When Saladin Ahmed was announced to write Black Bolt for Marvel, I noticed a surprising number of people excited to see him attached, who knew his name. Ahmed’s first novel had some time to gain attention after being nominated for a Hugo award and winning a Locus award, but I couldn’t recall any of these folks buzzing about his work before Black Bolt. Then I read his Twitter bio: New York Times, Buzzfeed, Slate, NPR. Not just marks on a CV, either; he’s smart. It’s rare for a smart outsider to create something boring in comics (though that doesn’t mean it will end better than your worst breakup).
Placing Ahmed on Black Bolt, a solo title about the king of a race of superpowered “Inhumans” who live on the dark side of the moon, piqued my curiosity enough to keep reading whatever press release or tweet I stumbled on to find his collaborator: Christian Ward. The same Ward who reimagined The Odyssey alongside Matt Fraction as ODY-C, a gender-bent sci-fi space epic. His color palettes are ethereal, his linework dreamlike, his art unlike anyone else in mainstream comics: a phantasmal style that conjures Jack Kirby in ODY-C and turns positively nightmarish in Infinite Vacation.
The decision to bring such a distinct visual style to a comic featuring a protagonist who has barely spoken in his decades-long existence shows a surprising consideration for what can be done with the medium. Surprising for anyone working in comics but doubly surprising for a corporation like Marvel that has loudly and increasingly proclaimed its conservative tendencies in recent years. Ward takes the immense strangeness that fueled Kirby and his creations — Black Bolt included — and reins it in, doing his best to contain the cosmic within the borders of each panel. It’s one of the few times I can say it feels like someone has done justice to the spirit of Kirby’s work without simply attempting to copy it. I get the impression Ward works slowly, but his output is fitting for bringing empyrean ideas into something visible, creating anticipation for every release with his name on it.
It may sound like a simple variation on the X-men and their mutant powers, but the Inhumans are a race of genetically engineered humans, forever altered by alien intervention. As such, Blackagar Boltagon (really, I know) is stronger, faster, and possibly smarter than a baseline human being before talking about superpowers. But it’s his superpower that makes the very premise of a Black Bolt comic interesting: even his slightest whisper unleashes sonic waves so powerful as to demolish nearly anything in its path. There is undoubtedly an essay in the power of words, the juxtaposition of that with Black Bolt’s masculinity, but we’ll leave that aside right now to focus on a different challenge: a near-silent protagonist in a text-based medium. Comic books at least allow for quite a bit of visual shenanigans to get around Black Bolt’s “speak and destroy” issue, though I feared Ahmed would front-load the comic with narration — an overused tool in comics with speaking protagonists. Instead he… well, he decided to simply shut off Black Bolt’s powers.
Is that a better narrative choice than having an overabundance of captions? I don’t know. It feels… obvious. And boring. But it works for what Ahmed needs it to do: give Black Bolt an opportunity to communicate with his fellow inmates and find a way out of the mysterious space prison he wakes up in at the start of the first issue. As seems to be common with these types of solo hero comics, the supporting cast consists mostly of C- and D-list Marvel characters like The Absorbing Man in a way that feels a bit too familiar.
Despite the somewhat uninspired choices regarding plot and cast, Ahmed serves as a conduit for the cosmic and the epic nearly as well as Kirby did. Black Bolt is a king of superpowered beings who live on the moon, and there is never a moment where Ahmed allows us to forget the comic book absurdity of that idea. Black Bolt has not been placed in prison alongside throwaway characters as some way to ground him and make him more relatable; it is simply to take him out of his element, explore that displacement, and show readers what someone deserving of the title of King of the Inhumans would do when he experiences firsthand the torturous prison he had reserved for his mad brother.
It doesn’t hurt to have an idea of who Black Bolt is before picking up this Ahmed/Ward joint, but there is no required reading. Readers are introduced to the essentials about the character and the world he comes from without requiring extensive exposition or a trip to Wikipedia; you may actually be better off with an understanding of Shakespeare — Hamlet and Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps — to enter the world and headspace of Black Bolt, though that, as well, is certainly not necessary. Besides Ahmed’s charmingly approachable display of the epic, Ward does well to give readers panels and pages that are simultaneously inventive and easy to follow, cosmically unique yet nearly universal in their approach. His sometimes shaky linework befits a character whose whispers could vibrate a person until they shatter, and his physiques distinguish between the genetically gifted Black Bolt’s lithe form and Crusher “Absorbing Man” Creele’s prison-built pecs. Action, so far as it exists, is incredibly well choreographed and easy to follow without sacrificing the flourishes that make Ward’s art distinctly his.
By the end of the first volume, I am left with a single observation that is equal parts complaint, warning to readers, and criticism of the current approach to print and digital comics: Black Bolt was not created with both print and digital reading in mind. When it comes to the color palette, the blacks are so black as to turn nearly reflective on the glossy paper, making it incredibly difficult to read some sections of the book in print. I’ve looked at the same pages on a computer screen, when they are backlit, and not run into that problem. It’s a frustrating thing to experience when reading a book you are enjoying immensely: being taken out of it through a fault of presentation, likely due to the streamlined assembly-line process of mainstream comics that doesn’t leave room for much post-production review. Of course, that only explains the issue in the monthly releases; that it carried over to the trade paperback collection in my hands has one easy explanation: these collections are assembled drag-and-drop at best, with many still including covers and recap pages in the middle of the collection. So, in short: read it digitally.
Also, there’s a dog. His name is Lockjaw.