New To You Comics #102: Out On The Farm With ‘Black Hammer V1: Secret Origins’

by Tony Thornley

With the comics industry continuing to battle the effects of the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are continuing to talk about comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals, and things that go bump in the night. This week, we’re looking at a popular unconventional superhero story.

Black Hammer feels like it snuck up on people. When it launched in 2017, creator Jeff Lemire was at the height of his popularity. Meanwhile, this series launched quietly from Dark Horse Comics with Dean Ormston, Dave Stewart, and Todd Klein. It was equal parts mystery and love letter to comics history, and soon it seemed like everyone was talking about it

In a small farming town, a group of superheroes have found themselves stranded for the last decade following a massive battle with an evil demigod. They’re unable to leave, or even figure out where exactly they are. All they have is each other, and the hope that they can someday figure out a way back home.

Tony Thornley: We’ve talked about a few Lemire books, both in his creator owned and work for hire work. I think this is the first of his creator owned books that I’ve brought to you, isn’t it?

Brendan Allen: You know, it might be. We’ve done over a hundred of these things now, and I am a goldfish, though, so who knows? Some of the titles I bring up, I’m even like, oh, hey, that’s cool. Even though I’ve read some of them several times over. 

Tony: I really enjoy the first few volumes of Black Hammer. Like I said in the intro, this is just as much a love letter to comics history as it is a mystery as it is a character piece. Every character is a familiar comics archetype but they also have a deeper and fully fleshed out history to go with it. Abraham Slam is a Captain America-esque figure with a little Matt Murdock thrown in. Golden Gail is a Mary Marvel analogue. Stuff like that. But Lemire only uses that to establish some familiarity with the character before you get their whole backstory.

Brendan: I did recognize a few things that seemed awfully familiar. Barbalien’s real name, for instance. Mark Markz sounds a hell of a lot like J’onn J’onzz. Then when we’re on Mars in his background chapter, you see that this is just how ALL Martians are named. Jan Janz, Lok Lokz…

We’ve discussed this and I’ve said many times before, this sort of comics superhero shorthand has its benefits when it’s done well. There are some drawbacks, though. If you didn’t know that this series is headed into much bigger things, there isn’t a whole lot of new ground covered here in the first arc.

Tony: Yeah I agree. The biggest problem with this volume is that the plot is pretty thin. Though in the grand scheme of the story, I think that’s fine, if someone is chomping at the bit to get more, they might be a little disappointed. But really, it’s easy to pick up with the next volume. I think rolling with the character introductions first is a smart way to get a reader hooked. Lemire also hints a lot at the larger universe the story is set in which is a lot of fun.

Brendan: And it’s not bad. It’s an entertaining read, even if it’s just a slightly different take on several well worn tropes.

Tony: Yeah, we say often that we need to do the second volume, and this is one that I think we need to look at the second volume sooner rather than later. A lot of the early plot details I remembered were from the second volume, and that’s where the series got its hooks in me.

I think Ormston’s art is great, especially with Stewart’s colors. His style is closer to Lemire, Kindt or Mignola, but he clearly has some Jack Kirby, Dave Cockrum and Keith Giffen in his artistic DNA. That means that in the quieter sequences, he can display the emotion needed to show Gail’s pain at being trapped, or Abe’s desire to be with Tammy. Meanwhile, the more fantastic stuff is equally stunning.

Brendan: I liked the aesthetic a lot. It’s got a really indie feel to it. There’s an argument to be made either way whether Dark Horse qualifies as ‘indie’ any more, but that’s a conversation for another day. And you’re absolutely right. It has a sort of throwback tone that calls back to Kirby.

Tony: The Madame Dragonfly and Colonel Weird issues are both fantastic displays of Ormston and Stewart’s art. The Dragonfly issue is fully a Vertigo/EC Comics homage, with all the cool surreal horror that goes with it. Ormston and Stewart just do stunning things in that issue. But in the previous issue they went full Kirby for Colonel Weird. The page that reveals the tragic fate of Weird’s girlfriend is just stunning.

Brendan: It’s pretty cool how they tied all the backstories together visually. Each has its own little flavor, but still fits within the bigger story’s continuity. 

Tony: Yeah, definitely. So what’s your verdict?

Brendan: It’s an interesting hook. I don’t know if I had read the individual chapters in floppies that I would have stuck around to see what the second arc holds, but collected like this, it’s entertaining enough to make me want to see the next collection. 

Tony: Yeah, I think it’s pretty great in general, but I think you hit the nail on the head. S’up next?

Brendan: Let’s do Oni Press’ The Sixth Gun, by Cullen Bunn and Bri Hurtt. It’s a Civil War period piece with haunted guns. 

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