Masterfully crafted by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston, the Black Hammer Universe has quickly become one of the largest superhero universes in the world of creator-owned comics. In addition to a main series that's run for nearly 20issues, the world is now home to one spin-off after the next. In fact, by the time 2020 comes to a close, three separate spin-offs will have debuted over the course of the year — Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy is currently running while Colonel Weird: Cosmagog debuts in late October.
Then comes Barbalien: Red Planet, a mini-series from Lemire, upcoming writer Tate Brombal, and Gabriel Walta (Vision). We recently had the chance to catch up with both Jeff and Tate via e-mail to chat all things Barbalien, and you can find our entire conversation below.
"A groundbreaking new sci-fi action series in the world of the Eisner Award-winning Black Hammer universe, about prejudice, honor, and identity," the book's official synopsis from Dark Horse reads. "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."
Keep scrolling to see our chat with Lemire and Brombal!
Lemire on Red Planet
When it comes to Red Planet, what makes 2020 the ideal time to release this title?
Well, to be honest, the book was set to launch earlier before COVID, so I don’t think the date has much significance, really. The story itself felt right for a few reasons, first I had been diving deep into each Black Hammer character’s history and backstory as part of the development work I was doing for the Legendary TV adaptation. While doing that and sort of grafting Barbalien’s backstory against some real historical events in what would have been 1980’s America, the HIV crisis came up and it seemed like a real opportunity to intertwine his story with those events and find something poignant and meaningful in it.
In the current climate, does Red Planet happen without an LGBTQIA+ creator attached to the project?
Well, I don’t know what to make of the “current climate” to be honest. It’s impossible to navigate the current cultural landscape as an artist and make decisions that please everyone. So I just tend to follow my gut and do the projects that speak to me or seem meaningful to me and when this idea came up to tell a part of Barbie’s backstory against the HIV crisis, it was actually Tate who latched onto it and requested to explore it more.
Some backstory here, to better explain…I had met Tate a few years ago while he fresh out of school and interning at First Generation Films, the production company that is producing the Essex County TV show with me. It became obvious very quickly that Tate and I really gelled and had a lot in common creatively and he sort of became my right-hand man while working on Essex. And he began to share his own writing with me and just really really impressed me, so we have been working together a lot since then. Tate came in and wrote the Black Hammer encyclopedia for me and then acted as my assistant while I was working on the Black Hammer TV show for Legendary.
While Tate was reading some of the material I was working on, he came across my mention of Barbalien and the HIV crisis and immediately expressed interest in developing this further. Now, Tate is also an openly gay man and it seemed to me that if we were going to tell this story it was not mine to tell and he would have much more to say. His enthusiasm quickly turned into an amazing story and were off to the races.
He is a great young writer and this story is 99% Tate. I’m really proud to have it as part of the Black Hammer Universe, so to answer your question, I do not think I would have told this story had I not had this friendship with Tate.
Then comes Gabe Walta. When did you pitch the idea of Red Planet to him? Did he take any convincing to get on board?
It did not take much convincing to be honest, because Gabriel and I had just finished the book Sentient over at TKO Studios and we absolutely loved working together. Much like when I first worked with Dustin Nguyen or Andrea Sorrentino, I instantly saw chemistry with Gabriel and we began talking about continuing our collaboration on more new projects. At the time we finished Sentient I was so busy that I didn’t have time to start developing a new creator-owned book with Gabriel, but I did have this Barbalien series all teed up with Tate, and it turns out that Barbie was Gabriel’s favorite Black Hammer character, so it was a great fit.
And now Gabriel and I are developing a new, longer format creator-owned project outside of the Black Hammer Universe that we will be doing when he finishes Barbalien.prevnext
Brombal on Red Planet
At one point did you board Red Planet? Had a story already been outlined or was that something you helped break?
I was on-board Red Planet from the beginning when I pitched the series to Jeff. I did months of research and presented Jeff with a whole bunch of ideas. We then broke a nice, little outline together which I took and expanded upon while writing the scripts! Jeff was super collaborative and supportive, especially as he trusted me to do my thing and tell the story I thought needed to be told.
Red Planet wasn't your first collaboration with Jeff. When did he approach you about helping write the book? Did you take any convincing?
If I remember correctly, I saw Jeff run a poll on Twitter one day asking his followers which BH character should get a solo book, then I just DM’d him with a cold pitch about a Barbalien series set during the HIV/AIDS crisis! I had been helping him with the Black Hammer TV adaptation, and I was inspired by a line or two in one of the documents — so it was very organic. I don’t even think I expected to write it! I just thought it would make a good book. But Jeff asked me to throw together a pitch document, and we presented it to Dark Horse. This would have been after the Encyclopedia was written but before it was out on stands.
I also took zero convincing, especially when I realized I’d be working with the unparalleled GABRIEL WALTA!!!
How important is it for you to write the first series featuring an LGBTQIA+ Black Hammer character?
I hadn’t thought of it like that until you just framed it that way for me! I suppose it is still considered historic to have Queer, solo books in superhero comics, and I am forever grateful to Jeff and Dark Horse for allowing me to add a book to that list! I’m grateful to the creators before me that made books like Midnighter and Batwoman and Iceman, paving the way for more trust and motivation from big publishers.
