Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is Black Hammer: Age Of Doom #7. Written by Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, Gideon Falls) with art by Rich Tommaso (Dick Tracy, Spy Seal), this conclusion of a two-part interlude celebrates the collaboration that heightens the imagination of superhero comics. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
The world of superhero comics is built on rip-offs. When Superman proved to be a huge hit, others rushed to create their own heroes in the same mold. As the decades passed, publishers and creators regularly co-opted the ideas of competitors for their own comics, changing just enough so that they weren’t carbon copies. Some of these characters faded into obscurity while others lasted long enough to develop their own distinct identities, which in turn inspired new generations of creators who pulled from the past.
Like a lot of genre entertainment, superhero stories take familiar parts and put them together to create works that range from tediously derivative to brilliantly imaginative, most falling somewhere in the middle. Dark Horse Comics’ Black Hammer is very much aware of this history, with writer Jeff Lemire and main artist Dean Ormston mashing up popular Marvel and DC comics to create their own creator-owned superhero universe that is easily accessible for fans of the Big Two. The core cast of characters is inspired by heroes like Captain America, Shazam/Captain Marvel, Martian Manhunter, Thor, and Adam Strange, but the creative team keeps the series from being a cheap imitation of other companies’ IP by removing these characters from their superhero world and trapping them in a mysterious rural environment.
After stopping Anti-God, a mix of DC’s Darkseid and Marvel’s Galactus, from destroying Spiral City, seven heroes were transported to the small town of Rockwood. Black Hammer’s body was torn to shreds when he tried to pass through an invisible barrier, and the other six have been stuck in Rockwood ever since. Some learned to appreciate this quiet new life over the course of a decade while others succumbed to despair, but everything changed when Black Hammer’s journalist daughter suddenly appeared in Rockwood, fully committed to figuring out what is going on in this unusual town.
Unlike Marvel and DC’s superhero universes, Black Hammer begins with a diverse group of heroes that includes women, people of color, and queer characters. The titular fallen hero is a black man whose daughter later takes on his mantle. Golden Gail is a middle-aged woman trapped in a girl’s body. Barbalien is a gay Martian who carries a torch for the town priest. By splitting the narrative between these superheroes’ spectacular former lives and their current dull, sad situations, the creative team reinforces the humanity of these characters and gives them complex emotional arcs.
Lemire collaborates with phenomenal artists to bring the world of Black Hammer to life, with Ormston and colorist Dave Stewart handling the majority of the art on the main series. They transition seamlessly between the different genres and tones of Lemire’s story, using simplified panel layouts and coloring for the superhero scenes to give them a different rhythm and atmosphere than the more varied and multidimensional visuals in Rockwood. Black Hammer: Age Of Doom (BH:AOD), the series’ second volume, leans more into horror visuals as elements of Vertigo Comics—specifically The Sandman—make their way into the story. Ormston’s experience working on Vertigo titles has been especially valuable in this regard, intensifying the sense of dread as the series heads toward major revelations.
The first story arc of BH:AOD answered some of the biggest questions of the series regarding the truth behind Rockwood, dramatically changing the status quo for the series moving forward. The entire concept of the series has been uprooted, and after dropping a bombshell in BH:AOD #5, Lemire takes a two-issue detour with artist Rich Tommaso that follows Colonel Weird into deeply meta territory. This series has been making its way through the various eras of superhero history, and with these two issues, it takes a metafictional approach akin to Grant Morrison’s work on books like Animal Man and Flex Mentallo. The clean lines, flat colors, and strong graphic compositions of Tommaso’s artwork are reminiscent of indie cartoonists like Daniel Clowes, Dylan Horrocks, and Paul Hornschemeier, artists who embraced retro influences to tell modern, mature stories that appealed to the literary crowd.
