JULY 1, 2017
WHEN TOLSTOY WROTE his famous first line of Anna Karenina, claiming that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” I doubt he imagined that his idea would one day manifest itself in the well-worn tropes of the comic book superhero genre. The establishment of family as the cohering framework for understanding a superhero team is nothing new — it goes back at least to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s The Fantastic Four — nor is the use of a superhero pastiche to create recognizable characters through which to play with genre conventions and explore the elements of superhero universes that are typically ignored or downplayed in mainstream comics. Yet Dark Horse Comics’s Black Hammer manages to combine these two conventions to create a compelling and emotionally terse world.
The superhero pastiche has been around long enough not only to become its own subgenre of superhero comics, but indeed to become something of a cliché. There are countless examples, from Roy Thomas and John Buscema’s Justice League–based Squadron Supreme in the pages of early 1970s Avengers comics; to multiple Alan Moore titles, including Watchmen, 1963, and Supreme; to Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s ongoing series Astro City. These series all create a world out of whole cloth from the tropes and characters of established superhero serials. They do so in order to poke fun at the competition, to satirize the genre, to revisit and reconstruct a sense of place and wonder buried under the accretion of decades’ worth of market-driven events. In the universe of Black Hammer, envisioned by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston, a group of all-too-familiar protagonists find themselves removed from the four-color punch up world from whence they came and placed in an agrarian setting where the queerness and excess of their adventurous urban life is reduced to family secrets and the embarrassing and sometimes toxic idiosyncrasies of the domestic sphere.
In this respect, Black Hammer owes an unacknowledged debt to Moore’s 1986 Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, a “final” Superman story that marked the transition from DC Comics’s then continuity to the company’s streamlined and reimagined reboots of its various titles. In Moore’s two-issue miniseries, Superman bombards himself with power-stealing gold kryptonite, becomes a normal man, and adopts a new identity. He marries Lois Lane and retreats to domestic life. As I wrote in an essay about Moore’s Superman story:
In the final story Moore crafts for America’s first and best known superhero, the real “ending” of the comic narrative is not death, but domesticity. How better to signify the end of the adolescent possibilities of comic book kid stuff than the wife and child, the home, the quibbling about coffee? The final scene has Lois and her husband planning an amorous evening after their son is asleep, Lois is even depicted slipping off her dress, as if to say that Superman’s sexual latency has also come to an end. He has moved on from “silly” adventures to adult interests, and maybe it is time for his fans to do the same.
In Black Hammer, however, domesticity is not a choice, but a prison — and not an ending but a beginning. Lemire and Ormston’s story reverses Superman’s seminal journey from Smallville to Metropolis: Black Hammer’s dysfunctional heroes awaken, after their climactic Spiral City battle with the Darkseid-like Anti-God, to find themselves trapped in a small, rural farming community. The series opens 10 years after these events, which we learn of in flashback as we are introduced to the family the heroes have been forced to make of themselves — both literally, as their collective secret identity in the farming community, and metaphorically, as outsiders bound together by distinct iterations of a common past.
Lemire doesn’t try to hide the influences on his characters. Flashback sequences glossing their superhero pasts rely on at least passing familiarity with the genre’s historical tropes. Abraham Slam is an aging pulp adventurer with a Charles-Atlas-hero-of-the-beach-as-Captain-America backstory. Barbalien is a “warlord from Mars” combining the shape-shifting and outsider status of Martian Manhunter with the militant Martian culture of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter. Golden Gail is a reversed version of Fawcett’s Mary Marvel, a woman who ages normally but, when she speaks the magic name of the wizard Zafram, becomes a super strong nine-year-old who flies. Colonel Weird is Adam Strange with a hefty dose of Jim Starlin–era Adam Warlock psychedelia. Talky-Walky is Weird’s robot sidekick, part Robby the Robot, part Vision, with a little bit of Sue Storm’s early ’60s domestic duties thrown in. Rounding out this group of misfits is Madame Dragonfly, a reclusive mystic who evokes the narrators from DC’s classic horror anthology comics like House of Secrets (she even brings along her own house). In addition, we hear in flashback about the titular Black Hammer, an African-American mash-up of Kirby’s New Gods and his version of Thor, who at the time the series begins is dead.
Slam, the group’s reluctant leader, has come to accept their new surroundings, finding love with a local waitress who wants him to open up. He plays grandfather to Golden Gail, who is trapped in her nine-year-old body. A hard-drinking, chain-smoking, 55-year-old woman forced to relive the fourth grade, she is embittered by her infantilization. Barbalien (a.k.a. Mark Markz) is doubly the outsider. He is a Martian in human guise, but also gay (if sexuality and gender alignment mean anything to a shape-shifting species), and attracted to a new priest who has moved into town. Colonel Weird exists in a constant altered state from his multiple trips to the wacked out “parazone,” and Talky-Walky feels under appreciated both for her domestic work (cooking family meals) and her repeated and failed attempts to free the group from their pastoral prison. Although she occasionally plays Gail’s mother and Abe’s daughter-in-law when called upon to do so, Madame Dragonfly remains reclusive, spending more and more time dwelling upon the unspoken mysteries of her magic shack of many rooms.
