Having been given the first three books in this series for my birthday in March (blog post here), I’ve reciprocated by buying this as a late Father’s Day gift for my comic supplying son, who is also a father. Of course I had to read it first, even though it’s horror and not my cup of tea.
Because I am so much in alien territory, here’s a quote from a Goodreads review by an English Professor at the University of Illinois, who I assume is a knowledgeable fan of this kind of thing (link to the whole excellent and spoilerish review here):
It’s clear from my glance at the reviews that 1) everyone is intrigued enough to keep reading and 2) loves the art, but 3) doesn’t know what the Hell (pun intended) is going on. I find little hints in the text itself that seem to indicate writer Jeff Lemire acknowledges he feels our pain.
The artwork is extraordinary, I agree. I agree there’s a pun if you say ‘what the Hell’. I’m not sure everyone is intrigued enough to keep reading.
The story telling is assured, so assured that even as the action shifts in time and place from page to page, you can generally follow with a little increase in focus. But look, the blurb says that in this volume the mechanics of the Pentoculus are explained. Well, yes, but the explanation certainly left me not knowing what was going on. The Bishop from earlier volumes, who I was sure was evil, is probably a good guy. Other key characters have their identities change before our eyes – and theirs. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m supposed to find it weird that the young hero, if that’s what he is, wears a Covid-type mask. And the piles of bloody corpses continue to mount …
These three books were a birthday present from my main comics supplier. I’m reading them promptly in order to lend them to him in this time of pestilence. It turns out this is a horror series, not something that appeals to me.
The first volume opens on an image of a young man in a surgical mask and rubber gloves looking at some roughly sketched garbage. Only a couple of months into the Covid–19 story, it takes an effort to realise that these accoutrements signify anything else besides sensible precautions against infection. But they do, though (not really a spoiler) we still don’t know what they do signify, beyond that the young man is a bit scary, by the end of the third volume.
Two story lines emerge in a fragmented and disorienting manner. A young man in psychotherapy for his obsession with garbage has troubling visions of a black barn that somehow embodies evil. A Catholic priest is sent by a bishop (whose face we don’t see) to a country town – Gideon Falls – to replace the parish priest who died recently, and behold he sees a black barn in gruesome circumstances on his first night there.
The stories progress in tandem, switching from one to the other without warning. There’s a section early on where the text bubbles and images belong to different stories. The effect is to unsettle the reader, slow him or her down, but also to suggest that the two plot lines are intimately interwoven, even though we don’t know how. In fact, even to the end of this first book, the two stories haven’t linked up. The young man’s therapist, who is a Buddhist and doesn’t believe in evil, comes to share his vision of the barn. The priest meets up with some locals who fill him in on the lore of the evil barn, and he finds himself inside the barn where his past wrongdoings come back to torment him. There is more death and bloodshed, though thankfully the artwork focuses more on the psychological fragmentation than the gore.
In the second volume the priest and the sheriff can’t remember their experiences in the barn, or even seeing the barn, but the aftertaste lingers on. Meanwhile, we learn more of the backstory of the young man, whose name is Norton – or is it? About the middle of this book the priest and Norton meet, inside the barn, which they have both separately reconstructed – either I didn’t read carefully enough or the impossible detail of how either of them did this was skipped. The intertwining images of them both at work are wonderful. The monster who inhabits the barn is revealed, up to a point, and we understand that the story is taking place in oddly dislocated time frames.
The third volume takes us into wild territory. There are crucifixions, visitors from the future, apparitions from the past, a gang of people wearing surgical masks, scary cockroaches, a satanic figure who is the heart of the book’s evil, something called the Pentoculus which suggests that there’s a sciency dimension to the horror … and a general sense that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.
Because these books give no information about their creators apart from giving their names on the cover, I went to Wikipedia for the details at the top of this post. There I learned that a fourth volume, The Pentoculus, is due for publication in April, and a fifth, Wicked Worlds, in May. I may seek them out if my Supplier is interested, but otherwise, meh.
As a no-longer-practising Catholic I’m unimpressed by the use of Catholicism for horror purposes, but I guess it’s an established trope, dating back at least to The Exorcist. When I was young I believed in the devil as an evil force active in the world, and I remember moments of terror, mainly at night, related to that belief. But it was always completely outweighed by belief in the goodness of God. There were devils, sure, but there were also angels who were just as real. I guess in the 21st century it’s tempting for people who have lost any sense of a loving God to think there must be some diabolical force loose in the world. I prefer to look for more mundane explanations, even if sometimes – like when I see the President of the United States boasting abut the ratings he gets for his Covid-19 press conferences – there’s no explanation that will make the reality unscary.
