Paul Jenkins’ ‘Inhumans’ Offers Insights on Humanity at its Best and Worst

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Inhumans #1-12 (1998-99)
Written by Paul Jenkins
Penciled by Jae Lee
Inked by Jae Lee
Colored by Dave Kemp, Dan Kemp, and Avalon Studios
Published by Marvel Comics

“While we appreciate the support…it is nonetheless conditional.  As seems to be the case with every human good deed.”

            -Mendicus (Inhumans Vol. 2, Issue 5)

“From diversity comes equality”.  A simple concept that stands in direct contrast to the term “Separate but equal”, and a concept that governs every facet of life according to the Inhumans.  From the very beginning of Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee’s Inhumans, readers are immediately thrust into a genocracy governed by genealogy and phenotypical expression.  The home of these strange beings with irresistible power is known as Attilan, an island nation ruled by the ever-silent Black Bolt and his inner cabinet, composed of his family.  Together, they preside over their race of Inhumans, an offshoot of Homo sapiens, whose ancestors were mutated thousands of years ago by a malevolent alien race.

Aside from slight genetic differences, what sets an Inhuman apart from a human is that they undergo a transformation which further mutates by immersing themselves in Terrigen Mist.  This process, known as Terrigenesis is the fundamental building block of their society; it’s akin to a baptism or a bar mitzvah, a coming of age process where the initiated is formally recognized and accepted by the community.  Every Terrigenesis is unique and distinct with the express purpose of providing a specific function that will contribute to the continued survival of the Inhumans.  Everyone is equally different, yet crucial in a society that doesn’t allow for homogeneity.  After all, from diversity comes equality.

Beyond being a sequestered and clandestine society, the ruling family of the Inhuman race is just that—A family.  Somehow, within the span of 12 issues, writer Paul Jenkins spectacularly balances the family dynamic with the political dealings of the Inhumans.  From the very first issue of the miniseries, Jenkins perfectly captures the confident, yet mellow tone of Black Bolt without having the character utter a single word.  Medusa is the strong woman behind the great man, Gorgon is the fiery hot-head eager for action, Triton is the compassionate soul struggling to rectify mankind’s contradictory halves of war and peace, Crystal is the introspective sage, and Karnak is the wise counsel to Black Bolt.

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So he can’t talk, and she has to guess what he’s thinking. All in all, this is one of the more stable relationships in comics. 

Inhumans is about much more than the blood ties that bind , as it explores class structure, man’s capacity for greed and destruction, and the durability of trust.  In every facet, from narrative to conflict and characterization, Jenkins layers all aspects of the story in a way that calls for a myriad of examinations in order to fully grasp the scope of this epic.  Not only is this a story about the royal family, but also about the next generation of children about to undergo Terrigenesis.  They’re fears, anxieties, and aspirations are all grounded in a natural logic that every kid has, that of letting their parents down.  Because of the emphasis that is placed on Terrigenesis, and the unpredictability of it, a caste system of sorts emerges where the Inhumans with useful or more wondrous mutations are exalted and celebrated while those with lesser, or frivolous mutations, like an extra arm or extended fingers, are treated like the Untouchables, shunned and isolated.  Finally there are the Alpha Primitives, genetically deficient slaves meant to toil endlessly to keep Attilan running.  Through the six children undergoing Terrigenesis, Jenkins compresses the themes of class struggle, vanity, heredity, and honor as each child emerges as a completely different being after Terrigenesis.  For those that emerge beautiful, there is endless praise and joy, but for those that come out as deformed or deficient, there is nothing but shame and scorn.  No matter how evolved the Inhumans may seem, it seems that their mantra of “From diversity comes equality” is conditional as well.

Wondering where and how to fit in is the crisis that the recently mutated Inhumans face before them.  Although, they are all too briefly involved in the story, they  steal the show as Jenkins takes the unconventional turn by introducing Inhuman society through the eyes of the uninitiated instead of the established characters.  The royal family, however, faces a much more dire threat as Maximus the Mad, Black Bolt’s lunatic brother, has made a bid to usurp the throne by simultaneously instigating a revolt amongst the Alpha Primitives while exacerbating an invasion of Attilan by aggressive human militias.  The way Jenkins portrays Maximus isn’t as a whimsically insane nuisance, but as a scheming madman who sees the world from an upside down point of view.  He’s absurd no doubt, but also dangerously charismatic; a force to be handled very delicately.

