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From Cosmic To Crops: Why Black Hammer is The Best Current Superhero Comic
By Colin O’Neill

 

Jeff Lemire is a cartoonist I have reverence for, perhaps because he’s Canadian (like me) and a few of the comics he’s created are set in Canada. Not only that, but his art style is wholly unique with his thick, bold brush work that makes scraggly figures who look like they’ve lived a hard life, with black beady eyes that stare through you and your soul and communicate one emotion: pain. His work is raw, categorizing the impermanence of nature, indigenous rights in Canada, fractured family dynamics, and hockey (yeah, yeah, insert “Sorry aboot that, guy” jokes here). Essex County, The Underwater Welder, Trillium, Sweet Tooth, etc. are all personal favourites of mine. His works where he’s solely the writer have been more so mixed for me, however. Animal Man was bogged down by an event that didn’t know when to end, Hawkeye had beautiful artwork by Ramón K. Pérez but a story that felt lifeless, and Justice League United was set in Canada and that’s about all I remember. For whatever reason, I much prefer books where Lemire is the sole visionary behind them. So, you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I read his newest on-going series Black Hammer for Dark Horse with Dean Ormstron on art and the legendary Dave Stewart on colour art.

It’s worth mentioning that this is a book Lemire supposedly wanted to work on directly after doing the Essex County trilogy. He essentially pitched it as Essex County but with superheroes, and that’s essentially what it is on the surface. However, it’s much more than that. I would characterize it as the biggest love letter to superhero comics, particularly those of Jack Kirby. The plot centres on a group of former superheroes that are stranded on a farm in a mysterious town after a massive fight with a villain named the Anti-God (who looks like Darkseid, again a Kirby creation) where they cannot leave and have to form a charade of pretending to be a family. The heroes are Abraham Slam who is your pulp-age/Captain America-esque character, who is strong in his fists and willpower. Golden Gail is your Shazam stand-in, a young woman from the golden age who got powers from a mystic where when she says a catchphrase she reverts back to being a child and gains superpowers. Colonel Weird and Talky-Walky are the sci-fi serial characters, your Flash Gordon or Buck Rodgers if you will. Madame Dragonfly is your EC horror character who is bound to a wooden shack she must inhabit a la House of Mysteries. Barbalien is your John Carter Martian/Martian Manhunter stand-in: The alien who comes down to Earth and lives among us, passively observing us and acclimating to our ways. And finally, there is the deceased yet instrumental Black Hammer, who is straight up a tribute to Kirby’s (again, with Jolly Jack) New Gods/Fourth World characters.

 

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For context to the uninitiated, Jack Kirby is essentially God. Kirby was the co-creator of nearly every single Marvel character and the Marvel Universe as a whole. He co-created Captain America with Joe Simon, hit it big with the Fantastic Four with that Stanley guy everybody sees in movies, and went onto work on characters at DC (the Fourth World Saga, OMAC, Etrigan the Demon, etc,) that he wrote and drew himself often completing three-pages a day, and there was never a bad looking page in the bunch. Kirby was proficient in cartooning until his death in 1994 at age 76, which had him work in the medium essentially from its inception and throughout majority of the lifespan of the medium’s history (Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, etc.). Why am I going on a tangent about Kirby? Because any time you can discuss the King (and he’s the only person I’ll ever bestow that title upon, because- y’know- fuck patriarchal structures) you’re discussing superhero comics, and what it means to do superhero comics. There are very few creators who’ve done significance in the genre, and Kirby IS the genre pretty much. So much so that everything he has done is still being done to this day. Some times to poor effect, others to loving tribute- such as with Black Hammer (see, I tied it in- I can do excursions).

What keeps this tribute fresh, however, is the modernization of the tropes of superhero comics. There’s a dichotomy of the flashbacks to the heroes in their glory days and seeing them currently, older, wearier, downtrodden on this farm they’re stuck on. For example, Gail is permanently stuck in her childhood state and can’t revert back to her actual, older self. So, in keeping up with the charade she has to attend school and act like a little girl- all the while she’s a binge drinking, chain smoking, older woman. That creates such great dramatic tension, and makes this character very compelling to read about and very sympathetic. Not only is Gail fascinating, but Colonel Weird is an excellent allegory for mental health issues, as he transcends through the “Para-zone” he has to simultaneously see the past, present, and future in tandem and is a literal specter that floats through existence.

 

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Lemire’s writing not only celebrates the old school tropes pioneered by the likes of Jack Kirby, but his own DNA is implanted in this fucked up family drama that tries to maintain a semblance of a normal life. Taking these characters that have been on cosmic excursions of grandiose scale and putting them stuck on a farm leads to very compelling storytelling. And on top of all that the art team renders it beautifully bringing this world to life exquisitely.

English artist Dean Ormston is the pencil artist and inker for this series, and I have never heard of him until now but I want to read anything and everything he’s drawn. His style does have traces of Kirby in them, if Kirby was a German expressionist. This may make people think of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola (who Alan Moore famously wrote was if Jack Kirby directed Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, respectively), however Ormston’s artwork is more gaudy and gothic. What’s so impressive is that Ormston can juggle having a sci-fi themed issue following the exploits of Colonel Weird, to Golden Age heroics of Golden Gail, to the horror of Madame Dragonfly. Ormston juggles these stylistic tonal shifts with ease, and does so beautifully. What’s even more impressive is the fact that this series should have been out sooner, but was delayed because Ormston took a pretty bad stroke. In the liner notes for one of the issues, Ormston discusses essentially having to re-learn how to hold a pencil and essentially become an artist again. And there is absolutely no drop in quality in his artwork and if anything, only improvements. It is highly commendable to see an artist bounce back from a health scare like that and not only go back to full capacity, but improve.

And even if that was enough, the colour art is done by the aforementioned living legend that is Dave Stewart is sublime. Stewart has coloured nearly every book (that Jordie Bellaire hasn’t coloured already, anyway), and there’s a reason why he’s one of the most in-demand colourists in the industry. His tones can go from muted and grey with sparse tones, to bright and four-colour CMYK and everywhere in-between. There has yet to have been bad work from Stewart, and he can improve any artist’s line work, like how a good film score improves an already good film.

 

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In conclusion, Black Hammer is a labour of love for Lemire, Ormston, and Stewart. It is tribute in the best way possible, and takes the best tropes from the best superhero comics and reshapes them in a new, fun, interesting way. It has a multitude of characters that are all fascinating, compelling, and great to read- not one character in this book disinterests me at any time or point, they’re all that interesting to learn about. That’s why, in this critic’s humble opinion, it is the best superhero comic on the stands today.

 

HeadshotPhoto Credit: Nathan Boone

 

Colin O’Neill lives on a tiny island in Canada that you’ve never heard of. When not thinking about comics, he’s trying different kinds of craft beer or attending open mic shows. He studied political science in university, and drinks to forget the perils of neo-liberal globalization. He was also voted most clumsy in high school, but wasn’t present to accept the award.