This March, Dark Horse Comics released a new title in Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston’s World of Black Hammer, “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda,” written by Tate Brombal, and with art from Ray Fawkes and a whole host of other artists. The book is quite unlike anything we’ve seen in the universe to date, and yet through its unusual approach, it ends up being one of the better examples of what makes the World of Black Hammer such an exciting place for comics storytelling.
Written by Tate Brombal
Illustrated by Ray Fawkes, Tyler Bence, Shawn Kuruneru, Ariela Kristantina, Dani, Marguerite Saugvage, Andrea Sorrentino, Tyler Crook, Yuko Shimizu, and Nick Robles
Colored by Jordie Bellaire, Bill Crabtree, Dave Stewart, and others
Lettered by Steve Wands
Space-faring adventurer Colonel Weird sets forth on a journey to save his superhero colleagues from their rural purgatory by entering the Para-zone only to find himself paired with the much much younger Doctor Andromeda on a series of fantastical adventures through assorted worlds and dimensions.
“Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda” is an usual story, even when measured against the more unusual titles of the World of Black Hammer. The tale is a prequel, set before the main series when it kicked off in 1996, but after the Cataclysm of 1986 that left Spiral City’s heroes stranded in the limbo town of Rockwood—the very next day, in fact. At this point in time, Colonel Weird still holds out hope that he can change the future, and so sets out to dissuade a young Jimmy Robinson from becoming interested in the cosmos—an interest that will ultimately lead to him discovering the Para-Zone and set in motion the events of everything that follows. Beyond the initial set-up and the finale, the construction of the story is extremely episodic, with Colonel Weird and Jimmy traveling from vignette to vignette, their story acting as the scaffolding over which other stories are draped. In this way, “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda” functions a little like an anthology, but since there’s still a throughline, there’s still a sense of a grander dream-like shape.
And I’ve no doubt that dream-like shape is very intentional. Writer Tate Brombal has mentioned “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and “The Little Prince” as sources of inspiration for the book, and those influences are expressed primarily through the structure (aside from a few overt homages).
Ray Fawkes is the primary artist on “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda,” doing the art for the bookends of the story, the first vignette, and a vignette right in the middle of the book, so he had to set the tone for everything else. His approach is perfect for this, because he keeps changing it—there’s an amorphous quality which is perfect not only for this story, but for the character of Colonel Weird. Dean Ormston, David Rubín, Caitlin Yarsky, Malachi Ward, and Tyler Crook all have this aspect in their work when handling Colonel Weird, but none have ever pushed it so far as Fawkes does here. I imagine Brombal must’ve been thrilled when he saw it, because the art does so much heavy lifting in terms of defining where Colonel Weird is mentally. So much can be said without a single word on the page. That and his shifting artstyle perfectly primes the reader for the more dramatic shifting of artists to come.
Also critical to the tone of “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda” is the book’s format. As a graphic novel, there’s no pressure to conform to the limits of a single issue comic. The space of the comic immediately feels different. We can see this most prominently in Fawke’s work, where nearly half of the opening page is green brushstrokes. In a single issue comic, this could be considered a waste of valuable page space. But the space is the entire point of the page. We are meant to feel it. On the second page, the Black Hammer farmhouse takes up the entire page, and yet it is so sparsely drawn. But again, the entire point is that it is both all encompassing and sparsely drawn. In a mere two pages, the reader has been pulled into the viewpoint of Colonel Weird, where there’s an ambiguity to time and place. Things can be both overwhelming and yet vague.Continued below
Fawke’s page layouts are also very careful in the way space outside of the panels is used. Sometimes the panels are densely packed, with only narrow gutters. This gives us the impression that Colonel Weird is focused and present in that moment. Other times, the gutters open up into yawning spaces, giving the impression that Colonel Weird isn’t quite there. And then other times there’re massive spaces around the panels, filled with other elements that feel like they are intruding on the moment, like in the example below, where the doors and the darkness are intruding on Colonel Weird’s thoughts.
It’s a comic where the mental space is more important than the physical space, and the graphic novel format gives the creators the freedom to express this aspect to its fullest.
But that’s not the entirety of the format story. Originally, most of “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda” was serialized through Jeff Lemire’s online newsletter, Tales from the Farm. This serialized aspect made it feel more like a comicstrip than a comicbook, and it’s an aspect that survives into the graphic novel presentation. Each new vignette has the credits on the page. This is something that needed to be there for the newsletter version, but could’ve been removed for the graphic novel. Do we really need Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston credited as the creators of “Black Hammer” twelve times throughout the book? No, of course not, but by keeping those credits there, it makes the book feel like a collection of Sunday comicstrips—a choice that reinforces the association with Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland.”
But it also plays into the metafictional aspect. The reader is meant to be aware of the format. Brombal and co. are deliberately calling attention to it. Metafiction is a foundational aspect of the World of Black Hammer. I mean, the original series essentially spawned from the question of “How would superheroes feel about being removed from continuity?” which was originally explored thematically and gradually became more and more literal as the series moved from “Black Hammer” to “Black Hammer: Age of Doom,” until it became an explicit aspect of the story.