Early last December I announced that I didn’t want any superhero comics for Christmas. My second son’s alarmed expression made me think I’d spoken too late. But it turns out that he correctly intuited that the Black Hammer series was an understood exception. He knew I’d enjoyed the first two volumes of this series (though I doubt he read my blog post, here, which ended. ‘I’m patiently awaiting Volume 3’). Vol 3 was a Christmas gift from him, and I bought Vol 4 hot off the press.
Black Hammer isn’t so much a superhero comic as a commentary on them. In the first two books a band of superannuated heroes is on a weirdly unreal farm somewhere in rural USA: the last thing any of them remember is defeating the ultimate comicbook villain, the Anti-God. Everything looks normal, they have relationships with people in the nearby town, but they can’t leave. Black Hammer, their former leader, did manage to escape, but is now almost certainly dead. In the second volume, Black Hammer’s daughter Lucy, an investigative reporter, turns up but can’t remember how she got there. She finds her father’s fabulous titular black hammer, she wields it and becomes the all-new Black Hammer. In the final frame of Vol 2, she announces that she remembers everything and knows where they are and then …
… at the start of Vol 3, which is the beginning of the Age of Doom sequence, she vanishes, SHRACK!!
We follow Lucy/Black Hammer’s travels through weird meta-worlds incuding a version of hell and a mysterious castle called Storyland inhabited by characters who could be parodies of Neil Gaiman’s Endless. And we follow those left behind as they try to unravel the mystery. About halfway through this volume the bifurcated paths reunite and the mystery is solved. But the solution reveals that things are actually much worse than anyone imagined. At the end of this volume, a couple of frames after someone says:
without so much as a SHRACK!!, everything goes white.
[In case you’re interested, the characters in that frame are: Madame Dragonfly, mistress of the macabre; Golden Gail, a potty-mouthed adult frozen in an eleven-year-old’s body; Colonel Randall Weird, who knows past, present and future all at once and spends a lot of time on the Para-Zone (don’t ask); Abraham Slam, whose name says it all; Barbalien, Gay warlord from Mars; and Lucy/the new Black Hammer. Missing is Walky-Talky, the robot who intervenes at key moments.]
The next volume, the end of the Black Hammer series (apart from a number of spoin-offs carefully adumbrated in this story, including Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil), begins with 48 pages of art by Rich Tommaso, reminiscent of the comicbook art of the 1950s and strikingly different from the moody heroic style of Dean Ormston in the rest. These pages follow the adventures of Colonel Weird in another unreal world, this one inhabited by ‘unrealised characters from never finished stories’. (You can tell the creators had a lot of fun with this story, and there’s potential here for any number of spin-offs.)
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew are back to normal life in Spiral City – a life where they have never been superheroes. One waits tables, one is a guard at the museum reading superhero comics, one is Gay in homophobic Martian society, and one is living with dementia in a nursing home. But thanks to the magic black hammer, a well-placed KRA-KOOM!!, and some intense recriminations, the original group is back together in time to face down one more threat to the entire universe.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it all works out in the end, in a ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started’ kind of way, with a door left ajar for further adventures of Lucy/Black Hammer.
I enjoyed this a lot. It’s not part of the Marvel Universe or the DC Universe so you don’t have to be a cult insider to follow it and enjoy it. According to Wikipedia, Black Hammer’s crew are going to team up with DC’s Justice League heroes this year, and a film and or TV series is in development, but I’m happy to stick with this odd bunch as they are, in the page.)
Having enjoyed Jeff Lemire’s Descender (my blog posts here, here and here), I was happy that my Christmas gift from my Comic Supplier included the first two books in a new series by him. It’s shaping up to be quite a story.
The first volume sets up a superheroes-in-retirement scenario. There are six of them, in order of appearance: Abraham Slam, strong man, who is more or less content with his life in exile as a farmer; Golden Gail, a 54 year old woman trapped in the body of her child superhero identity; Barbalien, a Martian master of disguise who struggles with unfulfilled desire; Colonel Weird, who spends a lot of time in the para-zone, where past, present and future are jumbled up together, and whose mind appears to be pretty jumbled as a result; Talky-Walky, a robot who does all the household chores and keeps building probes to try to find a way to escape; and Madame Dragonfly, a dark witch figure with dragonfly wings who keeps herself apart from the others and is generally disliked by them.
