By Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston & Dave Stewart
Superhero teams, like many a professional association, at times resemble families. There is the same jockeying for prominence and dread of disappointment. There is the long-term proximity which produces that awkward mixture of friendship and annoyance. Yet, in the best cases, all the members are there for each other in their times of need. From the beginning, this interrelation between heroes and family has been an undercurrent of Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston’s recent Dark Horse series Black Hammer. For #4, however, writer Lemire shifts the subtext to the foreground using the mundane details surrounding a seemingly modest dinner party to illuminate the bonds amongst some rather extraordinary individuals. In doing so, Lemire and artist Ormston craft a poignant portrait of human relations.
The heroes at the center of Black Hammer were once the costumed defenders of Spiral City. Together they fought crime and protected the city from threats both street level and other dimensional. Much of these characters’ backstories are affectionate riffs on iconic Golden/Silver Age origins, such as this issue’s flashback for Abraham Slam which manages to seamlessly mix elements of Steve Rogers with Matt Murdock. The blend works so that the resulting character stands as his own man rather than gimmicky fan service. Lemire may be indulging in his love for classics of years past but it does not come at the expense of compelling characters. In fact, these connections to a rose-tinted idyllic age serve as a fitting contrast to the present-day narrative. Nothing stays the same forever. Once those rosy shades are removed, any era of life appears much greyer.
The central conceit of Black Hammer is that Abraham and his fellow heroes have been stranded in an unfamiliar rural town. Some of them have lost their powers, others their lucidity. Despite repeated attempts, they have failed at any attempt to leave the town. Time has passed and Abraham is resolved to make the most of the situation. The team lives on a farm, pretending to be a family unit. None of them are entirely at ease with their altered circumstances, though, some try harder to adapt than others. Abraham has assumed the patriarch role, passing himself off as the grandfather of their youngest member, Gail, an adult trapped in the body of a teenager (Gail is nod to the Shazam family). In addition, there is a shapeshifting Martian, Barbalien and a robot by the name of Talky-Walky. On the even stranger side of the ledger is the wraithlike Madam Dragonfly and the disembodied and scatterbrained Colonel Weird. An odd assortment to say the least. In many ways, Abraham is working the hardest at accepting their current conditions. He has even begun a relationship with a local woman, Tammy. After much cajoling on her part, Abraham has agreed to let Tammy visit the farm for a family dinner.
This meal serves as the focal point for this issue’s narrative. Naturally Abraham is extremely anxious that everything runs smoothly, especially given the more eccentric elements of his domestic arrangements. He obsesses over the superficial aspects of the evening, which results in being overly dismissive of his “family.” The more oddball members are politely requested to spend the night in the barn far from Tammy’s gaze. Only those who can pass for “normal” are welcome. This results in some hurt feelings, as Abraham is too wrapped up in his own preoccupations to process the sentiments of others.
As he has throughout the series, Ormston shines at conveying emotions. On one page, Ormston alternates panels of Abraham standing before a mirror with panels depicting his superhero exploits. Instead of dialogue, Ormston communicates Abraham’s jumbled framer of mind through the rhythm of the art. In addition, the final panel of the farmhouse suggests that the prospect of introducing Tammy to his family is as daunting a task as any Abraham ever performed in spandex. Another silent sequence depicts Gail rummaging through the laundry room in search of her favorite black t-shirt (oh adolescence), when she stumbles upon Barbalien’s old costume. Alone in the basement, Gail cries silent tears for her friend. Together with colorist Dave Stewart, Ormston evokes a melancholy atmosphere which matches the mood of the script. This sense of dejection is echoed later with a scene involving Colonel Weird. Abraham has just told the Colonel that Abraham does not trust the Colonel’s composure and thus disinvites him to dinner. Colonel Weird materializes in a darkened bathroom. He removes a razorblade from the medicine cabinet; the page’s final panel illustrates a close-up view of his bloodshot eye reflected in the blade. Stewart’s washed-out green hues highlight the scene’s ominous vibe.
However, as with the best of families, teams know when to pull themselves together, and overlook petty slights in favor of the greater good. How Lemire portrays this is an affecting examination of interpersonal dynamics which in general terms is immediately relatable to the reader, while also illuminating the specific traits of these particular characters. When Lemire’s compelling character work is combined with Ormston’s expressive art, it is clear why Black Hammer continues to be one of the best new series of the year, as well as This Week’s Finest.
Disclosure: Publisher Dark Horse provided a review copy of this comic to Nothing But Comics without any payment between the site and publisher or agreement on the review’s content.