Black Hammer is arguably the best superhero book on the shelves today. Ironically, the series isn’t published by Marvel or DC, and – much like Watchmen – its entire conceit is revolves around paying homage to the ever-evolving history of the comic book medium. If you’re a cape and cowl fan who is not reading Black Hammer, well… you might want to head down to your local comic book store and ask about it.
This past San Diego Comic Con, we were fortunate enough to speak with both Jeff Lemire (one of the hardest working souls in the business and co-creator of The World of Black Hammer) and Michael Walsh (the amazing artist behind books ranging from the time-travel noir Comeback, to the excellent Secret Avengers run from a few years back) about their new excellent new crossover, Black Hammer: Justice League.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. We apologize that this article is a little late. Things got a little crazy post SDCC, and we’d planned to coincide this interview with the end of Black Hammer: Age of Doom, the publishing of which was delayed until recently.
Right now is the perfect time to dive into Black Hammer. The fourth volume of the series has just come to a satisfying conclusion, and the fourth issues of the JL crossover was out this past Wednesday, but there’s still worlds of stories still to be told within the Black Hammer-verse, some of which involve multiverse swapping, such as the new Black Hammer: Justice League series.
We sat down with Jeff and Michael in San Diego to chat about the inception of the series, their creative inspiration, what it was like to collaborate, and why purple-caped Batman – that’s stuck on a farm and bored out of his mind – is the best Batman.
HN: Jeff, you’ve collaborated with so many amazing artists, like Michael, throughout your career, but specifically with the Black Hammer books it feels like you’ve just landed super top of the line talent; every artist’s aesthetic just perfectly accentuates the aesthetic of the comics…
Jeff Lemire: “I’ve been so lucky. I don’t know what it is about the universe that attracts good artists – and Daniel [Chabon], the editor of the book, obviously has a lot to do with that too – but it just feels like, for every project that I develop for the universe, we’re able to find the absolute perfect artist to collaborate with. Michael is obviously no exception. I first discovered his work when he was doing X-Files and I was a big fan of that. And we both live in the Toronto area. I didn’t know he was also a local Canadian artist. It wasn’t until I started running into connections, in Toronto – and we were actually sitting beside each other – that I got to know him as a person, as well as an artist. So, when this book came up it seemed like such a great opportunity to finally collaborate with Michael. I’m such a huge fan and he’s just done awesome work on this.”
HN: The book is just beautiful. So, Michael, how did Jeff go about recruiting you for this project?
Michael Walsh: “I had just finished working on Star Wars: The Last Jedi (the comic book adaptation) and I hadn’t really booked my next project yet. I didn’t really know what I felt like drawing. I didn’t know if I wanted to go back to the superhero world and I had a few different offers on the table. Daniel (the editor) is actually the one who reached out to me. He said, “We’re putting this book together, Black Hammer: Justice League,” and it was just perfect timing. I’ve wanted to work with Jeff, forever, and I was already reading the Black Hammer books. So, it was kind of serendipitous.”
HN: Were there any specific characters, in either universe, that you were especially excited to draw?
MW: “Oh, Colonel Weird. For sure. But I enjoy drawing the whole cast. I’ve been saying that I enjoy drawing Colonel Weird, a lot, at this SDCC but the whole cast is a super interesting and eclectic group.”
HN: Is it true that you originally pitched Black Hammer to DC Comics Vertigo imprint, Jeff?
JL: “No, that’s not true, actually. I developed the original Black Hammer idea in 2008, before I had ever worked for Marvel, or DC, or anyone; and I pitched it to Dark Horse, to Diana Schutz – the editor at Dark Horse at the time – and I actually pitched it as something that I would both write and draw myself, and she green lit the project. We were going to do it. But I also got Sweet Tooth green lit at the same time, over at Vertigo, and I had to make a choice and I chose Sweet Tooth. Then, I kind of came back to Black Hammer, years later, in 2013 or 2014. I was already drawing something else then… now I can’t remember what… but I knew I couldn’t draw it myself. So, I thought maybe this is something I can collaborate on with another artist, and I went back to Dark Horse because they had wanted to do it before I was a name, before I was anybody; they were supporting my work. It just felt like the right thing to do, to bring the book to Dark Horse; and, again, it just felt like such a stroke of luck because this has turned out to be the perfect spot for that whole universe.”
