“The Age of Heroes Has Passed” Reading Dark Horse’s ‘Black Hammer’ #1-6 by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston
This article contains major spoilers for Black Hammer’s first arc.
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Art: Dean Ormston
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters: Jeff Klein
Publisher: Dark Horse
Jeff Lemire is fast becoming one of my favourite ever writers. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to come to this realisation; maybe it’s because I’ve not read some of what would be considered Lemire’s more popular works like Essex County, Sweet Tooth or Animal Man. What I have read however is his graphic novel Trillium, which he wrote and drew for Vertigo (colours by José Villarrubia). It’s been awhile since I read that, so maybe that deserves an article all of its own, but suffice to say it’s absolutely fascinating. Without spoiling too much (and without going on about Trillium in an article that’s supposed to be about Black Hammer) the way Lemire uses the comic form to intertwine two narratives in a very literal and figurative way is stunning.
I’m also in love with Plutona, his 5 issue limited series with artist Emi Lenox, and I’m familiar with his work on Image Comic’s Descender (with Dustin Nguyen on art), and his latest Marvel work with Extraordinary X-Men, Hawkeye and Moonknight has been great.
It is however this new series that has me the most convinced of his comics writing prowess. Black Hammer is a story set after the big, final superhero battle is already over. When I say big, final battle, think ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ big, or perhaps more appropriately, think Marvel’s ‘Onslaught’ big, and when I say it’s already over, I’m talking 10 years over. To the day in fact, because the anniversary is in issue 1.
It’s this moment in the lives of our heroes that Lemire has chosen to start his tale, and it’s an interesting choice but arguably the only logical one; really it’s what makes the book so special. The fact that I already name-checked two storylines that have done the epic battle-to-end-all-battles should tell you that we’ve seen that story before, and anyone that knows the tropes of the genre could probably name a dozen more stories like it, so having that merely be ‘what came before’ and not jump into the story at that point is fine. Plus, the fact that we have seen that battle so many times elsewhere means that Lemire only needs to hint at what happened and we can fill in the blanks ourselves. As a side note, it’s in no way essential to have any prior knowledge of superhero comics in order to enjoy Black Hammer, but by spotting the tropes early on you can certainly meet Lemire more than half way when he lays out breadcrumbs (of both history and character development) for you to follow. But more on that later.
So if the battle was 10 years ago, what have our heroes been doing since then? Well as you may know, in the case of superhero comics, the end is rarely the end. That’s true of Black Hammer too, but instead of their serialized exploits picking up the next month with very little overall difference, here the group of six characters has been trapped, abandoned and all but forgotten in a small town and forced to live out their days on an old farm.
Where exactly they are, if it’s even their world they’re trapped on, why they can’t leave and who (if anyone) is responsible are the main mysteries to solve, and while we get some tantalising teases in this first arc, it’s clear Lemire is taking his time to fully reveal all the secrets. We’ll examine a little later what we do know by the end of issue 6.
The heroes trapped here are all introduced in issue one, and subsequent issues delve deeper into each of their characters one by one. While who they are is important, it’s not nearly as fascinating as how they have reacted to this unpredictable turn their lives have taken. Lemire gives an origin story for each of them in this first arc, but there’s a heavy dose of deja vu for long time readers of superhero comics, as the writer leans heavily on the origins of other superheroes to flesh out these analogues.
Abraham Slam is our main focal point and perhaps the leader of this group in a way. He’s at least the glue that’s holding this dysfunctional unit together. His backstory is told in issue 3, and it’s basically Captain America mixed with Daredevil: skinny boy can’t join the war effort, but in this case instead of using a Super-Soldier serum, he joins a boxing gym and just trains really hard. This subtle mix of the two means that he’s a touch more realistic, but also takes away the one thing that keeps Steve Rogers young (that and being frozen in ice). Without it, Slam ages along with the rest of us, and that may be why he’s the most content with their situation. There’s a flashback section in issue 3 where he’s openly admonished for even bothering to fight the good fight now that he’s getting old, so while I’m sure he worked as hard as the rest of them in trying to get home (although that exact span of time hasn’t been explored fully yet), now, 10 years on, he’s working the hardest at making a life for himself on the farm, even going so far as to be dating a woman from the town.
Next, there’s Gail Gibbons, AKA Golden Gail, who’s an analogue for DC’s Shazam:
While a lot is taken from Shazam’s origins, Lemire adds one crucial factor: time. It’s the passage of time that sets Gail apart from her DC Comics counterpart. Like Billy Batson, Gail Gibbons gets her powers when she’s a child, but unlike Billy, when Gail says her magic word (in this case, Zafram!), Gail doesn’t turn into an adult but remains a child.
