I recently read one of the best graphic stories to come my way in some time: Ether Vol. 1 by writer Matt Kindt and artist David Rubin. It was about a man who discovers a scientific realm beyond our own, seemingly inhabited by humanity’s notions of mythology. It is a land of living beings, all of whom firmly believe in magic. Our protagonist begins to visit the land and use his knowledge of science to debunk those beliefs and solve crimes there.
This land of mythology is so beautifully-rendered by Rubin. Many panels in this story could stand on their own as independent works of art. Ether, however, is not unique in this way, as many comics these days have a similarly-striking and imaginative visual quality (this is to take nothing away from Ether). Where Ether really stands apart is through the emotional depth Rubin and Kindt aspire to with its story.
That magical land—known to our characters as the titular Ether—moves through time differently, with months in the real world passing for every minute one spends there. When our protagonist first discovers it and begins to visit, he is happily married with a young family. Each of his visits, however, progresses the lives of his wife and daughters by several years past his own. He becomes addicted, their lives slip away from him—heartbreak.
I read this as a metaphor for the plight of anyone who is similarly driven, and as Kindt and Rubin are artists, I presume this metaphor was drawn through their own time lost at the keyboard or the drawing table, travelling through imaginative worlds grown from their own ideas as their families went on without them. As a writer myself, this gave the book—which stands on its own wonderfully as an engaging story rife with heroes and villains and mystery—a haunting undertow as I read, bringing me to tears somewhere during the fourth chapter.
That metaphor, while gorgeous, is not what this piece is about. I assume I’m far from the only one to pick up on it, as critically lauded as Ether has been in comics circles. What I want to unpack today is how another successful Dark Horse Comics property—Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, and Dave Stewart—could be looked at as a companion piece to Ether, another side of the same artistic sacrifice coin.
Whereas Ether examines the loss of one’s family as a price for spending life engrossed in work, Black Hammer depicts a different sort of creative sacrifice, one that has to do with being lost in the mystique of a craft, a professional culture, a niche artistic medium driven by nostalgia. Black Hammer is the story of a group of superheroes, all of whom are analogs for various characters from the Silver Age of comics. These heroes face down a global threat and find themselves confined to a mysterious farm for their troubles, lost to the world they were defending and stuck in a small rural area that doesn’t seem to be on any map.
It is, quite clearly, a paean by Lemire, Ormston, and Stewart to superhero comics, which all of them have spent parts of their careers within. It’s more than just a reimagining of a classic superhero mythos. See, there is sinister business afoot in Black Hammer, a mournfulness to the plight of the heroes on that farm, only one of whom seems satisfied with life there (and even then, who's to say he’s not deluding himself?).
Read a certain way it almost seems like the question underlying Black Hammer is what do we give up when we fall so fully into our nostalgia for superhero comics, how much of a risk are we at of being swallowed whole by it? It’s a poignant question in an era when vicious battles are waged online about the future of many pop culture properties, battles in which nostalgia is often held as a causation. I can only suppose the question is more poignant for the creators, whose lives work is being given over in part to these characters.
Lemire’s work is always somewhat obtuse in origin, difficult to figure out thematically (in the best possible way), but let's think about the timeline during which he may have conceptualized Black Hammer, which was in all probability near the tail end of his time writing exclusively for Marvel. When Marvel’s All New All Different initiative launched, Lemire was one of the central writers, taking on some of the publisher’s most prominent characters, including one of the central X-Men team books, Old Man Logan, and All New Hawkeye, which was a followup to the immensely successful run on that character by David Aja and Matt Fraction.
Throughout 2016, however, Lemire slowly began drifting off those titles, reducing his Big 2 superhero output to a mere two books today, one of which is yet to be released. It’s not a stretch, in my opinion, to suppose Black Hammer was a manifestation of Lemire feeling creatively trapped, a sense that maybe he was drawn into this work by nostalgia and had professionally been stuck on a farm. I’m not saying I know any of this to be a fact, but I think there’s a case to be made.
I’ll conclude by saying I find both Black Hammer and Ether to be among the most intriguing titles coming to comic book stores each month, and I find important questions for us all within them, specifically: what must aspiring creators be willing to sacrifice for our crafts?; and is there danger or risk of stagnation that could kneecap our futures buried within the warm fuzzy feelings of nostalgia?
I really doubt either book will provide clear or concrete answers for such tough questions—great art is rarely so neat—but I trust there will continue to be a beautiful journey in the asking.
Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.