I initially reacted with a little disbelief upon hearing that this Black Bolt series was the Inhuman king’s first solo series. Brought to life by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the pages of Fantastic Four in 1965, Blackagar Boltagon and his compatriots have been central figures in a multitude of mighty Marvel storylines for decades. But he’s never fronted his own title? Hell, even his damn dog got to star in Lockjaw and The Pet Avengers back in ’09. Then I quickly realized, well… a protagonist who can level a building with a whisper probably won’t factor well in a dialogue-rich comic book. Or, a comic with any dialogue, really. He’s always relied upon Medusa or another member of the royal family to translate a series of stern gazes and austere gestures. And a book featuring even one of those folks wouldn’t really be a Black Bolt solo title anymore, would it?
The question regarding how much dialogue this series would contain, or how it would be handled, was just one of the mysteries tucked inside that gorgeously ominous cover to issue #1. If this was meant to fold into the current ResurrXion continuity, how might a solo book work? Wasn’t Black Bolt rocketing through the galaxy with his family, searching for ancient Inhuman secrets? Or was this going to be a flashback series a la Gamora? With the upcoming debut of ABC’s Inhumans series, was this just a substance-less ploy to generate rack awareness and promote the television property? And what about this creative team? Saladin Ahmed has good sci-fi and fantasy credentials, but this was going to be the novelist’s first comic. That could go one of two ways (see Ta-Nehisi Coates versus Geoffrey Thorne). Did Christian Ward, with a résumé of beautiful covers and amazing fill-in work on Al Ewing’s Ultimates under his belt, have the chops to fully illustrate a monthly book? And, maybe most importantly, solo series or not, were we going to see Lockjaw?
The series answers all of these questions, many in the very first issue (have to wait a bit for Lockjaw). And to say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. The first, most striking impression is in the visuals. Ward blends this haunting, otherworldly landscape of Kirby-esque machinery and pulsing luminescence with vibrant character designs and movement. It’s in keeping with the finest tradition of Inhuman storylines, really. This fascinating cast of characters has operated on the fringe of Marvel continuity for decades, but their presence has always made a statement, boldly, in the art style of people like Jack Kirby, George Perez, and Jae Lee. For the title character himself, Ward has restored the clean, almost monochromatic costume of his origin, even getting some play out of those sweet underarm fins.
If you’d been reading Royals, you know that the guy masquerading as Black Bolt, on the cruise ship through the cosmos, is actually scheming brother Maximus. He switched places with older brother Blackagar, and now the Silent King finds himself imprisoned by the enigmatic Jailer on a secret prison satellite, powerless and, at least initially, alone.
Ahmed tackles the dialogue problem by narrating much of the first issue with third-person captions. It’s a nice nod to the superhero comics of the 60’s and, until Black Bolt realizes that he has been de-powered and can speak without blowing down walls, an effective means of unraveling the mystery of where he is and what is happening. The Jailer’s bone-chilling refrain, calling for repentance, echoes through the prison well before Black Bolt meets him face-to-face. And when he finally does, the towering figure doubles down on the terror. Not only is the captor visually striking, but his methods are just as alarming: prisoners are tortured and literally killed, before being resurrected as many times as his or her constitution will allow. It’s a wonderfully elegant opening to the series, not just in the dramatic unfolding of events, but also in the role reversal of a king, feared for the potency of his voice, being attacked by words reverberating with dread.
The first four issues of Black Bolt explore the nature of punishment and captivity more fully. It is true that the king was tricked, and falsely imprisoned. But, as one of his cellmates points out, is he truly innocent of any crimes? Is anyone? When a king, ruler, or any leader, transgresses on behalf of his or her people, does that provide some sort of justification or absolution?
Ahmed balances these heady themes with wonderfully paced action sequences, and an inspired supporting cast. Bolt is locked up with forgotten alien villain Metal Master; falls afoul of Marvel UK’s Death’s Head; and strikes an unlikely alliance with Crusher Creel, the Absorbing Man. Filling out the cast is a female Skrull warrior; a poly-optic alien named Blinky; and fellow inmate Spyder, who, afforded privileges by the Jailer, is as evil in his interactions as he is in his appearance.
This series succeeds on every level, doing what so few super-hero books on the stands are capable of doing. Ahmed and Ward have taken the question of justice, for generations a black-and-white pivot hinging virtually every capes-n-tights story published, and washed it in shades of gray (and fuchsia and teal and raspberry and so many other beautiful colors). They’ve done this while still paying homage to a character and his creator – Kirby specifically – who helped lay the foundation of that original super-powered dichotomy. And they pack it into a story rich in intrigue, action, and humor. Black Bolt is as close to perfect as a comic can get.