Skulldigger #1 Cover by Tonči Zonjić

The Black Hammer universe has expanded a lot since the debut of the eponymous series back in 2016. The series starring the heroes of Spiral City spawned a number of spin-off miniseries featuring mad scientist supervillains, fighter pilots in World War II, and heroes from the far-flung future, among others. With the main ‘farm story’ having concluded, creator Jeff Lemire is now setting his sights on exploring another area of Spiral City: its dark back alleys.

Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy, Lemire’s forthcoming miniseries set in the Black Hammer universe, is tonally different from any Black Hammer book that’s preceded it. If previous Black Hammer titles were love letters to Silver Age superheroics, war comics of the 1950s, or James Robinson‘s Starman series, then Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy is an homage to the ’80s work of creators like Frank MillerKlaus Janson, and David Mazzuchelli. Those works eschewed the previously-established tropes of superhero comics and told gritty, “realistic” stories of heroes who didn’t always win, and who didn’t always follow the ‘rules’ of what was traditionally thought of as superheroic.

Joining Lemire for Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy is artist Tonči Zonjić, whose linework evokes Mazzuchelli and Alex Toth while still maintaining his own unique visual flair. The two are a match made in heaven, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to them about what we should expect from Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy, their influences on the series, and the role the series and characters play in the Black Hammer universe.

Joe Grunenwald: Jeff, before we get into Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy, how have you found the reception to the end of the ‘farm story’? I imagine that must be somewhat bittersweet for you.

Jeff Lemire: I have to be honest, I don’t really read reviews or anything like that, so I don’t really have a clue how the end of the farm story was received. I know I told the story I wanted to, and that’s all I can control, and I am happy with how it ended. It is sad to not be able to keep telling stories with some of those characters any more, but I feel that way about Sweet Tooth, and Royal City, and all of my past stories. You get very attached to your characters and miss them, but you also have to know the best time to stop and move onto new things.

Grunenwald: Tonči, were you a fan of Black Hammer before you came on board for Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy? What excited you about working on this project?

Tonči Zonjić: I think I’m still a bit behind because it’s a big universe by now, but I had read the first 450 or so pages of Black Hammer in one go and was on board even before hearing that this story expands on that world, jumps ahead to the nineties to ‘riff’ on some classic comics favorites, and is, without spoiling anything, more grim than what we’ve seen so far. I liked the sound of that.

Grunenwald: All of the Black Hammer tie-in series have felt very distinct from each other and from the main series, and Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy continues that trend. Jeff, you mentioned in your Twitter AMA that you intended this series as your take on ‘80s street-level comics, and the first issue evokes that era remarkably. It almost felt like reading Batman: Year One or Daredevil from that era. For both of you, what kind of preparation or research did you do before you began work on this series?

Lemire: I didn’t need much research, because that era of comics is ingrained in me so deeply. As a child of the ’80s, Frank Miller’s work was so formative for me, it is hard to separate it out from how and when I learned to start tell stories and draw comics. So those comics were really the guide post here, or at least our jumping off point for Skulldigger, but where we go from here will be pretty unique, I think.

Zonjić: I don’t want to speak for Jeff, but it’s probably safe to say that like everybody, we’ve both probably read Batman: Year One and other eighties classics so much that we could redraw them from memory.

Frank Miller’s more graphic layouts were a thing I looked at but didn’t end up using very much in the book, because that becomes a pastiche that gets in the way of the story. I looked at some of the always fun manga, like Cyborg 009 and Leiji Matsumoto books. And I watched some movies from mid-nineties to re-absorb the hairstyles and oversized sports jackets. There’s a period of soaking all that in, then it’s rarely looked at while working on the actual pages.

Skulldigger design by Tonči Zonjić
Skulldigger design by Tonči Zonjić

Grunenwald: Jeff, Skulldigger is perhaps the most overtly violent character we’ve seen in Black Hammer, and you’ve said he’s going to play an important role in the future of the franchise going forward. How does the addition of a character like Skulldigger change the Black Hammer universe?

Lemire: If Lucy Weber, as the new Black Hammer, is our “alpha” hero moving forward, then Skulldigger is her shadow. They are the light and the dark of our universe now, and that will lead to some very interesting stories as we move forward.

Aside from his larger role in the Black Hammer Universe, Skulldigger’s story is also a comment on violence, and particularly the effects of violence on children.

Grunenwald: Tonči, you’re coming into a Black Hammer universe that’s already been pretty well established visually by different artists across multiple series, though you’re presenting an area of it we haven’t really seen before. What’s your design and development process been like for this book?

Zonjić: Most of the design process was focused on just Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy, taking a few months to try and make memorable costumes that would at the same time have been created, within the world of the book, by someone without the resources of Bruce Wayne. Coming up with “new” skull shapes was also a tall order since the skull motif has been used for, what, at least 50,000 years? I can’t say I checked them against every skull in recorded human history but I think they do look pretty fun. And you could probably make them at home!

Grunenwald: The designs for Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy are really very striking. Which of you came up with their looks, and what did you have in mind while you were putting those together?

Lemire: I had done some original designs for the characters, so Tonči had certainly seen those, but he really discarded them for the most part and did his own versions, which were much stronger.

Skeleton Boy design by Tonči Zonjić
Skeleton Boy design by Tonči Zonjić

Grunenwald: Jeff, you mentioned in the AMA that you were originally going to draw Skulldigger yourself but couldn’t due to your schedule. How did the series change once Tonči came on board? What do you think he brings to the book that’s different from if you’d drawn it yourself?

Lemire: It’s hard to say how different the stories would have been. Obviously, we both have very strong and distinct styles, and distinct ways of telling stories. But I am so glad that Tonči is drawing it and not me. He has elevated it to a whole new level with his incredible layouts and storytelling instincts.

Grunenwald: Is there anything else either of you would like to add about what readers can expect from Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy?

Lemire: This book will also dive back pretty deep into the history of street level characters in the Black Hammer Universe. Crimson Fist plays a big role. This story also gives the villain, Grimjim, a big role. He was first introduced in the Sherlock Frankenstein series and I’ve been dying to use him again.

Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy: From the World of Black Hammer #1 (of 6) is due out in stores and digitally on December 18th. Final order cutoff for the issue is Monday, November 25th.