The world of “Black Hammer” expands to explore the lives and legacies of its villains in this, the first spinoff from Jeff Lemire’s superhero saga. Read on for our review, which contains minor spoilers
Written by Jeff Lemire
Illustrated by David Rubín
Flats by Kike J. Diaz
Lucy Weber, daughter of the Black Hammer, grew up to become an investigative reporter for the Global Planet. Now she’s on the hunt for the true story about what happened to Spiral City’s superheroes after they defeated Anti-God and saved the world. All answers seem to lie with the dangerous supervillain tenants of Spiral City’s infamous asylum. As she gets closer to the truth she uncovers the dark origin stories of some of her father’s greatest foes and learns how they tie into the puzzle of what happened to Spiral City’s greatest hero.
David Rubín’s artwork has a real way of leading you through the panel, the page, and the story. “Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil” #1 is a journey, both for protagonist Lucy Weber and for us, the readers, as we’re drawn deeper into the world of “Black Hammer” by exploring the backstory of its supervillains. For that journey to be successful, you need a clear path to follow, be it a literal trail of narrative breadcrumbs or the more subconscious feeling of being led onward down a rabbit hole of discovery. Writer Jeff Lemire provides the former thanks to Weber’s central investigation that drives the plot, but it’s Rubin’s contribution to the latter that makes this issue feel like we’re navigating our own way through a living, breathing world.
Creating a spin-off series to “Black Hammer” feels like the only real way of truly exploring the space that Lemire’s been developing in the margins and backgrounds since that book’s inception. Built on analogs and homages to the familiar superhero universes that date back nearly eighty years at this point, “Black Hammer” has been smart so far in its world-building, using sleight of hand teases to give the illusion of a rich universe behind the scenes without actually doing that much; the focus of the series has been on the core cast anyway, so any actual reveals have been to serve their current narrative development (while making self-aware references to the very same universes it aims to mimic).
Here though, Lemire and Rubín are walking into the unknown, and dedicating real page space to the world of “Black Hammer” in a way that steps outside of the boundaries of the main series. Quite literally, in fact: the claustrophobic town that Abraham Slam, Golden Gail, and the others are trapped in is replaced by the “real” world of Spiral City, the tale of their decade-long confinement exchanged for a different prison (two if you count Lucy’s obsessive search for her fallen Super-father, Black Hammer): Spiral Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Lucy Weber has become trapped in that same town herself in the main series, but “Sherlock Frankenstein” is set shortly before that, as it expands on her investigation into the missing heroes shortly after discovering the secret lair of her father. She’s starting her search by seeking out the elusive criminal mastermind Sherlock Frankenstein, in hopes that he’ll provide some of the answers she seeks.
Using Lucy Weber in this way is a clever technique to expand this universe. The success of “Black Hammer” has always been in its ability to build a fantastical world in the background that services the grounded, human interactions in the foreground. Simply providing tales of other characters set in the same world could have been an approach Lemire et al took, but instead, by making Lucy’s increasingly determined search for her father the driving focus of this narrative, the (up until now relatively secret) world laid bare by her investigations makes this feel like a natural and essential part of the overarching story.
Narratively speaking, this is a journey, both by Lucy and her investigation and by us as we uncover more pieces to the “Black Hammer” puzzle. Rubin’s skillful, conscious choices throughout “Sherlock Frankenstein” #1, however, make each panel and each page feel like the art itself is moving us towards answers, towards the truth that we’re all looking for. His method of integrating the lettering into the art, especially the sound effects, provide a real kinetic energy to the panels. Whether it’s a bus pulling away off-panel, or the roll of lightning as it cracks behind Lucy’s head, the placement of each letter in the panel deliberately evokes an almost surround-sound experience in your brain.Continued below
There’s also the movement of the story across the page, the most elaborate example of which is on a double-page spread just over a third of the way through the issue. It’s not an unfamiliar technique of following a character as they walk through a room, depicting many small versions of them literally traversing the space on the page, but here Rubin weaves a spiral from top left, leading clockwise around to the middle as Weber and the guard descend the core staircase of the asylum. At one point, their orientation forces you to read the word balloons from right to left, a disorienting feeling that seems to be echoed by the guard at one point as he gasps in shock; the structure of the whole leads to the section he’s occupying being almost redundant, maybe the guard had a moment of self-awareness and gasped at his own futility. This tight, almost dizzying double spread – one littered with panel borders and inset panels to give you the chance to get lost in the structure – suddenly opens up on the following two pages to one, full-bleed double spread of a prisoner in a cell. The switch from one layout to another is striking and allows the scale of the gigantic inmate to really hit you in the face.
Throughout the issue, Rubin plays with scale and space in a way that lets you know that the real character here is the world itself. By making you constantly aware of the nature of the surroundings, you’re provided with opportunities time and again to truly explore the space around the characters. Establishing shots of Lucy in a new area are almost always long-range shots, perhaps reminding you of the larger world we’re looking at, compared to the relatively small confines of the main “Black Hammer” series. Even in a familiar 9-panel grid, there’s a moment where the characters break free, talking to each other across the borders, as if to prove that, unlike their counterparts in the main book, they will not be confined.
“Sherlock Frankenstein” #1 is about exploration. It’s about a journey of investigation, just not the one the narrative implies. After all, this is a flashback of sorts: we already know where the heroes are (if not why or how they ended up there), so the answers Lucy Weber seeks were never going to be the driving factor for this spinoff series. Throw in the fact that the titular Sherlock Frankenstein barely makes an appearance (a facet he shares with the character of Black Hammer in fact. Maybe it’s something about your name being on the cover?) and you start to realize that this was never about Lucy’s search for answers, but our own. “Black Hammer” did such a good job of building a world in the background, that now it’s time to give that world the focus it deserves. Come and explore Spiral City.
Final Verdict 8.6 – A real treat for “Black Hammer” fans, one that builds a fully realized world in a way that the main series has merely hinted at.