Outside of the long-running shared universes of DC and Marvel, Black Hammer is one of the few properties with a similarly gargantuan scope and array of world-building titles. The series, created in part by writer-artist Jeff Lemire, spans not only the titular series but titles like The Quantum Age, Skulldigger + Skeleton Boy, Age of Doom, and Visions. No matter the main character or the setting, though, it’s the larger narrative, the robust humanity throughout, and the sense of growth and development that’s made this fictional universe feel all that more real.
For the latest title in this ever-growing universe, Lemire has reconvened with artist Tyler Crook (from Colonel Weird: Cosmagog) for The Unbelievable Unteens. The book is set to follow comic artist Jane Ito, who is one day “visited by one of the characters from her own creation — but was it her own creation?” The resulting journey, which plays with comic tropes and tip-toes into the realm of the metafictional, begs the question of whether Ito’s creation, The Unbelievable Unteens, were just make-believe or something much more than any story.
Ahead of the book’s August 11 release date, we spoke with both Lemire and Crook via email, discussing their collaborative process, what this new title adds to the larger Black Hammer universe, and what the future holds, among many other topics.
AIPT: What’s the elevator pitch for this latest series? How does it fit into the larger Black Hammer mythos and/or universe?
Jeff Lemire: The Unbelievable Unteens is the Black Hammer universe’s take on the great 1980’s teenaged superhero comics but all filtered through a supernatural angle as well. The elevator pitch is, “The World’s Greatest Teenaged Superheroes are Dead! This is what happens next.”
AIPT: You’ve worked together on Black Hammer titles/projects before. What’s it like to “reunite,” and how has your collaborative partnership evolved over time?
JL: I just really love Tyler’s art and his watercolor style, and it brings such a unique aesthetic to a superhero comic like this. And his storytelling is second to none. He tells stories visually much like I do in my self-drawn books, so he naturally managed to put onto paper almost exactly what I see in my head when I’m writing the scripts.
Tyler Crook: I kind of rolled right out of Colonel Weird: Cosmagog straight into Unvbelievable Unteens. So it didn’t feel as much like a reunion as it did a continuation of our collaboration. It doesn’t feel like our partnership has changed much in that time. If anything, I’ve been appreciating Jeff’s writing more and more.
AIPT: Similarly, Colonel Weird: Cosmagog was pretty strange (in the best possible ways!) and also fairly meta. How much connection, be it a storyline or even just some vibe/aesthetic, do these two stories share?
JL: That’s an interesting question given that it’s Tyler and I teaming up again, but the truth is the two books don’t have a string connection beyond the existing in the Black Hammer universe. They are really quite different in style and tone. This story is much more closely tied to the Black Hammer: Age of Doom series than the Colonel Weird series. Age of Doom introduced readers to the character of Jack Sabbath and now we get to diver deeper into Jack’s world and story.
TC: There is also some fun story telling elements where we get to see the characters living in the Black Hammer universe and also see what the comics about those characters would look like in that world.
AIPT: Both of you are writers and artists at various points. Does that make projects better somehow? Is this “blending” somehow reflected in the pages of Unteens?
JL: I hadn’t really thought about that too much to be honest, but I think there is a shorthand with Tyler and I because we both know comic book storytelling so well. I can be pretty hands off and light with my art direction and panel descriptions because I know what a strong storyteller he is.
TC: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s better per se. I think one of the nice things about working with Jeff in particular is that his scrips have everything I need to tell the story but leave me room to explore and expand on the ideas.
AIPT: Some press for the series promised that it dives into more “metafictional elements.” What’s that mean, and why is that a natural progression for this series/universe?
JL: The “meta” stuff in Unteens is really pretty specific to a story element in this series and with these characters. It’s not a hint towards a wider move into metafictional stuff in the Black Hammer universe as a whole. I know that I have flirted around with some metafictional stuff in various series but recently I’ve been careful to reign that in again. In Unteens readers will quickly see that the meta-aspects are pretty minor and specific to the story.
TC: Although we are exploring some ideas about how these characters fit inside a comic book, I think we stop short of being “meta.”
AIPT: It feels like this series maybe leans into — or gently dips its toes into — the realm of horror. Is that a fair assessment, and why is more horror maybe more interesting?
JL: I always loved the more supernatural characters in the Marvel and DC Universes so I wanted to build up that corner of the Black Hammer universe now as well. Madame Dragonfly and Jack Sabbath are the starting point but in this series and in the coming Madame Dragonfly book that Dean Ormston is drawing, we will really start to populate that horror and occult corner of the BHU. That’s been a lot of fun for me.
TC: What qualifies as “horror” can be pretty subjective. There are certainly elements of the story that could be considered horror. But I think the real scary parts of the story revolve around dealing with the fallout of growing up and losing the friends you had as a kid. And generally, I think it’s that emotional exploration that makes horror stories appealing.
AIPT: Obviously, identity plays a huge role across this series, with characters figuring out, to varying degrees, that their lives are not what they always appear to be. What about this narrative strand that remains central to the larger story/universe?
JL: Identity has always been a central theme in Black Hammer. If you look back at Barbalien and Golden Gail, for instance, those are both characters struggling with who they are, with how the world perceives them versus how they feel inside etc. So I think Unteens is a natural extension of this as well. Identity and secret identities are baked right into the superhero genre, so it seems like a really natural and fruitful narrative thread to follow.
AIPT: Without spoiling too much, this series also involves memory loss as a device for exploring characters’ “true” selves. Why is that device specifically so compelling?
JL: I love exploring memory in all my books. The idea that we really all are just the sum of our memories is very interesting to me. And I love how memories can change and warp over time and how they can play tricks on us.
“Now I’m focusing back in on the core series, Black Hammer Reborn, and refocusing the whole universe back to one big final story.”
AIPT: Is there ever any fear/hesitation that you’re mining too much from Black Hammer? Or that you’ll get to a point where the story’s no longer interesting or viable?
Jeff: There is always that fear. The last thing I want to do is overstretch the universe or start doing books just to do books. In fact, Unteens and The Madame Dragonfly series will be the final spin-offs for a long time. Now I’m focusing back in on the core series, Black Hammer Reborn, and refocusing the whole universe back to one big final story. And Unteens and the other spin-offs I’ve done will all play into that final story.
TC: It can definitely make some of the character designs a bit challenging. Most of the characters were designed Jeff, Dean and others before I started on Unteens. But the few I did design required a bit of tweaking to make sure they fit the archetype that people would understand while still being a unique version of that archetype.
AIPT: I don’t think you can have a team of super-powered teens and not have it reference any past favorites. Were there any specific inspirations for the Unteens, be it comics or other media? Do each of you have a “favorite” member?
JL: I have always loved the Marv Wolfman and George Perez Titans from the ’80s. That book was my absolute favorite as a kid. But there have been a lot of great teen hero books. The Claremont X-Men is gold as well.
AIPT: Why should anyone pick up issue #1?
JL: Because if they don’t Jack Sabbath will haunt their comic book collections forever and slowly turn their souls to dust.
TC: Jack Sabbath doesn’t mess around, you better do what he says.
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