When you read from Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston’s Black Hammer universe your first thought is often this is so great. Who came up with it? Oh right Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston, I said that before. Your next though is probably how can I get more of this world now, forever and always. Luckily they main series has given birth to multiple spin off series like “Sherlock Frankenstein,” “Doctor Star,” “The Quantum Age,” and “Black Hammer ’45.” This December the newest entry in the Hammerverse makes its debut, “Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy.”
From co-creator of Black Hammer, Jeff Lemire and artist Tonci Zonjic with lettering by Steve Wands this series formally introduces Skulldigger to the world of “Black Hammer.” Originally name dropped in “The World of Black Hammer Encyclopedia” this new series following the escape of the nefarious Grimjim and Skulldigger and his ward, Skeleton Boy adventure to save Spiral City.
To learn more about this new series and who Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy are we were able to talk to the creators Jeff Lemire and Tonci Zonjic in an interview with Multiversity Comics. The team discuss creating the look and feel of the world, inhabiting the Hammerverse and the relationship between Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy. A big thanks to Jeff and Tonci for taking the time to answer our questions and be sure to look for “Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy #1” in stores this December 18th.
All I needed to know was the title, “Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy” and I was in. However, for those readers not as familiar with the world of “Black Hammer” or for those who don’t love all skull-based heroes, what is this series?
Jeff Lemire: This book is a real deconstruction of the “grim and gritty” vigilante super heroes, and also of the kid sidekick superhero trope. But it’s also a look at how being exposed to violence affects children. On top of all that it’s a really exciting and action-packed story as well, one that I’m very proud of and think that both new and old Black Hammer fans will really get into. You don’t have to have read any previous Black Hammer books to understand what’s happening, it’s a pretty self-contained story.
The world of “Black Hammer” continues to grow with each new issue and title. When beginning a new series in this world Jeff, what is your approach to it as a writer who also is one of the co-creators of the main title? As an artist Tonci, how is it coming on to a project born out of a larger universe?
JL: I want each new “Black Hammer” series to offer something that none of the previous series have. This is our first time really exploring the history of street level, non-super powered heroes in the “Black Hammer” universe, and there is a whole new underbelly of stories to tell there, and a surprising legacy that spans back through the “Black Hammer” timeline as well. Each new series should build on what we’ve done, and expand the world in new and surprising ways.
Tonci Zonjic: Maybe a year prior to the book I was sent the first 450 pages of “Black Hammer,” and after reading those 450 pages in about two days, as one does, I was on pretty much board with anything Black Hammer-related.
This one was enough to the side of the main story line that it didn’t require encyclopedic knowledge to read or work on it, which is the main danger with ‘universes’.
What has the creative process been like for you two on the series? Reading through the issue it feels extremely cohesive. There is a lot of heavy lifting put forth by Tonci’s layouts and visual storytelling. Does it help as a writer, Jeff, being an artist to write for artist and similar for Tonci, having a writer who understands what you as an artist is thinking?
JL: I think being an artist myself definitely helps when I write for others. I take some inherent short cuts in my brain while scripting, as I am sort of breaking things down visually in my head as I write, so I probably avoid some unnecessary information for the artists. Having said that, the real trick is just working with incredible artists who I trust and getting out of the way to let them do what they do best, and Tonci certainly does that with “Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy.” His work on this book is stunning, from layout and storytelling through to his colors. He’s the complete package.Continued below
TZ: The cohesion is part of my job description!
I went to meet Jeff with a list of questions I had, and we sorted them all out in about fifteen minutes. The scripts I got were super solid and efficient while at the same time having enough room to play. Should I make a jazz analogy? Or will that instantly sink all future sales? “I heard it’s a book about a vigilante with a metal skull who also…. plays jazz? No thanks” *laughs*
For the design of the world and characters is there anything you are drawing from either from the larger world or style of story? Is there anything you try to keep aesthetically between the Black Hammer titles or is there complete freedom in how this series looks especially with Tonci’s distinct style?
