Today, Mark and Taylor are discussing Karnak 5, originally released September 21st, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Mark: Given the opportunity, would you go back in time to correct the mistakes of your past? At first blush, it’s an appealing prospect; we all have moments of regret in our past — a situation we wish we would have handled differently, a choice we want to unmake, words we want to take back. But people are an accumulation of their choices, and taking back one would necessarily lead somewhere new. Whether our changed self would be truly appealing comes down to how happy we are with current selves.
This is the truth presented to Karnak by the Painter, a disciple of Adam and member of the I.D.I.C., in Karnak 5, written by Warren Ellis. Held on the helicarrier in the custody of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Painter is initially interrogated by Karnak. It seems things are perhaps more complicated than anyone originally thought. Was Adam abducted by the I.D.I.C. or was he a willing recruit? But the Painter’s lesson for Karnak runs much deeper.
Karnak is a man whose sole skill and purpose in life is to the find the flaws in everything. But as the Painter points out, finding the flaw in a person takes no real skill at all. All people are flawed. Karnak is looking for a crack in the Painter’s resolve but for once he comes up empty. We learn that the Painter was a miserable being before Adam — that Adam and the I.D.I.C. really did save him from his past regrets.
Karnak fails to find an exploitable psychological flaw in the Painter, but he knows of a physical one: humans can be killed. In a last ditch effort, Karnak exploits this flaw in spectacular fashion.
It’s a gruesome moment, beautifully rendered by artist Roland Boschi and colorist Dan Brown. It’s also a moment of ultimate failure on Karnak’s part.
The issue begins with Karnak and Coulson discussing the nature of cubes. To Karnak, a cube is perfection, absent of flaws. But while Karnak insists that cubes and humans all come from the same “thin smear of minerals and slurry,” he is not a cube. Karnak is used to finding weaknesses in others, but when the Painter forces him to be introspective Karnak lives in denial. He can’t accept how badly he wishes he could have been transformed by the Terrigen Mist. So while Karnak ultimately murders the Painter, it’s the Painter who inflicts the more permanent damage.
What’d you think, Taylor?
Taylor: More than any other issue in this series, number five delves into the psychology and humanity of Karnak. Before this issue, he was as impressive and unmovable as the Tower of Wisdom itself. But as events unfold in this issue it becomes clear that Karnak isn’t nearly as solid and perfectly constructed as the cube he contemplates in these pages. As the Painter telepathically unravels Karnak’s psyche, it becomes more clear to me that Karnak is just as flawed as those he scolds for not being perfect.
This being the case, I find it interesting to consider what exactly makes Karnak flawed. As the painter so aptly points out in this issue, one of things that makes people human is that they are flawed. Therefore, by his very humanness, Karnak is flawed because he is a human and cannot escape the imperfections that come with being so. Adding salt to the wound, the Painter points out that Karnak had the chance to become inhuman but did not, which in the mind of the Painter, was a flawed a decision.
In bringing up this memory the Painter is dredging up the very thing that makes Karnak the most uncomfortable. As a child he could have become inhuman, but his parents prevented him from doing so. In Karnak’s eyes it makes sense that he would view this as a fault within himself. After all, he’s the guy who goes around claiming all men are flawed, but if he’s also a man, then there’s no way he can be excluded from his own denunciation. It all makes sense, really, when I consider the type of man Karnak has grown up to become. His whole life has been devoted to finding flaws and eliminating them, making his existence austere and harsh. It makes sense, though, that all of this would be in reaction to a childhood that offered Karnak little choice and in his mind prevents him from being perfect.
This is a fascinating choice on the part of Ellis and makes Karnak a deeply conflicted character. Judging by his overreaction when confronted with his childhood, Karnak knows he is flawed and hates this about himself. What makes it worse for him is that this is a flaw he cannot possibly fix. No matter what he does Karnak will always have to live with the fact that he is human and flawed. That he knows this and hates it is another flaw in himself and in this way one flaw compounds the other. What finally pushes Karnak over the edge is when the Painter suggests he let’s Adam turn him inhuman. While doing so might make Karnak perfect (in his eyes) doing so would admit he’s flawed in the first place. This is something that a proud man like Karnak can’t tolerate.
Of course Karnak is also a dangerous man and this leads to him killing the painter in bloody fashion. Ostensibly, he has a reason for doing this beyond his personal anger.
Whether or not the Painter actually posed a threat to anyone beyond Karnak is hard to say. As the panel where the murder takes place shows, the Painter is indeed primed with explosives and shrapnel. But it’s important to remember that all of this action is going down on a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. It seems unlikely that one man could, no matter how much shrapnel is smashed into his body, could bring down a helicarrier meant to take on the toughest challenges posed to S.H.I.E.L.D. With that in mind, it seems like the Painter was left behind specifically to intercept Karnak and disrupt his mental stability. The question that remains is did this work? Did the Painter’s bomb actually work? Is Karnak broken now that he has confronted his faults? Only his future actions, not his past, will tell.
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?