'BLACK BOLT Rocks Space Prison' - Finding a Voice for the INHUMANS' Silent King

Marvel Comics June 2017 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Black Bolt has always been the Inhumans’ silent king, but with the recent “ResurrXion” relaunch, he’s found himself in an entirely different situation – locked in a cosmic prison, far from his family and his people. And to make matters worse, the man who put him there, writer Saladin Ahmed, says there’s little chance of Black Bolt getting out on good behavior.

But he’s not without hope – Black Bolt isn’t alone in the prison, which Ahmed and artist Christian Ward have populated with mysterious aliens and Black Bolt’s abrasive cellmate Carl "Crusher" Creel, the Absorbing Man. According to Ahmed, if Black Bolt wants to escape he’ll have to rely on his fellow incarcerated super-beings and his own strength.

Newsarama spoke to Ahmed prior to the release of Black Bolt #2 on June 7 about his approach to scripting a usually-voiceless character, building Black Bolt’s status quo, and how a silent alien from the blue side of the moon can be a touchstone for different cultures in America.

Newsarama: Saladin, Black Bolt is your first comic book work. What were your goals when you took on the project – both for Black Bolt as a character, and for yourself?

Saladin Ahmed: I guess the goals kind of sprung from me being a lifetime comic book reader. This is certainly my first comic book, but there’s a way in which comic books - especially Marvel Comics - have influenced my work in other mediums, everything from poetry to novels, since I’ve been writing.

So while the form and way of writing feel very new, the kind of stories I want to tell and the excitement that I want to bring to those stories, and touchstones with certain archetypes that I learned from Marvel Comics - that’s no different for me, whether I’m writing a short story or if I’m working on a comic.

Though, obviously, working in the actual Marvel Universe to do that is kind of mind blowing. And with Black Bolt in particular - he was a really interesting character for me to start with. There’s been some clamoring on Twitter and social media with people saying “You should be writing comics!” for a while. And whenever people talk about me doing that, because of where I’ve come from writing fiction - and it’s something I’ve kind of come to dread – is people saying “Marvel should hire you to write the Arabian Knight,” this obscure character from the original Contest of Champions.

It doesn’t offend me on some deep level or anything - I’m very proudly an Arab-American writer. Most of my protagonists have characters of color, specifically Muslim or Arab characters, so I know where people come from with that. But it was really kind of cool, and a very different thing for me, to start with this square-jawed, at least cenotypically white, ultra-powerful monarch character.

Credit: Marvel Comics

I’m from a working class background, I’m an Arab in America. I’m very used to writing from and pitching from the Alpha-Primitive point of view, the underdog point of view. So this monarch, this big, brooding guy, married to the beautiful queen was a sort of very different character for me to take on. And I loved it!

I started to explore these ideas about power - what makes someone a hero? What makes someone a monarch? And all of these questions - geek culture is rife with this stuff, in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, this sort of inherited power. There’s a real mythos there that’s powerful, and compelling, but it’s also completely messed up politically, right? And so taking Black Bolt, this king - possibly one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe - who is not used to having his orders questioned, who doesn’t even have to speak to make his will be known, and then to mess with him has been a really wonderful opportunity to explore that.

Nrama: You were obviously familiar with Black Bolt and the Inhumans before taking the job, but I want to go a bit deeper on your history with comic books. Black Bolt #1 has a very Chris Claremont vibe, thanks to the melodramatic, kind of purple prose captions and the quick pace. What are your influences that you’re drawing on in creating Black Bolt as a book?

Ahmed: Absolutely the prose style is - hopefully without ever being silly - going back to stuff like Claremont’s X-Men, Jim Shooter’s original Secret Wars, and then going further back to Stan Lee.

Marvel has always had those soap operatic elements, not just to the stories, but even to the language. There’s always been that melodramatic edge to the language. Which, to me, helped me learn to read. The slightly purple vocabulary, the alliteration – it was all part of my literary education.

So yeah, it’s absolutely in there, particularly in the style of the captions. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are some interesting things that come up with language as Black Bolt continues.

Nrama: Speaking of which, you’re one of the few writers who may actually get to write some actual dialog for Black Bolt, considering the twist in the first issue. How do you find a voice for a character that for most of his history has been voiceless?

Ahmed: Without giving too much away, Black Bolt is this sort of oddity, because he’s this relic that for most of his life was hidden. He’s from this culture that is not only an ancient culture, but is also essentially isolated. I imagined that his speaking would reflect that. He’s not gonna sound like Spider-Man or Iron Man when he speaks. He’s almost inching toward Thor, but not quite as antiquated.

I thought quite a lot about how he speaks. He’s got a sort of slightly antiquated manner of speech. And since he doesn’t talk to people a lot, he’s very stiff and formal. But people in prison talk a lot - talking in prison, bulls---ing in prison is kind of an art. So it was fun to take the muzzle off so to speak and have him talking.

And his main sparring partner is Crusher Creel, who is a kind of a wiseass smart-talker. That dialog between them, that people will see especially in later issues, was really, really fun to write.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: How did you land on Crusher Creel as Black Bolt’s foil for his prison term? How did he wind up in a secret prison?

Ahmed: Creel was dumped there by S.H.I.E.L.D., to answer the second question first. And what I hope is that the reader will start to ask questions about what happens when we lock people away and we don’t want to think about them anymore.

Nrama: It sounds like from the way you talk about the prison in Black Bolt #1 that it’s a place you send people when you want to forget about them.

Ahmed: That’s right. And again, without being heavy handed, and still being a cool comic about space prison, it does raise some questions about the real world.