It is very important to have this representation in comics and that has weighed heavily on me, for sure. We‘ve had decades of “historic firsts”, and I do think many of us are fatigued by the notion because it is taking far too long for anything much beyond that. While each one is a step towards progress, I’m ready for the 30th or 100th solo book that no longer elicits such fanfare. I do see that day coming, though, and we will get there one book at a time!
On that front, how do feel the comics industry is doing with, not only LGBTQIA+ representation as a whole, but accurate depictions?
While I in no way can be a spokesperson for the entire LGBTQ2SIA+ community — I mean, look how many identities that acronym represents! — I have been pleasantly surprised to see an uptick in Queer representation in mainstream comics, whether it be the non-binary character Aerie in DC’s Suicide Squad or Wiccan and Hulkling being integral pieces to Marvel’s latest event. Could it be better? Of course! There is a lot to make up for after decades of gatekeeping, and the representation is overwhelmingly White and cis-gender. Our community is diverse and beautiful; I’ll personally be happier once our stories and media properly reflect that.
Now, accurate depictions are a whole other can of worms and there are far too many examples of when comics got it wrong. First, hire LGBTQ2SIA+ folx to tell these stories and foster their talent. Secondly, you will never perfectly depict an identity you don’t belong to, but do your research, have the necessary conversations with those Queer folx, and, while it might not be perfect, just don’t get it wrong. I recently saw an episode of a phenomenal TV show that horribly misrepresented a 2-Spirit character and it did far more harm than good. It’s great you want to include Queer characters! But, please, put in the work.
Also, just to make it clear, indie comics have been telling these stories for years with a dedicated fanbase who are hungry for more — so the mainstream just needs to continue to step it up!prevnext
Lemire on Black Hammer
A lot of questions are constantly circulated about the Doctor Star/Doctor Andromeda renaming issue (thanks Reddit.) Can you speak to that or clarify why he was renamed?
I have been cagey about this because the honest truth is that there was a legal issue with the name and its similarity to another publisher’s character and there is very little I can actually discuss. But we worked it out very amicably with that other publisher and we agreed to change his name and costume a bit. Not any drama or anything, it was all very civil. The good thing is the name changed, but the story is exactly the same. And that original printing of Doctor Star trades and floppies will probably be collector’s items to a degree now, I guess.
This being Black Hammer, I do have a fun meta way of explaining the name change within the universe itself that will unfold next year in some new Black Hammer projects.
Last time we spoke you said three Black Hammer projects were in serious production and it would turn out those would be Cosmagog, Red Planet, and the Ormston Black Hammer 3 (if we can call it that) for next year. What other irons are in the fire now?
That’s correct. We seem to be running about three new books a year right now. That last wave was Colonel Weird: Cosmagog with Tyler Crook (wait until you see his art on it!,) Barbalien with Tate and Gabriel, and a new series that Dean is currently drawing.
We now have two more new series after these that are all written and being drawn for 2021 by some amazing artists who will be new to the Black Hammer Universe and Tyler Crook is drawing another one after Cosmagog.
We also have one additional Black Hammer project coming that will feature a pretty unbelievable rogues gallery of talent that I still can’t quite believe we were able to trick into working on Black Hammer stuff.
Any positive movement on the stuff with Legendary? You've said you were also writing some screenplays and with The Boys, Joker, and some chatter on Spawn, one might think Legendary would fast track something like this?
I’m not able to really discuss any details on this at the moment. Hopefully more soon!prevnext
Brombal on Black Hammer
You've now worked on a few things in-universe. Are there any other Black Hammer projects on your plate at the moment?
I can’t say much right now, but you definitely haven’t seen the last of me!
You're still relatively new to comics — what are your aspirations from here? Creator-owned work? Any particular Marvel/DC characters you have on your bucket list?
While I’m still new to writing comics, the medium has been a source of comfort and entertainment for me since I was a kid. (The first comic I ever wrote and drew was when I was six! It was basically a bad Rampage knock-off…) I’m so happy to be working on the other side now and imagining stories and worlds to comfort and entertain others. It’s a huge blessing! I’m working hard developing more creator-owned work, and there will be announcements eventually.
I do want to keep working with Dark Horse, as well — they’ve been a dream to work with and so supportive. Otherwise, I would totally love to one day write some Marvel and DC characters! As many Queer and marginalized comic fans might agree, I’ve always felt most at home with the X-Men. I’d also love to take a crack at Namor or Moon Knight. And I do love that sweet boy Nightwing, the always-fun Teen Titans, and the ever-expanding Sandman universe.
My other aspiration is to forever work with Gabriel Walta, Jordie Bellaire, and Aditya Bidikar because they are a serious dream team! (Sorry, just wanted to give the whole squad a shoutout because they are doing some career-high stuff here — get ready!!)
Barbalien: Red Planet is set for release on November 18th.
What other Black Hammer spinoffs would you like to see come to fruition? Let us know your thoughts either in the comments section or by tweeting our writer @AdamBarnhardt!prev