by The Masked Bookwyrm

The Inhumans

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Black Bolt: Hard Time 2017 (SC TPB) 128 pages

Written by Saladin Ahmed. Art by Christian Ward.
Colours/letters: __

Reprinting: Black Bolt #1-6 (2017)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Jan 2018

Published by Marvel Comics

This is maybe an illustration of how commercial impulses can lead to creative art.

Black Bolt is an on-going series focusing on -- Black Bolt (well, I mean, obviously). Black Bolt being the leader of the Inhumans, that bizarre city of super-powered human/inhuman beings that were introduced in the Fantastic Four back in the 1960s and have ever since flittered around the peripheries of the Marvel Universe, called upon as guest stars in various comics (where the plot more often than not is simply a variation on "__ meets the Inhumans") and landing their own occasional self-titled comic or graphic novel...but usually to limited success (their comics usually get cancelled after a few issues). Meanwhile Black Bolt himself is the oddest of all comic book creations because he's mute (any vocalization will trigger an uncontrollable sonic blast) and traditionally hasn't even been given thought balloons or first person narration. What makes Black Bolt intriguing is that he's always a bit enigmatic.

So it might seem odd to devote an entire comic to an enigmatic character associated with a group of limited commercial success.

But I'm guessing Marvel decided to go all-in on Inhumans stuff in anticipation of a tsunami of interest in the characters thanks to the new American TV series about the group. Black Bolt isn't the only new Inhumans title suddenly muscling its way onto the comic racks. However I'm not sure whether that tsunami ever hit. The TV series premiered to notoriously bad reviews (for the record, I didn't think it was that bad -- but it was admittedly uneven and weighed down by budget issues; but the first season did form a story arc so might be worth watching viewed more as a "mini-series").

But whatever triggered Marvel's renewed faith in the Inhumans, or the decision to greenlight a Black Bolt series -- the result so far is pretty good. Hence why commercial imperatives can still give rise to genuine art.

Writer Saladin Ahmed (who comes to comics from the world of prose, but with a genuine interest in and affection for comics) tackles the idea -- by simply throwing conventional expectations out the window. The story begins with Black Bolt awakening in a mysterious alien prison -- the result, he concludes, of a trick by his perpetual nemesis, his mad brother, Maximus (the story seem to follow vaguely on some previous story, and I suppose runs parallel to the other on-going Inhumans comics since Black Bolt assumes Maximus is masquerading as himself back home). But despite all this, this is a reasonably good way to jump into the property -- not especially tied in to past (or concurrent) stories, and most needed background information is explained as you go.

The prison itself is a bizarre dreamlike-nightmarish facility, one where prisoners can literally be killed -- and then resurrected again, to go through it all again. Black Bolt makes friends/alliances with some fellow prisoners, some familiar from other Marvel comics like Crusher Creel -- the Absorbing Man -- or rooted in Marvel lore (a warrior woman from the alien Skrull Empire) and others unique to this story (a multi-eyed alien little girl called Blinky). This six issue arc chronicles Black Bolt's time in this prison, their attempts at escapes, and trying to discover the secrets that lie at the heart of the mysterious facility -- all wrapping up by issue #6 (just in case you thought the prison was going to be the indefinite setting).

Oh -- and Black Bolt speaks. Due to a power dampening field around the prisoners, for the first time in his life Black Bolt can actually verbalize his thoughts. Admittedly, the comic doesn't especially explore the emotional/psychological impact this would have on him, Black Bolt taking it in stride. One suspects it was just a cheat, Ahmed confronting the biggest obstacle to the comic -- that his lead is a mute enigma -- and simply throwing it away. By the time Black Bolt resumes his muteness, Ahmed presumably figured he had at least established the character.

But you could quibble about how Ahmed is handed the mandate to write a comic about Black Bolt, leader of the Inhumans -- and then does so by simply jettisoning most of the things you associate with the character and his idiom! In a way, the story didn't really have to be about Black Bolt -- any generic nice guy hero would do.

