Today, Drew and Ryan D. are discussing Karnak 6, originally released February 1st, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Drew: I’ve cited tvtropes.org so often on this site that doing so might reasonably constitute its own trope. Indeed, I tend to use that site in the same way that writers use tropes: as a shorthand to lay the groundwork for more complex and original ideas. It’s not that tropes are bad, necessarily, but they certainly represent some amount of artifice in the story — recognizing those tropes necessarily pushes us out of the narrative. In the world of comics, tropes are almost obligatory, as characters and situations have to be introduced in 20-page installments. Those elements can be complicated later, but tropes become the basic currency for the broad strokes. This may seem like an odd way to open a discussion of Karnak 6, which is remarkably inoffensive on the tropes front, but I’d like to suggest that writer Warren Ellis has adopted an entirely different, less artificial currency to round out this six-issue arc: Karnak’s own cognitive biases.
This is brilliant on basically every level. The most obvious is that Karnak shouldn’t have any cognitive biases. Presented as a kind of ultimate Warrior Poet (and perhaps more importantly, as the good guy), Karnak is supposed to be philosophically in the right. The thought that he might not be strikes at the very core of his identity as we know it. Moreover, in revealing the flaw in Karnak is a bitter twist of irony — he’s basically been out-Karnaked.
Because the flaw in him comes from his very origin, tracing back to his line from the first issue that “the bullet you fired at me was flawed imply by the act of being fired. You were flawed by being born.” In this way, we can understand Karnak’s flaw is that he didn’t undergo Terrigenesis — the situation that created the man we see. More precisely, his philosophy falls out of justifying the fact that he didn’t undergo Terrigenesis, a kind of choice-supportive bias for his very identity. He’s thus elevated the fruits of work and sacrifice while vilifying gifts that are given and received without effort, which makes Adam Roderick his perfect nemesis.
Unfortunately for Karnak, his biases seem to have led him in the exact wrong direction. His best justifications for pursuing Adam — that he wanted to reunite him with his parents — is utterly undone when he receives his fee of “the single thing that allows [the Rodericks] to believe that the universe is a kind and beautiful place”:
They didn’t need or want him back the way they knew him. Their desire was entirely optimistic and rooted in change, but Karnak being Karnak, he couldn’t see that. He assumed the flaw in this situation was in Adam, but it’s clear that the greater flaw was in Karnak.
Which brings me back to celebrating just how smart it is to make this issue (and retroactively, this whole arc) about Karnak’s cognitive biases. I mentioned how the use of tropes in other narratives can have a distancing effect, drawing attention to the fact that we’re reading a fiction set in a world where characters might not actually be more than “slimy lawyer” or “insensitive jock.” Hinging this twist instead on Karnak’s own (similarly listable) flaws has the opposite effect, because those biases don’t describe fictional worlds but the thoughts of real people. It humanizes him, which again, is probably bitterly ironic to Karnak.
Ellis and artist Roland Boschi sumarize this perfectly in the recurring motif of cubes. In earlier issues, we might have guessed that Karnak’s habit of meditating in front of cubes was some kind of exercise in flaw finding (or comparing real-world cubes to their platonic ideals), but now we might understand them more as a kind of Proustian madeleine, evoking the very moment that flawed Karnak himself.
This, of course, evokes our own memory from issue 2, where we first saw young Karnak playing with blocks. This moment started a fixation — albeit a painstakingly rationalized one — with personal accomplishment that has led to the Karnak we know in this series.
Ryan, that revelation hit me pretty hard — while I had come to expect some heavy philosophy from this series, I was entirely caught off guard by its psycholanalytic heart. I’m not sure “come for the Neitzsche, stay for the Freud” would have won me over as a tagline, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t effective. Were you as blown away by this issue as I was, or did the sudden reveal that this was all very personal for Karnak feel strike a sour note?
Ryan D: I’m not sure whether it is a sour feeling I have — more of a querulous one. I trust Ellis with telling stories. I think my question here — in light of this last issue — isn’t whether he told a good one, but rather, did he tell the right one?
We all crave stories in which we watch the protagonist change throughout their journeys, right? Change is what breathes a two-dimensional character into a living person. So after last issue’s encounter with The Painter, Ellis had a choice with his conclusion: will Karnak be effected by this journey? Drew, as you said, this issue finally humanizes Karnak. Seeing him wrestle with his decision on the final page is to look into a mirror: that’s me, going into a situation full of ideology and best intentions, only to be left with my face in my palm as my well-curated intention fails to match with the reality, and I’m left with the burnt smell on my nose of when the rubber unceremoniously met the road. This conclusion hammers home Adam’s point: everyone has a flaw, and today, Karnak confronted his and lost.
But was there another way for Karnak to offer us this same introspective view, but without less of a journey on his part? If Karnak traveled through his journey and walked out the other side sporting the same sharp, toothy smile which he walked in with, maybe some would be dismayed at his lack of change; however, is Karnak a character who should change? Did he need to change for the audience to reach its point of catharsis? The emotional purgation here would be more in line with this syllogistic reasoning: Karnak’s philosophy allowed him to remain unfazed in the face of this episode; I, and other people with capacity for empathy would have been effected by this confrontation and crippling of a boy, but Karnak’s philosophies allow him an inhuman lack of empathy. Then the readers would be left with similar further questions regarding Karnak and his cognitive biases, only from an outsider’s perspective rather than an insider’s. Am I saying that Ellis made the wrong call, or that one would support the character more or be more thought-provoking? Not at all. Ellis is brilliant; I’m just trying to nail down the “off” feeling I had at the conclusion.
One other possibility occurred to me, Drew, though it’s a bit of a “what if?”. The audience sees a gleam in Karnak’s eye as he successfully assesses Adam’s flaw, followed by:
We see Karnak leap aside from the blast of energy which would have — as Adam’s power-set dictates — given Karnak whatever power he desired. My first though after, as I watched Karnak strike the winning and crippling blow to the young Inhuman, was, “So Adam’s power worked, right?” After learning of how much Karnak resents the Terrigen Mist and the concept of having a gift bestowed unto them by an exterior source like the Inhumans or mutants, what could Karnak have wanted more than the ability to prove his superiority over Adam, his foil, securing himself in his life journey and self-worth? Maybe this is more of a confession that I was expecting Karnak to wake up realizing that he had hallucinated his victory after Adam’s powers worked, but the more I thought about it, the more interested I became in the idea that Karnak was changed — albeit slightly — making the smug “pedagogue” blissfully unaware of the philosophically Pyrrhic victory he achieved.
Overall, Drew, despite my musings about narrative possibilities and overall story, it has been really something to consider this six-issue arc as a whole. Ellis and Zaffino took readers on a very interesting journey as the flavor of the issues shifted with Karnak. To prepare to write this response to you, I started reading into the Neo-Nihilist/speculative realist philosophers such as Peter Sjostedt-H and Eugene Thacker upon which the character’s ethos is based, getting ready to be all ontological and stuff, until your lead-in helped me realize that this isn’t an issue about philosophy — it’s a human issue. And nothing proves this more than the concluding panel. I think that a huge duty of art is to share private moments and make them public. It is a gift to see the things which are common between all of us which we, as people, are so conditioned not to show such as Karnak’s deep regret, and if you told me at the beginning of this series that I’d be able to see Karnak the Shatterer at his most vulnerable, I would have probably pre-ordered the rest of the run out of curiosity. That does sounds like a damn good story to tell.
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