Black Bolt Asks Readers: At What Point Does Punishment Become Torture?

by Hannah Means Shannon

Black Bolt, a comic so beautifully illustrated that you might be tempted to read it without thinking too deeply about the themes involved in the story, nevertheless has some interesting meditations on the nature of social punishment, self-condemnation, bullying, and even torture.
And all that’s contained within a prison break series with a number of ragtag characters thrown together in a prison on the edge of the universe. Catching up on both issues #2 and #3 this week, I got a double dose of what makes Black Bolt unique as a comic. It could easily have been a moody adventure comic, a placeholder for getting the King of the Inhumans from A to B in the wider stories that will be part of the new Inhumans TV show this fall.

But writer Saladin Ahmed and artist Christian Ward not only gave us a hauntingly strange mood and locale in this isolated prison, but a lot to think about. That’s not to say the dialog isn’t at time, funny, and there aren’t ironies that will make you grimace or smile. It just has a bedrock as a series that poses at times uncomfortable questions.
All of the prisoners are present to atone for their crimes, but read that really as “sins” since there’s a moral tone involved. The criminals are made to feel irredeemable, like terrible people, to confront their actions. You may or may not, as a reader, find that approach appropriate, but we also learn that characters like the child “Blinky” simply stole enough in monetary units for a single meal and yet here she is.
The prisoners are repeatedly taken to the point of death and resurrected, which most readers would say is going a bit too far, but if you choose to do so, you might consider that some forms of unregulated torture in prison camps and beyond are supposed to do just that–make a victim feel they are dying, then bring them back to a functioning state again.

Black Bolt is there in prison because it was the punishment he designed for his brother, and he was double-crossed and taken there instead. However, it’s a wake-up call for him, since he must admit he has killed many people, though he does not believe himself to be a “murderer”.
While this all, no doubt, sounds very heavy, the comic doesn’t read that way. Through a combination of Christian Ward’s linework and colors, the darkly psychedelic space reminds us that much of this is a mental struggle, and that even Black Bolt is at the hands of a villainous being who has taken the intended prison and used it in far different ways than intended.
That pits us on the side of these underdog prisoners and once they band together, there’s a strong sense of upward trajectory for them to try to break out of this nightmare.

But you get the sense that the questions posed in prison are going to stay with Black Bolt, even if he escapes. They were just too big and looming to easily dismiss. The questions are: To what degree is punishment appropriate to crimes, and how do we determine the magnitude of punishment?; How do you define torture and is it ever justified?; Is the death penalty justifiable?; How do we determine a particular justice system is balanced and isn’t being used for some ulterior motive?
We could go on much further with that list. The fact that these characters are working together, forgiving each other almost, for their misdeeds begins to feel like a form of rehabilitation, whereas beforehand they were simply caught under the weight of the accusations and punishments being laid on them.

While superhero comics can say any number of significant things about society and pose questions about how we live our lives, Black Bolt goes a bit further than most to really dig deep in a way that goes beyond pure entertainment (not that there’s anything wrong with that) to communicate bigger questions for the comic’s audience to ponder.
Black Bolt #3 is currently out in shops. Issue #4 arrives on August 2nd, 2017.

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