Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing Karnak 3, originally released April 20th, 2016.
Drew: When we talk about superhero weaknesses, we tend to focus on the physiological ones — the ones that exist within the narrative. That’s because we’ve all agreed to ignore the more obvious logical weaknesses any superhero story has. Punching will never be the best solution to systemic corruption in Gotham (especially when you can personally finance political campaigns of local, state, and federal officials), and “heat vision and a mirror” doesn’t actually explain how Superman shaves his indestructible beard. These are the weaknesses we choose to ignore to maintain our suspension of disbelief — that is, until some smartass chooses not to ignore them, usually by assuming they’re just smarter than everyone else. I call them “weaknesses,” not because they can be exploited by readers who are as simple and obvious as the weaknesses themselves, but because such exploitation is generally off-limits for the characters themselves. How Superman shaves is a question that can’t be satisfactorily answered, so it’s best to avoid the subject altogether. With Karnak 3, Warren Ellis aims to do the opposite, charging headlong into the very weaknesses Karnak would have identified from the start.
In this case, the weakness is Karnak’s ability to see the flaw in our answers to the most basic existential questions. Or perhaps its his ability to articulate his answers to us — more on that later. The point is: if Karnak’s ability to see flaws doesn’t end at physical flaws, but logical ones, then he’s effectively infallible. He’d be just as capable of picking up errors in your religious philosophy as he would in your scientific theories. He may not quite have the ability to produce the correct explanation for everything, but he can certainly shoot down any explanations that are incorrect — effectively taking his conclusions beyond the scope of human endeavor. Of course, that presumes that Karnak’s skills are limitless, which this issue never suggests; he may be able to find structural faults in every rock that he sees, but he can only see the rocks that are in front of him.
If I’m flying off on a philosophical tangent, that’s because philosophical tangents are so ingrained in this series. Karnak has a few monologues in this issue, each scarier than the last, that aim to address those very existential issues. The first one, though, might just provide some clues as to how Ellis navigates these treacherous waters.
Three worlds. The first, Karnak tells us, is “the world we live in,” though as readers, we might understand that to be the fictional world of this story. Call it the Marvel Universe if you must, but it’s the fictional world this story occupies. The second one gets a little weirder, but bear with me: I’m actually not interested in what Karnak says, but how he gestures — look how flat artist Roland Boschi renders his hand in that second panel. To actually put that hand in perspective we have to tilt the page away from us until he’s effectively pointing off it entirely. That is, I believe the second world is the “real world,” for lack of a better term. Our shared reality.
It’s the third world that is truly interesting. Notice how Boschi places us behind the waitress, so that Karnak is effectively pointing at us. We are the third world, the only world through which Karnak et al “gain true knowledge of our cosmos, our world, and ourselves.” Where do fictional characters do anything? Our imaginations. That’s the third world. It’s a point that runs the risk of being somehow more sappy than the surface “We Are The World” reading, but it grounds Karnak’s proclamations about the flaws in our existential answers. Even if what he says (or what he might say) is true in his world, isn’t necessarily true in our world or in our imaginations. It’s some clever metatextual bet-hedging that I think pays off in the story as it unfolds.
Which maybe brings me back to that thought on the way Karnak executes his exploitation of flaws. In my mind, it’s one thing to identify that the dragon has a weak spot on his left side, but quite another to actually hit that spot with an arrow as the dragon lays waste to your city. Thus far, Karnak seems to have both skills — the ability to detect flaws, and the ability to perfectly exploit them — which has made him a formidable fighter, torturer, and now a sonic weapon. I guess I’m not convinced that a character who can identify that an apparently ungodly sound might thwart a sonic attack should necessarily be able to produce said ungodly sound. Maybe his meditations include intensive vocal training?
Spencer! Is that a silly bone to pick? How do you feel this series is handling these more existential questions? Is his “everything is flawed” philosophy too pessimistic for you? Oh, and any guesses as to the answer to the question Agent Simmons posed: why does Karnak fight? (I realize some of these questions might be impossible to answer, but you know, I guess that’s their flaw, or something.)
Spencer: Well, Drew, if we look back at Karnak 1, we discover that he essentially fights (or, at least, fights for S.H.I.E.L.D.) in order to gain more funding for his Tower of Wisdom, and in order to spread his particular brand of wisdom to others. That’s a pretty pat answer, though, and Karnak’s non-response to Simmons’ question indicates that there may be more going on here than Karnak wants to let on.
