This is the third of a series of opinion pieces we are doing this week in response to all the debate around Inhumans. On Wednesday Adam urged readers to give Inhumans a chance. Yesterday I talked about the criticism that Inhumans deserves. Today is something a bit different altogether. In recent weeks I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the show that feigns to be on the grounds of “upsetting fans” or not being “faithful to the source material.” Often, I find, those complaints aren’t particularly rooted in the comics, however. The criticisms are based on ill informed assumptions and I can only assume they come from those who really don’t know the characters. I’m not the world’s biggest Inhumans fan, but I’ll try to document my thoughts as well as I can. The basic concept here is this: a lot of the criticism around comic accuracy is off base.
I think the root cause of this has been the publication history of the Inhumans. Until as recently as five or six years ago, the Inhumans were essentially Fantastic Four side characters. Both Medusa and Crystal spent some time filling in for a missing teammate, usually Sue Storm, and every three or four storylines Stan Lee would return to Attilan for an arc. The eighties and nineties were the sparsest eras for the property until Marvel Knights ran the Jenkins/Lee series which revitalized the characters. In the last decade Marvel has greatly ramped up their presence (more on that to come) and as a result, many people have an idea of what the property is, but that idea is rooted in just the last handful of years. Here are a few ways that the criticisms leveled at the show have proven to be shortsighted on the comic roots.
“Medusa’s hair looks terrible, nothing like the comics.”
I can’t comment on the VFX. They may not be finished and hair is notoriously difficult (see any documentary footage on the making of Pixar’s Brave). I think it looks ok as is, but I know those in the field are more suspect. The bigger issue, I think, is that of “resting Medusa hair,” to coin a phrase. In recent comic iterations, Medusa’s hair is always gigantic, always in the air, and always moving feverishly. It looks something like this:
This is an example of something I like to call the “power amplification problem.” It happens frequently. Wolverine starts as a hero who can heal from cuts and broken bones quickly. A decade later he is regularly subjected to nuclear blasts and being incinerated down to the skeleton. Why? Because fans get bored and they want more. You can’t do the same power over and over, it has to get bigger. So Medusa’s hair gets bigger and bigger and more and more prominent. It costs an artist nothing but time. But that’s a recent change. Check out two other versions, from Jack Kirby and Jae Lee.
The hair is present and voluminous, but it isn’t gigantic. It lays down like normal human hair and isn’t constantly writhing. Sure, at times Lee and Kirby went a little more fantastic, but only in action scenes. The constant movement, even when still, is a new phenomenon. The wig looks like a wig, but if they had merely dyed Serinda Swan‘s hair red there would be questions about why it wasn’t longer or fuller. The main point here is this: that effect is super hard and when at rest the hair looks about like what many comic iterations look like. “Comic accurate” Medua’s hair doesn’t mean hair six times the size of her body. (Remember, real life actresses do have to contend with gravity, physics, etc.)
“Black Bolt’s voice is underused!”
When Jeph Loeb recently said that Black Bolt had zero lines, some internet corners were up in arms. “We aren’t even going to get Black Bolt’s characteristic scream!” This is my biggest bone to pick in this piece and it is important. Black Bolt should never use his voice. Ever. Essential to his character is his unwillingness to use his powers. In that character is a fascinating question, “If you had nuclear capabilities at the snap of your fingers, could you be trusted with them?” (Recent tensions internationally should make this question even more interesting.) Almost no situation is beyond his ability to solve, but at what cost? Black Bolt’s heroism is in that he doesn’t use the power. In that aforementioned Jenkins/Lee run, he never uses the power and that’s a central tenant of Jenkins portrayal. In the first “Inhumans” series in the 70’s, he does use it after torture and it’s the greatest failure of his life. Black Bolt is supposed to be the wise king, the ultimate diplomat. Resorting to a brute act of power is an essential failing on his part as a character. It leads to the same sort of problem that Hulk has, i.e. the one thing the character doesn’t want is the one thing the fans do want, but his character should not be rewritten for the sake of cool explosions. Much like Cyclops, the power of Black Bolt should ultimately be a curse.
On the other hand, all the misspent time and effort complaining about his voice ignores the other power sets that should be present and appear to be absent in ABC’s Inhumans. Black Bolt should be soaring above Attilan like an eagle over a mountain range. He should be regal and breath taking. Also, he should have times when he crackles with power as he manipulates the electrons in the air around him. This imagery lacking in the promotional material is far more concerning than the lack of his voice. Those powers, it seems, are completely absent from the character in the show. Why are there no images like these?
