AT THE END of Black Bolt #1, first-time comics writer Saladin Ahmed announces four questions that will animate forthcoming issues: “Who is a criminal? What happens when we put people in cages? How do you tell your story? What does it mean to be a parent?”

These questions frame the first volume of the series, which has now been collected in the trade paperback Black Bolt Vol. 1: Hard Time. The pleasure of Hard Time becomes watching how Ahmed, along with artist Christian Ward, approaches these questions in the context of another that, Ahmed notes, remains the superhero genre’s most important: “What happens when extremely powerful beings hit each other with very large objects and zap each other with energy beams?” As this suggests, the series delivers its answers in a markedly undidactic fashion. But its pursuit of them ultimately points to a wider phenomenon currently taking place at Marvel: the interrogation of superheroes’ previously unexamined privileges. In Ahmed’s Black Bolt, as in Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther, such questions turn on the unique class and social prerogatives of a superhero monarch.

Black Bolt has another thing in common with Black Panther: both debuted in Fantastic Four, around the midpoint of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s legendary run. Black Bolt is king of the Inhumans, a race of superbeings created through genetic experiments performed upon primitive Homo sapiens by the militaristic, alien Kree. After the Kree abandoned their test subjects, an Inhuman society sprung up and flourished in their hidden city of Attilan, concealed from humanity until discovered by Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four.

Inhuman society is hierarchical, a monarchy in which caste positions are decided by the powers that manifest after subjects’ ritualistic exposure to the vaporous Terrigen Mists. Stories featuring the Inhumans, beginning with their early appearances in Fantastic Four, have focused on the society’s royal family, particularly Black Bolt (or Blackagar Boltagon); his queen Medusa; and his treacherous brother, Maximus the Mad. The “shaggy God” aspects of the Inhumans — not to mention their far-out character designs and zany powers — bear the strong influence of Kirby, directly anticipating the Fourth World franchise he would both write and draw for DC in the early 1970s and the Eternals series he would launch upon his return to Marvel.

If the Inhumans were long minor players in Marvel’s shared universe and continuity, more recently they have featured in a steady stream of limited and ongoing series, and they have been integral to several crossover events. These included 2013’s Infinity and its 2013–’14 sequel Inhumanity, in which the detonation of a Terrigen Bomb spread the mists across the globe, producing scores of new Inhumans such as the popular new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan. The new prominence of the Inhumans in Marvel’s titles has reflected a parallel decline in appearances by the X-Men — likewise mutated outcasts who lend themselves to a variety of social allegories — in a way that reportedly reflects legal fights over film licensing. (Until very recently, 20th Century Fox has held the rights to the X-Men while Marvel Studios owns the Inhumans.) And, indeed, the Inhumans have factored prominently into Marvel Studios’s multimedia strategy: the creation of new Inhumans via exposure to Terrigen became a prominent subplot on the ABC television series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Marvel’s Inhumans, which initially had been announced as a movie, debuted as a series in 2017.

Ahmed’s Black Bolt, then, springs from these two interlocked narrative and extraliterary developments: Marvel’s positioning of the Inhumans as cornerstones of their line-wide continuity, and the company’s push, via live-action adaptations, for broader public recognition of the franchise. Unfortunately the Inhumans television series debuted to some of the first truly bad reviews for the franchise since its 2008 launch in the first Iron Man movie. But the coup of hiring Ahmed, an acclaimed writer of prose SF and fantasy, to helm Black Bolt no doubt helped to introduce the character to those who may not previously have heard of him.

Ward complements Ahmed’s accessible script with lush, arresting art that, for superhero aficionados, evokes a Kirbyesque blend of mythic, cosmic grandeur mixed with psychedelic weirdness. That said, although Ward’s figures are expressive and dynamic, they tend to be static and posed, lacking the kinetic energy and movement that was Kirby’s signature.

Jack Kirby and John Verpoorten, cover of “Fantastic Four” Vol. 1 #99 (June 1970)
Christian Ward, cover of “Black Bolt” #2 (June 2017)

As for the narrative, Black Bolt springs from 2017’s Royals, in which the evil Inhuman prince Maximus disguises himself as Black Bolt and vice versa, so that when Maximus is exiled to an interdimensional prison, Black Bolt in fact serves his time. Hard Time follows the imprisoned monarch as he and a small group of fellow inmates attempt an escape from their mysterious torturer, the Jailer. The series’s questions about criminality and the effects of captivity emerge from the plot’s role reversal, as well as the alliance that develops between Black Bolt and other prisoners as they suffer together, ponder freedom’s meaning, and learn more about each other and their vicious captor.