Did you ever imagine your characters would meet the Justice League?
JL: “No! It’s totally surreal. Obviously, the comic is kind of my answer to a lot of those characters – creating my own superhero universe, so I could do my own thing – to both pay homage and be a love letter to the whole history of comics, including all the DC stuff. It’s so surreal to take my creations and have them interact with such archetypes. It’s very, very cool.”
HN: I love how the books address the history of comics. So, I’m curious, did DC have any specific thoughts in mind for the era you would be portraying in this crossover? Did you ever consider older Justice League designs, or was it always going to be modern?
JL: “I didn’t really think about that because the story I had in mind was set now, in the present. So, I didn’t really think of doing flashback-type stuff with the old-timey Golden Age of superheroes, with the DC characters. I honestly don’t know if they would have gone for that or not… That could be really interesting if we ever do another one – if the Golden version of the Black Hammer characters maybe met the JSA, or something; that would be fun. But, for this project, it never crossed my mind. [Turns to Michael] I don’t know if they gave you any guidelines…”
Yeah, Michael, were there specific costume designs DC had you working off of? The Batman in the series looks a little reminiscent of the Batman: Inc version, for example. Did you have any say in that?
MW: “No, I was given character wraparounds…”
JL: “The modern ones, right?”
MW: “Yeah. They gave me the wraparounds for the modern costumes that DC wanted me to use; which was cool. They were all really well designed, and I was able to, you know, add my little flourishes, here and there, where I was able to, while keeping to the essentials of what they wanted. I had a lot of fun with it too. I actually really like the purple cape on Batman, where the purple is underneath, I think it’s a nice contrast. It was super fun to draw, for sure.”
HN: Awesome. Personally, I’ve never cared for blue Batman, so I love that you went purple.
MW: “And there’s a lot of yellows in the palette of the book, so the purple and yellow contrast fits really nice too.”
HN: Definitely. Can you talk about the symmetry of the first issue a little bit? Both in terms of layout and structure, I thought that symmetrical precision was so cool.
MW: “Yeah. When I first read the script for the first issue and I got to the last sequence, and it was the same as the first page, I was like, “Dammit, Jeff; this is perfect! This is the best way to cap this issue.”
JL: “Thanks. It was a lot of fun, just playing off all the parallels and juxtaposing these two worlds, drawing on similarities, but also highlighting differences. That was part of the fun of the project.”
HN: Does the crossover take place within the Black Hammer multiverse, or is it more like an Elseworlds story? Or would answering that be considered a spoiler?
JL: “Well, there’s a pretty firm delineation where the whole World of Black Hammer – the Para-Zone, Limbo Land, the Cabin, and all that stuff – and the DC Universe, are two separate realities. The two realities never cross over; what happens is the characters kind of swap; they swap places. We keep a pretty clear delineation between the Black Hammer World and the DC Universe. I don’t want to spoil the story, but there an interesting aspect of those two worlds that… someone is trying to exploit. I’ll leave it at that.”
HN: Were many of the homages/allusions always part of your long-term plan; was the farm always meant to represent Smallville, or did that kind of come about organically? Because the parallels really are amazing.
JL: “The farm was never developed as a Smallville thing. It was based on where I grew up. I grew up on a farm.”
HN: Well, it ended up falling into place nicely. Michael, when you started drawing the first few pages of this crossover, were you meticulously aiming to reference the early issue of Black Hammer?
MW: “Yeah, I studied pretty much all of Black Hammer, but especially the first arc, and Dean Ormston’s art, and especially the way he established the town, the look of the farm and all of the characters. I did a lot of referencing back to Dean’s designs because they’re so great, they’re pretty perfect, and he’s just an amazing artist and storyteller.”
HN: Jeff, when conceiving this, was there any one specific kernel of inspiration that inspired The Stranger and the swap? And, Michael, were you involved at all in the story development process?
MW: “The book was almost completely written when I came on board. I got to do some of the design stuff that’s new to the book, which is always fun to do. One of my favorite parts of the job is designing new settings and new characters and new worlds. But all the story stuff was already on the page.”
JL: “ I could answer that… but it would spoil who The Stranger is.”
