Series Condition: Black Hammer

For casual readers of comics, a series like an ‘analog’ Black Hammer can be great. It’s a standalone story (no other back issues to track down, no Wikipedia pages to research) that features ‘analogs’ to well-known archetypal characters.

I love a good ‘analog’ comic story, by that, I mean a fresh story that takes on the expected archetypal superheroes, slaps new names and costumes on them, and deconstructs them in new ways. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is a great example of a long-running city that any casual reader can pick up and totally get. Each issue of Astro City showcases a new hero or villain, like Samaritan, the Confessor, and Winged Victory, who are instantly recognizable as analogs of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, respectively. Watchmen, Squadron Supreme, and Irredeemable are two other great examples of superhero analog series where you don’t have to wade into decade’s worth continuity in order to enjoy the story. (Although, to be honest, it does help.)

Black Hammer
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Dean Ormston
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Publisher: Dark Horse
2015-2017
14 issues (the series entered hiatus, but is supposed to return in 2018)

Black Hammer is the latest analog universe that I’ve dived into. It was a memorable experience, although I have to say I wasn’t completely blown away. The story follows a collection of superheroes who find themselves trapped in some sort of pocket universe that resembles a tiny farming town. How did they get there? What is the force that kills them if they try to leave? Unfortunately, none of these questions are answered before the series went on indefinite hiatus in 2017.

The best thing about the 13-issue series (so far?) are its character concepts. I’ll list a few of my favorites.

  • Abraham Slam is an obvious Captain America analog, but he doesn’t have a super-soldier serum or the benefit of being frozen in ice to help him fight off ravages of time. As the Black Hammer story begins, he’s already the oldest character and quite a bit over the hill.
  • Golden Gail is sort of Shazam character in reverse. Shazam was an ordinary boy who turns into an adult superhero when he says a magic word. Gail is a normally aging woman who has become stuck in her eternally prepubescent, super-powered form.
  • Talkie Walkie is a robot sidekick character with an awesome name and an even more awesome character design.
  • Madame Dragonfly is the mystical, unpredictable superhero (think Scarlet Witch or the X-Men’s Magik) who also acts like a host character from the 1950s EC Comics. (Think the Crypt Keeper.)
  • Black Hammer is a character who seemingly died trying to escape the pocket universe. At first he seems like a 70s-blaxploitation hybrid of Superman and John Henry, which cool enough. But later we learn that his origin veers toward Thor and Jack Kirby’s New Gods.

The characters have a lot of potential, and the series has already spawned an excellently named spin-off, Sherlock Frankenstein. I was disappointed, however, that we didn’t get any kind of resolution for the main characters. In issue one, we find out that the heroes have been trapped in this bucolic setting for ten years. And yet it takes a newly introduced character to start showing them clues that might help them out of their predicament. If these are Earth’s greatest heroes, then why have they given up so easily on finding a way out? Also, Gail’s best friend is a gay team-member who doesn’t seem particularly closeted. And yet after ten years of living in close quarters, Gail is shocked to find out he’s gay? There are some plot points and character interactions that seem paper-thin. Maybe some of these troublesome issues could have been resolved if the characters had been trapped in the pocket dimension for one year instead of ten. Also, some of these issues seem to be exacerbated as the last three issues of the series seem to slow down and drag, plot wise.

Dean Ormston’s rough-hewn art is charming and expressive, but there are some panels where his backgrounds and his faces seem a too flimsy for Black Hammer’s more horrific or cosmically-scaled scenes. For instance, when one character enters a Lovecraftian dimension of “unspeakable angles,” where a mortal man could go insane. The background of that scene simply shows sketchy alien eyeballs floating in space.

With all that said, I truly did enjoy the series. It’s brimming full of cool characters. And some fun experiments in comics deconstruction. In one flashback, we see a Golden Gail adventure told through that overwrought tone of 60s comics. I already mention how Madame Dragonfly re-creates an EC Comics feel. Another story shows Abraham Slam take on an ‘Extreme’ 90s-era makeover. It’s moments like these—and some fantastic David Rubin fill-in issues—that I’ll remember most about the series. Here’s hoping one day we’ll get some answers about everything else.

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