By Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormoston and Dave Stewart
You may overhear some interesting comments when standing around your local comic shop on the day the latest issue of Black Hammer hits the stands. Comments like, “this is the best superhero comic ever”, or “best comic book of the year,” have become more and more common. The book generates excitement and anticipation like few can and it’s 100% justified. Make a note right now: if you haven’t read Black Hammer yet, then go to your nearest comic shop asap and pray they still have copies in stock. If you’ve been onboard since the series debut then you know that by issue #4 things are only going to get better as this highly original story progresses. Before we get into it, though, a disclaimer: From here on, although spoiler-free, this review will be told in the context of the previous three issues and with the understanding that this first arc will wrap up with issue #5.
One reason Black Hammer could be a generator for so many positive comments is that the book capitalizes on nostalgia. Fans of DC and Marvel alike will find traits and references in characters and storylines that are placed with a considerate discipline. The book all at once feels incredibly new and also like a thoughtful tribute without overdoing it and losing the plot. What’s interesting is how the characters have taken on a life of their own, despite any attempt at homage or retelling. Writer, and creator Jeff Lemire has crafted a story about the span of time itself and the effect it has under different circumstances. So it might make sense that Black Hammer’s story structure flashes back and forth through multiple eras — although it feels more like a Golden Age book. And that retro tone is something that goes beyond just establishing the setting.
The heroes are elderly and trapped in such a way that dictates a future of memories, thinking only of the glory days and better times. Seemingly unable to leave a random farm outside of a small town, they are frozen by secrecy and hide their powers and true identities. Individually they struggle, either by searching for escape, or succumbing to stress, or looking for some sort of graceful complacency. They remain undercover, posing as a family, while the book’s mystery slowly reveals itself as the former heroes learn to work as a team. Family dynamics combined with the awkwardness that occurs when super-powered beings are forced to hide their abilities can make for a volatile situation.
There isn’t anything normal about creating a false perception that “everything is fine” when obviously it isn’t, even though almost everyone does that. Whether it’s your own family or someone else’s, there are aspects of that community — such as it may be — which are less tumultuous without interference from outside factors. Those factors have the power to either contaminate, or neutralize the delicate balance of getting along with opposing personalities under one roof. It’s a little of both in Black Hammer, some contamination and some neutralizing, but that’s part of the book’s charm. Like the others, Issue #4 puts the focus on a central character, this time Abraham Slam, and we get his entire backstory. The present day storyline, back on the farm so to speak, is informed by the insight into Slam’s origins. One continually impressive thing about Black Hammer is that it manages to pack decades worth of story into a single issue. The fact that the characters feel familiar in the first place is a type of built-in deja vu, which makes for a really fun reading experience.
But what makes it such a compelling comic is surely the artwork provided by Dean Ormoston (Judge Dredd) and colored by the incomparable Dave Stewart (Hellboy in Hell). You just can’t help but grab this book based on the cover art alone, (and that goes for the alternate cover art by Lemire himself too). Together Ormoston and Stewart illustrate one beautiful panel after the next and its worth noting again how perfectly designed everyone in this book is in both the writing and art. Ormoston picks up where Lemire leaves off in reminding the reader of previously told stories while showing it in a way that is exclusive to Black Hammer. Each character is genuinely brought to life in mannerism and expressions, but it’s the thin and delicate line work combined with deep shadows depicted as slabs of solid black that give the book a brand identity. Subtlety meets boldness and the outcome is stylistic originality that only Dean Ormoston can provide. Stewart, for his part, does his usual painterly effects and layers of near tactile textures. He creates a depth in the storytelling through the art, changing palettes based on emotional cues. Stewart provides a context within flashbacks that shift the story to a simpler, more traditional comic book method of coloring vs the more modern approach he’s known for. It’s a wink to the reader and the industry alike and only magnifies the sense of fun that everyone making and reading this book experiences.
Things are consistently coming to light now and clues continually lead to revelations. As we approach issue #5 it seems certain that resolution is around the corner. We can also hope that conclusion is equally explanatory and gives us not only an answer to what happened, but also some indication of what comes next. Black Hammer nails it, and we can’t wait to see what goes down next issue!