In March 2015, Jeff Lemire is tackling superhero comics — but not in any way readers might have seen him do it in recent memory. Lemire and artist Dean Ormston’s new Dark Horse Comics creator-owned series “The Black Hammer” is a character-driven series following five of the greatest heroes of a lost era as they find themselves trapped in a mysterious town they’re unable to leave following a cosmic battle known only as the Event. The series picks up ten years after these five written-out-of-continuity heroes arrived at Black Hammer Farm and what follows promises to contain Lemire’s knack for character-driven independent work, as well as a deconstruction and exploration of the modern superhero storytelling technique and superhero comics as a whole.
Although the series might be new, Lemire conceived of the concept in 2007 — well before his run at DC Comics. However, with his DC-exclusivity at an end, Lemire is ready to jump into “The Black Hammer” with Ormston — and there’s plenty of potential to see some of the writer’s insights on the genre.
CBR News spoke with Lemire about “The Black Hammer,” the concepts behind it, the cast of characters drawn from different parts of comic book history, developing a mythology, how his time at DC Comics influenced re-approaching the story seven years later and much more.
CBR News: Jeff, where did the concept behind “The Black Hammer” come from? Did it have anything to do with your extensive time working on superhero books for DC?
Jeff Lemire: Ironically, not at all. The funny thing about the project is that it’s got these strange origins — I developed “Black Hammer” pretty fully formed years and years ago before I ever started working at DC or Vertigo. I had just finished “Essex County” with Top Shelf and was playing around with a few different ideas in sketchbooks and notebooks about what projects I could do after “Essex County.” This is well before “Sweet Tooth” and certainly before I had ever done any superhero books at DC. Really, this is my attempt to do a superhero book in a way that I did my independent work — really character-based drama and the fact that they’re superheroes with these fantastic elements surrounding the characters and the mythology would be secondary to the character work. We explore human emotion with these characters and use the superhero thing more as metaphor than something that drives the plot.
That’s a long, convoluted way of saying, “No, it wasn’t influenced by DC.” [Laughs]
I was actually going to draw it myself, do it as a graphic novel in 2007 or 2008. I pitched it to Dark Horse then, and that’s when I got work at Vertigo doing “The Nobody” and “Sweet Tooth,” and I got so busy with that stuff, “Black Hammer” got pushed to the side. It was always something I’d wanted to go back to and every few months, I would get a few new ideas and jot them down. But it became obvious over the last year or so with all the things I have going on — and even the other creator-owned things that I want to draw myself — that “Black Hammer” wouldn’t get done unless I did it with another artist. Once I made that decision, it really freed it up.
Based on what you’re saying, this has been in development at Dark Horse for six or seven years.
Well, I pitched it and they liked it — that was in 2008. But like I said, I was working at Vertigo and then I went DC-exclusive, so it was one of those things where I kept in touch with Brendan Wright, the editor, saying that one day we could do it. I wouldn’t say it was in development, but it was a thing they were aware of and I knew there was interest. My DC-exclusivity came to an end in June, so that was a good time for me to go back to it and start developing it again.
Let’s talk about some of these characters. Tell us a bit about the heroes trapped on Black Hammer Farm — it seems like they have ties to the Golden Age of comics more than any other era.
Well, the basic concept of the book is there are six superheroes who — for reasons they don’t fully understand — wake up one day after this catastrophic event in their superhero universe, and they wake up on this farm called Black Hammer Farm in this small town. They don’t know why they’re there, they don’t know what this place is — all they know is they can’t leave. The book starts ten years after they’ve arrived there. They’ve immersed themselves in small-town life and have done what they can to survive and to build a life for themselves, becoming this bizarre surrogate family living on this farm together — all superheroes from various parts of comic book history.
