Comic Book Review – Black Hammer ’45/Black Hammer-Justice League

Black Hammer ’45 (2019)
Written by Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes
Art by Matt Kindt

Black Hammer/Justice League: Hammer of Justice (2020)
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Michael Walsh

Black Hammer has been a fascinating experiment in superhero fiction, helmed by the immensely talented Jeff Lemire. Starting in 2016, he created a narrative about superheroes trapped in a small town who have to hide their powers. From there, he expanded and created a larger universe that serves as his personal commentary on all sorts of subgenres and archetypes within American comics. There have been some comparisons to Watchmen, but I don’t really think there are many similarities other than one writer’s voice at the center. Lemire has much more reverence for the medium than Alan Moore did or does. With both of these mini-series, Lemire can play around with tropes and, in one instance, DC’s superhero stable of characters.

Black Hammer ’45 is set during World War II and follows the Black Hammer squadron, a group of pilots who engaged the Nazis in combat. They are very obviously modeled after the Tuskegee Airmen with strong dashes of DC Comics’ Blackhawk characters. Lemire doesn’t keep the story totally grounded in realistic war tales; he also injects some wild science fiction aspects. A Russian soldier pilots a massive robot, a German pilot who is specter-like, and even a short visit from Abraham Slam, a regular in the central Black Hammer title. The story isn’t much of one; basically, an extended action sequence played out over four chapters.

I can’t say I was in love with Black Hammer ’45. The biggest hurdle in my enjoyment was Matt Kindt’s art style. I have been vaguely familiar with him and have been interested in reading his first significant work, Mind MGMT at some point. In interviews about this series, Kindt mentioned being influenced by legendary artists like Alex Toth. However, I see no trace of that here. Some moments the art feels appropriate, and others are just plain sloppy. Kindt is much looser than the artists I prefer, very impressionistic and, as some have said, “like crayons.” 

Lemire is clearly paying homage to the Blackhawks, Sgt. Rock and other classic DC war comics. I have never been a fan of those books, but I am always up for someone giving me their pitch and trying out something I’ve possibly overlooked. What was more interesting to me than the 1940s slugfest was the framing device of surviving Black Hammer members meeting up in the present day. As a massive fan of books like Geoff Johns’s JSA, I am always up for a good story about oldtimer superheroes trying to make it in the present day. Those were my favorite moments of the book, and I wish we had spent more time in the contemporary story than the vintage one.

I went into the Black Hammer/Justice League crossover pretty hyped. I was curious to read Lemire’s take on the Justice League, this roster being the New 52 membership, complete with Cyborg. I was also interested in finding out how the different books’ tones were balanced. Black Hammer is often contemplative and very character-centered, while whoever is writing Justice League usually pushes for significant, cinematic scale conflicts. I was shocked to find how few character moments we actually get, and the story feels completely lost in an overcomplicated plot that doesn’t really pay off satisfyingly.

The premise is rather bland: The Black Hammer characters are swapped by a mysterious derby-wearing figure with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Cyborg. This leads to some brief crazy encounters. Colonel Weird runs afoul of the Green Lantern Corps. Zatanna helps Golden Gail reverse her curse of being stuck as a child. The JL members on the farm have to stay incognito. Lemire is clearly enjoying throwing characters in scenes together. It’s a very stretched-out story, though, something that could have been done in a one-shot. Any reader with a glancing familiarity with the DC Universe will immediately know who the villain is and can imagine how this thing will wrap up. Lemire had said the story would have long-lasting ramifications for the Black Hammer characters, but I can’t imagine that is true. 

The best parts of the event are incidental. Golden Gail finds she can’t curse like she usually does while in the DC Universe, a fun meta-joke about the intended audiences of each company. She also becomes horny for Aquaman, which is mildly amusing. Barabalien has some funny bits questioning J’onn J’onzz’s claims of being a Martian. I was shocked at how this would be a terrible way to introduce new readers to the world of Black Hammer. They will walk away thinking it must be the dullest comic ever published. The DC characters don’t fare much better, and it all feels like Lemire bit off way too much and included too many characters for the story to flow well.

While these certainly aren’t the best Black Hammer comics I’ve read, it hasn’t shied me away from the line. This is some fantastic reading when Lemire is firing on all cylinders, but I think the world may have grown a bit away from him. At this point, I’ve read all of what is considered Phase One in the line and hope to get around to the Phase Two books in 2022. I’d highly recommend the core Black Hammer book and its sequel Black Hammer: Age of Doom. They do a much better job of introducing this fun world to readers and helping you really fall in love with the fantastic characters.

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