Dark Horse Review: BARBALIEN: RED PLANET #2
[Editor’s Note: This review may contain spoilers]
Writers: Jeff Lemire, Tate Brombal
Artist: Gabriel Hernandez Walta
Colours: Jordie Bellaire
Letters: Aditya Bidikar
Reviewed By: Derek McNeil
Barbalien: Red Planet #2: With a borrowed face, shapeshifting Martian hero Barbalien explores the gay night scene and a buried part of himself. But his fractured identity takes another hit when he comes into conflict with his new friends, his fellow police officers, and the murderous lunatic who followed him to Earth.
Jeff Lemire introduced the character Barbalien in his classic Black Hammer series, but now Lemire and co-writer Tate Brombal have focused in on the Martian hero. Several of the denizen’s of the Black Hammer universe are pastiches of classic comics characters. It’s evident that Barbalien largely borrows from DC’s Martian Manhunter. Both characters are Martians as well as shapeshifters. Also, the name “Mark Markz” follows a very similar pattern to “J’onn Jonzz”.
However, there is one important difference between the characters: Barbalien is gay. This makes him an outcast on both his planet of origin and his adopted home planet. However, in Barbalien: Red Planet #2, Mark Markz finds another world, or more of an underworld, in which he can start to explore his true self: Spiral City’s “Gay Village”.
Now I lived through the time period in which this story takes place, but since I saw the Aids crisis from a very different viewpoint than depicted here. I was a straight teen and living a somewhat sheltered life, so the Aids crisis was something I occasionally heard about on the news, but it didn’t directly impinge upon my own life. However, for Mark’s newly found gay associates, it’s a threat to their very lives. So, seeing it from their perspective is something of an eye-opener for me.
It’s also somewhat timely considering that the world is once again faced with a deadly disease. Only with the current pandemic, I now find myself amongst the vulnerable population rather than being in a position of safety. While, I can’t relate to being discriminated against for my sexual preferences, I can somewhat relate to this aspect of the story.
There are also elements of the Mikaal Tomas version of Starman in Barbalien. Particularly, as he was portrayed in James Robinson’s Starman title. Like Mark Markz, Mikaal also identifies as gay. And as we see this issue, Barbalien is being pursued by a bounty hunter for crimes against his homeworld – a situation Mikaal also found himself in.
I am also quite enjoying the art of Gabriel Hernandez Walta in this series. One thing I like about Lemire’s Black Hammer books is that we get to see a variety of artists giving their own interpretations of the character. Walta manages to emphasize the alienness of his Martian appearance more than we have seen before. However, he keeps him recognizable as the same character we know from the main Black Hammer title.
So far, Lemire and Brombal’s story is a powerful and enjoyable story that has made no major missteps. There is some difference between Barbalien’s characterization in Black Hammer. However, it seems clear that this arises from the character having matured and growing somewhat more comfortable amongst the humans around him.
Barbalien: Red Planet #2 is another illuminating chapter in Lemire and Brombal’s exploration of Barbalien’s early days on Earth. Like all of Lemire’s Black Hammer titles, it’s a pure joy to read. I look forward to reading more of the events that shaped the character we have seen in the main series as the series continues.