Black Hammer: Secret Origins (2016)

Black Hammer: Secret Origins

Black Hammer looks like a horror comic. Dean Ormston’s art always suggests there’s something darker going on, even if writer Jeff Lemire didn’t hint at it all the time. There’s something creepy about the comic’s world; the cast of characters doesn’t know what’s going on, the reader doesn’t know what’s going on, Lemire doesn’t really hint at the details, just implies details exist. It makes for a disquieting reading experience, even though there’s nothing too dark going on.

More so, Lemire hints there isn’t anything much darker to be revealed, just sadder. Black Hammer is all about sadness. Sadness and secrets.

It’s also about a bunch of superheroes who find themselves transported to a farm in a rural town after they defeat a great enemy. Lemire bakes in the sadness–the superheroes weren’t happy before they left, so when the comic opens ten years after the event, it’s unlikely anything else is going to make them happy.

Abraham Slam in his younger days.
Abraham Slam in his younger days.

Except maybe Abe Slam, who’s pretty much the protagonist. He’s Captain America without the powers, only he didn’t leave his home dimension in the forties, he left it in the seventies or eighties when he was an old man and felt like he didn’t have a place anymore. Much to the chagrin of his fellow captives, he does find a place, being an old white guy farmer who romances the woman who runs the local diner. Her ex-husband’s the sheriff, which Lemire hints will come into play later, but not yet. Mostly Abe’s just contentedly getting by, mostly because he’s the only one of the captives who can.

The rest are either aliens, robots, mystically de-aged, supernaturally winged, or just plain unstuck dimensionally.

J'onn J'onzz--sorry, Mark Markz--arrives on Earth.
J’onn J’onzz–sorry, Mark Markz–arrives on Earth.

The alien is the Martian Manhunter stand-in–Lemire borrows from both Marvel and DC to fill out his cast, who weren’t a super-team so much as an assortment of superheroes. Barbalien. Turns out his not just hiding his true form, he’s also hiding he’s gay, which leads to some trouble. Because he’s keeping it a secret. Ten years stuck together on a farm and none of the characters seems to be upfront with any of the other. Some of it is the baked in sadness Lemire does, some of it is the sauce for the gander. Black Hammer is a heavy read. There’s not a bright sky in Lemire’s writing or in Ormston’s art. When the comic’s really going for it, it’s impossible to say who’s more effective, Lemire or Ormston. It’s impossible to imagine the comic without the two of them.

The robot is Talky-Walky, who is probably female–she doesn’t get her own issue in this collection–because she’s the sidekick of the unstuck fellow, Colonel Weird. He’s the Adam Strange stand-in who knows more about what’s going on than he can explain but in learning it, he’s gone mad. There’s the implication of unrequited love on her side. Back in the day, they used to travel to other planets and eradicate life because what else were they going to do to aliens in the Golden or Silver Age. Lemire makes a lot of subtle comments on old comics matter-of-factly. Again, he bakes it in.

Captain Weird explores... the weird.
Captain Weird explores… the weird.

Colonel Weird’s issue has some foreshadowing, but mostly it’s a dejected look at how these previously powerful characters can’t have any more power. Even though they do still retain a lot of their powers, if not all of them.

The de-aged person is Golden Gail. She’s a female Captain Marvel (Shazam Captain Marvel). Only she became Captain Marvel in the forties and whenever she changed into the hero, she became a nine year-old. So now she’s a middle-aged woman stuck in a nine year-old’s body. She’s probably the closest thing to comic relief, only it’s all so tragic and all so heavy, it’s never funny. Worse is when it turns out she’s got a crush she shouldn’t have. Lemire’s not happy unless Black Hammer is making someone unhappy; he’s also willing to take on that burden. He’s asking the reader for a lot of emotional investment and is doing so responsibly. There’s not a single time he asks for too much without it being necessary.

Shazam! Oh, you know what they mean.
Shazam! Oh, you know what they mean.

