This week I wanted to talk about two comics that are very different, but are similar in that they're both examples of writers returning to themes that are clearly very important to them.
Black Hammer #1-3
Script by Jeff Lemire
Art by Dean Ormston
Colors by Dave Stewart
Letters by Todd Klein
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Jeff Lemire, widely known and respected for his independent, written and illustrated work (Sweet Tooth, Underwater Welder, Trillium) has also been significantly branching out in recent years. He's currently working primarily as a writer, with books at Marvel (Moon Knight and Old Man Logan), Valiant (Bloodshot: Reborn), and creator-owned projects illustrated by other talented artists including Descender and Plutona (at Image) and Black Hammer (at Dark Horse). My favorite of these recent books might just be Black Hammer, as I think it brings together a number of ideas that Lemire has been exploring and synthesizes them in an engaging, mysterious and unsettling way.
Black Hammer tells the story of a unusual group of people living together on a farm in a small town. They all used to be superheroes but they've been trapped, living in exile for the last ten years. It's been fascinating to see, over the first three issues, how the different characters are dealing (or not dealing) with being stranded. They can't leave - they don't know anything about what's happening outside the town, and any attempt they make to leave it, or to send a probe out of the town, is unsuccessful. As we learn throughout the series, each of them used to be superheroes, and has adapted (or not adapted) in different ways. Issue 3 primarily highlights the struggle and loneliness of Mark Markz, otherwise known as Barbalien (a clear analogue for J'onn J'onnz, the Martian Manhunter). He was an outcast from his people, along with being an alien in hiding once he landed on Earth. The issue also makes clear that he has felt alienated in other ways as well.
I wasn't familiar with Dean Ormston's comic book work previously, but he does stunning, detailed, insightful work in Black Hammer. The book feels like it has a dark cloud over it, not in an obvious way, but in a moody, existential, lonely sad way. Ormston has a terrifically engaging style, somewhat reminiscent of Lemire's own line work though maybe slightly more realistic as to human form, kind of like Lemire crossed with the strong, angular line work of Mike Mignola (some excellent company to be in), but interestingly enough, there's an attractive ugliness in the characters that also reminds me just a little of Daniel Clowes. Needless to say, it's a distinctive style. It helps to have a master like Dave Stewart on colors. Stewart has an incredible ability to convey that sort of cold sense of existential loneliness through colors; looking at several pages of this book makes me want to get on a jacket and a scarf. Stewart also smartly varies the color scheme when showing flashbacks, but not in a blunt way. It would be more obvious to make the "old days" incredibly bright and pristine and the current times bleak and gray; there's a clear difference but it's much more subtle.
What particularly interests me here (and this is probably worth my exploring and a longer essay at some point) is that Lemire has consistently explored themes of loneliness and alienation, along with the related but distinct themes of existential displacement and confusion (characters trapped in a world that just seems wrong). His current Moon Knight run is all about a character who doesn't know what's real and seems to be trapped in one delusion or another, and books like Sweet Tooth and Trillium are all about the themes of loneliness and found families and a sense of people trying come together to overcome something that's very wrong with the world or even reality itself. Plutona is also an exploration of a group of lonely people in a world full of superheroes.
Black Hammer is a comic that synthesizes many of these ideas; it's about a group of people who are thrust out of the world they knew into a strange situation, where all they have is each other, however as the creative team has effectively shown through the first three issues, each of them is profoundly alone and lonely in their own ways, looking for meaning and a way to make sense of their circumstances. They're (at least some of them) also trying to solve the mystery of where they actually are and why they're cut off from the rest of the world, along with being (to varying degrees) nostalgic to their former glory days of super-heroism. It's a fantastic story with a lot of layers, and I encourage you to pick it up.
