Jeff Lemire (Writer), Dean Ormiston (Artist), Dave Stewart (Colorist), Todd Klein (Letterer)
Dark Horse Books
September 20, 2017
It’s a weird feeling, to be disappointed by a comic. I mean, I’ve read plenty of bad comics, reviewed them a few times now, but it’s always harder when the books you’re hoping to be good aren’t. It’s all the more frustrating when that book has all the bones of a good story, only to be marred by poor choices in the details.
Black Hammer is the story of a team of super-pastiches, and the mystery of their lives after the end of an ultimate battle with an ersatz Darkseid/Anti-Monitor all rolled into one. That description alone is enough to pique my interest. I’m a romantic; I love a good love letter. It’s a slow-paced book, and that suits me too–the story begins ten years after that battle, with the entire team, save one, living on a farm in a small town. The mystery of why they’re there, and why they can’t leave, becomes the crux of the story going forward. It reads like Jeff Lemire’s personal take on a post-Crisis on Infinite Earths epilogue, which is exactly my kind of jam. Because it’s a Jeff Lemire book, it’s foreboding, it’s creepy, and the art style reflects that as well.
Dean Ormston does the bulk of the lifting, art-wise. His style is great; it’s probably the one part of this book I unreservedly love. Each character is distinctive, and he plays with anatomy, distorts it ever so slightly so that scenes feel both believable and slightly off; it adds to the creep factor, draws the eye from one panel to the next in exactly the way a comic should. It’s easy to see why he works so well with Lemire on a superhero story–his line work has that sketchy style that Lemire favors, but feels a bit like Frank Quitely in the way that his bodies are built. It’s a good, clever mixture, and something I really enjoy.
The other thing it kept reminding me of was B.P.R.D., or Hellboy. Black Hammer has those deep, chunky blacks that lend mood and weight, and it’s no surprise that the connection is there, since the colors are handled by Dave Stewart, who worked on both of those books with Mike Mignola. It’s another solid choice; the murky tones and the choice of palettes makes the book feel like a cousin of those titles, while ultimately unconnected. That, combined with the story’s pastiche nature should be everything I need to love this story for all it’s worth, and yet.
It’s the politics of the team that tear the book apart, that undermine it from the beginning of the story and onward. From the very first issue, the story is built on the death-through-sacrifice of the team’s only black member, the titular Black Hammer. Black Hammer has a daughter, who is now a black girl growing up without a father. It’s a disheartening stereotype, and it’s compounded when the origin of Abraham Slam, a kind of Captain America/Daredevil fusion, is built on the death of his own black mentor. On top of that, Mark Markz, the Martian Manhunter-inspired Barbalien, keeps the “shape-shifted into a human police officer” disguise, but makes that officer white and gay instead. It sends the message that being black or being gay are interchangeable character descriptors, and that’s a deeply unsettling stance to take. I understand that the book is a significant homage to Golden Age comics, but it wasn’t written in the Golden Age, and this kind of thing is unacceptable in the year 2017.
The gender politics are just as bad; there are three female characters on this team, and all three of them hate each other. There’s Golden Gail, an ersatz Mary Marvel who, despite being fifty-five, is trapped in the body of a 10-year-old girl. She fills our foul-mouthed, world-weary child trope; she smokes and drinks and curses. There’s Madame Dragonfly, the eccentric witch of the woods, aloof and condescending to everyone she speaks with, monstrous but sexy with an occasionally exposed breast. Finally, there’s Talky-Walky, the female-identified robotic lifeform who is treated as a servant throughout the story despite her continued protestations. In fact, the only individuals who are given the range and freedom to drive their personal stories are the white men–Abe, Mark, and Randall Weird (Adam Strange with the copyright filed off) are all pursuing their own narratives within this town while the others lurk around the background.
I was supposed to be reviewing issue #13, but honestly, why? As an issue, it’s fine. It’s a clear turning point in the overall story, with a last page stinger that is appropriately dramatic. But this is the world it’s built on, and that world doesn’t deserve my good faith to see the story through. Furthermore, that this book won an Eisner on these kind of racial politics says a lot about the comics industry as a whole.