Then there’s Madame Dragonfly. She’s got the wings. She’s a witch consigned to a cabin who went out to save the world because just because she’s a cursed witch doesn’t mean she’s a bad guy. She’s the coolest character in the book. Lemire plays with tropes and standards, but Madame Dragonfly is something entirely her own. What if the narrator of a horror comic, gross with dragonfly wings and eye of newt and zombie dolls, wasn’t a bad guy. Her story finishes the collection; it’s where Lemire hints at things too terrible for even Black Hammer to reveal. Not too terrible in terms of horrific reveals, but too terrible in terms of human reveals. He takes his characters very, very seriously.

Madame Dragonfly helps save the world.
Madame Dragonfly helps save the world.

While most of the issues–except the first–have a single character emphasized, Lemire’s careful to continue his B plots and C plots. It’s a tightly constructed comic, both in Lemire’s plotting and how Ormston visualizes it. The series is upfront about its despondence, upfront in its deconstruction. It’s never overly ambitious. Lemire and Ormston are ambitious with it, but they always hit their marks.

It ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, both for the reader and the characters, which is sort of annoying. Not because it’s not well-executed, but because it means I need to wait for more Black Hammer.

CREDITS

Writer, Jeff Lemire; artist, Dean Ormston; colorist, Dave Stewart; letterer, Todd Klein; editors, Ian Tucker, Cardner Clark, Brendan Wright, and Daniel Chabon; publisher, Dark Horse Comics.

Night’s Dominion 4 (December 2016)

Night's Dominion #4

I’m not sure Naifeh is aware people read other comics besides Night’s Dominion. This issue is a bunch of battle scenes, a bunch of characters, a bunch going on; I have no idea what any of them have to do with the other. There’s some excellent art, but it’s a messy, messy jumble. Naifeh’s either rushing or expecting way too much of his readers.

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Ted Naifeh; letterer, Aditya Bidikar; editor, Robin Herrera; publisher, Oni Press.

Shadows on the Grave 1 (December 2016)

Shadows on the Grave #1

Corben does horror anthology. Except for the feature story, everything moves quickly and perfectly. There’s a narrator, there’s a variety of disturbing situations–all beautifully rendered in various Corben styles, smooth to rough to smooth–it’s perfect. Except the feature, which lacks the other entries’ effective, accessible, plain narrative style.

CREDITS

Writer, artist, and letterer, Richard Corben; editors, Katie O’Brien and Scott Allie; publisher, Dark Horse Comics.

Hawkeye 1 (February 2017)

Hawkeye #1

Hawkeye tries way too hard. Thompson’s characterization of Kate is busy but bland. Romero’s art is all right–the detail’s excellent even though everything moves way too fast with way too little actual content. Kate’s cocky and immature, which might fit the other Hawkeye’s comic, but not this one.

CREDITS

Writer, Kelly Thompson; artist, Leonardo Romero; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Joe Sabino; editor, Charles Beacham and Sana Amanat; publisher, Marvel Comics.

War Stories 21 (November 2016)

War Stories #21

Aside from some rushed art on the talking heads–but still great composition from Aira–and the romantic subplot not paying off, this War Stories arc is pretty fantastic. Ennis is comfortable with the characters and the setting. He looks at the fliers and their fears more than anything else.

CREDITS

Vampire Squadron, Part Three: The War Effort; writer, Garth Ennis; artist, Tomas Aira; colorist, Digikore Studios; letterer, Kurt Hathaway; publisher, Avatar Press.

Resident Alien: The Man with No Name 4 (December 2016)

Resident Alien: The Man with No Name #4

Hogan wraps things up nicely on the series’s mystery. He covers a lot through flashback and tightly constructed exposition, but doesn’t have enough time to deal with the threat to Harry’s medical practice (and existence). Solid Parkhouse art too. The characters, supporting and lead, make Resident Alien, time and again.

CREDITS

Writer, Peter Hogan; artist, Steve Parkhouse; editors, Megan Walker and Philip R. Simon; publisher, Dark Horse Comics.

Jessica Jones 3 (February 2017)

Jessica Jones #3

It’s another non-starter for Jones. No “case” either, which makes the promotional materials referring to each issue as a case more annoying. Lots of boring talking heads with occasional PG–13 curse words. Bendis’s big reveal is weak, the art is boring (not Gaydos’s fault though).

