On November 13, the final issue of “Black Hammer/Justice League” drops. The series, which bridges Jeff Lemire/Dark Horse’s “Black Hammer” and DC’s “Justice League,” is a really interesting metatextual book, dealing with both DC’s original characters and Lemire’s takes on those characters. Series artist Michael Walsh (“Secret Avengers,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) has done a really phenomenal job bringing the two properties together, and making sure that the work feels both seamless and representative of the two distinct properties. We spoke about all of this and more in the Dark Horse booth at New York Comic Con 2019.
So I want to talk about being the artist on a book that is written by an artist, because you and Jeff are obviously talking about what this book is going to look like, but you ultimately have to make the final artistic decisions as the penciler of this book. How much is Jeff involved with the visuals besides basic character design? Is there added pressure drawing for someone who is an artist themselves?
Michael Walsh: Okay, there’s like six questions packed in there.
I know, I know. This is what I do.
MW: Working with a writer who is also an artist is the best, because they have a very good sense of how much you can fit on a page, and they don’t put too many beats in a scene. You don’t have to parse out what’s important because Jeff knows what’s important, and he knows how much he can show. So it’s a little bit more relaxed.
And when Jeff sends me a script, sometimes he has an idea visually how he would like to see something depicted, and if he does, he would delineate that in the script. He would say, “here’s what I’m thinking for this scene. But, if you have a better idea for it, if you want to depict in a specific way, I’m open to that as well. Let’s chat what we think would be the best way to do something.” Because I think Jeff has a lot of trust in the people he collaborates with. He vets them hard and he looks at everybody’s work that he works with, and he knows what their strengths are, and what their weaknesses might be. So he’s a very good collaborator that way because you’re actually collaborating.
A lot of times when you’re working with somebody you get a script, and then you draw the script, and then you send it back to them. With Jeff, there’s always the opportunity to actually collaborate. And the best thing about that is that he’s such a great creator, and he’s someone that I admire as a person and as a creator, so I’m able to learn lessons from him. And I was able to learn a lot about making comics, drawing, writing from him, in the short time that we were able to collaborate together.
I wasn’t sure if you felt, and this isn’t on Jeff, but just the idea of, when you know somebody else can do what you do, if you felt like, “Oh is he looking over my shoulder? Is he silently judging every panel I do here?” Was there any sort of fear like that?
MW: No, there wasn’t, because I know Jeff as a guy, and just the fact that I was already on the book meant that I passed the judgment phase of things. The pressure for me was almost self-imposed, because like I mentioned before, I’m a fan of his work, and I just didn’t ever want him to be disappointed. It’s like disappointing your dad or something, that’s kind of how I felt. I always try to do the very best I can on any project, and that never changes for me. But there’s a little bit of extra pressure, just because it’s a special book to me, and it’s the first time that I was able to collaborate with one of my artistic heroes.
That’s awesome. What’s also really cool about the book is that you’re not only dealing with Jeff’s creations, which have a real root in those classic DC characters, but also with those DC characters. And so, was there one half of that equation that was more appealing to you? Was it more fun to draw Jeff’s stuff? Was it more fun to take your hand at Superman or Batman?Continued below
MW: That’s interesting because they’re such different characters in the way that they are depicted. Most of the characters that Jeff has created in “Black Hammer” have been primarily drawn by Dean Ormston, who has a very specific style, whereas the Justice League have been drawn by hundreds of people, hundreds upon hundreds. So there was different challenges with both sets of characters, and with the Justice League, I really wanted to bring them into the world of the Black Hammer and draw them as if they could be there and live there and live in the Black Hammer book. And with the Black Hammer characters, I really wanted to have kind of a “characters out of place” feel for when they were in Metropolis and when they were with the Justice League. I wanted it to seem wrong, in a kind of nonspecific way.
When you say “bringing characters into the Black Hammer universe,” I can picture what you mean in my head. But how would you describe that to somebody else? What has to change from the regular DC look to the Black Hammer universe look?
MW: Well besides the more impressionistic rendering of the characters and the world, I think that Black Hammer focuses a lot on small moments and character interactions and you don’t always have the time or space to do that in a big superhero book, especially something as big as the Justice League. So being able to tell the story quietly is something that I was able to do with those characters, and that you don’t see very often. So we got to focus on body language in quiet moments, and character acting, and facial expressions, and hard hitting conversations, that have a lot of weight, but aren’t about fighting Darkseid.