HN: Got it. I’ve been trying to figure out who he is; I feel like I should know and I’m kicking myself…
JL: “When it’s revealed you’ll be like, ‘Oh, of course.’ I can’t say more.”
HN: I also love the names of all your characters. I feel like there’s a fine line between homage and parody. How do you settle on naming them without getting too silly?
JL: “Sometimes the names start out as stupid puns, and then you just make them cool. But I came up with most of the main cast ten or eleven years ago. So, they’ve kind of just been around. I can’t even remember where many of them came from. But I’m always trying to come up with some kind of fun wordplay on certain things. Most of the time, it sounds really stupid at first, but then it grows on you, kind of like Barbalien… eventually it becomes, it could never be anything but Barbalien, you know? A lot of the genesis of the original stuff came from me just messing around in my sketchbook, ten or eleven years ago, not even for any reason; I wasn’t trying to write a story or anything. I never thought they would be a part of a comic, I was just messing around in my sketchbook, doing silly stuff, and then certain things kind of strike you, and then you kind of keep developing then. That’s when the best stuff comes, usually; it’s when you have your guard down. You’re just messing around, or just daydreaming, and that’s when you catch yourself and say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s actually a good idea!”
HN: There’s that old Orson Welles quote, “The best things in film happen by accident…”
JL: “Yeah, it’s when you’re not thinking, or not trying to solve a problem, that’s when something cool comes, usually.”
HN: And, Michael – this might be another spoiler – but have you gotten to design any new characters for the World of Black Hammer yet?
JL: “Oh man, I don’t think we really do have any new characters, do we? I wish we would have thrown more in…”
MW: “Well, The Stranger is kind of new…”
JL: “Yeah, he is…”
MW: “You know what I thought about in my head when you described him? I kind of thought of David Bowie, a little bit…”
JL: “I never thought about that!”
MW: “I gave him one bright eye in one world… but, in Metropolis, the other eye is the bright eye.”
JL: “I noticed that…”
MW: “It’s like two halves of him, in between worlds…”
JL: “Oh, that’s cool!”
MW: “So, what I did get to do… The Stranger was a collaboration between me and Jeff. Jeff described him to me, and then I figured it out. Like the plain clothes Justice League in the Black Hammer World it was fun to play with the fashion. They kind of are new versions of those characters, especially Batman.”
JL: “Ah, he’s the best…”
MW: “Yeah, the Batman in the Black Hammer-Verse is super fun.”
JL: What does Batman do when he no longer has Gotham City to protect and he’s bored out of his mind?
MW: I love that, yeah! He’s so fun.
JL: He is.
HN: Just great stuff. For my last question, I’m curious about how you both see your body of work. Jeff, it feels to me like most of your books are about the loss of innocence – at least, that’s the theme that’s really resonated with me across your stuff. Is that something you think about as a creator?
JL: “Well, I never approach a story with a theme in mind. I never go, “This story is about this.” It’s usually a character thing, an emotional kernel I look further into, or a visual idea that I’d like to build something around. Honestly, it usually isn’t I’m done with the book, or halfway finished with a book, that I start to realize, “Oh, this is actually about this part of my life.” It almost happens backwards for me.”
HN: Same question for you Michael, do you find there’s anything within your art that connects your body of work, thematically; anything you find yourself always interested in as a creator?
MW: “You know, I’ve done such a wide-range of genre stuff, from Star Wars, to X-Files, Ninja Turtles, to sci-fi noir stories, to superhero stuff – from Hawkeye street level to Spider-Man – so, gosh… I don’t know. I’ve kind of drawn such a wide range of tones and space and worlds, but I think that in all of my work there is a focus on character, whether the tone of it is light or dark. I started drawing really dark noir stories that were all about the characters, and then I kind of started doing more human driven stories, that were also kind of all about the characters, and they’re kind of two sides of the same coin. You’re building to these character moments. When there’s a punchline, you can turn the page and it can be an action beat, or a horror beat, or you can tell a joke, and it’s all a similar skillset, I guess.”
Many thanks to Jeff Lemire, Michael Walsh, and Dark Horse Comics for arranging the SDCC sit down
Black Hammer: Justice League is currently available on stands at your local comic book store.