Black Hammer Giant-Sized Annual – Review
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artists: Nate Powell, Matt Kindt, Dustin Nguyen, Ray Fawkes, Emi Lenox, Michael Allred
Colors: Sharlene Kindt, Dave Stewart
Letters: Todd Klein
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Jeff Lemire’s standout new title from 2016 had critics raving. Myself included. And while I was thoroughly enjoying Black Hammer’s dizzying balance of deconstruction and romance towards classic superhero archetypes, it was the last two issues featuring the stand alone stories of Colonel Weird and Madame Dragonfly that sold me on the book and had me loudly proclaiming it be THE superhero series of 2016 and one of the best new creator-driven titles in recent memory.
An annual isn’t always the best jumping on spot for new readers unfamiliar with a title, but this is an exception as everything one needs to enjoy this it is found within its pages. For fans who are already reading this title, this annual works as a perfect, albeit melancholic, denouement for Black Hammer‘s first arc, while being an excellent anthology of short stories that elaborate further on its mysterious cast of characters.
At this point we should take a minute and talk about the overall concept of this series so people aren’t confused. Black Hammer is the story of a group of superheros, each one obviously based on a standard trope or pre-existing character, who have through a series of mostly unexplained events ended up stranded in an alternate dimension following a cataclysmic battle against. In this dimension they are imprisoned on a farm in which they can not leave. Forced to live out their existence in secret from the local townspeople while dealing with the passage of time and the fraying of nerves. It is equal parts superhero fan letter, deconstructionist examination and Twilight Zone-like freakout. Think The Prisoner meets The Watchmen.
This story is told from the point of view of Adam Strange analog, Colonel Weird, who despite the on-the-nose name seems to have more in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s David Bowman’s after entering the Monolith than a character like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. If I had to pick music for Weird I would be more inclined to say Bowie’s Space Oddity or Ashes to Ashes fits him more than something like Queen. In this collection we follow Weird as he tracks a newly born cyclopean entity through time and space via the “para-zone” as it, coincidentally, visits each of his comrades at various times in their lives and attacks them. An infant Starro with the power of the Tardis.
This kaleidoscopic voyage through time allows us to view each of the characters at points before their imprisonment and allows several guest artists to give their impressions of the Black Hammer world. This adds a visual tonal variety to the book and adds to the overall sense of shifting time/place and to the different aesthetic flourishes of the characters and the comic periods that inspired them.
Matt and Sharlene Kindt (Dept. H) help tell the tale of Golden Age-esque street level vigilante Abraham Slam as his boxing match is interrupted by the invading alien. At once we are struck not only by the visual change in the book but by the change in narrative style as we shift to a classic overly expository and melodramatic style of prose from the first era of superhero comics. Complete with wordy thought balloons! Dustin Nguyen does the Golden Gail sequence in which we have Gail, an inversion of Captain Marvel/Shazam in both age and gender, attempting to stop tragedy befalling her first true love as the alien interferes in a drag race. Ray Fawkes gives us some gorgeous watercolor style art in the true crime noir tale featuring the Martian Manhunter inspired “Barbalien”. Emi Lenox takes a turn with a story that has the team coming to the feared Madame Dragonfly after the alien immobilizes one of the group. Lenox’s indie style here adds to the sickening and off putting quality of being around the enigmatic Dragonfly.
Next to Colonel Weird, Madame Dragonfly is one of the most interesting characters of the entire series so far. Based on the various narrators found in horror comics from the 50s and into the Bronze Age. Madame Dragonfly is like having EC Comics’ The Old Witch from The Haunt of Fear or one of the characters from DC’s old anthology titles like House of Mystery or The Witches Hour on a superhero team. A truly genius idea by Lemire in the ongoing that bears fruit here has been the in-plot explanation of why Dragonfly must narrate to the “audience” like the Cryptkeeper or Cain and Abel.
Finally we have the one and only Mike Allred illustrating the final piece of the puzzle as Weird discovers his own connection to this monster and the ensuing time and identity paradox. Up until this point the various scenes of Weird’s pursuit of this creature were done by series regular Nate Powell who as usual is doing wonderful work as he visually ties together the fantastic and realistic with image just as Lemire does so with his script.
There is something in Black Hammer about the inevitable tragedy of the superhero. Something which goes against the very core concepts of the tropes that Black Hammer is inspired from. Yet in this annual as well as in the ongoing series this dynamic push/pull of superhero conventions and our reactions to them works well and makes for one of the most compelling superhero reads in comics today. I put this issue and this series right up there with King’s The Vision and Busiek’s Astro City. Lemire makes sure to balance the darkness with surreal wonder and touching relatable moments. In this collection that sense of escalating dread and Shakespearean inevitability combined with real touching emotion is on full display and offers a narrative microcosm of what Lemire is working with so well month to month and why so many people put this in their top 2016 list. You should as well.