And that’s a really fun aspect of the book. What I really enjoyed about the book is that you’re never sure when two properties come together, which is going to have the dominant gene. And I really feel like this is a Black Hammer book, first and foremost. And I was happy to see that. That’s the book I wanted to read when this was announced.
Did you find similarities between the two worlds that you weren’t expecting, or similarities between two characters that you weren’t expecting, before you got into the drawing of it?
MW: You know, I never really actually thought about that. That’s a good question. A lot of the characters, they’re . . . I’m trying to figure out what I can say and what I can’t say. But the characters who have similar power sets and identities didn’t have too much interaction. But I think that one of the fun parts was having the Martian Manhunter interact with Barbalien. And that was one of the core ones where you really got to see the differences between the characters. Barbalien is a lot more sassy, which I really enjoy. And I have a lot of fun with humor when I am able to do that in comics. We got to play up some of that with those interactions, which was really fun. And I like to see the DC characters playing the straight man in the conversation. And that was a lot of fun to do and cool to see those interactions.
That’s actually my next question for you. I’ve always admired the humor you bring into your artwork. And how much of working on something like this, how much of that in the script is Jeff’s humor versus stuff you bring to it, adding little visual flourishes to it?
MW: That’s a hard question. Humor is a hard thing to do in comics. Punchlines, you have to build towards them, and if they don’t hit, you just wasted a page. So humor is very difficult. Jeff is a really funny guy in real life, and in his scripts. And I didn’t know there was going to be any humor in this. “Black Hammer” has its jokes here and there, but I just didn’t know tonally, when I signed on to this, where the book was going to be. And I was excited to see Gail crack some jokes here and there, and same with Barbalien.Continued below
I think that it was funny in the scripts. So I had to take a funny script and do my very best job not to screw that up.
Now that you’ve dipped your toe into the Black Hammer waters, I’m sure you’d like to do more with Jeff in the future. Is there a particular portion of the Black Hammer universe, or a character you may like to do more with in the future.
MW: Yeah, me and Jeff are planning more work together. Nothing I can talk specifically about. I think my favorite character in the Black Hammer universe to draw was probably Colonel Weird, followed up closely by Barbalien. I like being able to play up the body horror stuff with Barbalien, which hasn’t been done too much in the core Black Hammer world. So I got to do a little bit of my own take on the way he transforms and changes shapes and stuff. So yeah, something with those two would play with my strengths, and I would have a lot of fun with, and I would be excited to do. Nothing I can talk about officially right now, of course.
I talked to Jeff maybe six months or a year after “Black Hammer” had started. And I said that it was beginning to feel to me like his Mignolaverse. There’s this core creation that everything is going to branch off of. And he said to me, “Oh, just wait and see. It’s going to get real Mignola real quick.” And it sort of has now.
From an artist standpoint, when you’re coming on to an area of books that has a certain visual language, is it important for you to acclimate to that, or do you feel like, they brought me in because I’m me. I need to do me, and however it fits together, it fits together.
MW: I think it differs on a project to project basis. I think this one specifically, they brought me in because I was someone who has a little bit of a non-house style, but has worked with a lot of superhero stuff before in my past. So I think that I was a good fit for them. It was an easy thing to say, “Look, this guy draws a specific way, but he has worked with a bunch of superhero characters and he’s done the big dynamic superhero stuff. But he’s also drawn indie books and Image books, and he has a specific thing he does, but it’s close to Dean’s, but it’s still a little bit different. So he’ll be at home in both worlds.”
So I came on to this book ready to do my own thing, and that’s what everybody wanted of me anyways. And I think I have enough storytelling similarities to stuff that is happening in the Black Hammer world, that there was no disconnect between the stories and the books.
I think that one of the beauties of a really well done interconnected universe is that even when things are a little bit unfamiliar, there are enough familiar touches to tether it to that world. I think you give anybody that book, even though you they see Superman in it, they would still say, “This is a Black Hammer book.” It still feels very much a piece of what’s going on there.
Give our readers a taste of what they can expect, just a little fun tease, or something you really enjoyed drawing in the next couple of issues.
MW: Well one of the characters I had the most fun drawing in the whole book shows up next issue. I think people will know who I’m talking about when they see it. They’re introduced in a real big splash page, and things get bigger, and things get weirder. And Jeff really swings for the fences with the closing of the book. It was really fun to draw.