I was already reading Black Bolt both for the writing and the art, which feel off the beaten path when it comes to the Marvel Universe, in a good way, when I managed to attend The Inhumans panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2017. There I got to hear from the cast and crew more about the project and see plenty of clips for the upcoming show, which will feature Black Bolt and family caught in a MacBeth-like struggle for power.
This added a new layer to my view of this king, who usually can’t speak, since his voice wields terrible cosmic powers of destruction. However, in this Marvel comic series, while suffering in a dark prison meant for his brother, Black Bolt’s powers have been taken away and perhaps mercifully, he’s able to communicate with his fellow prisoners.
In previous issues of this series, we’ve come across some pretty harrowing ideas and watched the comic really double down on the concept of crime and punishment, handed to us on an artful platter by writer Saladin Ahmed and artist Christian Ward. As the single-minded entity responsible for punishing the prisoners in this compound stumbles in the face of the prisoners banding together to assert their own redemption from their crimes, we rallied to Black Bolt and his main cohort, Crusher Creel, but issue #3 carried a grim reversal. While it has become clear that the real warden of the place feeds off suffering and punishment in some way, it has also become clear that he is not so easily defeated, especially since he can take away the super-human powers of his prisoners.
Hence a Creel who can no longer absorb anyone’s powers, and a Black Bolt who can speak, but isn’t able to isolate even an “ounce” of his powers to break through some flawed chains in this issue. And things are getting bleaker. What do you do in prison stories when things get bleak? Flashback and backstory time. But lest the comic feel like it’s taking its time a little too self-indulgently, the clock is meanwhile counting down as the oxygen is being drained from Bolt and Creel’s holding chamber. A very persistent and unnerving sound effect in red reminds you of this quite frequently, too, courtesy of letterer Clayton Cowles.
Nevertheless, Creel’s story gets told, for the most part, and it’s a treat for Marvel fans to walk a mile through the Marvel Universe in Creel’s shoes. How does one become a super-power gangster? Well, here’s an anatomy of that process, with plenty of guest stars to punctuate Creel’s colorful narrative. It’s one that’s not without emotion, either, and that’s to the credit of the creative team. This is, in many ways, a “fun” aside into Creel’s life, but it has those realistic beats that will reach readers and fill out this whole series’ discussion of guilt and innocence.
Like the series The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, this issue humanizes criminals and proves that everyone is the hero of their own story. Creel has feelings about his painful childhood, youthful petty crime, and crossing paths with Loki, who gave him his powers. He may seem surprisingly numb about fighting Thor and hating on heroes, but there’s a kind of honesty to his narrative that really works and hit surprisingly moving notes for the reader.
Any reader must feel that Black Bolt is really the star attraction of this series–learning about him now that he can speak–but Ahmed and Ward handled incorporating Creel’s story with solid teamwork. As an extra bonus, we get little bits and pieces of Black Bolt’s story thrown in as commentary. He reflects on his son, his relationship with Medusa, and his essentially privileged, if tragic, life.
Though this issue does slow down the narrative a little after issues #1-3 were more breathless in pace, and we don’t get the great escape we may have been anticipating at this point, Ahmed’s writing and Ward’s as ever remarkably beautiful artwork make this aside interesting and meaningful, and remind us that this story might not turn out the way we expect it to.
One thing that’s also interesting is that the creators continue to resist acting as judge and jury over the lives and actions of these characters, which is refreshing. There’s no sense of omniscient justice hanging around, generated by the creative team. Because of that, we can get to know characters and their stories in a more neutral way, and even allow them to judge themselves, a rehabilitation which seems to be at the heart of this incarceration story.
I’m very glad I picked up the first issue of Black Bolt and have continued to read it, though that has not been a difficult thing to do, since it really reminds me that different creative directions are possible within a shared universe, and comics can tell stories that will surprise you in the hands of a creative team who have a vision to do so.
Black Bolt #1-4 are out now in comic shops. Issue #5 arrives on September 6th, 2017.