JL: I don’t particularly think too much about linking all the books visually. Truth is, each “Black Hammer” series sort of has its own feeling and tackles its own little sub-genre within the superhero genre, so different looks and styles are welcome. You just need to find the right artist for each story, and I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some incredible talents so far.
TZ: Jeff had some roughs for the characters, that was about it for visual direction. Those got somewhat redesigned, but the general mood of it stayed close, the only shift being moving the story by a decade, to 1996, and that maybe added some more grimness.
With a character like Skulldigger how do you attempt to invest readers in the narrative of a hero who kills? Similarly, how do you use the design to do that when it’s a big dude in a skull mask?
JL: Just because a character kills does not mean that they can’t be layered and rich, and that you can’t have some sort of sympathy for them. Skulldigger is a very violent man. Having said that, exploring the roots of that violence and its effects on others can be very rewarding and interesting, and if I do my job well, he will be a complex character.
And, in this case, the characters of both Skeleton Boy and Detective Reyes (the cop hunting Skulldigger) are very sympathetic and great entry points for readers into Skulldigger’s world.
TZ: The mask was one thing; the face was another—I tried to design him so that he actually looks much friendlier with the mask on.
What can readers expect from the relationship between Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy? How do you bring to life the wildly different adult and child experience?
JL: I’ve always loved the dynamic of a hard, violent adult with a more innocent child. It echoes back to my Sweet Tooth series in a lot of ways. The contrast between them is exactly what makes the book tick.
“Black Hammer” has at times has played off the tropes and designs of classic heroes. Skulldigger seems to pay homage to characters like Batman and Punisher. Is there a benefit to medium of comics that there are iconic characters that as creators you can play off of the reader’s knowledge of to either establish a relationship with or subvert expectations?
JL: The entire history of super hero comics is a playground that we can explore with “Black Hammer” and Skulldigger is no different. There is a long line of great street level heroes to draw. Having said that, I would say that the biggest influence on this book is not a pre-existing character, but rather the work of Frank Miller as a whole. It is hard to have grown up reading comics when I did (in the 80’s) and not be fundamentally influenced by Frank’s work. In many ways, Skulldigger is my homage to him and what he did with super heroes in his career.
TZ: Because of the subject matter and setting it’s easy to consider Frank Miller as a direct influence, but for something like this I’m equally likely to look at Shotaro Ishinomori or Leiji Matsumoto, even though there are no direct homages or quotes of anybody. It’s definitely not a “find the homage” exercise. While the story does benefit from some prior knowledge of the tropes and the medium, I treat it as stand-alone as possible. You should be able to read the book if it’s the first one you ever picked up and get the most out of it.Continued below
There are so many action figures for the “core” heroes of comic books but the designs of Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy are perfect the coolest figures. Why do you think there are not more independent comic character themed action figures?
JL: I’m not really sure, except that we don’t have huge corporations backing us, so most of my time and resources go to making the actual comics, I don’t have a lot of time to think about merchandise. Having said that, it would be very very cool to see some “Black Hammer” statues or figures, I have talked to Mike Richardson at Dark Horse about this recently, so who knows.
TZ: I would accept a large scale open-world video game with them on the cover as a substitute.
I am obviously guilty of this given my questions but this series will be associated with “Black Hammer” because it spins out of that larger world but having read this first issue it is something that stands out all its own and is just a great looking and well-paced first issue of a comic. What do you hope readers are able to take away from this first issue and what can they expect if they come back for issue two?
JL: I think by the end of issue one readers will be hooked on “Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy,” and that’s just the start of what we have planned. This series will be integral to the “Black Hammer” universe moving forward. I have big lens for Skulldigger both on his own, and as part of the larger universe into 2020 and beyond.
TZ: Hopefully the reader will close the last page of issue one and think “I really don’t know where this will go” in the best possible way, like the other “Black Hammer” books. Issue two… doubles down on it.