“Barbalien: Red Planet” #1 kicks off Mark Markz’s origin story with quite a bang. Warning: spoilers ahead.
Story by Jeff Lemire and Tate Brombal
Scripted by Tate Brombal
Illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta
Colored by Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by Aditya Bidikar A groundbreaking new sci-fi action series in the world of the Eisner Award-winning Black Hammer universe, about prejudice, honor, and identity. Mark Markz has found his place on Earth as both a decorated police officer and as the beloved superhero, Barbalien. But in the midst of the AIDS crisis, hatred from all sides makes balancing these identities seem impossible-especially when a Martian enemy from the past hunts him down to take him back, dead or alive.
“Barbalien: Red Planet” #1 digs back into the story of Barbalien, or Mark Markz, with some heavy material. Barbalien’s personal journey in the “Black Hammer” universe was never easy, but in this new series we get to see him struggle directly with his queer identity in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, in the heat of the 1980s. Meanwhile, Mars has a few things they want to sort out with him, and it doesn’t look good for our tender friend.
Lemire and Brombal craft a story that relies pretty heavily on some historical scaffolding in this first issue, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Rather, we’re situated very carefully and obviously in 1986 as Mark and his partner move in to bust up an ACT UP protest. Mark finds himself entranced by a young activist, Miguel, whose fiery words resonate with his own feelings of isolation, and over the course of the issue he begins to explore his identity a bit more. Brombal does interesting things with shame and deceit in this issue. Mark enters the club later with the face of another man, something many queer folks who’ve experienced hate or bigotry would no doubt like to do from time to time. We’re also made aware through dialogue and, later, a poignant flashback panel, that Mark’s affection for his partner most definitely is not returned. The grace his partner appears to give him – that is, not outing him to the force and getting him fired, or worse – isn’t any kind of grace at all, and the heartbreak resonates pretty well on the page.
Walta’s art suits the introspective and fraught tone of the issue, and Markz seems smaller than he did before. Walta makes him slender and a bit bubbly around the edges in his true form at times, and we get to see him shapeshift back and forth a few times. Markz is unassuming and boyish, and Walta gives his face a ton of expressive trepidation, sorrow and shock as appropriate. Layouts are straightforward, and given the strangeness of the Martians and the flecked detail on each of the characters’ faces, it’s a good choice to keep the page simple and let the line carry the flavor of the story. Walta’s hand-drawn panels are a good memoir-style border for a comic like this, and give the page just a bit of unsteadiness to mirror Markz’s often fraught state. The measured panels also slow down the action, and Walta leaves just about enough space in the gutter for a heartbeat, which also suits.
Bellaire’s colors are a mix of muted tones for Markz and bright pops for the protest and nightclub scene. We get the sense that a bit of color has washed out of Markz’s world, and for good reason. It’s only when Miguel pulls out the rainbow flag that we realize that something’s faded, here, and the contrast is a smart emotional pop in a high-stakes moment. Similarly, as Markz enters the club we see the gorgeous queens on stage in their finery and a sea of blue, pink and purple-splashed bodies crushed together in a moment of pure joy. Markz’s choice to clad himself in the guise of a man who he sees in an ad on the ground is humorously offset by the choice of an innocuous checked shirt, and the farm boy image is sold so well because Bellaire picks the perfect pumpkin shade for the cloth. Mars is as grim, if not more so, than Earth, and we understand that Markz is trapped no matter where he goes thanks to Bellaire’s attention to detail here.Continued below
Bidikar picks a loopy, blocky font for the Martians that commands the page and adds some beautiful flourishes that offset the harshness of their bookend appearances. On Earth, the dialogue font is pretty straightforward, though there are some nice peaky Ds and gentle swoops on the Ws and As that keep it feeling tenuous and human. Bidikar goes for a subtle stroke on the balloons to complement Walta’s line, and the sound effects have Bidikar’s recognizable slashiness without overpowering the page or standing out too much. A lot of the dialogue and the emotion in “Barbalien: Red Planet” #1 is big, so it makes sense that the creaks, beeps and blips end up being rather small to contrast, and have us pause a bit when we need to.
Overall, “Barbalien: Red Planet” #1 is an enjoyable look at a beloved character’s backstory in the “Black Hammer” universe – if we can call queer trauma enjoyable. It’s fair to say that this coming-out story has quite a bit at stake, but Lemire and Brombal do a good job of making this book feel like it’s situated exactly where it needs to be in Markz’s timeline. It’s also never a bad thing to be reminded of what’s at stake for “aliens” in our culture, and the inclusion of QTBIPOC activism means that both the queer and urban landscape at least reflect the reality of the time. It will be interesting to see how Markz’s deception goes over in the next issue, if it comes up, but issue #1 does good work to capture our attention and tug at our hearts in a genuine way.
Final Verdict: 8/10 – “Barbalien: Red Planet” #1 is a good trip back into Markz’s fraught identity, and his struggle to find a place anywhere in the universe.