As she grows up, she maintains this power but when she changes into Golden Gail she returns to the age she was when she got her powers. A crucial difference there, which begs the question: how would that make you feel, and how would those feelings change as you get older? Luckily Lemire explores that in a single page (perfectly captured by artist and co-creator Dean Ormston who I’ll be singing the praises of later):
That thrill that an older Gail has by transforming into her heroic alternate and tapping into her own Fountain of Youth is darkly twisted and torn from her grasp when, as she joins her fellow heroes in being trapped on the farm for 10 years, she does so trapped in the body of a child. She’s effectively imprisoned twice over by fate, and it’s this tragedy that forms the basis of her arc during these six issues.
There’s also an interesting metaphor to be drawn here between Gail and the average comic reader. I know for a fact that as a fan of comics I went through a similar arc as Gail did growing up; at a young age I was begging for a more mature theme to the comics I read, but then slowly I learned to really treasure the brightly coloured, hopelessly optimistic superhero books and even now I favour them over more darker fare. Ormston even references that in his art on the page above, with the final panel being an homage to one of the founders of more mature superhero storytelling: The Dark Knight Returns.
This may be me reading way too much into it, but there’s even an element of commentary on the medium as a whole. After all, Dark Knight Returns wouldn’t have happened at all if not for the comic fans of the silver age growing up wanting more maturity from their favourite heroes, creating DKR and books like Killing Joke and of course Watchmen, culminating in a sort of stagnation of the genre. Caught in a pit of ‘seriousness equals deep’ and ‘grim equals adult’, these comics (and more importantly the copycat nature of the work that followed) dragged The Superhero into a darker and darker ‘reality’ in order to seek the validation of the wider world until now, like an older, wiser Gail, superhero comics (as well as TV and movies) are beginning to see the charm of what can be achieved when they truly embrace the quintessential optimism of the genre.
Where does that same metaphor take us, however, now that Gail is trapped in the body of that same optimistic hero of old, slowly resenting all that it represents? It’s hard to say without having the complete series in front of us, but perhaps it’s a warning on the nature of a comics fan/writer, and their tendency to cling to nostalgia. First the genre wanted to break out of the childish stereotypes and become more mature and gritty and therefore (presumably) more acceptable for an adult to read, but maybe there’s a warning here that a pushback against that – i.e. a return to what comics were before – isn’t necessarily right either, and by returning wholesale to the silver age optimism means we get trapped in the past instead of finding something new entirely and truly moving superhero comics forward.
There’s a lot there that I’m stretching to perhaps, but the themes touched on above are ones explicitly explored in Black Hammer: the concept of being trapped in a grim and realistic present; a longing for a return to the brightly coloured spandex of the past; as well as the idea that forcing a more realistic life onto these analogues leads to them stagnating and suffocating, never reaching their full potential.
The next character is Barbalien, who is pretty much a Martian Manhunter clone, complete with the name Mark Markz. There is a notable exception, however, that Lemire uses to further push the already existing themes of being an outsider and someone struggling to find their place in the world, and that’s by introducing us to the idea of Mark Markz being gay. It’s not exactly a subtle exploration of the metaphor but it allows for Lemire to present a conflict for the character in the context of the narrative, namely by having this place – where they are all so lost – be where Barbalien finally finds himself. Again, it’s not subtle but it will only give the character more conflict with the decisions he will have to make moving forward. It already leads to an incredibly awkward scene when he tries to come out to Gail, who mistakes his confession for an admission that her own romantic feelings are being reciprocated, breaking her heart and potentially snuffing out the one thing she was hopeful about.
Colonel Weird – a sort of Buck Rogers meets Dr Strange character – and Talky Walky – a robot still struggling to invent something, anything to get them out of the purgatory they find themselves in – are characters with a shared history. Talky worked with Colonel Weird at NASA, and together they explored the galaxy in what would have been the cosmic adventure books of the 60’s if Black Hammer truly had the rich publishing history it alludes to.
There’s not a great deal to Talky Walky so far, except her need to keep sending probes out to breach the boundary of the town that keeps them captive – a plot point that slow boils towards an interesting finale to part one – and her strong loyalty to the Colonel, which is possibly more than just platonic:
Colonel Weird is another character that explores the idea of being an outsider, but this time in a less analogous way. He was stranded here like the others, but unlike the others, he can traverse to the Para-Zone, a sort of alternate dimension where time and space have no meaning. We learn that he can’t bring other people into the zone, but he can jump back and forth through time, something that is slowly turning him mad. He does have an issue that focuses on him and his origin – issue 5 – but it’s not until the Giant–Size Annual 1, set after this first arc, that we truly see that explored. I’ve got a feeling that the Colonel and his abilities will become more and more important as the series moves forward.
Finally, there’s Madame Dragonfly; the reclusive Witch. As the series progresses we learn that they all have to create the fantasy of being a family in order to try and fit in; Abraham is Gail’s ‘Grandfather’, and Madame Dragonfly her ‘mother’, both of which Gail actively fights against time and again. Madame Dragonfly is the perfect character to break the fourth wall with too, due to her mysterious dalliances with the supernatural. She even introduces issue 6:
If Black Hammer truly was the culmination of a living, breathing, interconnected comic book universe, then Dragonfly would be ripped straight from the horror comics of the seventies. Her tragic backstory ties her eternally to the dark and foreboding Cabin in the Woods, and when she gets stranded on the farm, a version of the Cabin gets dragged along too. More and more she retreats to the Cabin until now she hardly interacts with the rest of the cast at all. It’s the final issue of the arc where she truly comes into her own, and where her place in the overall story becomes a little clearer.