CREDITS

Writer, Brian Michael Bendis; artist, Michael Gaydos; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Cory Petit; editors, Alanna Smith and Tom Brevoort; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Comics Fondle Podcast | Episode 35

It’s an extra-sized episode because it’s been so long since the last episode.

Here’s what we talk about.

Black Hammer, Ether, Comic Book History of Comics, Kaijumax, Lake of Fire, Hadrians Wall, Electric Sublime, Resident Alien, Lady Killer, Jessica Jones, AD After Death, Cinema Purgatorio, Nights Dominion, Killer Inside Me, Moonshine, Prophet Earth War, Goddamned, Weird Detective, Surgeon X, The Flintstones, Providence, Motor Crush, Motra, Violent Love

Plus Mockingbird: I Can Explain, Mickey’s Craziest Adventures, plus general news and happenings, plus TV talk, including “Arrow” for once because finally they made it essential to watch “Arrow”

you can also subscribe on iTunes…

The Flintstones 6 (February 2017)

The Flintstones #6

There’s a considerable darkness lurking in this issue but Russell keeps it at bay. He goes for the humor instead of exhausting potential metaphors. It’s the end of the world–the asteroid is on its way–and Bedrock loses it. As always, some great art from Pugh.

CREDITS

The End of the World as We Know It; writer, Mark Russell; artist, Steve Pugh; colorist, Chris Chuckry; letterer, Dave Sharpe; editors, Brittany Holzherr and Marie Javins; publisher, DC Comics.

Providence 11 (November 2016)

Providence #11

Reading this issue of Providence, I expected a lot of things. Moore didn’t do any of them. Even when he hinted at maybe doing something in the direction of an expectation, he didn’t do it. He weaves this beautiful closure to everything he’s been doing not related to the Lovecraft. And he gets to the Lovecraft too a little bit, but it’s less subtle. It’s not forceful, but it is more obvious to the reader. The other things, as they relate to Robert Black specifically, aren’t obvious to the reader or to Black. But the comic isn’t just about Robert Black’s story, it’s about Lovecraft and the Lovecraft world and what Moore’s doing with this series. Providence is about Providence.

Moore takes the pomposity associated with Watchmen, pomposity he never intended that comic to sustain, and he applies it to Providence. Providence is big. Alan Moore’s comics for Avatar are downright cinematic and this issue of Providence is a CinemaScope epic complete with musical accompaniment. I should probably listen to the song.

Yeah, listen to the song and read it again.

But the point is that Moore does something big and unexpected. He’s got an entirely different finish for Providence than he suggested. And given the importance of the commonplace book, it was definitely meant to be awesome, but also be distracting. Moore has distracted the reader just as Black has been distracted. It’ll be interesting to read it through again.

Great art from Burrows, of course. A perfect issue of Providence, which is just about as perfect as a comic can be.

CREDITS

The Unnamable; writer, Alan Moore; artist, Jacen Burrows; colorist, Juan Rodriguez; letterer, Kurt Hathaway; publisher, Avatar Press.

Mockingbird: I Can Explain (2015-2016)

Mockingbird: I Can Explain

Mockingbird: I Can Explain collects the first five issues of Chelsea Cain’s run as writer, along with a special, which was Cain’s first work on the character. That special comes at the end of the collection, introducing Cain’s approach to the character. It’s kind of like a dessert in the collection, however, since it doesn’t have anything to do with the plot line of I Can Explain. It’s good dessert and it does make sense to have it as addendum, as the rest of the collection is very intricately plotted. So much so, I can’t imagine how it’d read in separate sittings.

In other words, I’ll get to the special, which was published first, last.

The first issue is structured around Bobbi (aka Mockingbird) going to the doctor at S.H.I.E.L.D. Cain gets in a lot of good jokes regarding healthcare and has some fantastic cameos. There’s a lot of visual information in the backgrounds, usually for smiles, always for texture. Artist Kate Niemczyk does an excellent job with the various kinds of visual material. There’s even some “clues” for later reveals. And some direct sight gags. Bobbi goes to the doctor four times; Cain starts with a present-day prologue, jumps back into one flashback, jumps forward into another flashback, then another, then another. I think. There’s a lot of careful structuring in Mockingbird and the setup of the flashbacks in the first issue is the most obvious.

