by Jarrod Jones. From the stars he came to us, lost, seeking, at a moment when we had problems of our own. From the Black Hammer universe created by Jeff Lemire comes an origin story of one of his most beloved and elusive characters: Barbalien, the strange Martian visitor who came down to Earth and despite our hate and fear decided to stick around and protect us anyway.
Needless to say, Barbalien’s story is far more complicated than that. That’s why Dark Horse Comics is releasing Barbalien: Red Planet, a new mini-series that delves into the details of our favorite martian’s life before the farm, before the Anti-God, when Mark Markz’s life was fraught with loneliness and doubt just as the United States was reaching a historical tipping point.
Tate Brombal, the writer of Red Planet, might be a new name to you. But the Toronto-based writer has the full confidence of Lemire and has ambitious plans concerning Barbalien, whose civilian identity as a Spiral City police officer is about to collide with the social upheaval that came amid the 1980s AIDS crisis. I’ve read the first issue of Red Planet—it’s terrific, by the way—and while its story does (quite accidentally) share historical parallels to our own very real current moment, Tate’s story is more concerned with the United States’ history with AIDS and its treatment of the LGBTQ+ community. Barbalien: Red Planet is a story deeply rooted in the identity of Mark Markz, a gay man living with secrets at a time when keeping things hidden might have meant certain death.
“My guiding principle became the protagonist and his journey,” Tate tells me. “Here’s a character that is at the intersection of Martian Superhero/Police Officer/Closeted Gay Man with his secret identity being White. That’s a lot to unpack and is rife with tension, so I knew a major focus had to be the Police-Queer relations of that period, as well as queer BIPOC experiences. The majority of AIDS stories (and LGBTQ+ stories, in general) are White-centric, so I knew I didn’t want to feed that canon. As a result, the major contenders and supporting cast of the book are POC.”
And, because this is a Black Hammer comic, there’s a bit of swashbuckling and superhero derring-do, as well. “[Red Planet‘s] main source of inspiration is the very real history of the AIDS crisis; it is very much a historical fiction,” he says. “It’s then peppered with Burroughs sword-and-planet pulpy goodness, which was a lot of fun.”
Ahead of its November 18 release, DoomRocket spoke with Tate Brombal about Barbalien: Red Planet, the metatextual nature of Black Hammer, and the moment in American history that became the story’s powerful core.
1. Working with Jeff Lemire on the ‘Black Hammer Encyclopedia’ and upcoming television projects has given you tremendous access to both Jeff’s brain and the world of ‘Black Hammer’, and now you yourself are guiding the narrative trajectory for one of its characters alongside Gabriel Walta. From your initial ‘Barbalien’ cold pitch to today, how has this creative experience been for you so far?
Tate Brombal: It’s definitely been my most rewarding creative experience, even outside of those television projects. I swear every comics writer says this, but I remember being a kid and dreaming up stories late at night for the comics that I read. Even then, I thought it was too far-fetched up a dream—how does one even become a comic book writer??? So this has been transformative, and I’ve learned so much as a storyteller. Meanwhile, Jeff is family at this point. He’s obviously been a guiding light for me in this industry, so I owe a lot of this to him.
2. Your comics career is just beginning and you’re already writing scripts for Gabriel and Jordie Bellaire and Aditya Bidikar—what has the collaboration between you and your creative team been like for such a high-profile project such as this? Has there been any learning experiences that you already know you’ll be bringing into your next comics project?
I know, right!! I still can’t wrap my head around this creative team! It’s been incredible, and I’ve learned so much from each member of the Barbie squad. Gabriel and I just mesh so well together. The fact that such a high caliber artist connects to the same emotionality and heart in storytelling that I do, proves that what I’m doing is valid and understood. I definitely have more confidence now in my decision making and the point-of-view I bring to my stories. I advocated to have a queer letterer on the book, and I’m so glad and blessed that it’s Aditya. We’ve gotten so close across this series. I’m always spamming him ideas, compliments, and apologies, and that friendship has been incredibly rewarding. And then there’s Jordie, who is always on the receiving end of everybody freaking out about her colors. I just want to keyboard mash sometimes! [Laughs] She is a masterclass in the potential of colours in comics. She is always additive, in ways I could never dream. I want to work with this team forever!!!
Overall, I think the biggest lesson from this experience has been to foster that familial relationship with your comics team. Be generous and kind. Push each other to experiment and always validate and support one another. Comics is tough, and at the end of the day we only have each other. So, let’s be that support system we all need and deserve.
3. We’ll get into the storytelling specifics of ‘Barbalien’ shortly; first I wanted to ask about the analogous nature of ‘Black Hammer’, which draws some of its strength from meaningful parallels to various Bronze Age DC and Marvel characters and sagas. You’re writing about Mark Markz, the ‘BH’ analogue to DC’s J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter—do things ever get surreal when you’re writing a tale that’s, in a sense, loaded with so much metatext? Or are you able to set the meta aside?