I’ve had family locked up, and I’ve seen first hand what happens to people in that system, and I think we should be asking a lot of questions about that. Again, I never want to be preachy in Black Bolt, but some of those questions are definitely floating over it.

Nrama: And how did you settle on Absorbing Man as the character to explore that with?

Ahmed: That brings us back to the Crusher thing. The impetus for me coming to work for Marvel was a previous conversation I had with Marvel executive Sana Amanat, who co-created Ms. Marvel. We had talked, and she said “If you’ve got a pitch for Marvel, let us know about it,” just sort of left it open. As I was working on these other projects, I had this back pocket pitch about Crusher, about Absorbing Man, being in prison.

I only had kind of bare outlines of it sketched, but in the meantime, Wil Moss, who has been doing some really interesting things at Marvel with Squirrel Girl, Black Panther, and Vision, books like that, he called me. And because of my science fiction and fantasy work, he said “We’re giving Black Bolt a solo book. Do you have an idea for it?” And I said, “Well you know, it’s funny, I had this pitch I was going to throw at you guys for Crusher Creel,” and we just started bouncing ideas off each other.

And for plot reasons, that are only now evident, with Maximus needing to do something to Black Bolt, and Black Bolt needing to be out of the way for Royals, it just worked out. It was beautiful serendipity. And immediately, this idea I had with Crusher, when I made Black Bolt the center of it, and Crusher the kind of buddy in the buddy-cop story, it started to blossom.

So my interest in Absorbing Man predates this series, and actually helped make it what it has become.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: There’s a lot of the current political zeitgeist in Black Bolt, at least in the subtext, and you were just speaking about your identity as an Arab American. How do you channel your experience into this character that is so far away from humanity?

Ahmed: It’s been interesting because, on one hand, it’s mostly just been really refreshing to not be typecast, to be writing a different kind of perspective than I usually do.

The actor Riz Ahmed talked about the three stages in the career of an actor of color. The first is where you play the stereotype. The next is where you play “No, I’m not the stereotype!” and then the last is just playing characters not defined by those things. And this sort of feels like that, like when Spike Lee is directing Clive Owen or something like that.

I really relished the opportunity to dive into a character and a story that asks questions all sorts of Marvel writers have approached about power and responsibility without it being pigeonholed as an “ethnic book” or something like that.

At the same time, writing about this guy who is from a culture that’s trying to not lose its heritage, and its sense of itself, and still synthesize with another culture in a way that it’s never had to – I grew up an Arab kid in the west, so those are questions I’ve been asking myself my whole life.

And then on the other hand, Black Bolt is stuck in space and everyone around him is an alien except for Crusher. But without giving anything away, some of those closer-to-home issues will come up more pronouncedly later on in the series.

Nrama: Getting back to those sci-fi elements you mentioned, Black Bolt is all about this prison he’s stuck in and the Jailer that’s keeping him there. What can you tell us about this mysterious prison and the Jailer himself?

Ahmed: Not much, because the conceit here is really that the readers know only as much as Black Bolt knows, and right now he doesn’t know a whole lot. He intended to throw Maximus in this prison that he and Medusa learned about in the Terrigen Codex. And all we know right now is that this is a place known only to a handful of Inhumans. It’s been around for a long time, and it’s known as a place of last resort.

That’s as much as Black Bolt and the readers know. It’s run by this immensely powerful being that’s somehow managed to not only completely depower Black Bolt but play with him. And there are other powerful beings imprisoned alongside him. As for who and why, we’re gonna find out a lot more about that in Black Bolt #2.

Nrama: You’re working with artist Christian Ward, who has a very unique, distinct style. How have you adapted to writing for an artist? What has Christian drawn so far that has really impressed or surprised you based on your script?

Ahmed: It’s just been a dream. I’m falling in love working in comic books, but I worry that part of it is that I’m having such a good first experience. I’ve heard horror stories about miscommunications or conflicts between some writers and artists. Christian is just immensely talented and doggedly hard working. The amount of work he puts into every panel is mind blowing, and you can see it in the final results.

He’s such a thoughtful artist; everything he does either captures perfectly what I was trying to get on the page or improves upon it. I mean, he’s helped me understand the medium. Even with the science fiction, Stan Lee/Jack Kirby-esque captions, I’ve had to learn to back away and let the pictures tell the story. He and I are on a time differential, but we’re always sending each other messages in the middle of the night. We have a great rapport in terms of seeing the same vision. People are going to be increasingly impressed with what he does. It’s gonna get bananas.

Black Bolt isn’t a cosmic book as far as ranging across the galaxy, but it’s cosmic in aesthetic. It’s also a prison book. And those are two very different things. Every time I thought I was asking Christian to walk a really tight rope, he absolutely nailed it.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: What other classic Marvel heroes and villains will appear in Black Bolt? Is there a particular character you’d really love to get your hands on?

Ahmed: There are some obscure 60s cameos coming up that I don’t know will mean much to anyone but me. But one thing Marvel did announce is that Death’s Head, primarily from Marvel U.K. in the 90s will be making an appearance in Black Bolt #3. That was really fun to write, especially because Christian was a big Death’s Head geek, and he really put a lot into drawing him.

Nrama: As you mentioned earlier, Black Bolt is in prison because Maximus switched places with him. How long will Black Bolt be stuck in this prison? Does he have a prison term? Are you going to write his great escape?

Ahmed: The prison that he’s in does not have terms, so if he hopes to get out, he’ll have to do so himself. There’s no release for good behavior - this is a place where people get put to be forgotten about. Any help he’s gonna get is gonna come from the motley crew he’s in there with.

Nrama: Since Black Bolt is, by necessity, a man of few words, can you describe this book for fans in five words or less?

Ahmed: Black Bolt rocks space prison!

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