But equally -- that's the story's strength. Namely that Ahmed isn't simply counting on fan-boy recognition, or setting up generic grudge fights with familiar foes while recycling well-used tropes. Instead, he's come up with a story, themes, and character interaction that would hold your attention regardless of who was technically in the spotlight.

The story is weird and surreal at times, the alien prison taking on aspects of an existential odyssey more than simply stone walls and iron bars. The cast of characters are interesting, the development of relationships and (grudging) friendships effective (Ahmed probably doing as much to define The Absorbing Man as a character in this story as any writer in the decades the character has been around). And despite spending six issues in the same setting, it rarely feels stalled or like Ahmed is just padding things out to justify the TPB collection down the line. There's an effective mix of suspense & action, talky character introspection, and jokes and pathos.

Aiding and abetting immeasurably is that art by Christian Ward. Ward's style may not be a perfect fit for a more conventional super hero tale, but works well in this mix of sci-fi and dreamlike fantasy, while bringing out the humour and whimsy Ahemd invests into the story without sacrificing the gravitas. A story set in a prison, and what is supposed to be a particularly cruel and sadistic one with the unseen jailer meting out vindicative punishments, could just be unpleasant and discouraging for six issues. But Ward renders the whole thing as so strange and mystical and, yes, beautiful, it counter balances the darkness (without undercutting it). Ward is also his own colourist and the colours are likewise just -- wild. The whole thing seeming more like a hallucinatory trip some pop artist has tried to capture on canvas. For some reason I was put in mind a bit of Winsor McKay's Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip from decades ago. Perhaps it was partly just scenes of Black Bolt and his entourage wandering almost nonchalantly through this strange prison landscape.

An unlikely character to carry his own comic does so thanks to an interesting, well paced story and atmospheric visuals.

Cover price: $__

coverInhumans 2001 (SC TPB) 250 pages

Written by Paul Jenkins. Art by Jae Lee.
Colours: Dave Kemp. Letters: Richard Starkings, Wes Abbott. Editors: Joe Quesada, Jimmy Palmiotti.

Reprinting: the twelve issue mini-series (1998)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: intro by Alex Ross; covers; sketch pages

Published by Marvel Comics

The Inhumans were introduced in the 1960s by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in issues of the Fantastic Four. At the time, it was a bizarre concept -- a "lost" city in the Himalayas where everyone had mutant powers (allowing Kirby to unleash his limitless visual imagination). The royal family itself included everything from human looking characters with awesome powers to a scaly fishman. I say "at the time" it was bizarre because over the years the idea of a community of super beings has kind of been borrowed for others -- from Marvel's burgeoning mutant population, to "what if..." futures like DC's Kingdom Come.

Anyway, the Inhumans have flittered around as guest stars, but with limited success as headliners (a short lived 1970s series, the occasional one shot). Their city, the "great refuge", Attilan, has been physically moved, so they ended up on the moon for a while, etc. Along the way, their presence in Marvel's "reality" had ceased to be quite so "lost" and mysterious.

Which then brings us to Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee's maxi-series (and which, at 12 issues, is the same number of issues as the 1970s series managed to muster before cancelation).

The intent was clearly to try and do a textured, thinking man's epic, a brooding saga that would stand as a "classic" of sequential art, rather than just a throwaway little romp. And it both is and isn't.

The series begins with Attilan back on earth, settled off the coast of Portugal in the ruins of fabled Atlantis which had, apparently, risen to the surface some time before (a kind of bizarre backstory presumably detailed in other comics, but doesn't really require any familiarity with it on the reader's part). All the regulars are there: Attilan's leader, Black Bolt, whose voice issues sonic booms so he must forever remain mute; his wife Medusa of the long, prehensile hair, etc. Although it doesn't really require detailed knowledge of past Inhuman stories -- which is good -- it does probably benefit from a passing familiarity with the Inhumans themselves, as Jenkins doesn't necessarily articulate some of the finer points for the uninitiated (like the regular characters' powers).

A criticism I'd read of Inhuman stories was that they tend to recycle the same plot over and over again. And, yup, once again we have a story where Attilan is besieged -- this time by human mercenaries -- and once more, Black Bolt's mad brother, Maximus, is orchestrating the villainy.

It's deliberately-paced. And that's because Jenkins and Lee are going for mood and atmosphere, reflection and introspection. It takes a couple of issues (or chapters) before this plot really even begins, the first few issues introducing us to Attilan, its cast, and their culture. Part of what makes the story so effective and intriguing is that it is a strange, alien culture, with both virtues and flaws; people are not judged by their physical appearance (no matter how bizarre or grotesque) yet it is nonetheless a society given to, unofficial, classism, as some people have more useful abilities than others. Most Inhumans are not born with their powers, but undergo a coming of age ritual, and one early issue follows a group of teen Inhumans just about to undergo their metamorphoses, and treating it as analogous to an "end of summer" story (ala, "American Graffiti", only where the characters aren't going off to college, but about to mutate into unknown forms) is eerily effective, mixing the familiar and the truly strange.

When the attack on Attilan begins, Jenkins explores the Inhumans place in the world, as some countries express sympathy, even "support", for Attilan...but won't actually come to their aid. And part of the dilemma presented is Black Bolt's fear of how tenuous their place in the global community is. With their powers, the Inhumans could easily destroy the invaders...but would such a show of force then frighten other countries into attacking them in turn?

While Maximus plots from his prison, undermining the city from within.

A lot of the atmosphere is supplied by Jae Lee's shadow-drenched art. There are echoes of Ryan Sook, or even Mike Mignola in Lee's style (though more realistic than Mignola), with thick blackness and craggy line work...even as there can be an almost photo-realism to some of the faces. His backgrounds are often non-existent, like actors playing scenes against black curtains, or where effects are weirdly stylized. He draws flames almost as though prop cut-outs rather than living fire. He sticks to the general character designs of the familiar heroes -- with some alterations, liking dropping the super hero-like masks for most. And his Gorgon is poorly realized, looking like the unwashed guitarist from a second rate heavy metal band!

Jenkins script goes for the brooding as silent Black Bolt ruminates pensively, and others stand about, increasingly concerned about his leadership strategy, as he orders his troops to fight a purely defensive action, and Maximus cuts off the city's power from within. There are some clever plot twists, some nice realizations of machinations here and there (the end to chapter three is a nice "revelation"). But the plot, overall, is thin. This is partly so Jenkins can take his time, going off on little tangents that add less to the plot, and more to the milieu -- such as an issue focusing on the aquatic Inhuman, Triton, or a quirky issue told, in a sense, from the perspective of the dog, Lockjaw, that manages to be both amusing, brooding, and ultimately quite touching in the final scene.

And taken on that level, basking in the moody art, and the deliberately-paced, introspective storytelling, the series works. There is a deceptive brevity to the chapters, where they don't seem like 22 pages.

But it reiterates the same ideas and scenes, reflecting the modern school of comic book storytelling. It's a 12 issue epic that, in Lee & Kirby's day, could've been shoe horned into a fraction of those issues...and still had extra twists and turns in the story. It successfully held my interest for a long time...but toward the end of the saga, I was becoming more conscious of the lack of progress.

There's an aloofness to the characters, where the "kitchen sink" realism, the raw humanity of these comic book characters, can be muted in favour of a portentous artifice. We get characterization...more than we get characters. (Ironically, Jenkins does better with some supporting characters created for this story). And though Jenkins is not deliberately trying to break from what we know of the regulars (save, maybe, giving Triton an idiosyncratic speech pattern), reading this, you might not guess that Medusa is a formidable character/fighter who had gone toe-to-toe with a number of Marvel's heavy hitters over the years.

As we build toward the climax, we learn Black Bolt has more of a plan then he was letting on. On one hand, it more justifies his earlier inaction. But the problem with surprise -- and vague -- revelations that the hero had his own machinations in place, is that it can seem like too convenient a resolution. At what point did he formulate his plan? Why, other than to create dramatic tension, didn't he tell many of those closest to him?

And even Black Bolt's ultimate plan has echoes of earlier Inhuman tales!

The ultimate goal of the series seems partly to reset the bar. The problem with comics and their never ending continuity, and with past writers/artists coming up with plots just to meet next month's deadline, is you can have concepts that get pushed further and further away from what made them interesting to begin with. So, eventually, someone comes along and says: "Let's get it back to the basics." I can't entirely argue with that intent, even as it can make you ask, is that why the plot was thin...because the plot was never the point, but a means to an end?

So my review comes down to a head/heart struggle. I'm aware the story was thin, some of the logic tenuous, and there was a certain aloofness to (some of) the characters. BUT -- as a "graphic novel" -- it is moody, with a haunting atmosphere, a lyricism to some of the writing. With beautiful visuals (if weak on backgrounds). The Inhumans as a concept is certainly quirky and off beat (tip of the hat to Lee & Kirby as much as Jenkins & Lee). And though it did maybe drag a bit toward the end (before picking up again), overall, it kept me turning the pages, happily immersing myself in each moody chapter as I read it.

So...ultimately, a fairly engrossing read.

Cover price: $__ CDN,/ $24.95 USA.

coverThe Inhumans: By Right of Birth 2013 (SC TPB) 112 pages

Written by Ann Nocenti, Lou Mougin. Pencils by Bret Blevins, Richard Howell. Inks by Al Williamson, Vince Colletta.
Colours: Michael Higgins, Richard Howell. Letters: Jim Novak, Gaspar Saladino, Diana Albers.

Reprinting: the 1988 Inhumans graphic novel, the 1990 Inhumans Special

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Oct. 2014

Published by Marvel Comics

This reprints only two lengthy tales, a 70 page graphic novel and a 40 page one-shot comic book. I tend to think collections are usually comprised of a specific story arc, or a variety of tales. But the only link between these two is that they were published within a couple of years of each other at a time when The Inhumans were, otherwise, just occasional guest stars in other characters' comics. The two stories are even stylistically quite different from each other.

And then I thought maybe that's why they combine to make an interesting collection -- as creative book ends.

The Inhumans make The X-Men seem normal. Descendants of alien-human hybrids there's a whole city of them that has existed for millennia -- their great city, Attilan, having been in the Himalayas, then re-located to the moon, and then later back to earth. Every Inhuman not only has super power -- unique to the individual -- but even their physical appearances vary. And the society is based upon ancient and arcane traditions, overseen by their supremely powerful -- but vocally mute -- leader, Black Bolt.

You could see the Inhumans as a meeting of a super hero comic with fantasy/sci-fi world-building. The weirdness makes the group popular guest stars ever since they were introduced in The Fantastic Four back in the 1960s, but they've never really proven a big commercial success, despite occasional short-lived series, mini-series, and one-shot specials.

The 1988 graphic novel begins dwelling on some of their culture's more questionable practices -- namely that marriages and reproductions is heavily regulated by a council of august bodies (or senile old men, depending on the point of view). When Medusa discovers that she is pregnant with Black Bolt's child, the pregnancy is ordered terminated by the council, for fear the baby will have uncontrolled destructive power. Medusa flees to the American desert and most of the rest of the Royal Family (Black Bolt excepted) follow suit, deciding to stand with Medusa.

Meanwhile, Maximus the Mad, Black Bolt's insane brother (and a recurring villain among the Inhumans) escapes his prison and also follows after.

And the result can kind of leave you going: um, what?

Writer Ann Nocenti was one of those writers who comes along in comics where you can't quite decide if she's brilliant, or terrible -- but you can kind of enjoy trying to decide. I've picked up occasional comics in large part because her name was in the credits!

Her writing can leave you not quite sure what she's doing or why, as characters have conversations that digress onto odd topics, and plot turns can leave you scratching your head. You're not always sure what her point is. (Should the story be read as having an anti-abortion subtext, since the villains want to abort the baby, or a pro-choice theme that turns the issue on its head becaise it's still about a woman's right to choose -- or is it just a plot point?)

But the reason I suggest brilliance is lurking therein is because you're pretty sure there is a point. I mean you can read lots of comic book writers who produce erratically plotted, illogical stories with poorly handled characterization -- and it feels lazy and badly done. In Nocenti's case, you suspect she's just having trouble riding herd over her own ideas, the moral and philosophical themes she wants to explore, the character nuances she wants to draw out, and the creative conflict between writing a straight fantasy adventure and something more quirky and eccentric.

There is action involving battling a kind earth elemental creature (relating to some theme about messing with mother nature or something). But other times it just seems content to ramble about, more a character drama, or a even a comedy. They flee to earth to escape the judgment of the council -- but no one else actually seems to be looking for her. Even Maximus the Mad's plan -- if he has one -- seems uncertain. Though Nocenti does effectively conjure the sense that he is mentally ill as opposed to simply using that as a convenient label applied to a comic book villain. Here, Maximus can almost seem poignant.

The conversations can seem a bit erratic and the dialogue idiosyncratically Nocenti. I'm not sure how much the characterization gels with the established personalities, and how much Nocenti is just writing them to suit her needs. Medusa herself can seem uncharacteristically wimpy. Curiously, I'd suggest Nocenti was never that good writing female characters -- but maybe it was because of her gender that she felt comfortable writing them as more stereotypically, well, girly, and not having to make them all Xena wannabes.

The art by Bret Blevins (and inked by Al Williamson) is better than I expected, having seen Blevins art once or twice before and finding him more just a straight-forward, average artist. It veers between realist, super heroic and more cartoony, caricaturish, but at times put me a little in mind of someone like Berni Wrightson, with a surprising dimension and texture to hands and the way muscles cord along arms, even as, as mentioned, other times it's more caricaturish. It suits the quirky tones Nocenti's going for in her script.

Part of the problem with the story is what the editorial intention was. A prestige graphic novel focusing on characters without their own series, you would assume it would be a stand alone epic. But it concludes kind of vaguely, never settling the issue of what to do about the baby (I seem to recall reading a Fantastic Four story, presumably from a few years later, basically still just recycling the idea of Medusa trying to protect her baby from her own people).

The 40-page one-shot comes at the property from a far more traditional angle -- literally as it's primarily a flashback tale. It's basically a kind of "untold" story, filling in events before and around their initial appearance in those FF comics back in the 1960s. Yet it's not simply a cut n' paste approach, but does tell a coherent (and somewhat epic) saga that doesn't require you be familiar with those pre-existing tales. When the story does overlap with The Fantastic Four issues, it's basically just as a quick synopsis, the FF appearing in barely a cameo, but it doesn't affect your ability to follow the story here. Lou Mougin's writing is more straight-forward than Nocenti's approach, likewise the art, artist Howell even evoking artist Jack Kirby (artist on those old FF issues as well as some early Inhumans solo stories) -- even paired with inker Vince Colletta (often assigned to Kirby's pencils in those days). And the story is more clearly a brisk adventure story -- though even then not strictly an "action" story. And it reinforces what I had felt about Nocenti putting her own spin on the characters, as the personalities are presented somewhat differently -- most notably Medusa who is, here, much more the capable, confident action heroine.

And it's quite enjoyable in its own way.

The two stories act as nice counterpoints to each other, reflecting different approaches to The Inhumans and, in a way, to comic book storytelling. Mougin & Howell's straight forward, deliberately Old School comic book saga and Nocenti & Blevins eccentric, ambitious, uneven, but ultimately intriguing tale.

Cover price: $__ .

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