Today, Taylor and Drew are discussing Karnak 1, originally released October 21st, 2015.
Taylor: We live in a highly litigious society. If you make a claim about something — anything — you better be able to prove it. While there’s no one point in history that can be marked as the beginning of this litigiousness, the nadir point just might be that fateful morning in 1992 when a hot cup of McDonald’s coffee was spilled on the lap of an elderly woman. While it might seem obvious to most people that coffee is hot and should be handled with care, the fact that the cup didn’t say so opened up an avenue to lawsuits. Since then, many of us have bemoaned the state of our society, where a person can sue for the smallest of reasons. If you’re like me, then Karnak, both the man and the comic, is a breath of fresh, if not stiff, air.
Karnak is an inhuman whose power it is to “see the flaws in all things” from people, to buildings, to systems. He spends most day meditating on the nature of the universe by staring at a rock. This day, however, S.H.I.E.L.D. calls asking for his help. He agrees and is soon whisked away on a mission to save a young boy who also happens to be inhuman. Along the way he stops a traitor in the midst of S.H.I.E.L.D and demonstrates what makes him a unique superhero.
I instantly fell in love with this comic from the very beginning. Before reading this issue I studied up on Karnak a bit since I had no idea who he was. The main thing that stood out to me about Karnak is that his power to see the flaw in all things could lead to a singularly depressing issue. Imagining a grim comic where the hero repeatedly points out others’ short comings seemed like it could not be a lot of fun. Writer Warren Ellis is surely aware of this potentiality for this title. So, right off the bat in the issue he reassures us that things aren’t going to be that way with a great gag.
When disturbed by the call from S.H.I.E.L.D., it is revealed that Karnak keeps his phone locked away behind dungeon like doors. Much more, four men are needed to open said doors. All of this just so Karnak can answer the phone. It’s all wonderfully silly and over the top and immediately paints Karnak as being a man he takes himself seriously. Maybe too seriously. The sealed away phone paired with his curt answer is just hilarious. Artist Gerardo Zaffino helps make the scene all the more funny by drawing the doors in such a ludicrous fashion for their purpose. Further, the tiny music note speech bubble is delightfully out of place amongst so much grimness. It’s just so happy and Karnak is so grim!
Elsewhere Ellis uses the general moodiness of Karnak as a source of comedy. When Karnack asks Agent Coulson why he’s being asked to rescue a random inhuman child the answer he gets is a little convoluted. Long story short, S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have the legal rights to go in and save the kid so they’re sourcing the job out to a third party to get it done. Karnack doesn’t approve.
Karnack doesn’t have time for legalities and other such human worries. He has the universe and the timelessness of stone to ponder. Legalities, which have become all but the norm for most of us, serve as an annoyance to Karnack. There’s supreme joy to be had in this. For one, I know I side with Karnack in his distaste for having to put up with all of this bullshit. I wish at once that I could be Karnack and give zero fucks while but also be around to watch him struggle against it. By bringing Karnack into the world of everyday and annoying affairs, Ellis has basically created a joke that potentially has legs to last a long time.
Before I hand things over to Drew, I also want to mention how much I’m pleased by Karnack’s abilities. Superheroes are a dime a dozen and finding a hero with a unique skill set can be surprisingly difficult. The very idea of Karnack, with his ability to see and exploit flaws, is just fun if for no other reason than it’s different. Just check out what he does to terrorists’ doors:
That’s not him using magic or explosives to blow open the door. Instead, he’s exploiting some bizarre structural flaw in the door which makes it simply fall apart completely. While the results are the same as seeing a strongman simply break down the door, the method here makes it different, fun, and cool. Oh, and elsewhere Karnak uses this ability to make a guy’s knee literally implode with a single touch. How can I not be intrigued by that?
Drew, what did you think of this first issue? I was pretty well pleased and I can’t wait to see where this title goes. What did you think of Gerardo Zaffino’s sketchy art style?
Drew: You know, I wouldn’t have ever thought Zaffino’s gritty textures would work with the campiness inherent in a character like Karnak, but then, I was forgetting that Warren Ellis would be putting his own particular spin on the character. A hyper-intelligent pessimistic hermit isn’t what I jump to when I think of Karnak, but it stays true to everything we know about the character, and more importantly, follows logically from his ability to see the flaw in all things. Everything is flawed to him — how could he be anything other than a pessimist?
Actually, as Ellis writes him, Karnak doesn’t fit into an optimist/pessimist binary — it’s not that he sees the glass as half-empty, but that he sees the imperfections in the glass and the contaminants floating in the water. Very few writers can write a “top philosopher or something” with any credibility, but Ellis makes it look easy. Everything follows logically from Karnak’s view of the world, from seeing his own powers as a “curse,” to insisting that his disciples refer to a phone as “the infernal device.”
The moment that caught my interest more than any other was the negotiation of Karnak’s fee. He starts with straightforward conditions and costs, but then moves onto something a bit more cryptic.
Coulson pulls Karnak aside at this moment, and Karnak explains that this is a lesson — he doesn’t actually want this object, whatever it is, he just wants to make them see that it doesn’t really matter. That’s a counter-intuitive move for someone who, a moment later points out that humans are meaningless, suggesting that whatever lesson he could impart would be equally meaningless. But then, of course, there’s the question of what this object actually is. Karnak maybe gives a hint at what he’s talking about in his next line:
They may lose their son. They may lose their favorite object. They will still be alive tomorrow. Neither thing matters to the universe.
For me, the question boils down to what that “neither” is referring to. Are the two things that don’t matter losing their son and losing their favorite object, or are those two ways of saying the same thing (in which case, the two things that don’t matter are losing their son and being alive tomorrow)? That line is so perfectly composed, there’s no way of knowing.
At least, not by looking at that line alone. In the next panel, Karnak might provide another hint:
That line about love almost feels like a non sequitur — unless that’s what he’s been talking about all along. Could “the thing that allows you to believe that the universe is a kind and beautiful place” be love itself? That seems to line up with Karnak’s sentiment here that love allows people to “believe in a softer world.” Is Karnak asking them to burn away their love in exchange for their son? It’s a downright Solomon-esque proposition, forcing parents to chose between having their son or loving him.
Then again, Karnak could be asking for that love more literally. Everything in his language makes it clear that he doesn’t desire to be loved (though “love me in exchange for good deeds” is an appropriately cynical take on altruism), but perhaps he has some purpose for that love. I can’t really guess as to what that might be, but it’s possible that there’s more going on with Karnak than he ever shows the world.
All of which is to say, this is a brilliant first issue. Karnak is utterly unlike any other character in comics, at least under Ellis’ pen. Honestly, I don’t even need the MacGuffin hunt to be hooked — I’ll be back just for Karnak.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?