nietzschean superman who makes his own morality and the de Sadean utopia in which personal gratification is the only law. But it sure seems regimented for all that it values individualism, and it doesn’t offer its faithful any particular justification for their actions. (Actually, it asks them to do things on the grounds that they’re not justifiable: its leaders “seek the vilest perfection.”) This is the same kind of logic that, over in Justice League of America, gives us Lex Luthor, who was very recently obsessed with maintaining his public image of always being in the right, forming an “Injustice League”; it doesn’t wash, because everyone justifies their own actions to themselves. We’re also told that there are only three extant copies of the Crime Bible’s complete text, but that the religion is trying to disseminate its text as far as possible. Jessica Hagy’s index-card taxonomy of two-sin combinations makes more sense.
So a high Good for the first one–although it’s worth noting that the second issue is a real step up, the kind of densely packed spy thriller/psychological grilling Rucka’s got a particular gift for. But I’ll get to that one when it’s due.