Comics, Reviews

Black Bolt: There Is A Good Dog In This Book

Black Bolt #1, cover by Christian Ward. Marvel. 2017Black Bolt issues 1-4

Saladin Ahmed (writer), Christian Ward (artist & cover art), Virtual Calligraphy’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Nicholas Russell (design), Jay Bowen (logo design), Charles Beacham (assistant editor), Sarah Brunstad (associate editor), Wil Moss (editor)
Marvel Comics
July-October 2017

Black Bolt is a king. He is a hero. He is an idiot.

First, some background:

Comics readers may be unfamiliar with Saladin Ahmed, an author from the Detroit metro area. He looks like Jonathan Coulton. He sometimes shares pictures and anecdotes of his adorable twins on Twitter. He’s an outspoken supporter of Muslim and Arab rights and causes. He has published one Arab-inspired fantasy novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, and a ton of of short stories, some of which are collected in the anthology Engraved on the Eye. This is his first foray into the world of comics.

Christian Ward is also relatively new to comics, having spent most of his career as an art teacher, but his work on ODY-C with writer Matt Fraction for Image was very highly regarded. He has a very unique style, to say the least, notable for its watercolor-like swirling lines paired with intense, bold, and often unconventional color palettes.

Black Bolt #1, written by Saladin Ahmed, art by Christian Ward. Marvel. 2017.

Christian Ward can do “cosmic.”

Black Bolt first appeared in Fantastic Four #45 in 1965, drawn by Jack Kirby and written by Stan Lee. Of course, his real name is Blackagar Boltagon, which probably seemed totally reasonable to those guys at the time. He’s the king of the Inhumans, who are about to receive their own movie/tv-show hybrid thing? That probably seemed reasonable to some guys, too. If you’re not familiar with the Inhumans, their queen Medusa has prehensile hair, Black Bolt’s voice can shatter mountains, and they have a giant teleporting dog who may or may not have a moustache.

Ahmed and Ward’s Black Bolt is a prison story. Ahmed has stated that this is important to him on a personal level due to the high rate of incarceration suffered by his friends and relatives, as well as low-income people and people of color.

The book (thus far) takes place inside a highly Kirby-inspired cosmic prison, ruled by a mysterious being who kills the prisoners and drags them back to life for equally mysterious reasons. He soon meets Crusher Creel, the Absorbing Man. Along with a small group of other inmates, all deprived of their powers, they seek to escape.

Black Bolt has rarely lost his powers in the past, which has made it impossible to have casual dialogue without blowing things up. Here, we get not only his pretentious inner monologue, but also his attempts to keep up with Creel and the other prisoners in conversation. Ahmed has said (probably in jest) that he imagines Boltagon’s unpowered voice to sound like that of Bobcat Goldthwait.

The contrast between Bolt’s life of unbelievable privilege and angst and Creel’s life of poverty and struggle forms the core dynamic of the characters. Though Creel and the other three members of the main cast are constantly delivering blows to the king’s ego, it’s not one-sided, as Boltagon’s quiet insights raise questions about Creel that are not easily answered.

Issue #4, particularly, is given almost entirely to the two main characters sharing stories of their pasts, finding ways in which they are similar and ways in which they simply cannot understand one another. Ahmed takes this opportunity to include a reminder of the real-world crimes of some people in the financial industry that led to the 2008 housing bubble collapse and recession.

A more subtle dynamic is that between the male and female characters. Raava the Un-Skrulled and the young alien girl Blinky are the only named female characters in the very small cast. (Molyb the Metal Master, an old, relatively obscure villain, is the fifth character. He functions primarily as a mysterious old wise man.) Creel’s wife Titania and Boltagon’s wife Medusa are given screen time, but only as recollections of the main characters.

Raava is a fearsome warrior, the sort who might otherwise be thought of as masculine, but Ahmed makes a point of casting her as a mother. This is a somewhat problematic way of reinforcing her femininity, but “bloodthirsty, vengeance-for-her-children-fueled alien warlord” is not a bad look for her.

Blinky is primarily cast as a child and a pitiable victim, but her importance and agency grows during the story and will hopefully continue to do so. She is also shown to be from a background of poverty that drove her to thievery. In this way, her story is similar to Creel’s, but she is not the sort of proud, often cruel person he is. This contrast is used to illustrates that, while Creel’s upbringing did shape him, he could have turned out differently.

Black Bolt #4, written by Saladin Ahmed, art by Christian Ward. Marvel. 2017.

Spectacular.

Ward’s art definitely deserves mention, and I don’t have the words to do it justice. His starscapes, aliens, and bizarre architecture rival the classic works of Kirby, and his watercolor-like style adds an ephemeral quality to all of that. Meanwhile, his figures stand out sharply, and he does a great job of conveying emotion through posture and facial expressions, which will be essential if the book transitions into a phase where Boltagon’s powers are restored and he can no longer speak. The ridiculously idealized image of Titania fighting She-Hulk and other superheroes in particular is spectacular.

Thus far, Black Bolt is a fast-paced, intense, introspective book that is as much a study of class differences and masculinity as it is a cosmic adventure story. Ahmed’s fast-paced, dense writing suggests he might doubt he’ll get more than six issues into this ongoing title, but I personally hope to see much more like this from him and Ward in the future.