Superhero doldrums. Art: Kate Niemczyk.
Superhero doldrums. Art: Kate Niemczyk.

It’s a good first issue. It’s fun. It’s not great. It’s good. Cain writes Bobbi really well and establishes some excellent pacing with all the layers.

So, of course, the rest of the comic is nothing like that first issue. The second issue takes place right before the second flashback in the first issue. You know because of Bobbi’s outfit. The first issue has her going through five different outfits, usually Mockingbird standards of some kind–or, at least, female superhero standards–then it turns out Cain and Niemczyk are going to fill in the information about those outfits over the next three issues. Wait, I counted one flashback too many. It’s four outfits, because issue four directly feeds into issue one. Sorry. One flashback too many.

Obviously, Bobbi can explain. Art: Kate Niemczyk.
Obviously, Bobbi can explain. Art: Kate Niemczyk.

But the outfit thing–even the very subtle introduction of a subplot important in issues four and five–is just part of Mockingbird’s texture. It’s not even the content of the book, which is entirely different starting with the second issue. The second issue’s an all action comic, with Bobbi rescuing scantily clad partner Lance Hunter from the Hellfire Club. What’s strangest about the comic, which makes a lot of jokes at the Club’s expense, is how sex positive the whole thing gets. Lance’s a himbo, but a well-meaning one who Bobbi can’t resist. It’s downright fun and naughty without ever getting too naughty. Cain keeps everything–from the double entendres to the easy jokes–in line. It’s a completely different comic than the first issue implies.

And the third issue is even more different. It’s the standout of the collection, just because Cain gets kind of super dark while still trying to be sensitive to the issue. Not the issue issue, but the subject of the issue issue–a sixth grade girl who has developed superpowers. It’s a fantastic commentary on misogyny and sexist media, but Cain never lets that commentary get beyond Bobbi’s head and mouth or the situation itself. All hail the verisimilitude, because Cain is still doing an action comic after all. Frankly, the third issue reminds me of eighties mainstream DC Alan Moore. Nothing wrong with reminding of that.

True Romance with Clint and Bobbie. Art: Kate Niemczyk.
True Romance with Clint and Bobbie. Art: Kate Niemczyk.

The fourth issue brings in Hawkeye and Cain’s take on the character and he and Bobbi’s relationship. It’s kind of like dessert too. It’s similar in structure and scantily clad men to the second issue, but Niemczyk goes for it a lot more this time around with Clint’s little purple undies. She and Cain aren’t afraid of cheap, but very situational funny jokes. Of course, it all ties into the first issue–and the fifth–so there’s potential heaviness going on, but the flirting distracts.

Ibrahim Moustafa does the art on the fifth issue, which is somewhat disconcerting. Mockingbird is Niemczyk’s. At multiple times throughout the issue, even though Moustafa does a fine job, I wished I was getting to see Niemczyk handle the scenes. It’s more action, with Howard the Duck (a wonderful characterization from Cain on him too) and Miles Morales Spider-Man (did Cain mean to highlight the charge Ultimate Miles has the same personality as Ultimate Peter, because she does). There are also zombies. And a lot of laughs. It’s a good issue; Cain perfectly balances action, humor, and serious commentary.

Bobbi and Her Amazing Friends. Art: Ibrahim Moustafa.
Bobbi and Her Amazing Friends. Art: Ibrahim Moustafa.

Then there’s the special, the dessert. Fine Joëlle Jones art. It’s a mystery. Funny. Dessert.

Mockingbird: I Can Explain starts strong enough, then Cain and Niemczyk blast through expectations. It’s a fantastic comic book.

CREDITS

Writer, Chelsea Cain; pencillers, Kate Niemczyk, Ibrahim Moustafa, and Jöelle Jones; inkers, Niemczyk, Sean Parsons, Moustafa, and Jones; colorist, Rachelle Rosenberg; letterer, Joe Caramagna; editors, Alanna Smith, Christina Harrington, Jon Moisan, and Katie Kubert; publisher, Marvel Comics.

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