I want to tell you about Mike Condello.
He was a true musical savant, able to expertly play dang near any instrument from the very first pluck/strum. At the tender age of 17, he became musical director for a kids show here in Phoenix, The Wallace and Ladmo Show, where he’d craft silly songs about goofy characters named Hub Kapp and then back up big-time crooners of the day. While expectations weren’t always the highest, Condello’s tunes were really good, the sort of effervescent pop that could have (and at one point did, at least locally) stomp The Beatles on the charts.
So, just how did songs like “Ladmo in the Sky with Almonds” and “A Day on the Tube” achieve such greatness? Great parody, it would seem in talking to folks close with Condello, is a balancing act. It takes a massive wit and oddball humor coupled with genuine musical chops to pull it off. Lots of people can play, and countless more folks can crack wise, but not everyone can achieve both. (I call it the “Weird Al” Effect.) Mike Condello certainly could.
And so can Jeff Lemire.
The writer-cartoonist has made a career out of utilizing some degree of parody to dazzling effect, whether it’s in Sweet Tooth (poking fun at Bambi and Mad Max!) and The Nobody (enjoy a nuanced interpretation, Invisible Man!) But perhaps the peak of Lemire’s specific talent is Black Hammer, his ongoing Dark Horse series (alongside artist Dean Ormston) about a team of superheroes who become trapped in the town of Rockwood for over a decade. It’s in the main story, and a slew of side tales, that Lemire shows the depth and subtlety that make for truly awesome satire/parody.
Writer’s Note: I should be writing about the series’ new TPB, Streets of Spiral, which collects the FCBD 2019 stuff alongside Black Hammer: Giant Sized Annual, Black Hammer: Cthu-Louise, and the World of Black Hammer compendium. The book is out now, and you should totally go pick it up; if you’re not familiar with the series, it’s an intriguing introduction with ample background. Only, I’m way more interested in sharing my thoughts on the series proper and its nougat of parody goodness. But, really, Streets of Spiral: 6.5 stars, two thumbs up, and 3.5 popcorns.
Writer’s Note Part 2: Also, I won’t be talking about Ormston’s art, or any of the amazing art by guest contributors within Streets of Spiral. However, it’s all truly exceptional and deserves your careful observation and admiration. Especially the stuff from the annual and how art and narrative are threaded together.
As I was saying, great parody is basically two elements, with the first involving a great eye and sense of humor. And if you’ve read anything else by Lemire, you know he has both in spades. In Black Hammer especially, Lemire gives himself a formidable task by tackling almost all of comic history and its many varied stories and tropes, from Captain America to the New Gods. These characters and narrative threads work because they tow that perfect line between homage — it’s clear Lemire loves the medium, and these are a love letter to his favs — and outright satire — he’s not afraid to show how weird comics are by taking threads to their utmost absurdity (see Captain Weird for pulp-y space books, or the entirety of Starlok and the Lightriders).
Within that Venn diagram exists not only something hilarious but insightful, a buffer zone between real-world cynicism and child-like wonder that helps us understand the impact of these stories and what it all really means. There’s a kind of warmth to Lemire’s humorous efforts, and yet that never mitigates the all-important finger-poking at comic’s near-obscene wackiness.
But it’s not enough to be funny and observant; great parody requires skill, and that’s something that Lemire also has in spades. Beyond simply taking bits of comic storytelling and lore and showing us their absurdity, he’s also infusing these tropes with new layers of insight and context. Take, for instance, Golden Gail: every time she utters her magic word, she reverts back to looking like a 10-year-old girl. Consider, then, how that device works differently as she ages, or what it says about our obsession with youth and nostalgia. And there’s other, equally impactful occurrences throughout the first couple of volumes, like Madame Dragonfly and her cabin (how much is she responsible for and why?) and Talky Walky’s probes (why is the least human person the most wildly desperate to go home?)
It’s not just that Lemire is a great satirist; he drills beyond the “juvenile” surface of this approach to tell a deeper, more meaningful story, to flesh out bits that we perhaps never considered before and thus surprise us beyond the “humor.” Lemire gives new life to things we know so well, and it really is this delightful roundhouse kick to one’s sensibilities.
It occurred to me reading through the first two volumes as well as Streets of Spiral that some folks might not appreciate the depth of Lemire’s efforts here. That they’ll instead count it as another homage/simplistic critique of comics, a la Watchmen or Gødland. But Black Hammer occupies its very own Rockwood in parody/satire/homage/etc., this place where humor and insight, depth and banality all exist in wondrous peace and harmony. His work is neither overly cutting nor especially soft, and that light touch isn’t just rare but in many ways breaking new ground in our understanding of comics, our relationships with them, and just how sacred (or not) certain texts prove to be. In the case of this series, everything’s up for grabs, and while that might terrifying for some, Lemire’s intentions are as much about celebration as an intellectual exercise in remixing comic history and stories.
In that sense, Black Hammer feels like almost nothing I’ve ever read, and yet it remains as familiar as our favorite books and stories. It’s a tome that is both a comforting salve and a shock to the system; the literary equivalent of drinking Sunny D with ghost pepper extract. Because no matter how you choose to filter Lemire’s insights, this series will hammer your gooey lizard brain into loving submission.