I’m often wary about “love letters” to the Golden Age. As much as those comics absolutely are the giants whose shoulders we stand on today, those early comics might as well have been made in 1740 for how much distance has been traveled between those original books and our contemporary stories. To continue to idolize them keeps us referencing stories that fewer and fewer people have a connection to, and as a rule, this makes these homages less and less meaningful. But, of course every rule has an exception, and Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston, with colors by Dave Stewart and letters Todd Klein, is exceptional.
Black Hammer Vol. 1: Secret Origins (Dark Horse Comics)
What sets this book, which collects the first six issues of the series, apart from other tributes to the classics is Lemire. In the back, after the story, Lemire reflects on the eight year journey it took to get Black Hammer to print, and he describes Black Hammer as Essex County, his moody reflection on rural Canada, meets superheroes, and to me that’s the key.
The story opens not on bright colors and bombast, but on a quiet, salt of the earth Abraham tending to his chores on the farm. We find out almost immediately though, that his world is not as pastoral as at first glance when his “family” is revealed to be his fellow Golden Age heroes, forced into a retirement of sorts, stuck on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Only then do Lemire and Ormston start to slowly tease out each character’s back story and while their histories unfold, we see each one struggle with this dry, dull, provincial life that they’ve found themselves in, succeeding and failing as the inertia of farm-life drags them along.
And watching these “boring lives” is fascinating. Lemire is a master of the banal, focusing not on the Superhero, but the men and women underneath the mask. These are real, human (and Martian) people with wants and needs, and that is infinitely more interesting to Lemire, and in turn the reader. The pitch is “what if Captain America, Captain Marvel, and Martian Manhunter got an apartment together?” Lemire makes no attempts to pretend like his characters are NOT stand-ins for these heroes, and that’s the point. But what makes this special is that it actually is “what if Steve Rogers, Billy Baston and J’on J’onzz were stranded in a cow pasture?” It’s a fascinating exploration of wants, hopes and desires of these people, plus they’re also superheroes.
Something else that Lemire includes in his back matter at the end is an original piece of art from when he had planned to write and draw it. Now Jeff, as much as I like your distinct, emaciated style, Dean Ormston KILLS it on art. While there is still something distinctly Lemire-y in the character designs, Ormston brings a weight and clarity that, combined with the indomitable colors of Dave Stewart, generates the two distinct worlds of present day and the Golden Age flash backs, while maintaining a unity between the two. Their send up of classic Jack Kirby is not only a successful reference to the master, but also a scene that still feels like part of the same world that the farm is in.
The Golden Age of Comics was an important time worth celebrating. It’s not, however, worth putting on a pedestal; as soon as we do that, we forget that they are merely stories. In Black Hammer, Lemire and company never lose sight of that. It’s never idolatry for them. Instead, they use those cultural touchstones as tools not to celebrate, but to examine humanity, and in this way, they strike out on their own and craft an excellent story.