by Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
“Freedom isn’t free” has become the insulting platitude gun advocates offer to justify the United States’ unrivaled gun violence numbers. Never mind that countless countries enjoy similar freedoms without the same body counts — the freedom to own a gun, the logic goes, is worth the lives of any number of concertgoers, congressmen, nightclubbers, pedestrians, or schoolchildren. It’s strange that the notion of the cost of freedom has gone from personal costs one might make in order to secure freedom for themselves and their country to some kind of blood sacrifice we demand of others, since the two couldn’t really be more different. One is about noble sacrifice, the other is about throwing someone else under the bus to save your own skin. It’s a point that Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward make elegantly in Black Bolt 6, as the mad scramble for freedom yields some unexpected costs.
The first example comes as the Jailer’s psychic projections drive Metal Master to nearly kill Creel. Raava intervenes, running Metal Master through, to everyone’s horror. It was the most violent solution possible, but Raava is completely undisturbed by the morality of her actions.
It’s the old “Raava is a violent monster” gag cranked up to eleven, turning it into something more chilling than endearing.
But Metal Master’s forced “sacrifice” for the greater good is thrown into sharp contrast when Creel volunteers to make his own sacrifice. The distinction of who has the agency is an important one, even if the motives are ultimately the same. That is, while Creel’s choice to sacrifice himself to save the other prisoners feels noble (and incredibly sweet), Raava’s choice to sacrifice Metal Master feels barbarous, even though the motives and the results are largely the same.
Parsing the moral differences between those two is certainly fraught, but their actual purpose here may be to establish the poles of willful sacrifice in order to give Black Bolt’s own sacrifice some context. By the end of the issue, it seems he’s lost his voice, but it’s hard to say how knowingly he made that sacrifice. Was he like Creel consciously choosing to save others, costs be damned, or was he like Metal Master, having those costs thrust on him without any choice? It’s a kind of Rorschach test of agency that walks the line so precisely, I honestly am not sure which way I break on this.
Either way, this issue is absolutely gorgeous. Ward cuts loose with the colors for both the starscapes and Bolt’s powers, and the results are stunning.
Holy shit. This artwork would be more than remarkable enough on its own, but paired with Ahmed’s hard questions on the nature of sacrifice makes this series something truly special. It’s deep and thought-provoking and pretty as hell — I really couldn’t ask for more.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?
What I find interesting here is that destroying the prison ended up being rehabilitative. Rehabilitation is supposed to be the great benefit of prison, but in truth, what redeemed Creel was, essentially, activism. Fighting the system. Instead of exploitative, punitive punishment, the chance to do something of meaning, to create meaningful, positive change is what rehabilitates Creel.
I’m not sure it’s rehabilitative, in that I’m not sure it’s the experience of being in prison that gave Creel the strength of character to make this sacrifice. This prison didn’t show him the error of his ways, or connect him to some long-forgotten seat of empathy, and his sacrifice is framed in a way that makes me think he might have done the same thing even without the prison.
Admittedly, I haven’t read a ton of comics featuring the Absorbing Man, so I don’t know how well the “down on his luck oaf with a heart of gold” characterization fits with his crimes, but his sacrifice feels like it’s coming from somewhere deep inside of him. He doesn’t do it because he feels he owes some debt to society or because he needs to make up for any wrongs, but because there are kids in the prison he could help save. I’d agree that it’s a redemptive moment for a guy who has done a lot of wrong in his life, but I’m not sure I’d say it was the result of rehabilitation.
Nearly every issue of Creel I’ve read has treated him as a career crook, so I can’t say I have a rich idea of the character.
But I do think that his experience with his fellow priosners made him a better person (let’s make that clear. The prison did nothing). I think the more traditional depiction of Creel would hate the prison’s immorality, but would see it as someone else’s problems. He’d see it as the sort of thing that superheroes exist to deal with.
I think him emphasizing the idea of the fact that there are children there was important. Especially in the context of an explanation of his actions. He came to a realisation about himself. Realised he was willing to fight for good.
COnsidering that in issue 4, he described himself as a guy who never acclompished anything good, I think it is important that he did something unambiguously good here.
That isn’t to say he’s good. He isn’t fully rehabilitated. But a change has happened. He has grown and become a better member of society. That counts, even if he won’t line up with the Avengers after his resurrection. Creel may not ever be the sort of person who will ever seek out how to make a world a better place, but he is now a man who will commit to doing the right thing when he finds himself in the right situation.
Not a full rehabilitation, but Creel is better coming out of the other side. And in truth, there is no full rehabilitation, as we will always be flawed individuals. So the fact that Creel is better means something
I mean, when we talk abotu rehabilitation with respect to prisons, surely someone leaving prison as a better person is a success, even if he still has a lot of growing still to do?