If there’s a tough character to write in comics, it’s Black Bolt. The king — or, at least as of this writing, former king — of the Inhumans is, of course, famously silent, not because he’s mute, but because the mere sound of his voice is powerful enough to level cities. It was a great gimmick when Jack Kirby came up with it way back when, but it’s been a tricky conceit for subsequent creators to build upon. Paul Jenkins gave it a pretty good effort in his fine Marvel Knights Inhumans series done in collaboration with artist Jae Lee, but since then, no one’s really seemed to know what to do with this guy.
Apart from Marvel’s “suits,” of course, who had Black Bolt set off the so-called “Gene Bomb” a few years back that’s been utilized as the company’s preferred method for writing Mutants out of their corporate universe and Inhumans in. The boys in accounting aren’t so hot on Mutants these days, you see, given that Fox holds the cinematic rights to to the lot of ’em, and so the Inhumans have been conscripted as their de facto replacements, a scenario that’s been met with a healthy amount of skepticism, if not outright disdain, from many fans, and doesn’t seem to have set Hollywood ablaze with excitement, either, given that the once-inevitable blockbuster Inhumans movie has recently been “reimagined” on the fly as a low-budget TV series. So, ya know, maybe it’s all been for nothing.
Tell you what, though — don’t tell that to Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward, because they might just have one heck of a story to tell, before all is said and done.
Ahmed is Marvel’s latest big “get” from outside the world of comics, with a heavy-duty CV that features everything from fantasy novels to essays to poetry, and Ward is best known these days as the mind-bendingly cosmic artistic visionary on Image’s Matt Fraction-scribed ODY-C, so to call this a true “A-List” team is probably something of an understatement, but hey — we’ve seen fine creators fall short of the mark before, so it’s not like I went into their just-released Black Bolt #1 necessarily expecting greatness, even if most signs seemed to point in that direction. Best to err on the side of caution just as a general rule anyway, am I right? Especially when four bucks are on the line with every installment.
Still, while our sample size so far is an admittedly small one, my guarded optimism looks, at this early juncture, to have been very well-placed indeed. Saladin does most of his storytelling by means of effectively clinical and distant third-person narration (after all, his protagonist is not only stone silent as ever, but muzzled, to boot!), and while on paper one could make a convincing case that not much actually happens in this issue — Black Bolt is imprisoned, presumably by his traitorous brother Maximus, but manages to break free of his bonds only to get in, and subsequently lose, a fight, thus ultimately ending up in chains all over again — it still feels like a more robust and substantive read than most other “decompressed” comics out there these days, especially since there’s a strong sense given that all is most definitely not as it seems here.
By the time we get to the cliffhanger that inference turns out to be exactly right, but even though our narrative journey from Point A back to Point A is a short one — this is about a five-minute read, tops, from cover to cover — it’s a fascinating little loop loaded with beautiful imagery including an M.C. Escher-esque splash page charting Black Bolt’s descent through his cosmic prison, dynamically free-flowing sequences of violent action, and intense non-verbal cues that “say” more than words ever could. Ward’s art is comparatively more restrained here than it is in the pages of the at-this-point-only-occasionally-released (to put it kindly) ODY-C, but the key word there is probably “comparatively” — for a “Big Two” superhero book this is vibrant and wonderfully experimental stuff indeed, and his (self-done) colors positively “pop” off the page and put one hell of an exclamation point on work that is frankly already all kinds of exciting.
Is it fair, then, to say that the art is the star of the show here? Well, okay, yeah, but it’s also indicative of an admirable lack of ego on a writer’s part to be more than willing to deliver a script that plays to your artist’s (numerous) strengths and to then stand back and let him assume the bulk of the narrative duties. In other words, for a couple dudes who only just started working together and have probably never communicated by anything other than electronic means, they sure seem pretty simpatico to this reader.
There’s a long way to go here before any sort of final judgment can be rendered (my best guess? 11 more issues), of course, and if subsequent chapters prove to be as economically-written as this one is then I can’t say I’d necessarily hold it against someone from “trade-waiting” this series, but all in all if we’re looking for one word to best describe Black Bolt #1, the one I’d go for is impressive.