Written by Jeff Lemire with art by Dean Ormston, Black Hammer is a different take on superhero comic books. With a look and feel from decades past, a person could be forgiven for thinking the comic was released at at time when color television was still a wild idea. Black Hammer Library Edition collects the first and second volumes of the run along with Black Hammer: Giant Sized Annual.
Black Hammer focuses on six characters. After a brutal battle with a powerful foe known as Anti-God ends in victory, the heroes who valiantly battled him end up on a farm. The surviving heroes have stayed in the same place for ten years. But where is this farm? And why can’t the heroes leave?
The first thing readers will notice about Black Hammer is its throwback look. Covers have the heroes in especially valiant poses or in the midst of epic battles. Vibrant colors have a washed out and faded look while character designs look like they are from the Golden Age of comics. Issues have title names like “Lost on Mystery Farm” or “Warlord of Mars.” At a glance, Black Hammer looks like a book out of the 1940s.
Character names also harken back to a simpler time. Colonel Weird, Golden Gail, and the robotic Talky Walky are just some of the names of the heroes. Meanwhile, readers are introduced to villains with names like Sherlock Frankenstein and the Metal Minotaur. Black Hammer shows that even seemingly small thing like a character’s name can add depth to a story.
Black Hammer may sound like a spoof — and it certainly parodies many tropes of superhero comics — however, it would be a mistake to label it as a comedy. This is an emotional comic book that pulls no punches. Lemire deals with a range of themes and emotions that include aging, acceptance, homosexuality, friendship, family and love. Just a look at the opening page will give readers a hint that there is more to the comic than first appears.
In order for a book like Black Hammer to succeed, it needs to have a strong cast of characters. This is a multilayered story that deals with numerous issues from various points of view. Without interesting people to read about, there is no reason to keep up with the story. Readers become invested as soon as they meet Abraham Slam.
Initially, Slam seems like just another man who is living his life on a farm. He begins to make comments that make one realize he has had a difficult life, but is ready to move on. It does not take long for readers to figure out that something is not quite right. This introduction is the perfect setup to the driving mystery of the story.
Lemire does not write one interesting hero surrounded by an intriguing story. Instead, Black Hammer is a strong comic book with a slew of great characters. From Slam’s supposed happiness to Gail’s childish antics, the book is overflowing with characters readers can relate to.
This aspect is the real greatness in the Lemire’s writing. Black Hammer stars superheroes of the Golden Age, a time of flowing capes, Herculean physiques and ridiculous catchphrases. Lemire pulls back the curtain and allows readers to see what life is like afterwards. Decades have passed since the prime of many of these heroes. They are now confined to a farm and live a normal life.
Lemire depicts the heroes as ordinary people. Yes, Talky Walky is a robot and Colonel Weird still travels between dimensions; however, the characters are no different than you or I. For example, a running theme in Black Hammer is aging. Abraham seems content to live a life of retired bliss while Gail is literally forced to relive her youth. Just like any other person, the heroes think back on their younger years.
Naturally, memories play a large part in the story and the book is filled with flashbacks. Abraham is particularly interesting as he is the most adamant about moving on — all the while little things like looking in a mirror will cause him to reflect on his previous life. Lemire captures these moments beautifully.
Ormston’s art is varied and pairs perfectly with the writing. The covers have a Golden Age look to them, but Ormston does not rely on this conceit to carry entire issues. Characters are incredibly detailed, especially in the eyes. There is a wistfulness as people reflect on their past and a gleeful joy as other characters commit the most heinous acts. The amount of emotion that Ormston is able to convey through the characters is stunning.
The action scenes are very impressive. These are more similar to an older comic and look appropriately grand. There are dark lines and lots of use of silhouettes. Panels are also placed in a cinematic way in order to simulate motion. Ormston makes sure that the action pieces and splash pages stand out.
This is not to say that Ormston is unable to handle the more touching moments. Black Hammer is filled with subtle scenes in which the picture is more important than any spoken words. It’s in these moments that they art really excels.
The Black Hammer Library Edition is a stunning read that will captivate anyone who picks it up. The book is takes an intimate and sometimes painful look at the private lives of superheroes while also telling an exciting story. Dean Ormston’s art is fantastic and helps make Black Hammer one of the best comics of the year.