O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
There’s a lot of new information coming out of Marvel as the publisher preps us for the next major event, even as the current one is just getting its sea legs. But for the moment, I want to talk about the past. This week, the original Marvel Knights Inhumans miniseries returned to the shelves in a super-sexy oversized hardcover, and it’s been a long time coming — not just because it was originally promised in the late 2000s, but because this one series is a milestone not only for the characters but for the company as well.
When this series — written by Paul Jenkins and illustrated by Jae Lee — was released, I was working at my first comic-shop job in the City of Industry, California, and I was pretty much a mainstream X-Men junkie. I’m not saying the issues weren’t any good, but there is a candy coating that went over a lot of ’90s comics: We didn’t ask them to do much besides look pretty and accumulate value, and that’s exactly what they did. At Marvel, Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti were given the opportunity to grab unique creators and kind of make the Marvel Knights imprint their own. That obviously started with the incredible reinvention of Daredevil, Christopher Priest’s amazing work on Black Panther, and the Punisher series no one likes to talk about. All of those titles challenged the reader to think differently about well-known characters, and put a more “adult” spin on them than you’d find in your average Marvel title. The artwork was phenomenal; Lee was in almost a transitional state between the hyper-stylized work we’d seen in Namor the Sub-Mariner in the early ’90s to what he does now. But I don’t think it was the art that really drew me into the Inhumans series; it was the simple fact that I was invited in.
That first issue challenges the reader to think along with the story as it’s presented, showing you all the sights and people of Attilan with the simple question of “If you were Black Bolt, what would you say to your subjects? Your family? Your wife? Your enemies?” Black Bolt’s powers are immense and yet the very intimate idea that he says nothing and closes himself off from his emotions is the strongest force in the book. Inhumans constantly challenges you to step into the shoes of these strange people by making their trials and tribulations similar to your own. When Black Bolt has knowledge of a huge gambit he has to play to save his people, the story stops to relate a tale about Winston Churchill and how that great leader had a similar moral choice to make in World War II. Every character has these quiet moments of desperation, from the royal family to Lockjaw, the latter having an entire issue dedicated to what the Inhumans’ favorite house pet thinks of the world turning around him.
There’s never more than a handful of characters on the page, always surrounded by Lee’s distinctive darkness. It feels like the story is being told in a small black box theater, a stage that has no real curtain or wings to wait in, but a quiet dark space where we see the drama unfold. Panels with nothing but eyes looking back at the reader, full of emotion to the point where I actually started wondering if they were Photoshopping real eyes into the line work when I first read the series. It’s all done with Dave Kemp and Avalon Studios’ rich color work that pulls Lee’s art just enough out of the darkness to feel warm and alive. Even when the darkness is pulled aside for an elaborate figure drawing, there’s almost a stained glass feel to the art thanks to those dreamy colors that continues the suggestion of silence.
This is a standalone story, but that doesn’t mean it’s not set in the Marvel Universe. While the majority of the action takes place on Attilan with the Inhumans themselves, we also see them in a global context as there’s a few hints towards an Inhuman ‘pop culture’ movement. A kid gets Karnak tattoos on his face, a Jerry Springer-style show talks about crazy Inhuman paternity claims, all before Grant Morrison made mutants a counter-culture movement and before the upcoming Inhumanity event was a gleam in an editor’s eye. Sure, the Namor cameo is amazing, but it’s the humans of the Marvel Universe and their politics that drive the central conflict of the story.
At the same time, the truly delicious drama comes from the internal court struggles, the family dynamics and the caste system breakdown from within Attilan’s own walls. It’s a sort of Shakespearean science fiction as genetic birthrights change people’s sense of self and identity and these incredibly powerful people are broken down by their own wants and fears. This isn’t a book about cosmic powers or superheroics, really, it’s about human pathos dressed up in Jack Kirby clothing.
Most of all, this is a series of personal discovery. All the characters have changed, grown or diminished by the last issue, both as individual people and as a nation. Black Bolt’s conflicts remain the same but instead of the more personal idea of what would you say to the people you love, we return to the issue in terms of loss: What would you say to the child you’d have to sacrifice to save an entire people? Marvel had a moment of personal discovery as well, that asking Quesada to select creative teams in this style would later on put him in a position where he and Bill Jemas would revolutionize the company in the next decade. Without this miniseries, I don’t think we’d be looking ahead to Matt Fraction’s Inhumanity. Without this miniseries, I don’t think I’d be here writing about my love of Marvel Comics (most) every week. This new Inhumans hardcover is an absolute treasure to read and I highly recommend anyone to take a moment to look back at how Marvel NOW was Marvel THEN.