Since I was a child, books and stories have always been there for me. At times they add joy to my life. At others they are like a life raft–the last line of defense between life and death. I much prefer the former but am grateful for the latter.
Jeff Lemire is my favorite creator in the comic book world. I don’t think he’s objectively the best–his prose is not as polished or sophisticated as Neil Gaiman’s or Alan Moore’s prose and his art-style is very divisive. Indeed, in his self-created titles his art is often criticized for looking rushed, unrealistic and unpolished. Lemire is my favorite because of the heart at the center of his work. His work is, to my mind, like music that is off-center and raw: music that insists on getting thoughts and feelings across despite its technical limitations. Indeed, the limitations somehow add to the experience because it requires more of the listener and/or the reader.
Lemire’s self-created independent graphic novels are these beautifully flawed masterpieces that tell stories about the sorts of people who are so frequently forgotten. Unremarkable people with unremarkable lives. The lonely. The grieving. The broken-hearted. The trapped. The dying. The abandoned. He finds the beauty in their lives and in their surroundings reminding us that there is beauty in even the bleakest of people, times and places
I love Black Hammer but it is not my favorite Jeff Lemire creation (it should be noted here that Lemire serves as the writer but not the artist on this). I choose it as my topic because it shows what Lemire can bring into a world that is not often associated with “heart” and “depth”: the world of superheroes.
Critics who praise the work point out that the world-building is superb. They are correct. They praise the self-awareness that Lemire brings to superhero tropes and the way he uses this awareness to bring warmth rather than cynical satire to the genre. They are right. The only issue I have with this praise (praise that even I have used) is that it speaks only to the choir. Who cares about world-building and self-awareness of superhero tropes if you’re not already a lover of superhero comics? How does this translate to a wider audience? To me the real genius of Black Hammer is the way Lemire subtly brings in elements of his small stories to a grandiose work about superheroes.
There is the martian superhero, Barbalien (yes the funny absurd names are ways of having fun with famous already–existing comic book characters from the big companies DC and Marvel). Barbalien saves lives. He saves worlds. Yawn! That is what superheroes do, right? But it is not his super powers that make him compelling; it is the fact that he is gay. Barbalien was ostracized and shunned on his planet of Mars. He comes to earth hoping to find acceptance only to be shunned again. His story arc is about rejection, alienation and loneliness. Barbalien is an alien regardless of where he chooses to live. But his courage is inspiring–the way he continues to try and create love regardless of what happens to him. His story arc is beautiful because it is about an individual who continues to try find acceptance within himself, undeterred by the lack of acceptance from others.
Randall Weird–a NASA astronaut that, by falling into the “Parazone” ends up seeing the pattern of all things past, present and future. My non-comic book reader rolls their eyes about the Parazone and the sci-fi space travel stuff. That’s okay because, once again, his superhero arc is far less important than his backstory and the burden he carries upon him. Bullied as a child (once again Lemire has fun with his name since he was indeed considered a “weirdo”) and misunderstood by his fellow heroes, Weird is a deeply lonely man. He utters abstract and nonsensical things because he can see what no others see. He is the perfect metaphor for the mentally ill; for the people we avoid because they make us feel uncomfortable. Lemire, however, allows us to see how burdensome it is for Weird to carry all of the knowledge he has. We watch Weird carry the weight of the world on his shoulders not because supervillains abound but because he sees the bigger picture. Weird flits between times and worlds often finding himself lost. He is misunderstood and called a coward because he often flees the traditional superhero-supervillain battle in order to deal with the greater cosmic issue that lie beneath the surface. He cares deeply for his fellow heroes even thought he is teased by them and ridiculed by them. He is…a beautiful, fragile and misunderstood man.
I will not go through every character. I have bored my reader enough. I wish merely to show how much depth Lemire can bring to a genre that often lacks it; a genre that has been watered down by countless movie adaptations and CGI effects. A genre that one could argue has become a sort of blight on society.
One might point out that Lemire is hardly the first creator to bring metaphor and depth into the comic book world. The X-Men, for example, are popular in part because they represent the outsider as well: the disabled, people of color, etc. But even the brilliant X-Men titles are held hostage by the fact that they are part of a sixty-year major label franchise that can only take so many risks before being wrangled in by the constraints of capitalism. Since Black Hammer is a self-created smaller label work Lemire can go to places that even the most brilliant writers of X-Men aren’t allowed to go.
I don’t know what the point of this essay was. You see earlier I was sitting on my couch, burdened by a numb depression. I read about Colonel Weird and I began to cry. I remembered how often Lemire’s work helps me cry; helps me feel something. And I realized that this gift he has means a lot to me. Even more than Grant Morrison’s mind-bending creative genius and Alan Moore’s harsh cynical brilliance and Neil Gaiman’s unprecedented epic world building. Lemire writes stories about me and for me. I don’t mean that to sound narcissistic. I mean, I know he’s not writing for ME, it is that it FEELS like he is. I didn’t expect to feel so much while reading this title. I expected to be entertained by a mildly intelligent and warm homage to the comic book world. And instead I found myself, once again, reading literature that kept me company and helped me feel seen. And the best thing of all is that when I am in a healthier state of mind then Colonel Weird and Barbalien and company make me laugh and smile because they are also fun and absurd and….well, they’re funny as hell too.
That’s it. That’s the genius. These characters who can make me laugh and cry and feel understood when I’m suicidal and bring joy when I’m happy and…these are people who have been brought into my life by Lemire. It’s not the first time and I doubt it will be the last.
So maybe what this is…maybe it’s my love letter to Jeff Lemire. Who knows, maybe I’ll print it out and give it to him if he ever does a signing in my area. On second thought, I don’t want him to think I’m some creepy stalker so…this will forever be the unsent love letter to Jeff Lemire.