If nothing else, the fact that Karnak, for once, passes up an opportunity to expound upon his philosophies seems to indicate that there’s an answer he doesn’t want getting out, perhaps even because it would make him seem vulnerable. That’s something I’d like to see, both because it would open up some interesting story opportunities and because…well…because Karnak’s kind of a dick, especially in this issue, and I’d love to see him brought down to Earth a bit.
Don’t get me wrong, I can certainly sympathize with Karnak. Being able to see the flaw in everything, from people to entire philosophies, has to be remarkably depressing. It reminds me of Verity Willis back in Loki: Agent of Asgard; being able to see through any lie left her isolated and depressed because she could see just how often the people around her tried to use or manipulate her. In that sense, Karnak’s nihilism is completely understandable, and throughout the first two issues, all of Karnak’s actions stemmed from that very specific worldview; he was quite rude to quite a few people, but generally acted that way in order to teach them some sort of lesson or philosophy about life, even if it was a particularly pessimistic one.
In Karnak 3, though, Karnak’s rude or downright cruel several times for no particular reason at all (such as in the scene I posted above). I know Karnak’s not a nice guy, but like I said, usually even his cruelty is grounded in some sort of greater purpose; here, though, Ellis continually highlights Karnak’s dickish behavior, and Boschi often even gives him a demonic presence, right down to the blank, glowing eyes. Karnak’s never going to be a character I actively “like,” but he’s particularly grating this month. I’m probably the only person bothered by it, but I just needed to get it off my chest.
Despite that, though, I don’t necessarily find Karnak’s “everything is flawed” philosophy to be too pessimistic. I mean, he’s right; nothing is perfect, and accepting that can save everyone a lot of heartache. Where my thoughts differ from Karnak’s are on how we should handle that bit of information; Karnak’s let those flaws convince him that everything is worthless, but that’s no way to live life.
The thing is, Karnak’s belief system is already starting to show cracks. Let’s go back to that first philosophical tangent Drew discussed (which I’m going to repost real fast just to make things easier for everyone).
Throughout this whole series Karnak’s been claiming that people have no worth, but here he finds wonder in the universe a single person creates. Karnak launched into this whole tirade in the first place under the pretense of explaining to this waitress why she and/or personal betterment can’t affect the world, but I don’t see how this speech supports that; if anything, he seems to be refuting his own point. Maybe that is the point, maybe this even ties into Karnak’s possible vulnerabilities I mentioned a few paragraphs back, but for now, I don’t really feel like this speech jives all that well with the Karnak I know.
Karnak doubles down on his nihilism elsewhere in the issue, though. He’s quick to jump to the worst possible conclusion about the Inhuman abductee (although he’s probably right, because, well, he’s Karnak), but I suppose it’s easy to see why. The kid’s possible manipulation abilities are the complete antithesis to Karnak’s; while Karnak sees the flaws in everything and thus believes that nothing is worthwhile, the Inhuman kid can make people believe so powerfully that their faith can grant them spontaneous superpowers! I can absolutely believe that this kind of blind faith would frustrate or perhaps even scare Karnak, especially when it’s actually getting results.
In this same vein, there’s some interesting commentary to be found in the I.D.I.C.’s possible plan. I’m reposting this image as well, but adding in one additional panel, because I want you all to focus on Karnak’s expression in that final panel.
Is it just me, or does Karnak look pleased about the end of the universe? I have to wonder: to a man who sees no value in anything, does the idea of wiping the entire worthless universe out seem appealing? I could definitely buy that, but I could just as easily buy that he’d resent the so-called Messiah for thinking they’re important enough to take on this task in the first place. With this in mind, I’m curious to see how Karnak will react when he finally meets this Inhuman kid; it’s possible we’ll finally get a few answers, although, with Karnak, one can never take that as a certainty.
Anyway Drew, to answer your last question, it doesn’t really bother me that Karnak can so ruthlessly exploit every weakness he finds. You’re right, it doesn’t totally make sense, but I think it’s just one of those comic book “flaws” you discussed in your introduction that the audience has to accept in order to enjoy the comic. And, indeed, it’s still probably my favorite part of Karnak. The book’s philosophy doesn’t always come together for me, but man is it a blast to see Karnak shatter doors with a single touch or make heads explode with his own special frequency.
Okay, one last question before I go: what in the world is Karnak going on about when he mentions how he likes big cars with peanuts? Is this some sort of British thing?
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