All six of the living superheroes are confined to the farm and the nearby town, fearing undisclosed, but suggestively dire, consequences for leaving. Walky-Talky occasionally sends probes beyond the perimeter of the group’s confinement, but in seven tries in 10 years, all have disappeared without a trace. The townspeople, on the other hand, seem to be able to come and go as they please to and from a world that exists beyond the farming community’s confines. Is this a pocket dimension? A shared dream? All that’s left of the universe after the assault of the Anti-God? Our heroes don’t know — though we as readers can see Black Hammer’s journalist daughter investigating their disappearance and apparent death in the universe in which they fought the Anti-God.
Yes, there is a mystery in the first collected volume of Black Hammer. Ormston’s artwork contains what appear to be subtle clues that reward multiple readings, but which might also be red herrings, misunderstandings, or secrets kept for our protagonists’ own good. This mystery, however, feels secondary to a more fundamental one: how do we make a family when we do not choose the people to whom we are related? It’s the fundamental question that picks at the scab holding together the family in Black Hammer, but also of course every family in some way or another.
By inserting their superhero pastiche into a claustrophobic world decidedly at odds with the colorful world of the genre’s standard metropolitan setting, Lemire and Ormston provide a sharp lens through which to use this family’s unique and somewhat arbitrary origin to highlight the sense of weirdness that exists in all families. Over and over in the course of the six issues collected in the series’s first volume, Slam tells his waitress lover, Tammy, that his family is “complicated” and that she would not understand. He keeps her at arm’s length, even as he longs for the solace to be found in her arms. These scenes are, I would venture, evocative for anyone who has navigated between their family and the outside world, or who has considered introducing an outsider to the idiosyncrasies of their family’s life. What appears to Tammy as the typical dysfunctional family — a rebellious young girl, a troubled daughter-in-law, an absent son — hides deeper scars and crises. In this respect, Black Hammer layers the superheroic back on top of the family drama that has been a subtext — sometimes explicit, often unspoken — of comics about superhero groups since Kirby and Lee’s innovations in The Fantastic Four.
Speaking of the unspoken, while the subject of race never comes up directly in Black Hammer, the titular character’s name is a throwback to the blaxploitation-influenced black comic characters of the 1970s, such as Black Goliath and Black Lightning, whose race was embedded in their superheroic identity. This adds another dimension to the series’s exploration of how family is made — especially given how Secret Origins ends, and how this ending may well force the superhero allies-turned-family to explain a new addition to their household. The fact that Black Hammer’s name gives the series its title certainly suggests that his role or legacy will play a larger part in the series as it develops. At least, one can hope that this will be the case.
Lemire’s handling of the pastiche and the family drama alone, however, would not make Black Hammer rise above most current superhero fare in the way that it does. Ormston’s art and Dave Stewart’s colors convey the heavy dread of a banal life simultaneously with the weird and fantastical elements threaded throughout the domestic drama. Ormston’s pencils and inks, while reminiscent of Lemire’s work on the graphic novels he has written and drawn, also remind me of Mike Mignola’s art on Hellboy. His deft rendering of facial expressions and body language make Lemire’s choice to eschew captions and limit access to characters’ interiority (except for a few thought bubbles in the more explicitly comic-booky flashbacks) work. The dreary reflection of the limits of farm life in the panel backgrounds instead do much of the work that thought bubbles otherwise might. Ormston and Stewart’s art, moreover, deepens and enriches the series’s pastiche of previous superhero stories, making this pastiche work not just thematically but at the level of style. Black Hammer’s flashback sequences evoke the different periods of comic book style from which the various characters emerge, with a handful of pitch-perfect visual references to well-known comics. For example, in the retelling of Golden Gail’s story, we glimpse her superheroic career in sequential panels riffing on, respectively, the Golden Age Superman, the Bronze Age X-Men, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Stewart’s choice of color palette does important work here as well. Everything in the farm prison is shrouded in slate-like gray or muted earth tones, while in the superheroic flashbacks greens, yellows, purples, and blues wash every scene.
While on the surface it may seem like more of the same — comics creators returning to the object of their nostalgia to either criticize or ennoble the superhero genre — Black Hammer: Secret Origins offers something more: characters that reflect everyday concerns through colorful hyperbole and the deeply felt pathos of their relations. It remains to be seen if Lemire and Ormston will maintain the high quality of the first six issues as the series develops, but based on this collection I’d argue that now is a good time to jump on board.
Osvaldo Oyola teaches in the New York University Expository Writing Program and writes on pop culture, race, and gender on his blog The Middle Spaces. He serves on the International Comics Art Forum Executive Committee.