Honestly—and this might get my comics card revoked—I don’t have that same nostalgia or reverence for Bronze Age Marvel and DC or anything pre-2000s, really. I’m just not from that generation, which would be Jeff’s generation, and Jeff and I have talked about that a lot. I grew up on Carey’s X-Men, Bendis and Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man, and the Scholastic reprints of Bone. While I have of course gone back and read much of those earlier comics, those are the titles that were formative for me. I remember my uncle showing me his Kingdom Come comics when I was thirteen and having my mind blown, but it didn’t resonate with me the same way it hit him. Meanwhile, I remember handing him Greg Pak and Carmen Di Giandomenico’s Magneto Testament in return because that was my reference point for what a brilliant, emotional comic was. And he adored it! So I’m not writing Mark Markz as a knock-off J’onn J’onnz, and that analogous relationship didn’t inform my story at all. I will say that there is one scene inspired by Darwyn Cooke’s Martian Manhunter in The New Frontier, but, even then, the scenes use a similar device to say very different things—which I think is what Black Hammer is all about. This book’s main source of inspiration is the very real history of the AIDS crisis; it is very much a historical fiction. It’s then peppered with Burroughs sword-and-planet pulpy goodness, which was a lot of fun, but I still wouldn’t say it’s meta in any way.
4. Let’s get into the story a bit. ‘Barbalien: Red Planet’ places Mark Markz in 1980s Spiral City during the peak of the AIDS crisis, a story that’s rife with potential and one that you personally wanted to explore. When you were working on the outline and diving into research, how did you suss out which elements from this very-real moment in our country’s history to implement into your story? There’s a lot of hate, hurt, and ennui from that time, but there’s power and perseverance in there, as well.
First of all, thank you so much for drawing attention to the power and perseverance of the queer and HIV+ populations from that period because I do think that is often overlooked in favor of focusing on their tragedy and pain. That perseverence is the heart of our book.
My research was often a struggle. It was difficult to read and watch a history play out that was only a generation away, that would have very likely included me, and that very much still affects me today. I grew up in a world where “gay” and “AIDS” were synonymous, but my own closeting prevented me from investigating why or interrogating how. This book allowed me to open the queer history books, and what I found was a treasure trove. While I expected trauma, horror, and mourning, I didn’t expect the deep sense of pride that I acquired. I am in awe of the activists from that period. I do not have the words for their resilience and fortitude.
As I did my research, the struggle became to translate everything I read and experienced onto the page—but, obviously, that’s impossible. My guiding principle became the protagonist and his journey. Here’s a character that is at the intersection of Martian Superhero/Police Officer/Closeted Gay Man with his secret identity being White. That’s a lot to unpack and is rife with tension, so I knew a major focus had to be the Police-Queer relations of that period, as well as queer BIPOC experiences. The majority of AIDS stories (and LGBTQ+ stories, in general) are White-centric, so I knew I didn’t want to feed that canon. As a result, the major contenders and supporting cast of the book are POC. The next struggle became telling this story as a White gay man who didn’t experience the AIDS crisis and who lives in a much more tolerant society due to the struggle and sacrifice of this generation of queer activists. If I were diagnosed with HIV today, my life expectency would go unchanged and I’d have no fear of transmitting the virus with the proper medication regiment. Meanwhile, for my current age during the peak of the crisis, AIDS was the leading cause of death. I made sure to stay cognizant of that and my privilege while crafting this story. This was the most difficult part of writing Red Planet, by far.
5. One of the things that struck me early on in reading ‘Barbalien’ #1 was the language used by the Martian overlords to describe Mark’s life as they placed judgment upon him, how sterile it was. “Coupling with one of [Earth’s] males”… “These choices of yours will cost you dearly”, etc. It felt both distant and deliberately cruel, which is often the way authority chooses to castigate the people it deems “fringe.” As a gay man (or Martian), Mark’s life on Mars isn’t so different than what he might have experienced in Reagan’s America. It’s a similarity that’s meant to underscore the isolation and loneliness Mark feels at this point in his life, but this also represents those same feelings endured by the LGBTQ2SIA+ community during this time, doesn’t it?
Yes! You’re definitely on track there. I don’t want to discuss much or spoil it, but there is a reason I chose to start the book with that scene in that moment. Obviously, every reader may have a different idea about why that is, but it was very important to make a few similarities clear. Martian warlord, clinical barbarity was a handy mirror to hold up to Reagan’s America, let’s just say that. But let’s also not forget that these martians are fictitious, while the harsh experiences of being Queer and marginalized in Reagan’s America were very much real. So the parallels only go so far.
