In Barbalien: Red Planet #2, writers Tate Brombal and Jeff Lemire, artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta, colorist Jordie Bellaire, and letterer Aditya Bidikar use the Black Hammer Universe sandbox to show the danger, tension, and yes, joy of being a queer man in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis. The first half of the comic is an homage to ball culture as Miguel, the young Latinx gay activist that Barbalien saved last issue, shows Mark Markz (Disguised a closeted, blond gay man named Luke) around an underground gay club until it is raided by the police. The dark, yet welcoming colors from Bellaire create a vibrant space that is interrupted by the jarring reds of the homophobic cops, their night sticks, and slurs. These are Markz’s colleagues on the force, and throughout the comic, he grapples with his different identities and roles in society: Martian, gay man, and police officer and tries to reconcile them while using abilities to be different things to different people.
Barbalien: Red Planet has done an excellent job of showing how difficult life was for my queer elders. Nowadays, I can go on Yelp and find a decent gay bar or queer-friendly space. Coming out was personally difficult, but being queer is something that is mostly tolerated by members of American society unless you’re a piece-of-shit Republican or Trumper. Rainbow capitalism is a thing, cops show up at Pride, well-meaning, yet tone-deaf corporate grocery stores think that “ally” is part of the LGBTQIA spectrum, and Ru Paul is a fracker. There is an assimilationist streak going on in the queer community (i.e. Lesbian couples throwing gender reveal parties.) where folks try to fit in with our late-capitalist, neoliberal, and fuck it, white supremacist kryriarchal society instead of resisting it. They applaud a racially profiling medium town mayor for being the first LGBTQ cabinet member in the administration of a right of center groper and a gender essentialist TERF and amuse themselves by watching annoying, heterosexual late-night TV hosts act out queer male stereotypes before a bloviating audience. (Aka fuck Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, James Corden, and Prom.)
However, Barbalien: Red Planet #2 doesn’t do any of this and centers on the BIPOC who were critical in the struggle for LGBTQ rights and trying to get the U.S. government to acknowledge the AIDS crisis. In Barbalien: Red Planet #2, Brombal, Lemire, and Walta introduce readers to the Black drag queen, Knight Klub, who is drawn, colored, and even lettered in a larger than life manner. She is an inspiration to queer men like Miguel, who spins stories of her being at Stonewall and assaulting a police officer at the White Night Riots. And Knight Klub lives up to the hype in the comic as she reads one of the raid cops and gives Miguel and Luke a chance to run away into the Spiral City night. The tension between direct action and trying to lay low continues towards the end of the book when Miguel’s friend Rafael channels his inner Marsha P. Johnson and throws a brick into a police station where the cops are planning to “shut down homosexual spaces”. He is angry that the police grabbed his partner Devon, who is HIV positive, and was inspired by Miguel hanging up a Pride flag at the courthouse. However, this is also just plain dangerous even with Markz mediating and trying to make none of his new friends are arrested or hurt. Because I live in an ostensibly more tolerant society, I can’t 100% relate to what happens in this comic, but I definitely have decided to not publicly come out as nonbinary because of pushback and constantly dealing with being misgendered. (I’m using he/they pronouns for now, but really prefer they/them.)
These atmosphere of activism and the characterization that Tate Brombal gives to Miguel, Rafael, and Devon are like the velvet to the emotional diamond that is Luke’s coming out story. This is technically his second coming out because Barbalien was exiled from Mars for being gay, sympathetic toward humans, and a peaceful man in a warlike society as shown in his previous stories. Luke is new to being around people like him, being called slurs, and even dancing and definitely comes across like a deer in headlights. However, to Miguel, it looks like he is giving off mixed signals, and Walta does a wonderful job of showing his frustration when Luke shrinks away from a kiss. He is exploring his identity during a volatile time, but there are some peaceful moments like Barbalien hanging out next to a Pride flag in Spiral City’s gay village.
These are the moments to savor between cop raids/attacks, and the most typical superhero/sci-fi part of this comic, which is a basically smartphone-wielding Martian bounty hunter tracking Barbalien down to make him pay for his “crimes” against Mars. The bounty hunter is a fairly straightforward protagonist, but Bombral, Lemire, and Walta draw some ghastly parallels between how he treats human beings and the police treat queer men and don’t pull any punches. They’ll kick down the doors just like the bounty hunter will blast them away with a similar intense color palette from Jordie Bellaire, who does a wonderful job gauging the emotion of each panel from peace to awkwardness and even sadness in a silent sequence where Luke looks at the sleeping Miguel, pictures of him with his partner, and then looks down at his police badge as he tries to reconcile his desire for peace and to do good with his true identity as a gay alien.
Two issues in, and Tate Brombal, Jeff Lemire, Gabriel Walta, Jordie Bellaire, and Aditya Bidikar’s Barbalien: Red Planet is easily my favorite story set in the Black Hammer universe (Black Hammer ’45 is fantastic too.). It’s the one I’ve been able to personally connect to. It’s a soul-searing character study for Barbalien/Mark Markz/Luke, and how he struggles with his identity and place on Earth/Spiral City while also centering the role of BIPOC in LGBTQ+ activism during the 1980s and telling their stories as well. And it does all of this with a superhero secret identity/shapeshifting twist.
Script: Tate Brombal Story: Jeff Lemire and Tate Brombal
Art: Gabriel Hernandez Walta
Colors: Jordie Bellaire Letters: Aditya Bidikar
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.4 Overall: 9.2 Recommendation: Buy
Dark Horse Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review