Review by Frank Plowright
Melancholy, longing and isolation are themes that recur in Jeff Lemire more personal work, which is almost all very good indeed, as he explores tragedy, loss and missed opportunities. It could equally be said that assessed collectively, his mainstream superhero stories have been hit and miss. In Black Hammer Lemire’s fused his personal concerns with a more individual take on superheroes, and the result is compelling and offbeat.
A group of superheroes saved their world decades previously, but at great personal cost. They were transported to Earth where they’ve remained ever since, unable to find their way home. They occupy a remote US farm, a location enabling those whose unique appearance prevents integration with the wider world to remain isolated. One of them is trapped in the body of a nine year old girl, and to keep up appearances must attend the local school, another comes across as an acid casualty as he literally drifts in and out of the world, and Barbalian would be considered gay were he not an alien from a Martian warrior culture. Most able to pass for human is Abe, who’s come to enjoy the farming life, and in his stoic and accepting fashion is most like the characters seen in Lemire’s Essex County.
Lemire once intended to draw Black Hammer himself, but instead settled on Dean Ormston to convey the unsettling, stranded existence of the cast. Deliberately avoiding conventional superhero action except where absolutely required in flashbacks, he draws the cast as if experiencing depression, or quiet desperation, constantly in thought, rarely happy and only very exceptionally do their mouths move into a smile. There’s not much light here, and Ormston’s depiction is masterful.
Secret Origins takes a leisurely path in unfolding the personalities. Every chapter spotlights one of them, telling us enough to give a partial understanding of their tragic circumstances. Initially bound together through world-saving necessity, these aren’t a bunch of good buddies, but a collection of individuals now trapped in each other’s company. Long time readers of superhero comics will recognise the inspirations for some of the cast, as Lemire freely admits his love, but they’re twisted copies, the people those inspirations might become if leading hidden lives of utter tedium.
Consider this also. The series is titled Black Hammer. We see a black hammer and a superhero of that name, but only twice and in passing. Over six chapters Lemire and Ormston have constructed a compelling series in which the title character or artefact barely appears. Why? Perhaps we’ll discover in The Event. Alternatively, they’re combined in the oversized hardback Library Edition 1.
Is it still possible to do something different with superheroes? Apparently, yes. Black Hammer may have begun as a love letter to the heroes Lemire loved as a child, but it’s so much more.