By Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart
The best stories come off as if the world they take place in has always existed. That is to say, no matter which part of a story the reader is brought in at, it should feel whole, like everything started well before page one. Black Hammer – the new series by Jeff Lemire (Descender), Dean Ormston (The Sandman) and Dave Stewart (Hellboy in Hell) – does that expertly. The characters have relationships that have been going for years, and their interactions in this first issue make that feel right. Whatever might be happening to them, and wherever they may be, there is a sense of reality to everything that gives the book a genuine credibility at the outset. It’s more than the apparent family dynamic between each of them. It’s their collective past, which they make regular reference to, that lets us get to know them like they belong in their world. We’re given glimpses of what has come before, the glory days, so to speak, and a better, more heroic life. However, in their present state, we’re left wondering who these superheroes have become and what, if anything, will become of them.
Lemire writes the comic at an appropriate pace, filling the reader in consistently without overly wordy backstories. A person talking out loud when no one is around is done for the sake of displaying a character trait and not out of a need to fill us in. Clichés seemingly occur on purpose, and although superhero stories are hard to tell without relying on tropes, Black Hammer goes beyond the standard. Lemire depends on character interaction and an emotional foundation that keeps you reading despite a lack of action. There’s something afoot here and more than meets the eye, although the story is told in a way that nothing matters until it’s time for it to.
The characters are slightly twisted versions of heroes we already know from another comic book universe. (Check out Lemire’s own personal variant cover for an illustrated portrayal of which universe that is.) It’s as if Lemire is putting that twist on the comics industry’s past as much as he is the story’s characters’. Had things gone even slightly different in the early days of the industry, we may have ended up with Abraham Slam instead of Superman, or Barbalien warlord from Mars, rather than J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter. And as bland a pitch as that could sound, it does not detract from the overall premise in any way. Even if these superheroes are familiar to us, they are unfamiliar to themselves; an interestingly creative angle.
The entire thing is further twisted by the art, provided by the brilliant Dean Ormston. His unique and original style only solidifies the fact that we are in a perfectly whole universe. Every step toward an archetype is knocked backwards by an all-new paradigm, one that is exclusive to this storyline. Ormston crafts a high quality comic book, following all of the rules and standards, while infusing his own stylistic charm. His line work is fine and detailed without sacrificing dimension. His panels are spacious and open without sacrificing contrast as he lays down harmonious, if not heavy, solid blacks. Like the writing, we aren’t meant to know what’s important until it’s time for it to take center stage. Thus a person or thing we are supposed to focus on may be completely blacked out while everything else is in full light. It’s intentional and it works in a way that lets you know the characters themselves don’t feel as if they need to be introduced…because they’ve always existed.
As usual, it’s impossible to find anything bad to say about colorist Dave Stewart, no matter how hard you may try. With such a rock solid career in place already, why would you want to find fault at all? Stewart builds atmospheres, shifts the scene from present to past, displays emotion and creates mood, and he does it on every page. He follows Ormston’s cues and continues the storytelling where the writing and art leave off. Dave Stewart knows when to blend colors or leave them solid and in stark contrast with the rest of the panel. He knows how to convey story points while simultaneously achieving the correct reaction from the reader.
It’s obvious the creative team behind Black Hammer loves comics and they intend to build on the things they love most about them as homage. This is a wonderful book. Whether it ultimately ends up being a deconstruction of atypical superhero team stories, or if it continues to add new layers, only one question remains after issue #1: Will Black Hammer allow the world that has been introduced to us so far to go on, or will the end coincide with the series’ own lifespan? Anyway, here’s hoping that doesn’t happen for a long time.