The Midnight king knows loss. He knows pain and grief and sacrifice. He suffered in silence for so long. No more. Now he may scream. Now, at the end, may he be redeemed.
When I started “Black Bolt” six months ago, I didn’t know what to expect. I had had minimal experience with the Inhumans and didn’t care much for Black Bolt as a character. But, it had a cool cover (Black Bolt muzzled by black prison bars) and came with a recommendation from our very own Jacob Hill, complete with comparisons to Fraction and Aja’s “Hawkeye” as well as King and Walta’s “The Vision” (both of which I had just finished reading). So, needless to say, I was sold.
But first issues do not a series make. So, now having made it through the first arc, does it hold up? Is it as good as we thought?
Yes. Unequivocally yes.
Normally, I’d beat around the bush and wait until the end to give my full thoughts but this time I wanted to do that before the spoiler tag. If you are reading this and haven’t checked out “Black Bolt” yet, do it. Find the back issues or wait for the trade and read it. If you have read it and are wondering what my thoughts are for the end of the first arc, read on but be warned spoilers ahead for this entire issue.
Written by Saladin Ahmed
Illustrated and Colored by Christian Ward
Lettered by VC’s Clayton Cowles
• Black Bolt and his fellow prisoners face an all-new form of torture as the Jailer’s true self is finally revealed — and it’s more terrifying than any of them could have imagined!
• The stars await the survivors, but someone must pay the ultimate penance. Who lives and who dies in the Jailer’s sick game?
There is a heaviness to “Black Bolt” that I haven’t gotten from many other series from Marvel in a while. Grim, dark, broody, sure but not heavy. Weighty without sacrificing the soul of the character in the pursuit of some tortured vision of them. It could have been so easy for Ahmed and Ward to make Black Bolt’s imprisonment a place for him to brood on his mistakes but instead, they flipped the script, turning the solitary hero into a member of a team. A transitory team but a team nonetheless.
Additionally, even though the story was ostensibly about Black Bolt, we got a ton of characterization for Crusher as well as the other members of the prison crew. Each of their backstories influence the decisions they make in this issue and that’s something I appreciate. The whole “battle with the dead,” while only lasting a couple pages, has this in spades, especially when it comes to Metal Master. Everyone else, from Blinky (who has become the biggest enigma of this series) to Crusher (the villain we have the most experience with), is able to easily discern reality from apparition as they have dealt with the guilt already. Maybe not perfectly and maybe not totally but they know that these things are not the people they wronged.
Metal Master has not. As was made clear last issue, while chained up in the suffocation room, he has not forgiven himself for the death of his husband Meryn and so when Crusher takes away the only image he has left of him, even though it was trying to kill him, he lashes out, attempting to crush Crusher. It is an intense page and so is the one after it, where Raava stabs him in order to stop him. Because we have gotten to know these characters, we understand why they acted in the ways they did. The events are shocking, yes, but the motivations are not, keeping them sympathetic even while they perform actions that go against the stricter morality of us and Black Bolt.
The only story gripe I have, and it is a small one, is that we never do get a specific identity for the Jailer. He is not a previously known character, he does not even get a name, he is merely an old, Inhuman prisoner. Yet I think this was the only way this could have worked. If it had been someone we already knew in the Marvel Universe, I think the book would have suffered for it, cheapening the climax. It does not matter who the Jailer once was, only who he is now. He is twisted and malformed, no longer the Inhuman trapped in the prison. His motivations were simple but his methods cruel and self-serving. He is scary and heartless and a villain that, were he not to have been defeated, I would love to see again.Continued below
Christian Ward blows it out of the park this month, from the ghostly apparitions to the quieter scenes of Raava just staring out at the stars to the final confrontation with the Jailer. He pulled out all the stops, soaking every page in psychedelic colors and energy, visually representing the feel of the scenes more than the true events. Realism is not present this month and I am 100% ok with that.
The page that best represents (well, one of a few) is the one right after the two-page spread of the Jailer’s inner sanctum. A ton of eyes stare down at the crew while the Jailer’s refrain of “Penance! Penance in death for your crimes and violations!” booms across the panel, his masked face plastered on the screens beneath the eyes. The whole page is bathed in a deep, aggressive red. Black Bolt turns and faces the reader before jumping through the panel, smashing it into shards that fly outwards, his whole body filled with rage. He is drawn three times, each one larger and superimposed on other abstract panels that show Black Bolt and the crew getting ready to face off against the Jailer.
What’s especially interesting about this choice is the implication that we, the reader, are in some way the jailer. We watch these characters die over and over again, keeping them trapped, forced to live out these lives solely for our benefit. I may be reading too much into that but it is still a phenomenal page, conveying the power and anger of Black Bolt.
Ward and Ahmed balance these pages of intense action with quieter pages, such as the aforementioned Raava stares at stars page, each reinforcing the other, making the quiet pages all the more powerful and the action all the more intense…and making the completion of Crusher’s arc all the more heartbreaking. I’m going to be honest, I may have cried reading this page. I may be crying now as I type (that may be also due to how tired I am). It is a crushingly sad scene, all the more so because this series has been as much about him as it has Black Bolt.
I last saw Crusher in “Illuminati” and, to be honest, thought he was boring and just another C list villain. But now, in just six short issues, he has gone from that boring villain to a complex man who, despite making a lot of bad choices and being forced into a lot of bad situations, never truly lost his humanity and is fighting, always, to regain it. “Black Bolt” opened in an unending cycle of death and now closes, having broken that cycle with a scream and a sacrifice, the way all cycles end.
Final Verdict: 9.4. Ward and Ahmed saved their A material for the end of their first arc and has cemented for me this run on my shelves. If they ever release an oversized, library edition of this, I will buy it no questions asked.