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Trouble with Comics

Living in the Past: Inhumans # 1-12 (1998-1999)

Boy, it’s been a while since I participated here at TWC, hasn’t it? I will offer no excuses, but I do have a plan of action. Once in a while, I dig into the Vast Bacardi Archives (sekrit location: my old bedroom closet at my Mom’s) and pull out a run of something I haven’t read in a long time. I thought to myself “Self, you could write about these rereadings on TWC, and continue to justify having your name on the sidebar roll!” So here’s the first of what I hope will be more than a few looks back at comics from back in the day, as the homies say.

Recently, I developed a yen to read a series that I enjoyed quite a bit when it was coming out,  but haven’t read since: the Paul Jenkins/Jae Lee Inhumans series that came out under the Marvel Knights banner back in the dim and distant days of 1998-1999.

I’m not exactly sure of the backstory behind this series; I do know Daredevil and Garth’s Punisher were going strong under this imprint, and I’m sure the thinking was to present a more down-to-earth look at the characters. Paul Jenkins, if memory serves, had been at Marvel a short while after a run at Vertigo on Hellblazer; I don’t know for sure what artist Lee had been doing prior; I’d guess some X-book or another. Regardless, Jenkins crafted a darker take, and Lee’s art is nothing if not dark…so one was compelled to read this under a very bright light if possible.

Jenkins didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel here; usually when you’re writing about the Inhumans, and this goes all the way back to the Kirby/Lee days, the default tendency is to feature at least two standard points of departure: a scheme to take over the throne of Attilan from the Inhuman’s king, Black Bolt, by his deranged brother Maximus (helpfully nicknamed “The Mad”), and/or the effects of the Inhuman-altering Terragen mists, which every subject subjects themselves to at a certain age, kinda like a bar/bas mitzvah, with the result being your appearance gets freaky and you gain powers, instead of just settling for just today being a man or woman. Mazel tov! Anyway, Jenkins uses both approaches, and introduces a third wild card- an previously-unheard-of attack on the super-domed “Great Refuge” that the ‘Humans call home by the outside world, in this case those sneaky Russians…but Jenkins postulates, quite correctly I’d think, that there would be little help coming from the UN simply because most of the world doesn’t know what or who the hell they are living there in that dome, with all those freaky powers, and nothing but the word of the Fantastic Four and other superpeople that they meant no harm. Interesting idea there, I thought. And Lee’s moody art, all pensive poses and 3/4-shadow faces, ramps up the paranoia and tension.

We’re introduced to a group of young Inhumans early on; all teens, all anticipating the day when they will enter the mists and realize their potential. For some of them, it turns out well. But for one fellow, named “Woz”, not so much- he seems to regress and become one of the subhuman worker caste called the Alpha Primitives, who toil and labor for the “greater good” under the Great Refuge. After much discussion, Woz is exiled to live with the Primitives…but there’s more than meets the eye with him. Turns out he does have powers, which didn’t manifest themselves in an obvious fashion- he can travel in a dimension between reflective surfaces, enabling him to enter any room with a mirror- including the cell of Maximus. Of course, Max knows about him and uses him to get out surreptitiously, working on a deal with the Russians to help him overthrow Black Bolt and take his revenge.

As the attack from the human troops begin, Black Bolt, through mouthpiece/gal pal/queen Medusa, begs the citizens to not take any action, fearing the cost to his people as well as the potential for mass human murder and the shitstorm it would bring down on their heads. But even his loyal family- Crystal, Gorgon, Triton, Karnak (sporting wicked head tats- we even get an interlude with his tattoo artist in one issue)- are doubting this course of action, and tensions escalate when cracks appear in the dome from the bombardment, and trouble from within as Maximus makes his play at the worst possible time. He’s got a plan, Black Bolt does, he always does…but it sure looks doubtful this time, and things look very bleak for the Royal Family.

I don’t want to spoil how this all turns out, and there are a few more surprises the deeper it gets; I was pleasantly surprised at how caught up in all the machinations I got, even though I had a pretty good idea how it turned out. Jenkins does a nice job with characterization- stolid Black Bolt, gruff and hotheaded Gorgon, cool and calculating Karnak, loyal Triton as well as a lot of time spent in interludes with the “regular” folk of the Great Refuge, Black Bolt’s subjects, even extending to the Alpha Primitives. The human characters aren’t treated broadly and are given some depth as well. The longish format of the series allowed Jenkins a couple of WWII-flavored digressions; one features the young Triton and his encounter with an old man and his grandson on a ship which gets attacked by Nazis- it winds up being quite touching at the end- and he also takes the opportunity, closer to the finale of the series, to work in the decision Churchill made towards the end of the War that cost thousands of lives, and draws a parallel from that to the strategy Black Bolt employs to deal with his own crisis. Pretty heady stuff, I’d say. That said, sometimes Jenkins would lapse into a ponderous and even pretentious, sometimes, narration style, making some of the scenes drag a bit more than they should. All in all, I thought he did a nice job of taking the Inhumans lore up to that point, and put a subtle twist on it, as well as introducing a few ideas of his own to the mix. Of course, he also had a sympathetic collaborator in Lee, who, despite the occasional awkward, stiff pose and inappropriate facial expression, delivered the mood and atmosphere in spades, as well as some imaginative character design tweaks.

I also look on this series fondly, since it introduced one of my favorite Marvel characters: Yelena Belova, aka Black Widow II, who is brought in early on to do a little espionage that aids the Russian plan. Not long after, she made her solo debut in the first Black Widow miniseries, written by Devin Grayson with art by J.G. Jones (Natasha Romanoff, the established Widow, was included). Unfortunately, not many people shared my enthusiasm for the character, and she was eventually dispatched in humiliating fashion by Brian Bendis, although Andy Diggle brought her back, in a way, in his Thunderbolts run.

There’s a trade collection still available, although I don’t think it’s in print anymore.

— Johnny Bacardi