And that aspect is very present in “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda,” in particular with the character Burt Lancelot. Burt is a total gag character, a half-arsed idea that was abandoned and never made it into the comic properly, stuck in the Limboland of Jeff Lemire’s mind. . . until he spills out into the pages of “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda.” There’s a great joke about him becoming canon, but I want to draw attention to the masterful joke beyond that. . .
There are two continuities in the World of Black Hammer. First, there’s the internal continuity, where an event occurs in 1986, and then another in 1996, so we can say that the event in 1986 happened before 1996. But then there’s the meta continuity, where the characters are aware of the publishing order of the books. Burt is a meta character, so he can show up in “Black Hammer: Age of Doom,” which is set in 1996 and published in 2018, and then show up here in “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda,” which is set in 1986 and published in 2023, and from his point of view the story published in 2018 is in his past. He’s even aware of Ms. Moonbeam’s story, “Black Hammer: Visions” #7 (published 2021) occurring in the interim. This was brilliant, and beautifully executed by Tate Brombal and Tyler Bence.
This is a gag that comes early in the book, during the first artist change-over, and it sets a precedent that carries on throughout the rest of the book, to the point that the final resolution is about how fiction and catharsis are in conversation with one another. These fictions can’t change anything, but they can change us. “A story is inked once and then lived with.”
I really have to sing Brombal’s praise here. This may be Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston’s universe, but Brombal understands “Black Hammer” in a way that you don’t often see with a guest writer. And in fact, I don’t really think of him as a guest writer. His previous book, “Barbalien: Red Planet” is not just good, but an absolutely top-tier World of Black Hammer book. If Brombal is writing a story, I get just as excited about it as I would for a Lemire-written story. He’s just that good. He’s just that much in-synch with Lemire and Ormston’s approach.Continued below
That said, I need to talk about the Substack aspect of this story. As I said earlier, this story was originally released via Lemire’s newsletter, and for a while there was a new installment roughly every week until it abruptly stopped twenty pages before the end. Because of the serialized nature of “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda,” it originally felt like it was constructed for the newsletter, but if that was the intended delivery system at conception, then there are some very odd choices made with page layouts. Unless the reader was using a tablet, the reader was never seeing a full page at once. On your standard 16:9 landscape screen, roughly ⅗ of a page were visible at time, so scrolling downwards through the page should’ve been considered as part of the natural reading flow. But this is demonstrably not the case many times. There are several instances where in order to read a page on a computer screen, you need to scroll down the page, then back up; there were double-page spreads split in half and stacked on top of each other; and occasionally details couldn’t be appreciated properly without zooming in.
This indicates the artists were designing for a graphic novel all along, and that “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda” was a project that was well on the way before the Substack deal ever happened. If that is indeed the case, then the oversized graphic novel of “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda” was always the intended mode of delivery. So many sections read better when two pages can be seen at the same time and their layouts are allowed to be in conversation with one another. The Substack version was an interesting experiment, but it was compromised from the beginning. “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda” is absolutely meant to be a graphic novel.
OK, this story has over a dozen different artists working on it, so I can’t do a deep dive into the art without this review spiraling completely out of control, but here’s a few quick thoughts:
- Dani and Brombal’s Willow D. Whisper interludes are incredible, but if this is all we ever see of her I will be bitterly disappointed. I need this team to reunite for more with the character for at least another miniseries.
- With that in mind, “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda” could be the springboard for many World of Black Hammer spinoffs—it’s easy to imagine how a Whiptara spinoff could emerge from the ‘Para-Zone Island’ vignette—but I hope that’s not the case. These vignettes are stronger just as vignettes. However, it introduces several new artists that I’d love to see play in the World of Black Hammer again. Nick Robels’ contribution was especially good, not just because he draws great pages, but because when Willow D. Whisper shows up, he adopts aspects of Dani’s style. Plus we already know from “Behold Behemoth” that he and Brombal work fantastically well together.
- Rather than the usual trade collection page size, Dark Horse opted for its library edition page size for “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda.” It’s a fantastic choice since the story is constructed around showcasing different artists, so it should have a page size that likewise emphasizes the art. That said, I really wish Dark Horse did this format more often—it feels fantastic to have a library edition sized page, but without the bulky weight of a library edition. It’s an extremely satisfying way to read.
I’ve spoken about format a lot, but “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda” is a story that couldn’t exist in the standard comics issues without being drastically reinvented. In committing to a different format, we got something truly unique in the World of Black Hammer. But I’m hoping that won’t always be the case. I would love to see more original graphic novels in this universe. There’s a playful aspect to the World of Black Hammer, and there are certain kinds of play that a miniseries can indulge in, and others better suited to an OGN, and the universe is at its best when it’s untethered from any one format.
And that’s what “Colonel Weird and Little Andromeda” is—an example of the World of Black Hammer at its best.