Two of the characters are from the Golden Age of comics, a few from the Silver Age and some that are more modern or Bronze-y superhero characters. They each come from a different point in comics history and a different point in the history of their superhero universes. The two Golden Age characters are Abraham Slam, who is the patriarch character — sort of a pulp, crime-buster; an original costumed mystery man. Golden Gail — there’s a lot of similarities between her and a character like Miracleman or Shazam who transforms. She was kind of the epitome of Golden Age comics.
Moving into the Silver Age, you’ve got classic mystery and space adventure character called Colonel Weird, who since the 1950s has lost his mind. I don’t want to say very much because there’s a lot of mystery surrounding him. My favorite character is Barbalien, which is kind of a weird mash-up between Martian Manhunter, and Conan the Barbarian — he’s a lot of fun.
Madame Dragonfly is the epitome of all the ’70s and ’80s horror comics. She’s like Madame Xanadu, Abby Arcane, Doctor Strange — all these mysterious characters combined into one character.
It seems like a pretty diverse cast.
Yeah, and it’s not a very big cast. It’s only the five or six of them. They draw from such a huge mythology because — at least in theory — they all come from a certain era of comic book history that I can draw from and create a fictional superhero universe they all came from. The book will juxtapose small, quiet character drama on the farm with these characters’ flashbacks to their crime fighting days. We’ll give them motivations and stuff that way. So there’s certainly a rich legacy that I’m creating that I can draw from.
Ten years is a pretty long time to be out of your universe. How does isolation on the farm affect the characters and how they interact with one another?
There’s a lot of mystery of what happened in those ten years. We get an idea that the state of their relationship with one another now, ten years later, isn’t what it was when they first came there. Some relationships have grown much closer than they were, some don’t speak at all anymore for reasons that will be teased out and revealed. The bigger part, too, is that while they’re stuck on this farm that’s in a small town, the town is filled with seemingly normal people who can come and go and are completely oblivious to the fact that they’re superheroes. Some of them have relationships with people in the town, and they’re keeping the superhero aspect a secret in various ways. Barbalien, for example, is a 7-foot-tall martian, but much like Martian Manhunter, he can shape shift. Golden Gail is still trapped in the body of a super-powered 8-year-old is actually a 56-year-old woman who can’t transform back anymore. She has to pretend to be a little girl, even though she’s much older inside. There are all these strange dynamics going on.
Then, there are other characters like Madame Dragonfly who doesn’t interact with the townsfolk — or the rest of the superhero family — at all. She’s completely secluded and lives off by herself on the edge of the farm in the Cabin of Horrors. It’s sort of a riff on the House of Mystery or House of Secrets. It’s a log cabin full of occult mystery that she lives in. They’ve each found their own place in the town. Abraham Slam of all of them is the one who doesn’t want to leave. This is his dream life that he’s always wanted. He gets to farm, he has a relationship with a woman in town — it’s really just the perfect quiet life he’s always wanted. Maybe the others resent him for that because they can’t have that due to the strangeness. Some of them are just too strange to have a normal life in the town, and have to stay in hiding more.
There’s certainly lots of rich stuff to play off of character-wise.
Looking in on heroes after they’ve been wiped “out of continuity,” so to speak, seems like a prime opportunity to tell stories, but also the chance to provide some commentary on how superhero stories are normally told. How does “The Black Hammer” delve into the DNA of superhero storytelling?
It really does, and this is where it gets tricky, especially in early interviews. There’s a lot of mystery as to why they’re there, what’s happened to their universe since they left and stuff like that. Like you said, it’s an opportunity to comment on the history of superhero comics, the current state of superhero comics — which I’m familiar with, obviously, having worked on a lot of those myself recently. But I don’t want to get too much into it because a lot of that is really the central mystery of the story and it’s revealed over the first couple arcs. I don’t want to spoil it, but that’s something I’m really concerned with in the book — not just telling a small, character-driven story, but also commenting on the history of superhero comics and commenting on the state of superhero books as well with these characters. They’re all perfect cyphers and entry points for me to do that. It’s fun, but it’s also something that’s a unique opportunity for someone who’s worked both in independent and mainstream comics to mesh together and hopefully create something sort of new.