6. One interesting wrinkle in Mark’s life—aside from being a Martian superhero—is his civilian identity as a Spiral City police officer. Mark’s hiding a lot of himself in order to “fit in” with the people of Earth, and not just his copper skin and antennae. He’s stifling who he is to keep things on an even keel. How have you gone about exploring such deep-rooted empathy for an authority figure? How has current perceptions of police affected the way you’re looking at ‘Barbalien: Red Planet’ as we near its release?
So, I wrote these scripts nearly a year and a half ago, way before I had any idea people would mobilize at such a grand scale in Black Lives Matter and anti-police protests across the globe. It doesn’t surprise me that our book is more relevant than ever because Queer people, BIPOC, anyone marginalized and on the fringes of society… We’ve been speaking up about police brutality for decades. We have been organizing and fighting it. Stonewall and the just violence that ensued was a watershed moment for queer rights, but it was initially an uprising against police brutality in queer spaces. My scripts were informed by all of this, so my perceptions have not changed—because I have known. I am well-aware, however, that the book’s messaging has become much more topical and, possibly, palatable by the “mainstream.” It is a very angry book, and I’m glad that even more people will be onboard.
Now, backtracking to your first question about exploring an authority figure with empathy, you have to keep in mind that Mark Markz is a shape-shifting martian performing as a White man or a White cop. So it doesn’t work exactly the same as me trying to sympathize with a White, human cop. However, Mark did choose a skin and profession he’s comfortable with, and that says something in itself. I’m not forgiving of Mark in this book, so it does become about the choices he makes and their repercussions. It’s about code-switching and self-preservation and complacency—all of which I understand deeply as a gay man who has done and believed terrible things in my closeting. So it wasn’t difficult to investigate and write this character.
7. I’ll try to work around spoilers for this question. There’s a page in ‘Barbalien: Red Planet’ #1 that happens at just the right moment, just when we need to examine Mark Markz’s life on Earth during such historical tumult. The page addresses Mark’s life as a superhero, as a cop, as a man, and how these three facets of his life are at direct odds with each other. He looks so lost. Can we talk about this page a little bit? Was there a specific way you wanted this page to look? How does this one moment inform ‘Red Planet’ as the series continues?
That page is very intentional, for the reasons you give and others. I don’t want to spoil the moment for readers, but I will say that my script was very exact. The panel layout is deliberate. Then, obviously, Gabriel and Jordie improved upon everything I set before them. It’s a very special page that hopefully resonates throughout the series, and it’s one that we will revisit in different ways, as well. Mark is at an identity crossroads, but he’s also reexamining his own actions and inactions. What does it mean to be heroic? Is complacency just complicity? These questions will inform the rest of the book, for sure.
8. On that tack, I wanted to talk a little more about scripting. Working with a draftsman like Gabriel Walta seems like it would be a bit intimidating. [Laughs] What do your page layouts look like in the initial scripting phase? How did they evolve as Gabriel came back with input?
Well, the first or second word of advice that Jeff gave me was, “When you’re working with an artist, especially one like Gabriel, just hand them the script and let them do their thing.” So that’s what I did! I wasn’t intimidated, mostly because Gabriel is very sweet and down-to-earth, but I definitely didn’t want to let him down. I knew this book would consume many months of his life, so I wanted to make sure it was worth it for him and that he was engaged. Thank goodness Gabriel has since told me how much the story, characters, and history have meant to him! [Laughs] Anyways, my scripts presented all the relevant information with extra emphasis on mood and emotion. I rarely suggested layouts, except when I was doing something very specific—like the moment in the previous question. And, honestly, some of the smartest storytelling in this book is because Gabriel went “Nah, that’s not it.” and did something better. He’s a master of the craft, and I learned so much from him.
9. I presume your immediate future is very much intertwined with ‘Black Hammer’, so I won’t pry into the projects you may be working on next. So let’s play around with hypotheticals. You told ComicBook.com that you love Nightwing—a character I hold near and dear to my own heart—so I simply must ask: If you had to elevator pitch a Nightwing analogue for a ‘Black Hammer’ story right now, this minute, what would that character look like? When would it take place? What other Bat-analogues might pop in?
Oh gosh, with my track record of cold pitches, Jeff will probably see this and make me write a book about it!! That’s too much pressure! [Laughs] But I would want a character that had that same spirit as Nightwing—the original legacy hero who is everyone’s favorite nephew. It would be swashbuckling fun across the entire Black Hammer universe. It would be sweet with a ton of heart, and tragedy that is never able to break his spirit. And that’s all I’m giving you!! [Laughs]
10. I usually wrap these interviews up with a softball question, and I am definitely going to do that now. [Laughs] If you suddenly discovered that you could shift and mold your physical appearance into anybody you wanted, would you?
Look, I can’t write an entire series about a martian trying on different skins and identities as a failed attempt at fitting in and being himself then say “Yes” to this question!! [Laughs] But… It could be fun? [Laughs]
More comics interviews to get those synapses firing…