THIS REVIEW OF ‘BARBALIEN: RED PLANET’ #1 CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
by Clyde Hall. A virus runs rampant, killing thousands while the nation’s leaders delay and limit their response including funding research for a cure. Police clash with protestors challenging both governmental failures to act and systemic, ongoing discrimination. What may track like a modern doomsurf in the debut issue of the 5-part series Barbalien: Red Planet actually addresses unrest in 1986 America, and the virus is HIV/AIDS.
It’s also the Black Hammer universe, where the shape-shifting Martian called Barbalien is a superhuman defender of Earth while maintaining a secret identity as a white police officer. Patrolman Mark Markz may pass for human, but he’s also passing when it comes to his Martian overlords. From their lofty positions in Martian society, they would brand Markz a traitor to both his race and moral decency if they knew the truth: Mark is gay.
Tate Brombal delivers an intricate expansion of Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston’s Barbalien character without other superhumans for contrast. In previous Hammerverse offerings, Mark Markz often served as a supportive voice of reason and a non-judgmental friend, especially to the heroes imprisoned with him on the Farm in Black Hammer, and its sequel, Age of Doom.
In his interview with DoomRocket’s Jarrod Jones, Brombal indicated another departure from standard Hammerverse fare: While the characters are often analogs for existing superheroes, Barbalien sharing much in common with DC’s Martian Manhunter, Brombal wasn’t versed in all things J’onn J’onzz. He wanted to tell a story, and the Barbalien character was a good fit. Similarities consistent in previous Barbalien appearances, as well as a nod to Darwyn Cooke’s J’onn in New Frontier, allow plentiful parallels.
The issue’s an origin told through flashback (an element slightly confusing on my first read). Prisoner Mark Markz faces the High Court of Mars for betraying his kind and his mission during a planned invasion of Earth, and a verdict is reached. We then witness events leading to the trial, Markz interacting with humans both as the champion Barbalien and as Officer Mark Markz during demonstrations over the rising death toll from HIV/AIDS. The fury embodied by one protest leader intensifies a conflict already building within the alien who is a cop, and a superhero, and a closeted gay man.
Brombal and Red Planet artist Gabriel Hernández Walta both render Barbalien as we’ve experienced him in other appearances, a calming soul dedicated to doing the right thing. Here, however, Markz faces a crossroad. He’s bowed to the pressures of propriety and duty as established by the hetero male Martian hierarchy. On Earth, he becomes part of the native authority force, serving its masters who are largely white hetero men.
Witnessing humans confronting the indifference concerning HIV/AIDS deaths, feeling their outrage even while he’s ordered to disperse protestors, Barbalien questions his allegiances. He undergoes a dawning realization that being gay in this pivotal moment, on either world, in either society, can carry a death sentence through contemptuous inaction or brutal persecution. His choice is serving the oppressors or opposing them; this is the genesis of the superhero we’ve come to know.
There’s wisdom in the writing and in the timing. Blood purity, whether proof of royal lineage or marred with bloodborne pathogen, is a theme here. With a global pandemic both claiming lives and impacting life with economic downturn, lost jobs, and isolation, the reader can identify with victims of the earlier, lethal epidemic. In 1986, everyone knew HIV/AIDS was horrible, even if it was a horror that was afflicting someone else. In 2020, everyone understands the uncertainty, the insensitivity, and the mortal fear a deadly virus inspires. COVID shouldn’t be a teaching requirement in caring deeply about others, but this creative team utilizes it (however inadvertently) in a manner worthy of the subject.
Walta’s art synchs tightly with the narrative, never more than his Martian court, alien yet repulsively human in its bigoted hate for Markz, and the human yet inhumane authorities confronting protestors. His characters wear their rawest emotions like masks, loathing to lethargy, rage to revelry, sweeping the reader up in every impassioned twist. Jordie Bellaire cues off the Red Planet portion of the title, stoking the narrative drama by pitting fiery coloration against more subdued hues.
Aditya Bidikar’s Martian fonts, especially the chittering Martian sounds of scorn, combine inherently readable text with a convincing alien appearance. It’s the precise, perceptive lettering innovations Bidikar enriches books with, and Barbalien’s a worthy recipient.
Lemire’s Black Hammer titles have been a consistent source of joy for me, even the tragedies. Sadly, brilliantly fulfilling was Doctor Star and the Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows (now re-christened as Doctor Andromeda); that’s surely a form of four-color joy. Barbalien: Red Planet may surpass anything yet produced for the Hammerverse and its first issue signifies the intent almost flawlessly. Lemire allowing other powerful creatives onto his Black Hammer stage invites ever-increasing returns. This issue is proof.
Dark Horse Comics / $3.99
Written by Tate Brombal.
Art by Gabriel Hernández Walta.
Colors by Jordie Bellaire.
Letters by Aditya Bidikar.
9 out of 10
Read Tate Brombal’s 10 THINGS CONCERNING… interview with DoomRocket here.
Check out this 6-page preview of ‘Barbalien: Red Planet’ #1, courtesy of Dark Horse Comics!