Superheroes being miserable isn’t really new, but every week, I have to ask myself why it’s so prevalent these days. I don’t mean that in a strict “boo grim and gritty” sense, I mean it in a full spectrum way– we have gritty asshole superheroes, but we also have depressed asshole superheroes, and incompetent asshole superheroes, and lost and lonely asshole superheroes. It’s a rainbow where every color is just a shade of brown and I want so much for it to go away, especially now that it’s bleeding into nostalgia titles, like Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston’s new Justice League-gone-Twilight Zone series Black Hammer.
Teamed up with Dave Stewart in full on Hellboy mode, Lemire and Ormston want Black Hammer to be the kind of story that recalls “heroes stranded in time” epics from yesteryear, with the twist that in this instance, the heroes never got out and they’re trapped on a grungy farm and they all fucking hate each other. Viewed strictly from a scenery perspective, it’s not hard to see why.
Ormston’s fresh character designs and intriguingly lumpy linework feel like a kid making up heroes of their own in the best sort of way, but Stewart’s drab coloring and Lemire’s limp, lifeless dialogue bear down on you with the heaviest of reader burdens. As much as you want to know more about the characters Ormston has designed, everything about their place in life is insufferable. There is a sulky Wonder Woman-esque character trapped in a little girl’s body, which Lemire mostly treats as an opportunity to make a kid do hee-larious grown up things like shoplift cigarettes and whine about how much she wishes she had her tits again. There is a gruff Batman/Captain America analog who mostly exists so everyone can condescendingly refer to him as Grandpa. And then there is Colonel Weird, an Alan Moore lookalike who floats between dimensions and rambles about nether zones.
By design, Stewart gives them flat earthtone palettes in the main sequences and opens it up to more classic four color rendering in flashbacks and hopeful moments. It’s not hard to understand what he is going for– these heroes are ten years past their prime and stuck in an all but black and white Kansas limbo– but nothing about Lemire’s script encourages any sort of narrative interest. Every character refers to each other by name in nearly every bit of dialogue, as though Lemire thought the reader couldn’t tell these characters apart, and all they talk about anyway is exposition and better days and bullshit.
We are informed that this Melancholy League has been stuck on a farm for a decade, after a battle with some galactic menace that seemingly cost the life of their leader, the titular Black Hammer. The farm and its town seems to be on a different plane of existence than the one the heroes came from, which is mostly communicated through a robot character’s attempts to build a probe to explore the realm they’re in. This experiment appears to be the only real thing the heroes have done in their ten limbo years, other than occasional forays into town and Grandpa Man’s dalliances with the waitress at the local diner.
You could charitably claim that the go nowhere nature of the story in the first issue is commentary on nostalgia, the need in comics to always reach for a better time that never really existed in the first place. If you felt especially optimistic, you could argue Lemire’s flat, exposition heavy dialogue is a riff on Silver Age comics. But even if you were sympathetic to Black Hammer, it doesn’t change how unnecesary both of these things are. Far better nostalgia commentary exists in comics, whether it’s in the form of four color odysseys like the aborted 1963 epic or long running works like Godland and American Barbarian or even more recent projects like Copra. What unites all of those series is their willingness to both celebrate and criticize the material they reference, as well as their engaging presentation. Black Hammer feels aimless, lost, pointless. It is a work that revels in nostalgia but only as a way to reskin the same boring, “superheroes are assholes” narrative we’re drowning in in contemporary superhero comics.
To quote directly from the comic “All you do is whine about how we can’t leave and how we’re stuck. Well, boo-hoo.” There is a lot of promise lurking beneath the surface of Black Hammer if it can just follow its own advice and give its characters something to do other than be monotonous sadsacks. At the very least, Ormston deserves a better script, one that challenges him more and gives his impressive emotional palette more room to flex. Until then, you’re better off staying far away from Black Hammer’s soul sucking vortex of gloom and monotony.
Black Hammer is out this Wednesday, July 20th, from Dark Horse.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover