Between sophistication and intrigue, that’s where ‘Inhumans: Once and Future Kings’ lies
By Don Alsafi. The Inhumans were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the pages of The Fantastic Four back in 1965, but Marvel have only recently seen fit to give the concept a push into the spotlight. The past couple of years have seen the characters at the heart of a few line-wide crossovers, headlining three ongoing ensemble books and two solo titles, and responsible for the Terrigen Mist that gave such heroes as Kamala Khan their powers. (Not to mention being an element heavily featured in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, as well as the Inhumans TV series set to debut next month.)
And yet, despite all of Marvel’s attempts, the readership still hasn’t really embraced the Inhumans as a concept. So it could be seen as unflagging faith, or else blind folly, for Marvel to have greenlit yet another Inhumans comic. This new book is set years in the past, no less (even though superhero comics not taking place in the current day are traditionally a hard sell). Fortunately, they’ve made the wise move of hiring some truly stellar creators…
Written by Christopher Priest and Ryan North.
Art by Phil Noto and Gustavo Duarte.
Letters by VC’s Joe Sabino.
Don’t speak. The Inhumans are an offshoot race of humanity that was experimented upon by the alien Kree in Earth’s prehistory. For millennia they lived alone in their city, deliberately set apart from humanity – whether that city lay on an island, or in the Himalayas, or even (no joke) on the freaking moon. Lee & Kirby introduced readers to the Royal Family of the Inhumans in that 1965 debut, and it’s they who are the subject of this newest miniseries.
The primary characters in this opening chapter are Black Bolt (not yet their king), Medusa (not yet his wife), and his brother Maximus (not yet insane). Black Bolt never speaks, because the slightest use of his voice unleashes untold sonic destruction. In this way, the character is perhaps a metaphor for how the wisest leader is often the one who exercises restraint.
But the fact remains that he’s almost always a silent protagonist, which can make him a hard character to write. There’s a reason why there had never been a Black Bolt solo comic before this year – and why, when we got one, it ended up being surprisingly quiet and thoughtful.
All-star creative team. The comic is written by Christopher Priest, currently penning DC’s surprisingly layered Deathstroke comic, and writer of a critically-acclaimed, five-year run of Black Panther in the early 2000s (the entirety of which is now collected in four meaty trade paperbacks). In fact, aside from the odd short story in a random Deadpool comic, this is Priest’s first time back at Marvel since those days, over a dozen years ago.
The art is from Phil Noto, most recently seen on 2014-2015’s Black Widow and this past year’s Star Wars: Poe Dameron. He’s almost exclusively a digital artist these days, and his work is nothing less than gorgeous; gazing at the faux-painted look of his art, it’s sometimes hard to believe it was all done on a computer. (That said, after a while his usual color palette can feel a bit same-y. At a certain point you find yourself wishing for bright hues, or some vivid primary colors.)
Man’s Inhumanity to man. According to Priest, one of the major reasons he was out of comics for so long was because he was tired of editors only calling him up to write the company’s black characters. This is an entirely valid complaint – and yet it’s also undeniable that when he approaches issues of race and power in his work, he does so with a depth and eloquence perhaps unequaled by any other comics writer.
So it’s maybe no surprise that a good portion of the story deals with the Inhuman race’s treatment of the Alpha Primitives – their slave workforce – and how little thought the Inhumans usually give to them. Similarly, the comic later raises a parallel in questioning the inherent idea of superiority which is conceptually at the heart of royalty itself. Why should some people have vastly more power, or vastly less, simply due to an accident of birth?
Intrigue and machinations. If there’s one outside influence seemingly primary in this comic’s DNA, it’s Game of Thrones. (Because of course it is.) Normally such a thing might be cause for an eyeroll: witness the poor early reviews for the upcoming Inhumans show, for instance. But in this particular story, Priest and Noto make it work.
In less than twenty pages, we meet various characters clearly obsessed with power in one way or another, and some who seem remarkably skilled at manipulating others for their own end. (As well as at least one who fails comically.) In a story introducing half a dozen significant characters, each with their own drives and desires, most of them are less the typical black-and-white archetypes usually found in comics, but rather complex shades of gray.
It’s hard to quite know who to root for, which even applies to the characters you might already be familiar with. When Medusa speaks contemptuously of the Alpha Primitives to the king, is she telling him what she thinks he wants to hear? Or are these actually her thoughts, at a point in her life when she was less compassionate than she would become? We’re not quite sure who can be taken at face value, and who might be masking the truth with convincing lies.
Puppy! Perhaps due to Phil Noto’s fully-rendered art being more process-intensive than what’s usually required, the lead feature clocks in at 18 pages instead of the 20 found in most comics today. To make up for that, the end of this issue (and every subsequent one) features a whimsical little two-page comic strip featuring the Inhumans’ teleporting dog, Lockjaw. The backup story comes courtesy of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl writer Ryan North and Brazilian artist Gustavo Duarte, who illustrated DC’s Bizarro comic a year or two back. Sure, it’s a bit of tonal whiplash from the dark view of high-stakes court intrigue preceding it – but on the other hand, it’s a cute strip about a super-powered doggie. What’s not to love?
Despite a few years of trying, Marvel still haven’t convinced the fans to love the Inhumans (regardless of the medium). But they could maybe learn something from the layered and densely-plotted comic at hand here. Inhumans: Once and Future Kings is just a five-issue miniseries, but the skill deployed by the creative team makes this first issue feel far more like the setup to an intricate, full-length novel. I strongly suspect that by story’s end we’ll still be itching for more.
After all, that’s the trick Marvel still hasn’t pulled off. Might this finally be the right mix?
8.5 out of 10
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