Barbalien: Red Planet delivers a brand new entry in the world of Black Hammer. Following the titular Barbalien, this debut issue delves into the mysterious Martians’ past and the struggles he faced adapting to Earth’s culture. Before now, Barbalien’s past exploits have been left largely unknown save for a few key events; and Red Planet seeks to fill in this missing narrative. Barbalien: Red Planet offers a fantastic debut issue with a promising thematic hook.
The issue opens with the tribunal punishment of Martian hero Mark Markz, Barbalien. Following this foreboding opening, the central narrative shifts back to the events on Earth that seem to have led to Mark’s predicament. The main story is set amidst the backdrop of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and follows Mark’s life as a closeted police officer. Though Mark himself functions as a pastiche of DC Comics’ own Martian Manhunter, J’onn J’onzz, writers Tate Brombal and Jeff Lemire imbue him with his own distinct aspects.
Brombal and Lemire cleverly use the idea behind Martian Manhunter as a building block for a deeper narrative. Generally speaking, the Martian Manhunter’s archetypal struggle centers around the idea of fitting in. As a literal alien outsider, he often struggles to relate to other humans and gives readers who may be outsiders themselves something to latch onto. Specifically within Barbalien, Brombal and Lemire take this struggle one step further and give it real weight and relatability. Mark Markz is an alien both in terms of his species and sexuality in a discriminatory period of history.
The issue is particularly effective in laying out its thematic thrust. Here Brombal and Lemire tackle the very relevant issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, BIPOC experiences, and police-queer relations. It seems apt that this book releases in the current global climate and opens a dialogue into such issues. Every page in both scripting and art boldly states the writers’ narrative intentions.
From an artistic standpoint, the issue is visually compelling with a cinematic flair. Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s use of paneling creates a dynamic flow throughout the entire issue. His paneling varies from scene to scene conveying both the intimate nature of the small narrative moments as well as the grandiosity of large “widescreen” moments. Walta’s page layouts pace the story exceptionally and work well in keeping the reader engaged on every page turn.
The issue also boasts some Burroughs-esque sci-fi influence and creativity. Walta’s Martians are a far cry from the “little green men” trope and provide a fresh take on Martian culture. From their insectoid designs to the dusty red and yellow color palette, the issue drops readers into a brand new world. Aditya Bidikar’s lettering especially helps create a unique voice for the Martians. His expressive lettering choices capture the essence of a foreign Martian dialect and gives the reading experience a distinctive flair.
Barbalien: Red Planet works exceptionally well on every level at delivering an engaging debut. It lays out its narrative and thematic thrusts through every aspect. From Brombal and Lemire’s story to Walta and Jordie Bellaire’s art, it all comes together in a unified creative vision. Barbalien takes the setup of what what could be perceived as a needless Black Hammer spin-off and instead takes the story in an intimate and relevant direction.
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