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“My love letter to Frank Miller”: Jeff Lemire and Tonči Zonjić discuss ‘Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy’

A new chapter of the ‘Black Hammer’ universe unfurls with vigilante heroes.

With Black Hammer, writer/artist Jeff Lemire looked to (mostly) lovingly satire superhero tropes of the past and present,. But in the years since the series debuted, its become its own quaint comic universe, with a slew of spin-off titles (aka, “The World of Black Hammer”).

Following titles starring Sherlock Frankenstein, Doctor Star, and the Black Hammer Squadron, Lemire has teamed with artist Tonči Zonjić for Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy. As you might have already gleaned from the title, the book involves the vigilante Skulldigger and his “ward” Skeleton Boy doing battle for the fate of Spiral City.

Before the book hits shelves on December 18, we touched base with Lemire and Zonjić to discuss this new chapter of the Black Hammer universe, how the series will play out, the best superhero codenames, and much more.

AIPT: Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy are obviously inspired by such tragic heroes as Batman, Daredevil, and the Punisher, but are there any specific influences you had in mind while creating the series?

Jeff Lemire: This series was really my love letter to Frank Miller, and specifically all the work he did on Batman and Daredevil in the ’80s. I am also a huge Punisher fan, so that played I as well, but I think we’ve been able to move beyond those initial influences and create characters that are unique to the Black Hammer universe. So, I would say that Frank Miller and his storytelling influenced the story more than any one character. That’s at least my point of view. Tonči may have brought totally different influences with him

Tonči Zonjić: I brought a lot of the same influences, but tried to keep to the spirit of it more than just sticking Skulldigger’s silhouette in the cover of Dark Knight Returns #1– at the end of the day, the story is in charge, and influences take a back seat.

AIPT: What were your thoughts about tapping into the more human side of Spiral City? How did you approach the new angle to the universe?

JL: It was really fun to get into the history of street level characters in Spiral [City]. To build a legacy and a history there outside of all the cosmic stuff. I’ve always loved these more grounded heroes that are not super powered. It was also a lot of fun to build a bit of character into the Spiral City police as well with the character of Detective Amanda Reyes. She has become a big part of my plans for the overall universe moving forward.

TZ: My favorite character!

AIPT: With tensions rising over superheroes and their place in the city, can we expect to see any kind of a blowout in this culture war?

JL: Definitely. That is a big part of this series, but it plays an even bigger part in my future plans for the Black Hammer universe. Skulldigger will be a major player in the larger universe moving forward, and this “culture clash” that you mention will build into something big.

AIPT: Jeff, as a prolific artist yourself, did you have a specific vision for the book while plotting? Tonči, does this affect your process at all?

JL: At one point I was actually thinking of drawing the book myself, but I decided against it, and I am glad I did because the work Tonci has done is breathtaking. I did have very specific ideas for the look of these characters, but Tonči took my initial concepts and improved upon them ten-fold.

TZ: There’s a lot of it still there from Jeff’s initial roughs for the characters. Shifting the story to the ’90s made it somewhat grittier.

 

AIPT: This is debut is a very emotional and personal story for almost every character involved; how did each of you approach the issue to put the care into getting that emotion across?

JL: For me, this is a very human story. The point of view of Skeleton Boy is the emotional core of this book and looking at the way violence can affect children was a big motivator in doing this book. He is my compass, his story and his humanity has to be at the center of all the super hero stuff, or the book will be hollow.

TZ: This is what I spend most of the day on—the action is fun and all, but the “invisible” panels of characters just being themselves is where the best parts are. A glance, a gesture, the way they point at you with their fork. If they don’t seem like real people, then why bother, and who cares what happens to them?

AIPT: With a large part of the story being that heroes are just regular people under the masks with their own struggles, I have to ask: If you secretly operated as a superhero, what would your codename be and what would be your life’s mission?

JL: My codename would be “Slapshot” and I would be a hockey themed hero who only comes out in the winter. My goal would be maintaining fair play on Spiral City’s outdoor ice rinks.

TZ: I’d stand next to every person littering and otherwise being crude in public, going “aw, come on, someone else has to clean that up” so I guess that makes me “Your GrandmotherMan” or something like that.

AIPT: What can we expect to see in the coming months as we see the story of Skulldigger, Skeleton Boy, and all the other citizens of Spiral City unravel? I’m sure everyone is prepared to be surprised by twists and turns, as well as devastated by heart-wrenching emotional scenes, but can you give us a little tease for what’s coming up?

JL: I would say to keep an eye on Lucy Weber. The daughter of—and the new—Black Hammer is back in Spiral City at the end of Age of Doom, and she and Skulldigger are destined to have a “complicated” relationship moving forward.

TZ:  I had no idea!

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