Nigrum Malleoleum est omnis divisa in partes tres.
Some Black Hammer books have numbers in the title: those are the main series. Before the book I’ll be complaining about today, there’s been
Some Black Hammer books have the words “Black Hammer” in the title, but no number:
, the Justice League
. These are side stories about the whole team.
is deeply confusing in this schema, but it actually fits in the next category. The “Black Hammer” referred to in the title is not the same as the other books, for maximum what-the-fuck-age.)
And some Black Hammer books are about other people in the same world, whose stories may intersect the main gang of mopey superheroes or may not obviously do so. (This is superhero comics: all stories intersect in the Grand Summer Crossover eventually.) Before this book, there was
, as the title implies, is in the third group. For those who weren’t counting along on their fingers, it’s the eleventh collection. It is written by Jeff Lemire, creator and co-owner of the whole shebang, with stylish gritty art by Tonci Zonjic (often breaking into double-page spreads, which are gorgeous and well-designed but made me wish I wasn’t reading the whole thing on a tablet) and lettering by Steve Wands.
Skulldigger asks the superhero question: “what if the Punisher instead used a metal skull on a chain to kill people, instead of guns? Wouldn’t that be totally awesome?!” It is perhaps the most ’90s idea ever to have been thought up twenty years later, and would have fit comfortably into either DC or Marvel’s mid-90s grim and gritty eras – which, of course, is the point of all of the Black Hammer comics: they’re meant to seem like that stuff you read long ago while at the same time being new stuff you can buy on Wednesdays.
(The argument about how all superhero comics have been doing this more and more consistently for roughly the past forty years is left as an exercise for the reader.)
Now, in any realistic universe, Skulldigger would be shot dead extremely quickly, but so would Batman, so he gets the same dispensation. At the time of the 1996 of this story, he’s been around for maybe a decade, and is seemingly the preeminent crimefighter in Spiral City.
So he’s not-Punisher. There’s also Detective Reyes, who is not-Rene Montoya (literally: tough female detective, lesbian, always fighting with her captain, olive skinned – I do wonder if Lemire does that on purpose or just can’t be bothered to change the details), one of the other viewpoint characters.
The third viewpoint character is Matthew. He’s twelve, and we see his parents get murdered in front of him in the first scene, with a particular overhead view that will make you think they just came out of a Zorro movie. (Black Hammer is many things, but it is never, ever subtle.)
Anyway, the story here is: random thug kills Matthew’s parents. Skulldigger arrives, kills random thug. Matthew becomes non-verbal at witnessing his parents’ murder, doesn’t respond to any questioning by cops including Reyes, is institutionalized. Reyes is obsessed with finding and stopping Skulldigger; her boss literally says “he’s killing the right kind of people, don’t waste time on him.”
Look, do I need to give all of the story beats? Skulldigger gets a sidekick. If you’ve been paying any attention, you know who that is. It’s not a good idea, but he at least seems to be devoted to training the kid so he doesn’t die immediately.
Oh, and meanwhile, an ex-superhero – formerly the Crimson Fist, now civilian Tex Reed – is running for mayor, on a “let’s get back to happy superheroing” platform. (He’s an unpowered guy, maybe a bit more Moon Knight than Batman, and now fiftyish and retired for ten years or so.) The Crimson Fist’s old nemesis Grimjim – who is not anyone in particular from another superhero universe, but is deeply in the Batman Villain template, something of a mash-up of Joker and Ra’s al Ghul conceptually and Killer Croc visually – has to break out of not-Arkham Asylum to cause trouble.
Tex and Grimjim and Skulldigger have hidden connections, of course. Every superhero story is about the same people tripping over each other over and over again; there’s never anyone new.
It is grim and it is gritty and it is violent: this is supposed to be a 90s-style story, from the dark and decadent age of superheroing. We are meant to deplore that at the same time we revel in it.
Frankly, this is one of the most successful Black Hammer stories to date, in my mind: it tells a specific story, beginning to end, without getting caught up in extraneous crap. It isn’t burdened with the core series’ weird reluctance to move from the initial premise, and has the strengths of the whole series to date: Lemire’s naturalistic dialogue and strong plotting, and great storytelling art.
It’s still a pastiche grim-n-gritty Punisher/Batman comic that has no good reason to exist, mind you. But it’s successful at the things it sets out to do.
One last point: the descriptive copy for this book describes it as a tragedy. It is not. Not in any traditional sense, not in any way. “Tragedy” here seems to mean “a story in which sad things happen,” but that’s most of them. This is not a tragedy, not for Skulldigger or Skeleton Boy or Det. Reyes, or even for Grimjim. And a tragedy has to be a tragedy for the main character.