“Why are they filming in Hawaii? The Inhumans should only be on the moon!”
To deal with this one, a simple bit of math will help. The Inhumans debuted in 1965. Attilan remained in the Himalayas (with flashbacks to a time on a Mediterranean island) until 1982, when it moved to the Blue Area of the Moon. It stayed there only until the “Atlantis Rising” arc of 1995. Attilan then remains on earth until 2000 but was returned to earth, this time in NYC, in 2013. It has remained there in some form since. So, over 52 years of existence about half the time it is on the moon, half the time it is not. More importantly, most of the major runs of the comics have occurred on earth. So the 70’s Inhumans comic, most of the Fantastic Four stuff, the Marvel Knights run, the Young Inhumans run, and most of the NuHumans stuff of recent years all take place on earth. Even when Attilan was on the moon, the royal family typically still was on earth, such as in the “By Right of Birth” graphic novel. So the moon is part of the mythology, but most of the major Inhumans stories feature it very little. (The main exceptions are the 2000 miniseries and the “War of Kings”/”Realm of Kings” events of a decade or so ago. Even those are more in deep space than on the moon.)
“Attilan is too dark and dingy.”
The visual approach to Attilan can differ greatly. Some runs, like the “Son of M” series, likes to portray Attilan as a sort of rehash of Asgard or cloroful rendition of Atlantis.
But Jae Lee’s Attilan is a much darker, almost medieval place. This is a minority depiction, but it is important to note how much that series hangs over Inhumans lore. And it is clear that some of the visual cues for the show come from that comic. (Karnak’s look is reminiscent of neither Kirby nor the recent Warren Ellis run, but closely mimics the version from Lee.) Note how some of these interior shots have a similar feel to some of the sets from the new show. In particular it appears they took the dinner scene in the trailer directly from the first issue of that series.
“The Inhumans are just knock off X-Men.”
This is just so wrong in so many ways. Both properties are roughly the same age. They both have a long history. Certainly, the Inhumans were not created as a replacement for the X-Men in any way. The X-Men have had greater periods of popularity, but they aren’t the same property. Connections are often made because the powers are somehow genetic and the property is sold as a team, not as much as individual characters. And to be fair, Marvel has been obviously positioning them to take over some of the publishing space that the X-Men used to fill, largely due to the rights issues surrounding X-Men films. But the deeper stories are totally different.
X-Men is primarily a property about how humanity treats those who are different. As such those comics and films have been a perfect place for allegories about various civil rights movements in the last 50 years. Inhumans, however, is about a different culture altogether. While X-Men speaks to how one might treat someone in their neighborhood who is from a different racial background or is gay, Inhumans speaks to how western societies interact with non-western societies on a much bigger level. When two cultures clash, what issues are merely cultural and which issues strike at human rights? The Inhumans are intentionally aloof. They believe in monarchy, a social caste system, and international isolationism. They are supposed to be an other. X-Men comics will speak to topics like bullying or discrimination. Inhumans comics ask questions about how to interact with other nations who don’t share the same values. Those aren’t the same thing. While the X-Men were fighting injustice in their comics, Fantastic Four told stories where the Inhuman family literally was fighting against a physical manifestation of their own classist oppression. At times the Inhumans have literally been slave owners.
This also means that the tone of Inhumans should be different. Professor X welcomes most any student to his school. Black Bolt bars those of certain class or genetic makeup form entering the Terrigen Mists. (At least until the Terrigen bomb, but that’s a story for another day.) Ultimately a good version of Inhumans should have compelling characters, characters you love to hate, characters who make decisions that bristle against Western democratic values, but not characters who feel super warm and endearing. Karnak is necessarily negative. Gorgon is a brute who shoots first and asks questions later. Black Bolt and Medusa are royalty with the attendant arrogance. So these characters shouldn’t act as an X-Men substitute. The beauty of X-Men is that it helps readers feel not alone in their eccentricities. Inhumans should make readers feel other and different, and wrestle with why they’re different and if their values are superior or inferior to those of this other society.
Overall there are reasons to criticize Inhumans, as I laid out yesterday. Some of the complaints I’ve seen, however, are just misplaced. They are founded in assumptions based on the Inhumans in 2017, without a more thorough understanding of the complex history of the characters. Working through all this makes it clear that this is a hard property to do right. The characters are necessarily abrasive and off-putting. A lot of deeper questions about philosophy and culture arise in these comics, and those themes aren’t ready made to sell stuffed dog toys.
If you don’t know the back story to Inhumans I’ve linked a few of their better stories below for purchase on Amazon/Comixology. These books are great and deserve a read for those interested.