Black Hammer and the ends of heroic ages

One of the Atomic Junkshop reviewers recommended Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston to me; as the library had V2, The Event, I picked it up. It was probably a better intro than the first volume, Secret Origins.

The premise of the series is that after an epic battle between Spiral City’s superheroes and the world-ending Anti-God, a half-dozen heroes — Black Hammer, Abe Slam, Golden Gail, Barbalien, Madame Dragonfly and Colonel Weird (all recognizable as pastiches — Black Hammer is a hybrid of Thor and the New Gods’ Orion, Barbalien is the Martian Manhunter and so forth) — wake up in the small village of Rockford. They can’t seem to leave (Black Hammer dies when he tries) and have to get along as best they can, posing as ordinary people. It’s particularly rough on Gail, a 50something woman now trapped in her nine-year-old superhero form. At the end of the first book Black Hammer’s daughter Lucy arrives, and some of what’s going on becomes obvious. In the second volume, The Event, we explore Rockford in more detail and things get more interesting. To date there’s also a spinoff, Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil, which looks at how Lucy wound up there.

Overall it’s a fun series, even if the riffing on established character types gets heavyhanded at times. But it got me thinking how often in the past two decades we’ve seen this sort of thing.

It started, as far as I remember, with Kingdom Come about 22 years ago. The Age of Heroes has become the Age of Super-Powered Showoffs Throwing Buses At Each Other (to paraphrase the creators); can the older heroes return in time to put things right.

Marvel’s Earth X and its sequels likewise showed the Marvel Universe sliding into its dotage. Then came Terra Obscura, a spinoff of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong in which a parallel world’s superheroes are freed from captivity after forty years and the world has to deal. Albion similarly assumes the superhumans and adventurers of British 1960s comics have all been locked away. Project Superpowers took many of the same characters as Terra Obscura, sealed away in Pandora’s Box in a misguided attempt to seal up evil (because they’re the hope that was also in the box). Now they’re out, facing a world that’s grown much worse without them. And there’s at least one more I don’t quite remember.

I’ve seen lots of other stories showing superheroes in the future, but without assuming a collapse of some sort; Gerry Conway’s Last Days of Animal Man, for instance, looks 10 or 15 years down the road, but assumes superheroes are still going strong. In the Spider-Girl series, everyone’s older, but the new Fantastic Five and the new Avengers are just as heroic as their predecessors. So Heroes in Decline isn’t automatic when writers look to tomorrow.

I suppose it could just be that everyone wants to knock off the critically acclaimed Kingdom Come. But I wonder if it also doesn’t reflect the aging of the superhero genre and its fans. It’s easy if you’re a long-time fan to feel the best years of the genre are behind you; Mark Waid and Alex Ross were quite upfront that Kingdom Come represented their take on 1990s superheroes and how they’d fallen from the Silver Age. It may also reflect, as Eric C. Flint puts it, that longtime fans want more than an entertaining story. They want metacommentary and deconstruction, and stories like these tend very much that way.

Regardless, Black Hammer is worth picking up. Though if I’d read V1 first, I don’t know I’d have been interested enough to try V2.

#SFWApro. Cover by Ormston, all rights remain with current holder.

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