And what of that overall story? Well, that concerns the superhero that the book is named after; Black Hammer.
Stranded on the farm with the rest of the heroes, we discover in issue 1 that he gave his life for the others. How exactly isn’t clear, although something Talky Walky says could allude to it:
What’s more intriguing is that by the end of the first issue we discover that his daughter is working away in Spiral City trying to find them.
By the end of the arc, a number of story threads all come together to provide an excellent cliffhanger. Black Hammer’s daughter Lucy Weber discovers one of Talky Walky’s probes. It turns that this last one finally worked, falling to earth through a portal in space that looks suspiciously like the ones Colonel Weird uses to travel through the Para-Zone. Lucy follows the path of the latest probe and travels through the doorway, landing on the farm. Unfortunately, she comes face to face with Madame Dragonfly first, who betrays the group by forcing Lucy to forget everything she knows:
This provides us with a few interesting facts: firstly that Madame Dragonfly has more involvement with the current status quo than we thought; that Lucy Weber knew this when she arrived as well as knowing exactly where they are, forcing Dragonfly to wipe her mind; that the town in which our protagonists inhabit isn’t located on earth, or if it is it’s not accessible from there(maybe with a connection to the Para-Zone); and that something Talky Walky is doing is obviously working, as her probes (or at least one of them) make it out.
In a few different places, Colonel Weird appears to reveal glimpses of what’s to come. Firstly about Gail:
And secondly, more importantly perhaps, about Lucy:
Either way it’s a fascinating place to leave volume one, and a perfect set up for the book moving forward.
We need to talk about Dean Ormston’s art which is, frankly, superbly suited to the subject matter. He has a way of capturing the grounded, realistic monotony of the farm and the town, but manages to make the boring look beautiful.
The two main challenges facing Ormston is being able to capture the disparate nature of the cast, and the dichotomy between the past and the present. In the case of the former, Lemire mixes characters who are as varied as hard science fiction:
To straight up horror:
While always maintaining the atmosphere of family melodrama:
It’s in the flashbacks however where Ormston really shines. Again he has the myriad types of characters to deal with, but when we see glimpses of them in their prime, the art has to rise up to match the tone; in order to completely capture the feeling that we’re seeing them as the hero in their own comic, Ormston adapts his style perfectly to match.
Helping him greatly to capture all these styles in one book is colourist Dave Stewart and let me tell you, he more than pulls his weight in delivering a rich variety of tones and atmospheres, this book would not be the same without his work. The list of worlds he has to colour is nearly endless, each with its own distinct mood to convey: epic superhero fights; gritty noir-soaked city streets; nightmarish, haunted cabins; grand cosmic adventure; twisted, alternate dimensions; and claustrophobic, small-town melodrama. In issue 1 we get a great panel showing us the Gothamesque Spiral City at night, and it’s a perfect example of Ormston and Stewart working so well together (not to mention Todd Klein’s excellent lettering that effortlessly fits any scene).
At its core, Black Hammer is a series that follows in the footsteps, at least conceptually, of books like Astro City (where superheroic ideas and analogues are mixed with the everyday lives of non-super folk) or Watchmen (exploring what it’s like to be a superhero past their prime, their ‘golden age’ behind them), but I was also reminded a little of The Incredibles (that sense of heroes hiding amongst regular folk, trying to carve out a ‘normal’ life). There are obviously plenty of homages within the plot that are there waiting for ardent comics fans like myself, only a fraction of which I’ve touched on here, but those are used merely as shortcuts, or narrative abbreviations to allow readers to fill in the blanks themselves.
What I’m most excited about moving forward is how the series is going to further explore the themes discussed earlier. What will be Lemire’s conclusions regarding the desire to return to the past so badly, to forever cling to this rose-tinted view of what once was, and is that an idea that can be extended outwards to the medium as a whole? What are these characters learning about themselves by being trapped in this place for so long, forced to do nothing but relive past glory, because that definitely feels like a subtle commentary on superhero comics in general? What does it say about each of the analogues the way that they’re all reacting to being stuck here, whether it be an utter contempt for the present, a longing for the past, a determination to reclaim it, or a full acceptance that this present is better (with some even starting to make a life for themselves, going so far as accept the truth about their own character)?
Black Hammer is a fascinating, engaging book that is taking familiar characters and concepts and putting them into a situation designed to stress them and push them beyond the boundaries that they normally reside. It’s a deconstruction of the concepts of The Superhero, of Sacrifice, of Fulfillment and of Purpose, and it’s exciting to see where the book is going to go next.