Black Bolt #1
Written by Saladin Ahmed
Art by Christian Ward
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
The Inhumans were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in the 1960s. They were part of the Silver Age. Heck, their king’s full name is Blackagar Boltagon! So it makes sense that the royals of Attilan would inhabit a weird corner of the Marvel Universe, one that can explore the wild and woolly cosmos and beyond. While some of Marvel’s Inhumans titles in recent years haven’t been bad, like Karnak or Ms. Marvel, the Royal Family and Attilan just fit better in space - and with this return to the stars comes a new writer to comic books, Saladin Ahmed, to see what he can do with the great unknown with the King of Inhumans himself, Black Bolt.
The book opens with Black Bolt chained up in a prison, as an omniscient narrator informs us he doesn’t know how he got there. While tangentially related to Al Ewing and Jonboy Meyers’ Royals, you don’t need to be reading that for this to be accessible. Like Black Bolt himself, you can roam the cavernous halls of this incarceration facility and just try to make sense of it all as the journey continues.
A silent but focused protagonist gives both Black Bolt and his readers a clear directive from the outset - find out what’s going on. It works in Ahmed’s favor that he hasn’t bitten off more than he can chew: Aside from a page of explanation, the rest of the issue avoids being overwritten or frontloaded with exposition, with Ahmed focusing on Black Bolt’s sense of isolation. Getting into the character’s head is a tricky thing to do, so instead of attempting to internalize for characterization, Ahmed instead uses the world around Black Bolt as external orientation.
Set in a cosmic prison, the underlying weirdness in this series is there from the start, but because of the issue’s self-contained nature, it doesn’t allow for artist Christian Ward to go completely bonkers. There’s one page in particular which does something interesting with perspective, but there’s nothing like his work on Ultimates just yet. Due to this, Ward’s art feels scaled down in a way - there’s an intensity brought out by a burning red during a bout of punching, but it’s not as surreal as other fights he’s drawn before.
Luckily, this isn’t an issue built on cosmic punching, but instead rests on Ward’s capacity to convey emotion. While it may be Black Bolt’s voice that can level a city, in Ward’s hands, he also has a glare that can kill. What can initially be defined as weariness in Black Bolt’s eyes fast becomes persistence as he sets out to find out what’s going on.
In an issue like this, where words are more important than usual, the lettering takes on a big job. With the issue predominantly following a single, silent character, much of Clayton Cowles’ work involves caption boxes for the narrator. Some of these are denser than others, but it’s to Ahmed and Cowles’ credit that they don’t bog down the issue - instead, they’re more akin to whispers in the night, darting around without a discernible source. Others break out of these boxes and boom through the panel, promising the unknown just around the corner.
The notion of voice is key to Black Bolt, and not just because of the character, but also because this is the first issue of a new series and the first issue from a new comic bookcreator. The issue gains a character about halfway through that fills the issue with actual dialogue, but for the most part, Ahmed, Ward, and Cowles also value silence. This methodical approach shows what visual storytelling can accomplish and indicates a strong creative voice. The focus on establishing a particular mood shows that this team has something to say here. The team could have afforded to be more abstract in their setting, but this isn’t a series which intends to throw everything and the kitchen sink at you straight away. A picture can say a thousand words, and while some may choose to yell it from the rooftops, the team behind Black Bolt wants to first be sure that you’re listening carefully.