You obviously have a lot of experience with superhero comics, as you mentioned. How did your time working for DC and being in the thick of it — writing “Trinity War” with Geoff Johns, launching “Justice League United” — how did that change the original plan for “The Black Hammer?”
It’s one of those things where when you’re really close to something, you can’t really comment on it until you get some space. I’m just now starting to get some space from doing some of that stuff. I don’t know how it’s going to affect “Black Hammer.” I do know I’m much more interested now in eventually using these characters and their histories to comment on the state of superhero comics now and the current state of mainstream comics. I’m not sure I was as interested in that for the initial inception of the book. I’m not sure how to answer the question, really, other than it’s still something I’m processing, and these characters in the story is a great way to process my experiences and use them for story.
Having the characters span the different ages of comic book history is certainly an intriguing concept, and it’s clear you have a lot of love for the history of comics. Thus, you’re likely pretty familiar with older characters either getting a huge update make them gel with the modern era or getting swept to the side.
Assuming that the characters in “The Black Hammer” are going to have to come back into the world…
[Laughs] You’re getting ahead, a bit.
Well, how would characters like that adjust to life after all this time away from it?
That’s going to be a big part of the story, obviously, and we’ll just leave it at that. In my mind, they left the superhero universe they belonged to sometime in the 1980s. It was the height of superhero comics, the climax. You had “Dark Knight Returns,” “Watchmen,” “Crisis on Infinite Earths” — all these seminal superhero comics that in a lot of ways hasn’t been reached again. For me, that’s when they left. There’s been 30 years of comic book history since they’ve been away. If and when the universe comes back to them or they go back to the universe, it’s going to be very different — seeing how they interact or how they change or “reboot” to become a part of it, that’s all part of the story I have planned.
While you’re an accomplished artist yourself, you won’t be drawing this particular series. “Lucifer” artist Dean Ormston has come on to do art. What is it about Dean’s style that really gels with the story you have planned?
Well, there’s a couple things. Dean is an artist that I’ve really admired for a while. I remember when he was doing the “Books of Magic: Life During Wartime” series at Vertigo, which in my mind was a really under-rated series. Si Spurrier, I believe, wrote it and Dean drew it. It was fantastic. I remember liking his stuff then and kept in touch with him. I met him a couple years at Thought Bubble, which is a great independent comics festival in the UK. We hit it off, I bought some original art off of him, and this was when I first started doing “Animal Man.” We talked about how he would be a great fit to do some fill-ins on “Animal Man,” which never happened. But what I felt then, and what I feel with “Black Hammer,” is he has this style that is completely unique. To see traditional superheroes filtered through that style is to create something completely unique, which I think is what “Animal Man” was at its best. With “Black Hammer,” seeing him interpret classic superhero archetypes through his dark, bizarre style really creates something unique.
Also, he can do the small character drama and emotion and bring these people to life. Working with Dean is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, and I’m really excited he’s doing the book. I think people who aren’t familiar with his style or his work yet are going to be surprised. He’s fantastic.
Wrapping up, now that your DC exclusivity has come to an end, can readers who are fans of your creator-owned work expect to see more work from you at other publishers?
They can. There’s going to be a lot of announcements over the next few months, and I would say this, too — Dean and I have talked a lot about, maybe between the major arcs of “Black Hammer,” maybe if he needs a break, there’s probably an opportunity for me to drawn an issue here or there, or draw variant covers — be involved in the artistic side of “Black Hammer.” I’m working on a graphic novel for Simon and Schuster. When I wrap that up, I’m looking to launch a new creator-owned book that I’ll write and draw. Which publisher I work with, I’m not sure yet, but you’ll be hearing new projects that I’m involved with — creator-owned or otherwise — in the next few weeks and months.
“The Black Hammer” begins in March 2015.