Greg Rucka and various artists, Crime Bible: The Five Lessons of Blood (DC Comics, 2007-8). Five-issue miniseries, $2.99 each.
By Alex Boney
For people who have been reading mainstream comic books for about as long as they have been able to read, it’s difficult not to play favorites with characters. I’m no exception, and the Question (Vic Sage) has been my favorite comic book character for almost 20 years now. When Vic died in DC’s weekly series 52 a couple years ago, I was more than a little distraught. I know this is comics, and anybody can come back at any time with any explanation (Robin and Bucky, anyone?), but the most engaging, intelligent, and fully-developed character I had ever read in mainstream comics had just been wiped out by lung cancer. (See? Even his death is unique in the world of comics.) The story of Vic’s death—written mostly by Greg Rucka—was moving and logical, but even by the end of 52, it was hard for me to accept that the role of the Question had been adopted by Vic’s friend and protégé Renee Montoya. So when DC announced a “52 Aftermath” miniseries starring the new Question, I was more ambivalent than excited. Renee is not my Question, so I wasn’t really interested in finding the answers she was looking for. But after reading through the five issues of Crime Bible: The Five Lessons of Blood, I’m convinced that the idea of the Question transcends the character behind the (appropriately) blank mask.
Greg Rucka (Queen & Country, Whiteout) has earned a reputation for writing strong, believable female characters in a medium—or at least a genre—dominated by men and bimbos, and Renee Montoya is a fitting example. A Latina lesbian who served as a detective for the Gotham City Police Department, Renee moved from a minor supporting character in Detective Comics to a major player in Gotham Central. Rucka wrote her in both series, as well as in the majority of the Question scenes in 52, so it was logical that he would be tapped to write the spinoff/follow-up Question series. At the end of 52, Renee uncovers a underground conspiracy involving a Gotham City criminal organization and the newly-introduced Bible of Crime. The Crime Bible, a document dating back several centuries, is being used to usher in a new age of Hell on Earth. Donning the disguise of the Question for the first time, Renee foils the sacrifice that would have triggered this age. But as Crime Bible: Five Lessons of Blood begins, it becomes clear that the Gotham City criminal group was just a localized sect of a much more wide-ranging Religion of Crime. Crime Bible follows Renee as she attempts to cut off the reach and influence of this group.
Although the tone and pacing of Rucka’s writing is consistent and effective, the art in Crime Bible is inconsistent. Each issue is illustrated by a different artist. Since each of the first four issues explores one of the Religion of Crime’s four major tenets (deceit, lust, greed, and murder), the experiment in artistic rotation makes sense. But because some of the artists are stronger or better-suited to Rucka’s tone and vision, the overall story arc is a bit disconnected. Tom Mandrake provides a sketchy, shaky start in issue #1, and Jesus Saiz’ art in issue #2 is stiff and static (which is unfortunate in an issue focused on lust). The art begins gaining traction and momentum in issue #3 (illustrated by Matthew Clark), but the best rendering of Renee and her world is turned in by Diego Olmos in issue #4. Because Olmos’ heavy but defined inks and effective use of contrasts are a perfect fit for the series, Crime Bible would have been better served if he had drawn all five issues.
Artistic inconsistency aside, Crime Bible provides an engaging look at the world of human depravity. And because Renee has reached a point of crisis in her own life, her perspective provides an effective narrative focus. Much like Vic Sage before her, Renee doesn’t know who she is—what her physical and moral limitations are, who her allies are, or why she is even drawn to this quest. She insists that she is trying to prevent each of the Religion of Crime’s sins, but she gets pulled into the very crimes she is trying to fight. By the beginning of the last issue, Renee has reached a tipping point, and Rucka cleverly calls attention to Renee’s dilemma by conflating the word “faceless” with the word “faithless.” This is a smart, literate story.
For a series so carefully plotted and paced, then, I was shocked when I reached the last page of issue #5. I turned to read the next page, but there wasn’t one. The ending is abrupt and jarring, even if the result was not entirely unexpected. Many readers and critics have complained that the end wasn’t an end at all—that this miniseries is just a set-up for the next series (which is turns out will begin this summer in Final Crisis: Revelations). But this reading misses the point that Rucka has been trying to make with the Question all along. This character—this concept—is about mutation and change. Vic never really found a solid end-point either (no human being ever does), and his conclusions always only pointed to the next question he needed to answer. Renee seems to have fallen into a chasm by the last issue, and the series does end abruptly. But this series is effective in the same way that The Empire Strikes Back is effective. It provides an ambitious study of human character while staying true to the realities of human behavior. Crime Bible doesn’t feel complete, but it feels true. And just as Vic experienced—and as he tried to teach Renee in the year prior to his death—people often have to fall quite far before they can begin to climb their way back up. I’m looking forward to seeing this process play out in the next story, but I’m also satisfied with the statement Rucka has made in this one.