Tommaso has done outstanding work on his own solo projects at Image Comics over the past few years, exploring a wide variety of genres with crime comics like Clover Honey, Dark Corridor, and Dry County, the psychedelic horror of She-Wolf, and the talking animal espionage of Spy Seal. He’s currently the penciller on IDW’s revamp of Dick Tracy, an inspired hiring choice given the influence of Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould on Tommaso’s art style, but that series doesn’t take full advantage of his skills as an inker, colorist, and letterer. That’s not the case with BH:AOD, which has Tommaso handling all of the visuals to emphasize the disconnect of this two-part story in relation to the rest of the series.
Staying true to his name, Colonel Weird takes a very strange journey in these two issues as he makes his way out of the main story and into a realm described as “nowhere,” where he meets unrealized characters from stories that were never completed. Tommaso makes clever use of white space and panel borders to establish this transition between narrative planes; when Weird jumps out of his spaceship, borders disappear so that he’s leaping into the white space of the panel gutters. When he descends toward a planet floating in the void, his foot overlaps the panel border, giving the impression that he’s falling out of the gutter and back into a defined world.
But this “nowhere” realm isn’t completely solid. It shifts at the whims of “the boss,” and the environment cycles through big cities, futuristic sci-fi locales, and post-apocalyptic wastelands (the boss’ favorite). BH:AOD #7 reveals that this boss is Lemire himself, and Weird has to find a way out of his creator’s imagination to get back to the series’ core narrative. This is only possible because one of these unrealized characters, Golden Goose, actually made her way onto the page in a flashback back in Black Hammer #8, giving Weird an escape route through Lemire’s head.
This meta twist may seem self-serving at first, but it becomes Lemire’s way of highlighting the importance of collaboration in creating not just this superhero universe, but all comic-book stories. While Lemire situates himself as the central creator of the series, he acknowledges that he is not the only mind responsible for bringing these stories to the page. As the characters take a look at the landscape outside of their creator’s mind, they see a line of people who all play a part in building their world and others. “This place may be where stories come from, but this guy isn’t the only creator,” says Insector Inspector. “This is the source of all stories. Ours is only a tiny part of that.”
Lemire could have written and drawn Black Hammer on his own, but so much of the magic of superhero comics comes from creators working together. By collaborating with different artists, Lemire gives the world of Black Hammer more depth, and their distinct perspectives changes how he approaches his scripting. In these two issues, Lemire takes full advantage of Tommaso’s wealth of comic-book knowledge, with the opening sequence of BH:AOD #7 showcasing how well Tommaso moves between genres in his artwork. The origins of Weird’s new companions are condensed in single pages, then single panels, giving Tommaso the opportunity to channel the styles of different creators and eras. He starts with an intricately detailed homage to Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant for Excali-Burt, followed by a Gould-esque page for Insector Inspector and a vibrantly colored Ms. Moonbeam page that has a Steve Ditko vibe.
Embracing that spirit of collaboration has worked out very well for Black Hammer, which is the biggest creator-owned success Dark Horse has had in years. It won the Best New Series Eisner Award last year, and earlier this month, Legendary Entertainment announced that it is developing Black Hammer for both film and television, a natural next step for a series all about how the superhero genre has evolved over time. Most superheroes begin on the page and make their way into other media if they’re lucky, and Lemire has devoted a lot of time to expanding this universe to make it attractive to studios eager to capitalize on the massive popularity of the genre.
After the conclusion of the first Black Hammer volume, Lemire expanded his superhero franchise with different spin-offs. He began with the villain-centric Sherlock Frankenstein And The Legion Of Evil (art by David Rubin), then channeled James Robinson’s Starman with Doctor Star & The Kingdom Of Lost Tomorrows (art by Max Fiumara) . The current Quantum Age miniseries (art by Wilfredo Torres) takes readers 1,000 years into the future to chronicle the adventures of the Quantum League, and next month he delves into teen drama with the Cthu-Louise one-shot (art by Emi Lenox). In just two years, Lemire has created an expansive universe that gives Legendary a lot of options for creating TV shows and movies, but the series doesn’t read like an extended Hollywood pitch. By working with artists who have a passion for the comic-book medium and unique points of view, Lemire shines a light on what makes superhero comics special.