Seven to Eternity #1
Written by Rick Remender
Drawn by Jerome Opeña
Colored by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Rus Wooton
Edited by Sebastian Girner
Published by Image Comics
Over the last few years, Rick Remender has written some of the best, most interesting independent comics being published, working primarily in the science fiction genre. Deadly Class, Black Science and Low are each among my favorite books, and I appreciated Tokyo Ghost even if it wasn't my cup of tea. In each of those instances, Remender has collaborated with some of the very best artists working today (Matteo Scalera, Sean Murphy, Wes Craig and Greg Tocchini). In his latest comic independent comic Seven to Eternity, Remender (with art from Jerome Opeña and colors from Matt Hollingsworth) keeps up that strong trend, with a story that feels very relevant, set in a lush fantasy-western world. Remender also continues to explore themes that seem important to him.
Adam Osidis is a member of a family living in exile on the world of Zhal. The Mud King, or "God of Whispers" has taken over the kingdom, and rules through fear and spies, rumors and gossip. This so-called god seems to have the power to make people turn towards him and away from one another. Without having a standing army, he can make people destroy each other from within. Most everyone in the kingdom (or maybe the whole world) has succumbed to the will of the Mud King, and within each family are those who are spies for him (creating an atmosphere of distrust and decay). Adam Osidis' father moved their family away from the kingdom and have attempted to live independently, but the Mud King's servants make this impossible. As the first issue ends, Osidis does the only thing he can think to do which is to go before the God of Whispers. Adam's father's last words were a warning, not to hear the Mud King's offer, but it's not at all clear whether Adam will heed this warning.
At the outset you need to know that this is an absolutely gorgeous comic book. This may be some of the best, most intricate, detailed work I've seen yet from Jerome Opeña (a frequent Remender collaborator, including on books such as Fear Agent, Uncanny X-Force and several Avengers titles). He's created a unique, genuinely interesting-looking fantasy world which combines together elements of lush greenery, the western plains, and fantastical alien cities. As you might expect from a skilled artist such as Opeña, this is a story of both big action and small emotional moments and he excels at both. When Adam leaves his family behind in order to go face the Mud King, the pain and anger and resentment and love on his and his family's face is palpable. Opeña has an excellent artistic collaborator in Matt Hollingsworth on colors. There are some genuinely stunning color effects in this comic book, from the eerie, luminescent glow of fairy-type creatures, to the frightening, almost overpowering light of a burning blaze, to the Kirby-esque crackle of magic effects, to the fading glory of a gigantic red sunset – Hollingsworth's detail and bright colors help bring this fantastical world to life.
Remender begins this first issue with a page of the Diary of Adam Osidis; Adam's father led them away from the kingdom and the corrupt rule of the Mud King because he believed that "the rotting of all principles began with the placing of a single foot on the road to compromise", and that's the larger theme that seems to be under exploration in the story, and it's also an idea that Remender has explored throughout many of his series. He seems to be really interested in exploring the idea of the lone great and principled person who takes a stand against evil or mediocrity, or in favor of scientific exploration and growth, and always against compromise. You can see this theme in the stories such as Black Science, where one man is willing to go to virtually any lengths, including breaking up his family, to show that pure, uncompromising "punk rock" science is the answer to solving all of humanity's problems. Or in the book Low, where one woman wages a lonely battle against the slow descent of humanity into the depths of nothingness, even at the cost of her relationships. In Tokyo Ghost, technology has made everyone but one brave woman into mindless drones, and only she can stand and resist its lure, and hopefully save the world.
In Seven to Eternity, first Adam's father Zebadiah and now Adam must be the lone man to make a stand. The whole society has devolved into a mess of lies, rumors and whispers (this very much feels like a metaphor for 2016, and makes me think of my conflicted relationship with social media), and Adam represents the rugged, uncompromising individualist standing against this descent. Remender has, I think, a complex view of the principled, uncompromising hero - it's not at all clear that the decisions they make are the right ones. The refusal to compromise always seems to cost them dearly, and many of these heroes' decisions are wrong. So I'm very curious to see what Adam does next, and see how this story proceeds. If you've enjoyed Remender's other works and want to see him explore these ideas in the fantasy genre (or are just looking for an entertaining read), Seven to Eternity is off to a strong start.