Ten years ago, a group of superheroes defeated the ultimate evil and saved their world forever, but in the aftermath of their victory they found themselves stranded on a farm on the edge of a small rural town and they’ve been stuck there for ten years. This is where we join the heroes of Black Hammer at the start of their first issue but in the near-five years since its debut, the world created by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, Dave Stewart and Todd Klein has grown into an expansive superhero universe in its own right.
Black Hammer has had spin-offs inspired by Hellboy, The Legion of Super-Heroes and The Punisher, to name just a few and what started out as a horror-tinged mystery has bloomed into a love-letter to how varied and far-reaching the genre we call “superhero” can be. With some of the most inventive analogues and an all-star roster of creative talent, Lemire has created a superhero universe with something for everyone, but it all started with six weirdos on a farm.
The real key of Black Hammer’s success is that it’s very much a character-driven story and later, a character-driven universe. Before we learn about the main cast’s history and backstories, we learn about them as people and the way their pasts made them who they are. The characters of Black Hammer used to be superheroes and are mostly trying to put that part of their lives behind them, but often find that their pasts are inextricably tied to their present, whether they live it or not.
Abraham Slam is an over-the-hill Captain America type trying to hold his ragtag group of misfits together while pursuing a relationship with the divorcee who runs the local diner; Golden Gail is a Shazam analogue in reverse, an eighty year old woman trapped in the body of a tween; Barbalien is a gay Martian warrior searching for belonging; Madame Dragonfly is a mysterious sorceress who lives apart from everyone else in her Cabin of Horrors; Colonel Weird is a swashbuckling space adventurer whose mind has been destroyed by his time in the extra dimensional Para-Zone while his faithful robotic friend Talky-Walky is the only one still trying to find a way off the farm.
The big mystery at the heart of Black Hammer revolves around how they arrived on this farm and why can’t they leave? “Black Hammer” is the name of the farm but it’s also the name of the seventh superhero whose absence hands like a spectre over the entire book. When they first arrived on the farm, Black Hammer attempted to flee and return home but upon reaching the perimeter around the town, his body came apart at the seams and he died gruesomely. What the heroes don’t know is that the world they left behind still mourns them and Black Hammer’s daughter Lucy is determined to find out what happened to her father.
Lucy’s journey is what really opens the world of Black Hammer up to stories outside of the main series. Her quest to learn more about her father takes place in the first spin-off, Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil, where she tracks down retired supervillains like Manaconda, Metal Minotaur and the titular Sherlock Frankenstein to get a better look into her father’s world of heroes and villains. I used to think Robert Kirkman was the undisputed master of coming up with innovative and unique supervillains in Invincible but Jeff Lemire and Dave Rubin gave us Cthu-Lou in the pages of Sherlock Frankenstein and now I think Kirman may have a challenger.
Aiding the daughter of Black Hammer in her quest is a scientist who used to be Doctor Andromeda, a Golden Age hero who fought with the Liberty Legion; this world’s version of the Justice Society of America. Analogous characters are a big part of Black Hammer’s universe, but Doctor Andromeda probably took it a bit too far. A love letter to DC Comics’ Starman series from the nineties, the character was originally called “Doctor Star” until DC asked Lemire to change it. Considering Starman was written by James Robinson and Doctor Andromeda’s name is “Jimmy Robinson” and even looks like the author, it was hard to deny the influence and the name was changed in a way that was, to quote Lemire directly, “was all very civil.”
The world of Black Hammer stretches not just beyond the farm of the main series, but to the past and the future as well. Black Hammer ‘45 was a World War II story starring the Black Hammer Squadron fighting behind enemy lines while The Quantum Age was set one thousand years in the future as descendents of Black Hammer and Barbalien attempt to reform the fractured Quantum League, Black Hammer’s version of the Legion of Super-Heroes and Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy is an eighties-tinged street level vigilante story, like if Frank Miller did The Punisher.
While most Black Hammer spin-offs have followed characters mentioned in passing, recent series have starred members of the core cast in new stories which flesh out their backstories. Colonel Weird: Cosmagog owes a lot to Slaughterhouse-Five as it features the spacefaring adventurer living his life out of sequence and realising this was all predestined. Barbalien: Red Planet follows the Martian warrior struggling to fit in on Earth in more ways than one, as he struggles with his humanity and his sexuality amid a backdrop of the 1980s AIDS crisis.
I mentioned Lemire being on friendly terms with DC regarding some of the analogues in Black Hammer but if you’re a traditional superhero comic reader looking for a jumping on point to this universe of characters, I’d suggest Black Hammer/Justice League: Hammer of Justice which seem the characters switch places on the farm with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg of the DC Universe who have to figure out a way back their reality while the remaining heroes of the Justice League have to figure out what to do with a nine-year old with the powers of Shazam and the mouth of John Constantine.
Amid all of these spin-offs, I haven’t really had a chance to talk about Black Hammer: Age of Doom which is the follow-up to the core Black Hammer series and that’s because there’s only so much I can say about it without spoiling the original volume. What I will say is that it takes things in a bit of a darker direction with a Vertigo influence but it also gets a lot more metafictional as some characters start to analyse their place in the story they occupy and what it means to step outside that and do something different.
The future of Black Hammer looks bright as Lemire looks to tighten things up slightly and return to the core story going forward. Colonel Weird and Barbalien are in the middle of their runs and set to wrap up in a few months’ time but after that we’ve got the anthology Black Hammer: Visions anthology which released its first issue a couple of weeks ago and is the first time Lemire has fully released the reins of the universe he’s built. Black Hammer Reborn is set to debut in Summer 2021 and Lemire has mentioned plans for a Madame Dragonfly miniseries as well as one other unannounced spin-off.
If you enjoy superhero stories in other mediums but find the larger superhero universes of Marvel, DC or Valiant a bit too impenetrable then the Black Hammer Universe might be perfect for you. Horror, mystery, sci-fi, noir, war; the Black Hammer Universe has stories of all stripes for readers of all preferences. I’d recommend starting with the core Black Hammer series to get a handle on the world these stories take place in but from there you really can pick and choose depending on what you fancy, but without the 80+ years of backstory that can get in the way of modern superhero stories.