Oh, the majesty. Oh, the tragedy. Oh, the drama.
Oh, the Inhumanity.
I’ve been pushing the print versions of the Inhumans hard lately. Blame Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward; I probably wouldn’t have become so obsessed…er…enamored if not for their Black Bolt (I may have mentioned that a time or two as well). Once I started backtracking, I realized how massive the saga of Blackagar Boltagon et al is, how it explores the fundamental underpinnings of our existence in honest, bold, and sometimes absolutely silly ways. The Inhumans’ stories allow us, mere mortals, to study humanity impartially and objectively, to examine where we’ve been, where we are, and the various and sundry ways we could go in this thing called life.
There’s a gravitas and an urgency to the Inhuman books (except for the silly bits), a scope and a scale reminiscent of some of literature’s greatest tragic dramas. ABC has prettied it up—brightened it—for television audiences, but there is a good deal of darkness summering just below the surface of pristine marble floors and awful purple dresses.
If you want to get a true sense of the world inhabited by the Inhumans, step away from the remote and hit the library (or your bookshelf or your e-reader) and take a stroll through some epic dramas. My top five recommendations? Why yes, I do have a list prepared.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
I know, I know. This one makes all the “best of” lists and you probably suffered through it in high school and/or college (or the pretentious Branaugh vanity project which, if I’m being honest, I sort of liked, or the Mel Gibson version which made me want to pull an Oedipus) but hear me out: Hamlet may be an obvious choice but it’s no less valid for being well-known, and the Inhumans have definitely borrowed from it in the five plus decades of their existence. Black Bolt and Maximus are Claudius and Hamlet’s father, vying for the crown and the queen. Crystal’s forbidden entanglements, first with Johnny Storm and then Pietro Maximoff, are as contentious as the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. There is betrayal, murder, invasion, and war. There is obsession and a horrifying cycle of violence impossible to end. It is a tale of family and the individuals within, a culmination of greed and rage, loyalty and honor.
Medea by Euripides
Medea is a study in the depth of human rage, the lengths to which a person will go for revenge when wronged. When Jason leaves Medea for a younger, more beautiful, more powerful model, she murders her own sons to prove she is not a woman to be cast aside as so much detritus. Though Black Bolt and Maximus are brothers rather than lovers, the rage Maximus directs at his sibling, some of it earned (it was Black Bolt who knocked Maximus’ powers into sleep mode, albeit unintentionally) and some of it projected, mirrors Medea’s. Maximus will go to any lengths to gain the crown and Medusa’s hand, including: body switching, memory tampering, disfigurement of a woman he claims to love, manipulation, murder, and near genocide. Though he is dubbed “Maximus the Mad,” he is well aware of his actions and their consequences—but his need to triumph over Black Bolt consumes him as absolutely as Medea’s drive to destroy her former husband, burning away rationality and judgment and replacing it with hatred.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
I won’t lie to you, guys: The Vegetarian is a tough read. There is a lot of pain in this slim volume, a lifetime’s worth of misunderstanding, cruelty, and heartache. It is also an incredible and honest study of the damage done when a person is denied her authentic self, when she is crushed into conformity and obedience. While Black Bolt does what he thinks is right for his people, what he thinks he needs to do to protect them, the rigid hierarchy of the Inhuman social structure means one is assigned a place according to one’s genetically granted abilities without any hope of reassignment. Ever. Those who don’t respond to Terrigenesis at all are labeled “Alpha Primitives,” used as slaves by the more elevated castes and as cannon fodder by those who wish to rule, ground down until the only freedom remaining is death. To rebel, whether at one’s own behest or that of another, is a heinous, and fatal, crime.
The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris
Norse myth from Loki’s point of view is a bit different than the stories with which we’ve traditionally been regaled. This is, in part, because every man is the hero of his own story (Maximus would certainly agree) but also because stories are only told from one point of view. In Harris’ gorgeous novel, Loki’s purpose is set from the beginning: he is Odin’s foil, the troublemaker who unites stubborn gods in their anger toward him, but also their salvation, which those other gods cannot help but resent. Odin pushes Loki toward his fate and then leaves him to twist in the wind, much as the Inhuman council put Black Bolt on the throne to be both ruler and scapegoat. They left him with problems he would never be able to solve, insurmountable challenges, isolated both by the throne and by his inability to speak. Like Loki, Black Bolt is very much a being alone and lonely, wanting desperately to belong and knowing he never will.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman
Makina makes an illegal border crossing from Mexico to the Unites States in order to find her younger brother. To do so, she must make deals with drug lords and thieves. She is shot at, starved, and terrified, yet she perseveres because he is, after all, family, and there is nothing more important to Makina than family. Despite disagreements and infighting, realignments and shifting alliances, the Inhuman Royals will also do anything for family. They will wander the Earth among humans despite the risk of discovery to find a missing member. Crystal is welcomed back with her mutant husband even if the family disapproves of her choice and doesn’t particularly like said spouse (which is fair because Pietro Maximoff is one of the most enduring assholes of comics). Medusa and Black Bolt eventually forgive each another’s secrets and infidelities. Medusa offers each NuHuman (the whose powers are released by the Terrigen Cloud—think Kamala Khan) a place in Attilan because, by virtue of being Inhuman, they are also family (too bad she doesn’t feel the same way about the Alpha Primitives). And perhaps most telling, Black Bolt forgives his brother time and again, despite all evidence indicating Maximus will attempt to overthrow him at the next convenient moment; the king does imprison the younger Boltagon, but never threatening banishment or execution and always treating him well. Because, despite everything, Maximus is family.
Inhumans: they’re just like us but with cooler powers and sometimes scales. Hooves. Fins. Sentient hair…Their tragedy is ours, their foibles and mistakes not far removed from our own. They live and they struggle and tragedy takes them but they persevere. And so do we.
Thanks to Tom Racine over at Tall Tale Radio for starting the conversation which lead to this article on the Inhumans. I owe you one, man.