In this way, Maximus mirrors the crisis that Black Bolt and his family faces as they cannot confront the invading human forces or Alpha Primitives by force, but by carefully maneuvering his people in a way that will neutralize both threats without actually harming them.  This is how Inhumans becomes more than the stereotypical superhero comic book as this crisis can’t be solved by punching and kicking the bad guy.  It takes guile and ingenuity and politics.

The biggest criticism of Inhumans is that the ending is anticlimactic, an argument that while seemingly valid, completely ignores the human and emotional subtext that permeates throughout the maxiseries like a summer breeze through a pair of parachute pants.  This is what Gorgon, leader of the inhuman army represents, a hot-blooded cliché confronting a new problem with old, and inapplicable solutions.  By contrast, Black Bolt represents the best that humanity has to offer; he is a being who has integrated his emotions and rationale into himself where one won’t betray the other.  He is not betrayed by cold logic, nor is he overrun by uncontrollable emotion; he is restrained and accurate.  As such his wife, Medusa, and counsel, Karnak, have nothing but trust and faith in him.  As he should, Black Bolt looks at both Maximus and humanity with pity for he sees the widening chasm of what they are as opposed to what they could be.  This is why Black Bolt punishes neither with violence, as he has sympathy where others would have contempt.

Like an…Inhuman(?) out of hell I’ll be gone when the morning comes.

 

The only gripe is that save for one or two moments of insight (which is summarily brushed off by the other characters) Crystal, sister of Medusa, goes largely ignored.  She has her one Jeff Goldblum speech from Jurassic Park moment about the dangers of molesting nature, but that’s about it.  Thankfully, all the other Inhumans get their just due in the maxiseries.  The two that stand out most are Medusa and Triton.  Medusa is the strong woman behind the great man, yet she is delicate and filled with her own self-doubt.  She goes through a most harrowing fate however, as part of Black Bolt’s plan to thwart Maximus is to have her get kidnapped, and then have her prehensile hair (her Terrigenesis) cut off.  Despite the unbreakable and intimate bond that she shares with Black Bolt, her inner monologues constantly reveal a fear of distance between herself and her husband.  Although she acts as his interpreter, she fears that he keeps things from her, or that she doesn’t know what is fully in his heart and his head.  For an Inhuman, she has very human feelings of which anyone can relate.

One of the best issues of the maxiseries takes place away from the violence plaguing Attilan, and is actually told via flashback by Triton who recounts one of his first encounters with humanity.  He was there the day The Lusitania was sunk, and managed to save a small boy from the wreckage.  Amongst the debris and mangled bodies that littered the ocean, Triton witnessed this boy’s grandfather sacrifice himself to save his grandchild, which left the inhuman puzzled, wondering which was the true face of humanity.  Was it the one that lusts for violence and superiority through destruction, or was it the selfless act of heroism and compassion?  This is Paul Jenkins at his most obvious as he seeks to “explore our human condition through the inhuman one” as he put it.  Ultimately, that is the true purpose of Inhumans—to rectify all the contrasting facets of humanity and figure out if we are the noble and empathic creatures capable of wondrous beauty and unity, or are we the cynical, greedy, and duplicitous beings who strive to snuff out anything that is remotely different.

Artist Jae Lee is the perfect man to bring Marvel’s most oft-ignored freaks to life, as his exaggerated, yet beautiful artwork perfectly conveys the off-kilter inhumans.  He portrays the inhumans as human, but slightly off, and exaggerates accordingly.  Lee’s art isn’t as rough or as outlandish as it was in the early 90s, but it still retains its characteristic abstractness.  Gorgon is the size of a beast, Tonaja looks inhumanly angelic as she emerges from her terrigenesis, and Medusa’s hair seems to have a mind of its own.  Despite being unable to speak, Lee ensures that readers don’t even need to have Black Bolt speak as they can perfectly understand the character just by looking at his eyes.  From pity, to love, to self-doubt, Lee’s artworks makes it possible for a mute character like Black Bolt to speak volumes.  Inhumans was a project that no other artist should have touched, and thankfully Marvel agreed.    

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Using the Inhumans as a mirror, Jenkins and Lee project the best and worst that humanity has to offer.  Like humans, the Inhumans try to mask a prejudiced and divided society beneath a veil of equality and tolerance.  They are capable of great disdain, and at times it seems as if their support and love are conditions, yet they are also capable of great sympathy and trust.  Despite having tremendous power, the Inhumans still fight at the dinner table, call each other names, and play jokes on each other just like any family would, and at the end of the day, they are indeed a family.  Even though they may be Inhumans, Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee prove that, for better or for worse, they’re people too.




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