Ahmed also employs his premise to circumvent a specific narrative obstacle for a series starring Black Bolt. The Inhuman king’s superpower is a voice that can shatter mountains: if he speaks, he destroys. In this first arc of his series, at least, Ahmed sidesteps the challenges of a mute protagonist by giving the interdimensional prison for superbeings that is Hard Time’s setting an energy field that disables its inmates’ powers. Thus spake Black Bolt.

While Ahmed’s device lends new depths to the character and serves as the vehicle for the series’s meditation on power, rehabilitation, and responsibility, it also — one might argue counterproductively — humanizes the king of the Inhumans. Throughout his over-half-a-century career, Black Bolt’s refusal to speak, unless there is need for his voice’s devastating power, has had a distancing effect that resonates with his monarchical status. Ahmed’s implied answer to his question, “How do you tell your story?” in this respect seems to rely on traditional humanistic ideas about a voice narrating the self. In this way, the series misses an opportunity to explore post- or “inhuman” countersubjectivities.

Nevertheless, Black Bolt’s newfound ability to speak, gained at the expense of his defining superpower, yields interesting character developments. The moment at the end of the first issue in which Black Bolt realizes he no longer has his powers is suitably dramatic, though in its immediate aftermath the character seems relatively unfazed. Ahmed avoids any extended consideration of the effects Black Bolt’s speech acquisition has upon his psyche or sense of self. Indeed, in some ways he seems unchanged by this seismic event. Or perhaps Ahmed’s handling of it is a mark of his subtlety: Black Bolt speaks sparingly, and when he does talk, it is often to ask a question. Along similar lines, Ahmed recalls an older style of comics storytelling by using captions for third-person narration, rather than — as is now commonplace — first-person monologue. Black Bolt, in other words, breaks the mold of superhero comics in that it is invested in what voices other than that of its protagonist have to say and how they say it. Black Bolt is a superhero who listens.

A case in point is what might be Hard Time’s most compelling sequence, an extended flashback narrated to Black Bolt by Carl “Crusher” Creel, a.k.a. the Absorbing Man. Creel’s narrative retells his origin, recasting a fairly one-dimensional, cartoonish, C-list villain as a flawed if thoughtful and disadvantaged striver, a victim of an uncaring family, an unjust world, and, most potently, the cruel manipulations and mistreatments of other superhumans — villains and heroes alike. The sequence ends with Black Bolt and the Absorbing Man identifying with each other’s experiences, in particular their similar poor relationship decisions and public misfortunes. Such collapsing of distance between hero and villain serves as a principal motif of Hard Time.

Indeed, throughout Hard Time, Ahmed toys with the paradox that Black Bolt and his fellow inmates both do and do not deserve punishment. More than one inmate recognizes that they have hurt others and made moral miscalculations. When Black Bolt first meets the ragtag group, the (very) minor villain Metal Master admits, “A lifetime ago, I was a conqueror. More than once I tried to take Earth, wasted years of my life plotting against your homeworld.” However, the Jailer’s punishments are cruel and unusual to a cosmic degree: in addition to confinement, the shadowy figure sadistically, habitually tortures and then kills his inmates, only to resurrect them and then put them through miseries again. The Jailer seems to derive pleasure from such punishments, for despite his repeated demands that his prisoners confess — “Name your crimes! Repent your crimes!” — such confessions never get them any closer to freedom. Absorbing Man notes, “I told him everything I did. Everything. Every pissant little job I could remember. Still the torture. ‘Repent!’ He wants us to feel like dirt.” In this way, Hard Time seems to offer an allegorical critique of a prison-industrial complex that dismisses rehabilitation, along with its accompanying “law and order” culture that sees inmates as objects fit only for degradation.

Yet, to be sure, any commentary Black Bolt might pose on the carceral state remains somewhat vexed. For one thing, the series seems to depict the effect the Jailer’s tortures have on his inmates as ennobling. The story arc even concludes with the Absorbing Man heroically sacrificing himself, enacting one of the genre’s enduring tropes. One might thus conclude that an answer to Ahmed’s query “What happens when we put people in cages?” is that it elevates them.

