by Patrick Ehlers and Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Patrick: I’m not sure I “get” Black Bolt. Like, as a character, his perspective is borderline impenetrable. He’s a centuries-old king, with the power to demolish a city with his voice, and one hell of a prophecy hanging over him. He is also, famously, silent. So maybe my inability to get to the heart of his motivations is built right into the character’s DNA. In the finale of Donny Cates and Ariel Olivetti’s Death of the Inhumans, Blackagar’s motivations are just as clouded as they’ve ever been. Sure, he saves some Inhumans, but why and how largely remains a mystery not revealed to the reader.
But not for lack of Black Bolt trying to be understood. My absolute favorite scene in the issue shows Black Bolt giving a pep talk to his remaining crew. Medusa, Beta Ray Bill, Karnak and Gorgon get a heartfelt speech from their king, detailing how he failed in his lonely mission to save the Inhumans.
Olivetti is careful to keep showing us Black Bolt’s hands against a white background, as though mimicking the look of text against white balloons. It’s a process-focused page, reminding the reader of both the method by which Blackagar’s communicating, and the fact that it requires physical effort to do so. The substance of Black Bolt’s speech is that he’s recommitting to team work: the only way they can save the Inhumans is to save them together. And then he calls for a moment of silence for this tiny team to observe together. Y’know to show their respects for the fallen.
It’s a heavy moment, which is hilariously undercut on the very next page. Bill is silent for a moment before chiming in with “I do not speak human sign language. What are we doing?” In addition to being a great moment of levity in an otherwise grim issue, Bill is demonstrating two things here. First, he’s demonstrating that he doesn’t exactly understand Black Bolt. But second, he’s showing the power of a voice to cause devastation, and specifically devastation for the Inhumans. We’ll see both of those things play out again later in the issue.
The central misunderstanding that Black Bolt himself seems to be perpetuating in this issue is this concept that “…whatever happens now, we do it together… as a family.” Black Bolt has a plan, but he sure as shit doesn’t run it past his “family.” If he had, why would Medusa be so shocked to see him fire on the Vox-ified Lockjaw and Crystal?
Karnak calms Medusa down, but we can chalk up his sudden understanding to, y’know, him being Karnak. Black Bolt finds all of his converted brethren and blasts them with one last scream. This is enough to free Lockjaw and Crystal, but Triton and all the other Inhumans are not afforded the same fate. Olivetti takes pains to show us torsos impaled and rib cages exploded.
That’s a pretty violent drawing, huh? And Medusa was alarmed when he shot at Lockjaw!
So the end of the issue finds a scant six Inhumans returning home with the treat of Vox vanquished, along with (appropriately enough) Black Bolt’s voice. I can’t help but focus on the disconnect between what Black Bolt was saying and what is actions are, so I have to wonder what the hell he means when he says they’re going “home.” I mean, theoretically, he still hasn’t fulfilled the prophecy yet either, right? As he’s interpreted it, the only way to defeat the Kree is to defeat the Inhumans as well. But like, a half-a-dozen make it out of this one alive.
What are we looking at here, Drew? A rogue King making his own destiny or a prophecy unfulfilled? Also, I know we’ve seen the effects of Bolt’s voice like million times over the years, but I really liked how his short, quiet statement to Karnak made his friend’s nose bleed. Really cool detail there.
Drew: It’s a great detail — as always, everything Olivetti packs into each panel has meaning. Moreover, the size an placement of his panels emphasize that meaning. I dug into that phenomenon in my writeup of issue 3, but it’s just as prevalent here, as Olivetti funnels our attention to some key moments, tightening our focus to a pinpoint before blowing it up for some devastating page turns. Or, perhaps most tellingly, on the final page, which has the effect of drawing the issue to a quiet close, like a studio fade at the end of a song.
It’s an appropriately down note for the issue to end on, but I think it also at least starts to answer your questions about how this gibes with the prophecy. That is, Cates isn’t drawing parallels to Rome arbitrarily. Rome and Romans continue to exist to this day, but we can still understand the history of the Roman empire in terms of its “fall.” In that way, we don’t need “Death of the Inhumans,” or Black Bolt’s plan to feature the eradication of every single inhuman for it to ostensibly be about the death of inhumanity.
Even so, the prophecy about the Midnight King ending the Kree Empire seems unfulfilled. There’s no doubt Black Bolt laid waste to their weapons lab, apparently destroying every one of their Vox soldiers, but the Kree were bigger than that one facility, right? Perhaps this is another parallel to Rome? That is, Bolt didn’t need to kill every Kree in every outpost and colony in the empire — or even every Kree in that compound — so long as he dealt the symbolic blow of burning their “Rome”? That explanation feels a bit shakier to me, but I’m satisfied that the Kree will leave the Inhumans alone for the time being, even if their Empire lives on.
Between those two stretched definitions of “death,” readers might reasonably be disappointed in this ending, which seems to promise that both of these Romes will be rebuilt, but I actually think that’s one of the more charming aspects of this miniseries. As much as Cates and Olivetti have instilled this story with the affects of the kind grim’n’gritty series where a literal genocide might happen, the heart of this thing is pure comics optimism. Black Bolt saves the day through heroic sacrifice, not by compromising his values. That is, in the grand tradition of grim’n’gritty comics that only look like the stories they’re deconstructing, Death of the Inhumans is a deconstruction that only looks as dark and serious as the comics it’s deconstructing. It watched the Watchmen, as it were.
I suspect some folks will disagree on that last bit, so I’m looking forward to the comments on this one, but the main takeaway for me is how much I enjoyed this thing in spite of those dark affects. Part of that is definitely a testament to the few comedy beats Cates and Olivetti squeeze into this final issue, but the bigger piece for me is that the series never descends into the cynicism of its premise. Yes, Black Bolt does have to kill many of his own people, but he also manages to save most of the ones we care about (with at least a few more safe back on Earth). It’s not exactly upbeat, but is far less morbid than we might expect of a series called Death of the Inhumans.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?