In superhero stories, the world is always ending. At least once a year the heroes of DC and Marvel must face off against another apocalyptic event caused by some seemingly unstoppable villain. Ever since DC’s Crisis on Infinite Crisis miniseries in 1985, the Big Two have used these “crossover” events to get rid of unnecessary characters and adjust the internal continuity of their universes. Usually, the superheroes emerge from these events with new costumes, new outlooks, even new backstories. But nobody really ever wonders what happens to the characters who don’t survive the crossover, who get “deleted” from continuity. The new Dark Horse series Black Hammer, from writer Jeff Lemire and artist Dean Ormston, sets out to explore that very question.
Black Hammer begins in the wake of an apocalyptic superhero event. Having saved their home of Spiral City from a powerful villain, a group of five superheroes — Golden Gail, Abraham Slam, Colonel Weird, Barbalien, and Madame Dragonfly — end up on a small farm with no idea how they got there, and no way to escape. So in the meantime, they try to adjust to their rural lifestyle even as their superpowers pose unique problems.
Lemire is known for his independent comics like Sweet Tooth and Descender but he’s also written superhero stories for Marvel and DC. With Black Hammer, Lemire combines the various styles in one comic. The writer spoke with EW about the genesis of the series, the value of placing superheroes in a rural setting, and the unintended consequences of big superhero battles. Check that out below, along with pinups and variant covers featuring the characters Golden Gail and Barbalien.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There’s a lot going on in Black Hammer, but how would you describe the big concept of the series?
JEFF LEMIRE: It’s the story of five superheroes who have been wiped out of their comic book universe and wake up on a small farm in a small town with no idea how they got there, trying to find their way back home. On a more thematic level, it’s become a metaphor for any family. Everyone’s family is pretty crazy, but the superheroes enhance that and create a pretty fun metaphor.
You’ve done traditional superhero stories for both Marvel and DC. What interested you about tackling the genre from this different angle?
The genesis of the project is sort of unique in that I actually came up with Black Hammer and all the characters and concepts in 2008, before I had actually written any mainstream superhero comics myself. For me, this was my love letter to all the superhero comics I loved as a kid while channeling it through all the indie stuff I’d done. For various scheduling reasons, Black Hammer just never happened. Things came up, and I also started writing for Marvel and DC. But it was a project and characters I never forgot about. So a couple years ago, I dusted it off and looked at it again through a different lens, having done superhero comics for years at that point. There’s a little bit of commentary in there on superhero comics, certain observations I’ll be playing with from my own experience.
So since it’s taken so long, do you have a better sense of the series’ larger arcs?
Yeah, I do. To be honest, I’ve actually written almost the entire series already. That was a real benefit you don’t usually get on a monthly comic. You kind of have a vague direction of where you’re going, but a lot of it you’re sort of feeling out as you go along, month by month. On this one, I’ve had the benefit of writing so far ahead that I can go back and actually rewrite earlier issues based on things I figure out later on. I think it’s gonna make for a much stronger monthly read.
In addition to the big high-concept stuff, there are some beautiful small character moments.
We can talk all we want about high concepts, but when it comes down to it I just go back to this being a real character study of these five or six people and what makes them tick. Just trying to get to the emotional truth of each of these heroes, and then use all the big superhero stuff as a metaphor for what’s going on internally. It was a lot of fun to have that. It certainly is not all depressing and sadness. It’s probably the funniest book I’ve written as well.
What specific comic stories were you referencing? Spiral City, for example, looks like a ’50s vision of Metropolis.
What I tried to do originally was have each of the five characters represent a different era of comic book history. It became a little more complicated than that, but the original tag was: Golden Gail was a Golden Age Captain Marvel/Shazam-type hero. Abraham Slam would also be a Golden Age hero, a sort of pulpy crime-buster character from the ’30s or ’40s. Then you have Colonel Weird, who started off as the clichéd 1950s Mystery in Space kind of Adam Strange/Captain Comet guys, and then Barbalien was more of a Bronze Age/Silver Age hero, and then Madam Dragonfly was totally a ’70s-’80s House of Mystery, early Vertigo kind of character. So between the characters you kind of get the whole history of comics that I love. And then the big event that wiped these characters out is a real nod to Crisis of Infinite Earths, the first big comic book event from the ’80s that has since spawned so many every summer. That comic had a massive impact on me. As we move on in the series, we’ll start to comment on how these events have become the anchors of the whole industry, maybe in not such a good way.
Golden Gail fascinates me. The Shazam metaphor is usually a male thing (a boy magically becoming a man, or an older man reliving his glory days, but a woman being trapped in the body of a magical 9-year-old girl is kind of twisted.
It’s just horrifying. Before all this happened, Gail was in her 50s, she had lived a whole life as an adult woman. It was fun for her to say a magic word and be this superpowered girl for a few hours and beat up a monster, but she got to go back to being a woman and living her life. What’s happened now on the farm, of course, is for whatever reason her magic word no longer works. She’s stuck in the body of this little girl, but her mind and spirit is that of a 60-year-old woman. There’s so many impulses, everything a grown woman would feel and need, that she can’t act on anymore. It used to be something that was wonderful, and now it’s become her worst nightmare. Gail, of all of them, is probably the most unhappy.
The superheroes are transferred from a big city to a small town, the reverse of Superman’s journey. How do those different settings play into the superhero concept?
It’s something very close to my heart, because I grew up in a tiny farming community just like the one in Black Hammer. Not just superhero comics, but the vast majority of our media is often set in a big city like New York. I always love going back to small towns and seeing these superheroes trying to fit into that world. For any superhero, it would be so much harder to keep your secret identity in a small town where you can’t just blend into the crowd. It’s always seemed like a rich, untapped ground for superhero comics.
What were the art inspirations for the series?
Dean is someone whose work I’ve followed at Vertigo for the last 10 years. He had never done superheroes before, but that’s kind of what attracted me to him. It’s fascinating to see these different eras of superhero comics, in flashback, through his style. You don’t normally see superheroes rendered that way. I think that’s what gives the book its character, for sure.
The series is called Black Hammer, but early on the titular character is nowhere to be seen, only vaguely alluded to. What can you tease about him?
Black Hammer was this superhero who came here with them. He was a clichéd ’70s African-American hero, back when they were always “Black Panther” or “Black Lightning” and the “heroes from Harlem.” Black Hammer started out with that trope, and then he became something much like these other characters. He was with them, he was the sixth hero, but there was a tragedy that struck. He died, and they named the farm and everything after him. But beyond that, I’m not gonna say anything other than it’s gonna be a huge part of the unraveling mystery, and certainly you’re gonna see more of Black Hammer the character in the book for sure.