Posts Tagged ‘Inhumans’

If there’s a tough character to write in comics, it’s Black Bolt. The king — or, at least as of this writing, former king — of the Inhumans is, of course, famously silent, not because he’s mute, but because the mere sound of his voice is powerful enough to level cities. It was a great gimmick when Jack Kirby came up with it way back when, but it’s been a tricky conceit for subsequent creators to build upon. Paul Jenkins gave it a pretty good effort in his fine Marvel Knights Inhumans series done in collaboration with artist Jae Lee, but since then, no one’s really seemed to know what to do with this guy.

Apart from Marvel’s “suits,” of course, who had Black Bolt set off the so-called “Gene Bomb” a few years back that’s been utilized as the company’s preferred method for writing Mutants out of their corporate universe and Inhumans in. The boys in accounting aren’t so hot on Mutants these days, you see, given that Fox holds the cinematic rights to to the lot of ’em, and so the Inhumans have been conscripted as their de facto replacements, a scenario that’s been met with a healthy amount of skepticism, if not outright disdain, from many fans, and doesn’t seem to have set Hollywood ablaze with excitement, either, given that the once-inevitable blockbuster Inhumans movie has recently been “reimagined” on the fly as a low-budget TV series. So, ya know, maybe it’s all been for nothing.

Tell you what, though — don’t tell that to Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward, because they might just have one heck of a story to tell before all is said and done.

Ahmed is Marvel’s latest big “get” from outset the world of comics, with a heavy-duty CV that features everything from fantasy novels to essays to poetry, and Ward is best known these days as the mind-bendingly cosmic artistic visionary on Image’s Matt Fraction-scribed ODY-C, so to call this a true “A-List” team is probably something of an understatement, but hey — we’ve seen fine creators fall short of the mark before, so it’s not like I went into their just-released Black Bolt #1 necessarily expecting greatness, even if most signs seemed to point in that direction. Best to err on the side of caution just as a general rule anyway, am I right? Especially when four bucks are on the line with every installment.

Still, while our sample size so far is an admittedly small one, my guarded optimism looks, at this early juncture, to have been very well-placed indeed. Saladin does most of his storytelling by means of effectively clinical and distant third-person narration (after all, his protagonist is not only stone silent as ever, but muzzled, to boot!), and while on paper one could make a convincing case that not much actually happens in this issue — Black Bolt is imprisoned, presumably by his traitorous brother Maximus, but manages to break free of his bonds only to get in, and subsequently lose, a fight, thus ultimately ending up in chains all over again — it still feels like a more robust and substantive read than most other “decompressed” comics out there these days, especially since there’s a strong sense given that all is most definitely not as it seems here.

By the time we get to the cliffhanger that inference turns out to be exactly right, but even though our narrative journey from Point A back to Point A is a short one — this is about a five-minute read, tops, from cover to cover — it’s a fascinating little loop loaded with beautiful imagery including an M.C. Escher-esque splash page charting Black Bolt’s descent through his cosmic prison, dynamically free-flowing sequences of violent action, and intense non-verbal cues that “say” more than words ever could. Ward’s art is comparatively more restrained here than it is in the pages of the at-this-point-only-occasionally-released (to put it kindly) ODY-C, but the key word there is probably “comparatively” — for a “Big Two” superhero book this is vibrant and wonderfully experimental stuff indeed, and his (self-done) colors positively “pop” off the page and put one hell of an exclamation point on work that is frankly already all kinds of exciting.

Is it fair, then, to say that the art is the star of the show here? Well, okay, yeah, but it’s also indicative of an admirable lack of ego on a writer’s part to be more than willing to deliver a script that plays to your artist’s (numerous) strengths and to then stand back and let him assume the bulk of the narrative duties. In other words, for a couple dudes who only just started working together and have probably never communicated by anything other than electronic means, they sure seem pretty simpatico to this reader.

There’s a long way to go here before any sort of final judgment can be rendered (my best guess? 11 more issues), of course, and if subsequent chapters prove to be as economically-written as this one is then I can’t say I’d necessarily hold it against someone from “trade-waiting” this series, but all in all if we’re looking for one word to best describe Black Bolt #1, the one I’d go for is impressive.

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Maybe I’m just showing my age here, but the fact that we now seem to be entering into a phase where Marvel’s short-lived, ostensibly “mature” “Marvel Knights” imprint is looked back on with some sort of warm, nostalgic glow surprises me a bit. Not because the books that comprised the line were lousy (although some of them were), but because, well — it just doesn’t seem like they came out all that long ago.

Of course, for Marvel and their new corporate parent, Disney, it may as well have been a lifetime ago, as the current situation at the self-appointed “House Of Ideas” bears almost no resemblance whatsoever to the circumstances that prevailed back in the late 90s/early 2000s, when most of the “Knights” titles were released. Back then, Marvel was  just emerging from a richly-deserved bankruptcy and looking for any sort of toehold to remain relevant in the comics market. In short, they were throwing a lot of shit at the wall to see what would stick. Today, they’re primarily an instant-blockbuster-producing movie studio that keeps one finger in the comic pie just in case some hot new IP turns up there that they can screw its gullible, 25-year-old creators out of, but by and large there’s not much new happening on that front and they’re just continuing to strip-mine the wealth of characters and concepts created by Jack Kirby (like those we’re here to talk about today, The Inhumans — which were supposedly the brainchild of both Jack and Stan Lee, but you know who really did all the work and who filled in the largely-written-in-advance-by-the-artists word balloons) back in the 1960s for all they’re worth. “Marvel Knights” gave way to the so-called “Ultimate Universe,” which has in turn given way to “Marvel Now!,” but no matter how many times they re-launch and re-brand their line, the game remains the same — throw a slew of new “first issues” out there, wait a few years until sales numbers drop back to their previous levels, then reload and do it all over again.

