could be a thesis for the themes that have defined Jeff Lemire’s comic library. The Dark Horse ongoing series, illustrated with moody restraint by Dean Ormston, casts a handful of veteran pulp heroes in a small, rural town where they remain trapped by forces unrevealed. The title was conceived following Lemire’s contemplative 2008 family drama, Essex County, but published this year after Ormston recovered from a medical setback.
Black Hammer similarly captures the glacial tempo of agrarian living seen in Essex County, while skirting motifs lined in previous Lemire works like The Nobody (the extraordinary marooned in the mundane), The Underwater Welder (growing into thorny futures) and even his debut graphic novel Lost Dogs (protecting fragile families). But the comic is far from a retread of previous projects, instead refining recurring ideas from one of the most singular, and often subdued, voices in comics around one hell of a narrative hook.
The series has seen the release of three gorgeous, earthy issues that peel back new layers of character with each panel: Golden Gail struggles as an old soul trapped in the body of an adolescent, shapeshifter Barbalien searches for a fulfilling identity that’s rejected every time it’s revealed and Abraham Slam may be the oddest one of all, finding solace in his team’s unconventional jail.
Lemire has invited an inner circle of old friends and like-minded creators to expand the Black Hammer cosmos in a 40-page Black Hammer Giant-Sized Annual, set to debut on January 18, 2017. Lemire, Matt Kindt (Dept. H), Emi Lenox (Plutona, Dustin Nguyen (Descender) and Ray Fawkes (One Soul) will all illustrate a character via flashback, with a framing sequence in the present illustrated by Nate Powell (March). Dave Stewart, who works on the series proper, will color.
Paste communicated with Lemire via email to learn more about this ambitious project, the trajectory of the series and, dare we say it, the advent of the Lemireverse.
Paste: When we first spoke a few years ago, you said your first comics were digests of Justice Society of America and The Legion of Superheroes. I’ve been looking for that influence to bleed through a project, and I think Black Hammer channels that Golden Age romanticism well with your modern touch of character. I know you’ve been contemplating this project since 2008; how has it evolved since then? Did the year of Dean’s recovery lead to any introspection or changes in the characters?
Jeff Lemire: When I first conceived of Black Hammer in 2008, I was going to write and draw it, and at that time I’d never actually written any superhero comics of my own. So the two big changes when restarting the book in 2015 were bringing in Dean, who brings his voice to it as well a whole other set of influences to Black Hammer, and also, I’ve had six years experience writing hundreds of superhero comics now. So the book has evolved a lot since 2008.
Dean’s health issues didn’t really affect me in terms of stepping back and looking at the book differently, because I just kept writing it. I didn’t stop. So at this point I already have 20 issues written.
Paste: And an annual is perfect for this—the format is technically still around, but it had such a higher page count and sense of import during the Golden and Silver Ages of comics. They thrived at a time when your cast would have flourished as superheroes, before, pun intended, being put out to pasture. When did the annual join the conversation?
Lemire: I always wanted to do it. The idea of seeing some other artists interpret the cast of Black Hammer was just too tempting to pass up. And I loved all the Silver and Bronze Age annuals when I was a kid. They were a real event. Now events are the real events and annuals are usually used by the “Big Two” to add more content on the shelves and make more money. They are filler.
I wanted to make it important. I wanted to see the cast drawn in different ways and I wanted to tell a big story that ties right back into the main series.
Black Hammer Giant-Sized Annual Abraham Slam Interior Art by Matt Kindt
Paste: How was the story designed to suit the different artists? If I had to guess, I would think we’d be looking at some flashbacks.
Lemire: You are correct. The flashback device is built right into the DNA of Black Hammer anyway, so it was a perfect structure for the annual and for working with different artists. So we have a main, throughline story set in the present, but it flashes back to a key adventure in each of the heroes’ “in-continuity” adventures.
Paste: You also have Mr. Ray Fawkes, who did a great job on that backup in the Bloodshot annual with you as well. How do you approach collaborating on offshoot narratives in this context?
Lemire: With Black Hammer, I just went to my best friends in the comics community. So that means Ray, whom I see all the time since we are both in Toronto, and Emi, and Nate and Matt (we all go back to my early days publishing with Top Shelf). And of course, after seeing his amazing Golden Gail variant cover for issue 1, I had to ask Dustin Nguyen to be part of it too!
The collaboration is pretty seamless. I just wrote the script with each of them in mind and then sent it off. I have total faith and trust in each of them, so there is not a lot of back and forth after that.
Black Hammer Giant-Sized Annual Interior Art by Nate Powell
Paste: This feels like a reunion from Sweet Tooth #19, with Emi, Nate and Matt working on one comic. Does that community and collaboration exist behind the scenes, too? Are there, or were there ever, 2 A.M. phone calls and script notes within this set of creators?
Lemire: There is definitely a sense of community. Over the years, working with different publishers and going to so many conventions, you tend to gravitate towards the same people, and eventually you have this core group of creators who are your friends. For me, Nate and Matt were two of the first cartoonists I ever met when I first started publishing comics back in 2005. They were both with Top Shelf and I came in with Essex County and we really hit it off. We all shared a lot of the same influences and we felt a common aesthetic between our styles and work. And we all became really good friends.
And then I met Emi at Top Shelf as well. Probably back in 2008 or so. She was interning at Top Shelf when I was signing with them at San Diego Comi-Con that year. And like with Nate and Matt, we hit it off and became good friends and eventual collaborators on Sweet Tooth and again with Plutona.
And of course I met Dustin while we were both working for DC. We never got to work together at DC, but afterwards we started Descender together. And Ray is also in Toronto and in comics so we have been friends for years, too.
So with a project like this, it’s a blast to get a chance to work with all my best friends and see them interpret the world Dean and I created. We all often share scripts and artwork and ask each other for help and advice on all our various projects. It’s great to have that support and these friendships are the best thing about being in comics.
Paste: Tell me Matt Kindt is working on Barbalien; it’s his favorite character. And you also said he was your favorite as well. Has that changed at all?
Lemire: Well, here’s the thing: Matt seemed like a no-brainer for Barbalien. Ray seemed like a natural fit for Madame Dragonfly, because he loves horror. Emi’s style seemed best suited for Golden Gail. And when I started writing the script, that’s what I had in mind. BUT, then I started thinking, maybe these pairings were too easy, too obvious. I started to think it might be more interesting to match them each up with characters that were not immediately in their comfort zone. And I think the results worked out great.
So we have Matt doing Abraham Slam, Dustin doing Golden Gail, Ray doing Barbalien and Emi doing Dragonfly. Then Nate does the present-day story and I do Col. Weird! It’s a lot of fun. And Nate and I actually get to jam on some pages, meaning we share art on a few pages!
Paste: This annual begs the question whether there’s a Black Hammer universe looming in the background; a place for miniseries, events, etc. How open would you be to turning the comic into something akin to the Mignolavere—the Lemireverse?
Lemire: That is a VERY good question. All I can say at this time is that I love the world of Black Hammer and never want to leave so…STAY TUNED!