Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy (2021)
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Tonci Zonjic
Colonel Weird: Cosmagog (2021)
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Tyler Crook
Barbalien: Red Planet (2021)
Written by Jeff Lemire and Tate Bromal
Art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta
Jeff Lemire has used his Black Hammer Universe to examine different aspects & tropes of superhero comics. I wouldn’t say it’s been as deep as Alan Moore or Grant Morrison’s work, but it is still very enjoyable. Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy is clearly a critique of the superhero/kid sidekick trope, emphasizing the trauma needed to drive someone into vigilantism and how that trauma harms the people in their radius. Gone is the deus ex machina that keeps Batman and Robin from actual harm. There is no promise that these characters will survive the story, and having the stakes that high makes it compelling.
The trauma here is generational. Skulldigger possesses a hesitancy about his ward. He knows he’s not entirely fit to train and prepare this child, but the rest of the world is so much worse; he’s the best that could be offered. The critical element that brings the conflict to a head is Detective Reyes, a woman with a connection to Skulldigger and reason to want to rescue the orphan he is slowly twisting into a homicidal madman like himself. My biggest critique is the lackluster conclusion where the story just sort of ends. I get that this could be Lemire wanting to throw a bucket of cold water onto a scenario that walks the edge of gritty & fantastical. That might work, but I would argue that it’s not earned with the given story. There’s also very little connection between this story and the larger Black Hammer world besides the setting and a couple references. I appreciated that because the goal in my mind should be to make Black Hammer far-expansive beyond the core series. Populating corners like this helps build that sense of a full-fledged comic book universe.
The biggest stand-out for me was artist Tonci Zonjic. His art is fluid and full of motion, reminding me of Marcos Martin (Amazing Spider-Man, Defenders). A combination of clean, modern lines mixed with bits reminds me of classic Marvel comics. I kept thinking about Daredevil comics I’d read between the art and the subject matter. Zonjic makes some interesting choices on how to depict the brutal violence of the story, not hiding anything in some moments and then being clever & selective at others. I’d love to see Zonjic handling art on a JSA revival at DC; I think his look has the same elements as Mike Parobeck, whose JSA maxi-series has always been the best, in my opinion.
Lemire has a talent for taking these larger-than-life characters and writing very intimate, personal stories about them. Unfortunately, it’s a skill that I don’t think has been employed well by his editors at Marvel and DC. Maybe someday, I’ll revisit his short-lived X-Men run and talk about what a missed opportunity that was. In Cosmagog, he takes one of the heroes from his core Black Hammer series and dives deeper. Colonel Weird is a surreal mash-up of DC’s Adam Strange and Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Weird is a time lost astronaut who is randomly pulled through space & time, resulting in his perspective being completely warped in relation to his linear allies. Cosmagog chooses to follow his cut-up existence and try to assemble the pieces so the audience can finally see events from Weird’s point of view.
The story opens with Colonel Weird continuing his experience of being lost in time. We can tell that this is the Weird of recent Black Hammer comics due to his wild white beard. However, the story jumps back to his childhood, the mission to space that changed his life, and his time in San Francisco as a spiritual guru. Physically he changes but psychologically remains the same; reliving these events and experiencing them for the first time, he remembers them as they happen. It’s a story full of tragedy, especially with how his transformation destroyed his connection with humanity. We see the moment he offers to bring his wife Eve into the strange Parazone, only for her to be obliterated by its infinite power. There are vignettes from childhood where he struggles with bullying due to this blend of past and future. Through Weird’s unique perspective, Lemire comments on the struggle to live life with mental illness, especially anxiety or any state of mind that leaves you feeling like you can’t move out of your trauma.
Tyler Crook’s art is some of the best I’ve seen in any Black Hammer book. He manages to perfectly capture the fear in Weird’s eyes throughout every part of his life. He’s also handed the challenge of developing the Parazone further, having to live up to the legend of Steve Ditko’s Doctor Strange and The Dark Dimension. The artwork captures both the bizarre and the human, the latter through intensely expressive faces that are still reminiscent of classic comic book styles. I would argue that Crook’s art can extend and develop ideas seeded by Lemire in the script. Of these three books, this is the one I most highly recommend.
Mark Markz has been a very obvious Martian Manhunter analog from the moment he debuted in Black Hammer #1. However, Lemire chose to take him on a different route from DC’s Martian hero. Instead of making Mark the last of his people, he is an exile, forced to remain on Earth because he is homosexual. The earlier Black Hammer stories touch on this, using his relationship with the priest to explore his character. However, this mini-series digs into the formative era in his past where Mark wrestles with his identity and chooses how he is going to live, either openly gay or suffering in the closet.
Events jump between Mars, where Mark is facing execution, back to Earth days earlier, where he lives & works in disguise as a human. Mark became a police officer when he first arrived as he identified the role of helping people. Thankfully, Lemire and co-writer Tate Bromal present police officers more accurately as very hostile towards LGBTQ+ people during the height of the AIDs crisis. Through a flashback, we see how Mark made a slight move on his work partner and was angrily rebuffed. During the arrest of gay activists, Mark meets a young Latine man and immediately feels connected with him. Using his shapeshifting powers, Mark visits an LGBTQ club that night and runs into the activist again, where our character’s conflict begins. Meanwhile, the rulers of Mars have sent a hunter to capture Mark, who they have discovered is committing crimes based on their laws about gender & sexuality.
I was familiar with Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s artwork from the excellent Vision maxi-series he did with Tom King, so it was nice to see more of his work. Walta can make the Martians and police look equally monstrous while using softer techniques to bring out the humanity of Mark and other members of his community. I definitely think Red Planet fills in some important origin moments for Barbalien that were hinted at in the core series. I don’t think you can go wrong with these three mini-series. They each explore the Black Hammer Universe from an exciting angle and never lose sight that characters are the most essential part of all their stories.