Turning The Superhero On Its Head
Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its forty-eighth choice, Black Hammer Volume One Library Edition, reviewed by Tripwire contributing writer Tim Cundle…
Black Hammer Volume One Library Edition
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artists: Dean Ormston & David Rubin
Colourist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Todd Klein
It isn’t often that a comic series rips apart the status quo, tears up the rule book and forever alters the way that you view a medium. Monumental paradigm shifts in genre fiction are an incredible rarity, especially within the realm of caped crusaders, masked vigilantes and super-powered heroes. In the last four decades, the books that have fundamentally altered the accepted storytelling formula of the most popular form of comics have been few and far between. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Grant Morrison’s Zenith are among the most widely recognised game-changers, and rightly so as each through its unique interpretation of the superhero story transfigured and transformed the mythology of the genre. And now a new voice has risen, one that’s on par with the aforementioned books and creators that has revitalised and revamped a fictional niche that was in danger of becoming a stale caricature of its former self. That voice is Jeff Lemire’s and the vehicle he has channelled it through, with more than a little help from artist extraordinaire Dean Ormston, is Black Hammer.
Ostensibly, Black Hammer is the story of a rag-tag, mismatched team of superheroes who , in the process of saving the world from a godlike alien entity, were transported to a place that bears an uncanny resemblance to a small town in the American mid-west. Trapped on a “farm” in this foreign, but familiar land, they’ve attempted to forge some semblance of a life in their “prison” while each of them in their own way has continually pushed against the boundaries that confine them in an attempt to find a way home. Lemire’s opus begins a decade after its protagonists’ arrival and slowly but slowly and surely, while charting their dysfunctional relationships with each other and the inhabitants of the local “town” and their inability to fit in with their neighbours and surroundings, strips away at their cosy veneer and dives into their collective history and individual pasts to tell their tales of woe and misfortune. At the same time, it also jumps back and forth to Earth as it follows the attempts of one of their numbers’ family and friends to find out what really happened to the heroes on that fateful day they disappeared and were presumed dead.
While that may be enough to run with for most writers, it isn’t for Jeff Lemire. Scratch the surface of Black Hammer and dig a little deeper, which this homage to the golden age of science fiction, pre-comics code horror books and the silver age of superheroes ensures that its audience does, and it begins to change into an involving and ever-more complicated mystery that’s centred around betrayal, long held secrets, mistrust, bigotry and the convoluted and intriguing desires and machinations of the heroes. It’s a tale that humanises super-heroes and reminds its readers that, before its central characters became heroes and were granted all sorts of wonderful powers, they were people just like the rest of us. And just like all people are, they’re driven by the same needs, wants and biological imperatives and hampered by the same neuroses that plague us all.
Even after they became heroes, they were still people who were, and are, subject to the same sort of emotional baggage and limitations that we all are and are enslaved by the same rule that governs most of our species’ closest interactions. This is the rule that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family, a fact borne out in the way Lemire’s players’ deal with each other on a daily basis. Then there’s Ormston’s art, which puts an arm around your shoulder and draws you into Black Hammer like an old and trusted friend, encouraging you to examine and re-examine the minutia and every exquisite detail of Black Hammer and question everything you think you know about what’s really going on, which changes with every panel, page and chapter of this astonishing, breath-taking tale. Black Hammer changes everything that you thought you knew about superheroes and the way their stories are told. Prepare to be astounded.
Here’s links to the other graphic novels reviewed so far