Released by: Dark Horse Comics
Released on: March 29th, 2017.
Written by: Jeff Lemire
Illustrated by Dean Ormston
Colored by Dave Stewart
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Over the last ten years or so, Jeff Lemire has become a very well-known name in the comics industry for churning out stellar work after stellar work. Some of the accomplishments include ESSEX COUNTY, SWEET TOOTH, and UNDERWATER WELDER. Not only is he talented author, he illustrates many of his works as well. Dean Ormston is known for his work on BOOKS OF MAGICK: LIFE DURING WARTIME and LUCIFER. I confess I am not familiar with his previous works, but after my experience with BLACK HAMMER that will be remedied. Dave Stewart is a colorist that has worked for Dark Horse Comics, DC, and Marvel, winning 9(!) Eisner awards in the field in the last 14 years.
I’ll start right off the bat and say I love this work. Give me more. Please. BLACK HAMMER: SECRET ORIGINS (collecting issues #1-6) is one of the best graphic novels I have read in the last few years – the story, writing, art, characters, and design, are familiar, but fresh at the same time. Each of the characters Lemire and Ormston portray are love letters to various canonical characters in comics, from Batman, to Captain Marvel, to Martian Manhunter, to 50s sci-fi, and horror à la E.C. Comics.
The premise is that some heroes with very different origins and motivations banded together to take down an ultra-powerful foe, but after its defeat they were transported to a farm in an unplaceable small rural town that they cannot seem to leave. There is an allusion to an attempt to escape, but it is shrouded in ominous implication. The opening pages show that they have been stranded thus for ten years and each character is shown coping in some way.
Abraham Slam, an aging character, has embraced the role of farmer and is the one most at ease with the group’s dimensional shunting. He has assumed the patriarch role of the group, who are masquerading as a family to throw off suspicion from the local townfolk. He seems to be determined to make the best of the situation (he even has a love interest in town), though he understands it has been tough on his compatriots.
Golden Gail is a 50+ year old woman trapped in her 9 year old hero form, and is understandably bitter that she must pretend to be a child to keep up appearances. Amusingly enough, she is also the most immature character that creates difficult situations for her “family” for her own amusement.
Barbalien, has resigned to the idea that the heroes may never return to their home, though his humor does shine through his melancholia. His natural form is certainly otherworldly, but he does possess the power to shift his form to blend in with humans. What I find interesting about Barbalien is that he is a doubly removed character – he is sent to Earth from his home world of Mars to observe mankind as a punishment, but eventually decides to take a more active role in society and does the hero thing while maintaining a secret identity. Then he becomes gets stranded on this farm with people who over time become familiar, but has stopped pretending to be human.
Col. Weird is, appropriately, weird, though endearing in an eccentric uncle kind of way. He is operating on a different level than the other characters since he spends a lot of time in a different dimension called the “para-zone,” which has clearly taken a toll on his mind. I feel the Col. has the most potential to help the others since he has the most objectively non-traditional hero abilities, but there is friction because he is losing sense of the present.
Madame Dragonfly is the most ambiguous of the bunch. A few hundred years ago she willingly chose to cast aside her humanity in a stressful situation without clearly understanding the implications of her decision. Her powers are not clearly defined and her self-imposed isolation among the group does not give you a clear idea of who she is. I am looking forward to the development of the character in later collections.
In the backdrop of the small town drama that dominates most of book, Talky Walky (a former adventuring companion of Col. Weird and a character not explored to a great extent) attempts to reach the outside world through an experiment that has failed numerous times prior. Unbeknownst to the characters, the attempt succeeds in breaking through to their original world and the information becomes known to Black Hammer’s daughter, Lucy Weber, who has been searching for the heroes (her father amongst them) since their last fight when they were all presumed dead. This discovery is the catalyst for the next story arc to explore and delve further into the mystery of what exactly happened ten years ago.
If you could not tell, I wholeheartedly recommend this work. I particularly suggest this book for discussion if you belong to a graphic novel book club as multiple aspects portrayed (situation, characters, motives, etc.) are open to interpretation.