When the Beat named its 100 Best Comics of the Decade, Jeff Lemire’s superhero-centric Black Hammer project had a deserved place on that list. The thing you have to understand is that the mention went not to one single title but the inclusive “Black Hammer Universe” designation, which encompasses at least eight titles, probably more, including one team-up with the Justice League that actually makes sense and doesn’t seem calculating.
The actual Black Hammer comics, as many reading this probably already know, focus on six superheroes who have been mysteriously transported to a farm in a mundane small town where they are forced to live without their powers. Lemire expanded on this situation in a follow-up series, but also in related mini-series jetting into the future and the past, some featuring the characters trapped on the farm — Sherlock Frankenstein is probably my favorite of these.
That’s where Black Hammer ’45 comes in. Taking readers back to World War II within the Hammerverse, Black Hammer ’45 presents the final mission of Black Hammer Squadron, a team of ace fighter pilots and the scourge of Hitler’s air presence. I had reviewed the first issue when it came out and enjoyed it as I had previous Black Hammer comics, but now that I’ve been able to read the compiled issues, I can also say I found it prescient as well as an admirable addition to the Hammerverse lore.
Our story begins in modern-day with two members of the Black Hammer Squadron meeting to make a pilgrimage to some unknown place, apparently a tradition. The squadron is comparable to the Blackhawks, but with one important difference — it is a team made-up of minority characters, men of color who, as the flashbacks to the final mission progress, clearly face if not vocal prejudice from their own comrades and the people at home they fight to protect, at least noticeable othering in the way they are treated. This aspect makes me think of Sgt. Rock, a comic that displayed a notable and influential liberal tone in regard to its characters, even though it might have sometimes stumbled because of the era in which it was produced.
As the modern characters continue with their ritual, the background story of the final mission unfolds, as the Black Hammers are expected to intercept Jewish scientists and their son who are being held by Nazis in a concentration camp and forced to continue their research, the results of which would be dangerous in Nazi hands. At the same time, the Russians are marching there in order to scoop up the scientists under the guise of being allies with the United States in order to use their knowledge to the U.S.S.R.’s own ends.
Lemire, who devised the story with scripter Ray Fawkes, takes the opportunity to offer a few tidbits regarding superhero characters in the Black Hammer comic, filling in some backstories and various circumstances, but the focus here is on the Black Hammers and their compulsion to do their job even as they are marginalized by their home country. That’s the same tactic that any of the Black Hammer titles have taken — making the human drama the center of the presentation rather than the adventure itself, but at the same time never presenting an adventure that is merely window dressing.
As with other spin-off titles, this proves to be an intimate outing that unexpectedly tugs on your heart with its theme of sacrifice despite being misunderstood, a common one in the Hammerverse. Matt Kindt’s art is particularly perfect for this outing, evoking the bygone war era without being retro in the slightest, and then rendering the place of these old men in the modern world.
In a strange way, Black Hammer ’45 might make a suitable introduction to the Hammerverse for some people — self-contained with hints of larger aspects, but with a relatable human center and point to make about race in America. The fact that the Hammerverse can include something like this alongside the superhero-focused titles is as good an example as any of why it ended up on the Beat list.