That said, Ahmed counterbalances the suggestion that excessive punishments bring out inmates’ better angels via the countertheme of complicity, which ultimately underlies Ahmed’s study of Black Bolt’s character. Black Bolt, as ruler of the society that built the space prison, is more than a little culpable for its existence. And the narrative twist that propels the series — Maximus’s body swap with Black Bolt — carries with it the irony that Black Bolt in effect has sentenced himself to the prison. Moreover, the Jailer is eventually revealed to have been a young Inhuman who was himself imprisoned before taking over the facility. Once more, we see the villain as victim. Hard Time’s interdimensional prison thus stands as a symbol of Black Bolt’s oversights and moral lapses, one with far-reaching consequences since, as he learns from his allies, the prison has been co-opted by intergalactic courts and tribunals. Created by and for Inhuman society, it has become a galaxy-wide tool of ruling powers interested in farming out their carceral requirements.

Following the Absorbing Man’s sacrifice and the defeat of the Jailer, Hard Time ends on a note of redemption. When Black Bolt first decides to align himself with his fellow prisoners, early in the series, he nonetheless distinguishes himself from his new comrades: “But I do not belong here. I am not a criminal! […] I have hurt people. Too many people. And I have killed. But I have never been a murderer.” Such fine distinctions effectively disappear by the end of Hard Time. The closing captions declare, “Black Bolt has been a king. He has been a killer and a prisoner. He knows he has much to answer for.” Here, again, the series’s penological commentary becomes tricky, for if on one hand Black Bolt feels guilty for sentencing anyone, even his villainous brother, to such an inhuman(e) institution, on the other hand the trials he himself endures there provide him with moral clarity. If the Jailer’s endless tortures do not lead to freedom, they nonetheless do lead to redemption of a sort.

This is made explicit in Hard Time’s closing pages. The climactic victory over the Jailer entails major costs: the death of the Absorbing Man and Black Bolt’s ostensibly permanent losses of both voice and power. Now, he can neither speak nor destroy. But the story ends on an optimistic note, as Black Bolt is reunited with his pet, Lockjaw — a giant Inhuman dog with teleportation abilities — and another prison escapee, Blinky, an extraterrestrial child whose innocence highlights the perversity of the Jailer’s institution. The final caption, overlaid on a full-page image of Black Bolt and his new charges gazing out at space, declares that if he cannot answer for his moral lapses “with words, he will answer with love.”

Black Bolt’s opportunity for redemption thus takes embodied forms, though neither Lockjaw nor the likewise superpowered Blinky fill the typical role of child or creature in need of protection. In this respect the series’s conclusion reinforces, microcosmically, the patriarchal image of a good king who assumes responsibility for his naïve subjects. Indeed, insofar as it features a narrative emphasis on love and a panel composition lending Black Bolt an actual cosmic vision, it also suggestively likens him to the Abrahamic God. But it presents these possibilities as the outcome of his struggle with the irresponsibility that has characterized not only him but the superhero figure in general. 

Hard Time thus allegorizes, via Black Bolt’s prolonged reckoning, the cavalier indifference to consequences that is a hallmark of superhero narratives. In this way, the series fits within a current trend at Marvel Comics, in which the formerly unexamined privileges of the company’s stable of characters are being ascertained, pushed back against, and interrogated. Similar questions of accountability have been front and center in the most recent Marvel Studios films, in particular Captain America: Civil War. Within the company’s comics, this self-reflexive trend also accompanies Marvel’s headlines-grabbing changes to marquee characters’ identities: giving a white woman, Jane Foster, the power of Thor; a black man, Sam Wilson, the mantle of Captain America; and a black teenage girl, Riri Williams, a superpowered suit of armor like Iron Man’s. These characters and their stories, in ways implied and explicit, complicate the tacit whiteness and maleness that have accompanied the superhero’s irresponsibility.

Black Bolt, like Coates and Stelfreeze’s Black Panther, joins this trend by presenting a hero with the unparalleled class privileges of a monarch who must, finally, come to terms with the consequences of his unilateral power. If Coates and Stelfreeze’s series shows the King of Wakanda coping with a democratic uprising, Ahmed and Ward’s Black Bolt employs its narrative device of false imprisonment to call the ruler of an undemocratic society to answer for his past decisions. In these terms, although its critique of the carceral system is somewhat uneven, Hard Time nonetheless offers a thoughtful meditation on genre conventions. It is a mediation keyed, moreover, toward broader political and ethical dilemmas of representation that are becoming an increasingly prominent backdrop for superhero narratives.

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Jackson Ayres is assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. He is currently working on a book, Alan Moore: A Critical Guide, among other projects.