Still, once in awhile a genuinely good comic does manage to sneak under the metaphorical lines set up by Marvel’s editorial department, and in 1998-99 writer Paul Jenkins and artist Jae Lee delivered one such product with their 12-issue Inhumans mini-series (note that I said “good,” not “great,” because this is a work that really does have some serious flaws, most noticeable of which is its full-time sullen attitude), which has now been semi-animated into the so-called “motion comics” format by Shout! Factory and released on DVD (although not, apparently, Blu-Ray, not that it would make much difference with a product of this nature) as part of their “Marvel Knights Animation” series. Even though it’s not, strictly, speaking, fully animated. But I digress.

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For those unfamiliar with the characters, which were developed as a race of super-being foils to occasionally interact ,as either friends and foes depending on the situation, with the Fantastic Four (although Kirby always had plans to  put them in a book of their own that he was going to write and draw, and those pipe dreams were scuttled at every turn), The Inhumans are a race of genetic mutations who all exhibit very unique and different powers and who live in isolation from the rest of humanity in their domed (and apparently mobile, as it’s managed to shuffle around to a lot of spots over the years, including an extended stay on the moon) city of Attilan. They’re led by their all-powerful king, Black Bolt, who remains silent by choice because one word from his mouth can literally destroy, apparently, all of creation, and he is, in turn, joined at the top of their society’s feudal power pyramid by his wife, Medusa, who has long, flowing manes of super-hair that move around of their own volition (typically used to snare bad guys, naturally); her sister, Crystal, who I think is some sort of telepath or other; an aloof “deep-thinker” type named Karnak, who serves as royal adviser; top military commander/general bad-ass Gorgon; a green, amphibious Merman named Triton; and Lockjaw, the royal family’s gigantic St. Bernard who’s gifted with the power of teleportation. Really.

Generally a fun and admittedly hokey bunch of cool Kirby characters, Jenkins’ script takes things in a considerably darker direction that exposes the ugly genetic caste system that prevails in Attilan (apparently at puberty all “gifted” teens are exposed to something called the Terrigen Mists, which function as something of a high-tech cocoon, unlocking and  enhancing their mutations and turning them into “new and improved” beings that are completely unrecognizable when compared to their “former” selves once they come out the other end, and those who turn out ugly or end up being endowed with abilities deemed rather limp by the more powerful and beautiful are immediately shunned) on the one hand  while testing the royal family’s leadership abilities on a couple of fronts, both from the “have-nots” within their own society who are burning with the fires of rebellion,  and from  the humans outside their dome who are shelling Attilan with every type of ordnance they’ve got, on the other. Both situations have been engineered, and are being manipulated by, Black Bolt’s evil brother, Maximus, who has designs on the throne he believes to rightly be his, but at his society’s hour of greatest peril, the king seems to be suffering from — how ’bout this — some sort of mid-life crisis. Which is kinda strange since it’s strongly hinted that he might very well be immortal, but there you have it.

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Jae Lee’s art is pretty cool in an angular, stylized sort of way — at this stage in his career he hadn’t yet developed the unbearably stiff and lifeless look that he employs today  and he wasn’t yet too lazy to draw backgrounds — and makes the transition to barely-animated form well, but the paucity of dialogue in Jenkins’ for-the-most-part-pretty-interesting script results in a choppy viewing experience, with most of the story’s 12 “chapters” running no more than 10 or 12 minutes before  we have to sit through the next set of closing-followed-by-opening credits all over again. The whole thing is barely over two hours long, so why they felt the need to segment it like this simply in order to strictly adhere to the comic’s format consisting of 12 separate issues is beyond me.

On the plus side, Shout! Factory has employed several different actors —of both genders — to voice the different parts (none of whom you’ve ever heard of, trust me, but that doesn’t matter much and most do a perfectly serviceable job), so unlike the Watchmen motion comic we took a look at on these virtual pages yesterday, you’re not stuck with one guy voicing every single character, even the women. This was released just this year while Watchmen was translated into “motion” almost five years ago, so I guess things have progressed somewhat. The widescreen picture and 5.1 sound are both terrific, as well, but be forewarned — turn your volume down about eight notches from its usual setting, because the sound levels on this thing are loud as fuck.

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The package is rounded off with a pretty solid little 30-minute “making of” featurette that splits its attention between Paul Jenkins talking about this series specifically and Marvel head honcho Joe Quesada talking about the inception of the entire “Knights” line in more general terms, but relevant  and interesting as this is, it’s admittedly not something that anything other than hard-core comics fans will probably find very involving. Which is fine, I guess, since hard-core fans are obviously the only people that are going to bother with the whole notion of “motion comics” in the first place. All in all, it’s fair to say that the same final verdict applies to Inhumans as it does to all these things — if you liked the book, you’ll like this fine, despite some hiccups in the translation to a new format, but you certainly don’t need to watch it — and if you’re unfamiliar with the so-called “source material,” then the — let’s face it — pointlessness of essentially shuffling the comic panels in a slide show in front of your face, while the story is read  aloud, is only amplified and echoed.