The nature of their exile isn’t clear. All we really know is that they are confined to a limited space including their farm and the small town nearby, and that they’ve been there for 10 years. We learn snippets of their past lives fighting crime and saving the occasional cat from a tree, beating supervillains, and joining forces to combat the greatest of all supervillains, the daringly named Anti-God. We also learn that there was a seventh superhero, a leader of sorts, called Black Hammer. The first volume – which collects numbers 1 to 6 of the comic series – ends with the arrival at the farm of a young reporter named Lucy, Black Hammer’s daughter.
In the second volume, things develop in a most satisfactory manner. We get more detail of all the back stories, and of the struggle against Anti-God (he had destroyed a whole other world before attacking their former home, Spiral City, and many other superheroes died at his hands). Our understanding of the nature of their exile grows less fuzzy as Lucy snoops around (and incidentally one of her discoveries echoes a climactic moment in Joyce Carol Oates’s Hazards of Time Travel, confirming my sense that what JCO treated as a major unexpected twist can be an unremarkable plot point in genre fiction). Romantic and other relationships with the townsfolk develop, none with outright happy results. One member of the band commits a shocking act of violence against another.
The final moment of this volume echoes the end of the first. Lucy once again dominates the moment, and it may well be that the story is about to head off in a completely new direction.
One last comment. The art by Dean Ormston, colouring by Dave Stewart, and lettering by the legendary Todd Klein (who must be legendary because I’ve heard of him) are wonderful, and then there is a 22 page section in a completely different, gaudy and ebullient style, by Dave Rubín. This section is ‘The Ballad of Talky-Walky’, and though I probably wouldn’t have persevered with a whole book in that style, here it brilliantly enacts the bizarre circumstances in which Colonel Weird and Talky-Walky became close friends and allies.
I read the Book 1 of Fatale a while back, and was unimpressed. When my son recently offered to lend me all five volumes, I decided to give it another go. I reread Book 1 to refresh my memory, and am embarrassed to say that I had almost no memory of the first reading, and this time I enjoyed it a lot. My blog post from back then describes it pretty accurately:
It’s a detective yarn combined with a Lovecraftian horror story. The telling is satisfyingly complex, shifting back and forth between two time periods and only gradually revealing the nature of the dilemmas facing the the lead characters, but laying out enough hints that when things take a turn for the bizarre there’s a sense of continuity. The artwork is consistently dramatic and serves the story well. Sex scenes are relatively tactful. Gore is over the top without being too realistic and the worst atrocities remain unseen by the reader.
This time I read on.
As you’d guess from the covers, the Fatale of the title is preceded by a silent Femme. The central character, Jo (or sometimes Josephine, and in one context Jane) has irresistible power over men. Some she simply bends to her will, others she infatuates so that they not only desire her and forsake all others, but devote their lives to protecting her, killing or dying in the attempt.
But not all men. It turns out that her powers have something to do with a cult whose members dress in weird monkish robes and commit ritual mass murders. The leader of the cult, sometimes known as the Bishop, wants Jo for vile purposes of his own and hunts her implacably through the decades (or maybe centuries).
Did I say it was a detective yarn? Well, yes, that’s true of the first book. But Jo, or perhaps other women who have been cursed like her with fatal charm and at least partial immortality, has been around for a long time, so she also features in tales of mediaeval witch-hunt, a Nazi interlude, a Bonnie and Clyde yarn, and more.
The story-telling is strong, and the art is compelling, but by the end I’d decided that horror isn’t for me. When the Bishop lays out his world view in Book 5, articulating the story’s dark metaphysics (the ‘reality’ behind the world that most people think is real), I was revolted, as I was meant to be, but I also wondered if there was any real pleasure or gain to be had from immersing oneself in someone else’s confected nightmare, however well done.
I enjoyed Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ The Fade Out immensely, so when I saw that this book of theirs was part of the ridiculously expensive pile of comics that one of my sons gave me as a birthday present (not so ridiculous, of course, when you realise that he would read them after me), I was pleased.
It’s a detective yarn combined with a Lovecraftian horror story. The telling is satisfyingly complex, shifting back and forth between two time periods and only gradually revealing the nature of the dilemmas facing the the lead characters, but laying out enough hints that when things take a turn for the bizarre there’s a sense of continuity. The artwork is consistently dramatic and serves the story well. Sex scenes are relatively tactful. Gore is over the top without being too realistic and the worst atrocity remains unseen by the reader. This is the first of five volumes (consisting of the first 5 of 24 comics), and does a great job of setting up the story, rounding out its own arc, and signalling a number of clear questions yet to be answered.
But my response was pretty meh. I guess horror’s just not my thing. The poet Martin Johnston once said that Lovecraft was a terrible writer but he gave you great nightmares. Sadly, I don’t expect even the nightmares from this.
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