The unofficial theme song to Rockwood would be the “Sound of Silence” cover by Disturbed for such a melodramatic and cathartic reading experience.
Written by Jeff Lemire
Illustrated by Dean Ormston
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Toddd Klein
He was born into the Red Tribes of Mars. He walked the streets of Spiral City as a police officer by day, vigilante hero by night. And now he s trapped in the sleepy-but-sinister Rockwood. In each of these places, Barbalien has been an outsider. He s never felt at home. Maybe, in the end, home is not a location . . . it’s something to find in other people.
“Black Hammer” #11 is a profoundly lonely issue, as the feeling of isolation, monotony, and boredom overtakes the displaced heroes. In many ways, this feels like a turning point in the emotional arc of the book, at least for Barbalien and Gail. As someone who was several issues behind “Black Hammer” before this, I was taken aback at how emotionally effecting and contained this issue was. Having since caught up, it plays even better. Even without that extra context, “Black Hammer” #11 is one of the best single issues I’ve read in at least a year.
Rockwood is a weird, lonely, place. While Lucy’s segment in this issue further illustrates this oddity in a more concrete fashion (books don’t have writing in them) for Spiral Cities displaced heroes, Rockhood is a nightmarish treadmill. Always running in place, always reliving past short comings.
For Barbalien, flashbacks show him routinely, monotonously, saving people in Spiral City while he is also trying to reconcile Father Quinn. They’re one in the same, artist Dean Ormston show this as Barbalien transforms back and forth between his Martian and his human cover by the time of day. Ormston’s art design is infused with cycles and patterns that make singular panels of heroism or sequences slowly add up into a never-ending job. Where one stops the other is already beginning, each with their own set of rules and expectations. It’s only a couple of pages, but you’re struck at how disconnected he is from the world he is constantly saving. Ormston’s art in this issue highlights the lonely motif by constantly either highlighting the distance between one another or by not even showing another figure in the frame at all.
Lemire’s dialogue gives form to this idea, as Barbalien confronts Father Quinn and pleads with him to come out with him, “I pretended to be something I’m not. And all it did was make me even lonelier!” And, while the dialogue in this sequence is excellent. How Ormston’s pages cut up that dialogue and pace it adds so much more depth and emotion to the sequence. Even when they are framed in a panel together, it’s always done to emphasize the distance separating them. Either Barbalien is heavily in the foreground and Quinn is shrinking into the background, or they are shown from an extreme distance. One of Ormston’s best tricks is to show them both in blacked out profile, it flattens the distance between them but it also serves to highlight how far away they are from what looks like a generic picture of Mary/Baby Jesus, two figures that have historically symbolized an intense union. More commonly they just aren’t sharing a panel period, Quinn can’t bring himself to accept that side of himself (hopefully with an implied yet) and share that same space with Barbalien.
Meanwhile, Lucy’s investigation in the mystery of Rockwood continues. Normally this sort of transition would feel abrupt and tonally out of step, even if it is masked by a page turn. The transition leaves several plot threads hanging. And yet, Lucy’s not-quite-an-investigation reads as thematically consistent within the overall motif of loneliness for this issue. It shifts to another facet of loneliness, the feeling of isolation. For three pages “Black Hammer” becomes a burgeoning paranoid, surveillance, thriller as Lucy is cut off from the capes and rest of the townsfolk in wondering what exactly isn’t “right” with this place.
For their part Dean Ormston keeps the art consistent in representing the motif. Lucy is constantly figured separate from the people around her. If she’s in the foreground others are in the background. If there’s an interaction it isn’t shown through a medium sized panel that would figure them together, symbolically connecting. Instead it’s played off shot reverse shot style in two separate panels. People talking without speaking. As Lucy goes about her day she sees the townspeople, all normal looking and agreeable, but then she keeps seeing them again, and again, always the same. Book ending this interlude with the old couple with ice cream helps to add an unnerving creepy factor to things. We are separated from them just long enough to begin to displace them and then WHAM they are back just as they ever were and the cycle begins again, it’s another 5-panel page, but this time Lucy isn’t greeting with a neighborly smile.Continued below
Lemire’s script via Lucy’s journal is what turns these pages into something of a thriller. Lucy can’t help but fixate on all of the Plesantville-esque things that turn the space she is inhabiting into a poor facsimile for a town. She’s like John Stewart in the two part “Legends” episodes from Justice League slowly getting unnerved by the cyclical nature only she sees. With “Black Hammer” being a pastiche of cape comics, out of context, her writings read like something a slightly saner Rorschach would puzzle over.
These brief pages help push the overall plot of what’s wrong with this place forward, but more importantly add further dimension to the effects of loneliness. Disconnected from the people around her, Lucy is slowly turning into a self-completing circuit of conspiracy. Of course, she isn’t wrong, but it’s times like these that friends would be helpful. For others, like Gail, that isolation is simply to much to bear
“Black Hammer” has been characterized by the slow breakdown of routine and destruction as the former heroes of Spiral City’s faults continually haunt them. That same pattern almost takes hold of Barbalien and Gail, but instead of breaking the pattern and themselves. They break it and come together in one of the most emotionally cathartic moments I’ve read since Barry remembered Wally. In an issue characterized by the distance between people, the sudden moment of connection and realization between two people is poignant and earned. Maybe Barbie doesn’t feel for Gail in the way she thought she did, maybe they are still stuck in this crazy nightmare without a home, but they’ve got each other and that’s more than they had before.
Friendship is the greatest ship
Calling Dean Ormston’s art minimalist feels slightly to reductive, but it is very straight forward and cartooned. There is a brevity to his art. As Barbalien dose the gun and badge routine, and omits the reason why there is “no place for me here anymore,” hanging above his head is a panel of his defaced locker. His art gives us all we need to know.
Final Verdict: 8.0 – “Black Hammer” #11 packs an emotional wallop into 20 or so pages on top of excellent structure by Lemire and amazing art from Dean Ormston.