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The Political Chess Game Of Marvel Knights: Inhumans [90s Week]
Marvel Comics Reading Recommendations

The Political Chess Game Of Marvel Knights: Inhumans [90s Week]

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This article is part of our 90s Week celebrations. Learn more about it and the other articles involved here.

While I’m sure they had their fans, the Inhumans were not a team many begged for in 1998. They were a set of characters usually relegated to the pages of Fantastic Four, where they could blend with the science fiction-focused stories of the title. However, with the launch of the Marvel Knights imprint, which focused on standalone stories and experimentation, the Inhumans could be seen in a new light without navigating the current ongoings of the Marvel Universe. The result is a 12-part political chess game by writer Paul Jenkins and artist Jae Lee.

The Inhumans, a superhuman race that inherits their powers through the terrigen mist, have built their society on an island, said to be a dredged-up Atlantis, in the Mediterranean Sea. To them, the outside world is none of their concern. However, that all changes when Maximus the Mad, the brother of the Inhuman king Black Bolt, executes a plan to overthrow Inhuman society from outside and within. The result is a Game of Thrones-style power struggle full of manipulation, greed, and secrets.

Inhumans (1998 series) collected edition cover by Jae Lee.
Inhumans (1998 series) collected edition cover by Jae Lee.

The series plays like a chess game, with each character moving around a metaphorical board. Sometimes, their moves are intentional. Other times, they’re being manipulated by someone in power – whether the reader realises it or not. This results in a series that has a few surprises and allows for moments of character development. First-time Inhuman readers will learn a lot about what drives these characters and how their powerset defines who they are. Those more familiar with this superhuman group – but found the Inhumans too cold or impersonal – will get a more fleshed-out perspective of them – even if it’s only relating to the story at hand.

Jenkins’ script plays up the mysterious nature of the Inhumans by highlighting the outside world’s understanding of them. This is done through an extended montage, where we flash to different human viewpoints. Some of this is through vox populi, with ordinary people discussing what they think the Inhumans are about. Other times, this is done through television, aging the comic in some ways, with flashes of Bill O’Reilly, the Jerry Springer Show, and Jay Leno. (None of them are named, with Jae Lee using their likeness instead.) The result is that the outside world knows nothing about the Inhumans and builds up the idea that their separatism is a potential threat.

Inhumans (1998 series) #6 panel by Jae Lee.
Inhumans (1998 series) #6 panel by Jae Lee.

On the other hand, the reader gets a glimpse into Inhuman culture. Beyond the Inhuman Royal Family – who are covered plenty – we also get several new characters. These come in the form of a group of teens who have just received their powers through the terrigenesis process and ordinary Inhuman folk whose powers are unremarkable. Through this, we see more about what it means to be an Inhuman and how it differentiates from the other superpowered beings in the Marvel Universe, e.g. Mutants or Eternals.

Jenkins leans on the idea that the Inhuman’s diversity creates conformity. That every Inhuman is different from the last means that they are one as a people instead of focusing on those differences. While they might be united in their diversity, Jenkins also explores the flaws in Inhuman society. Not every Inhuman is treated equally, with powers determining an Inhuman’s standing. This isn’t used to knock diversity as a concept but to show that the Inhumans are still flawed despite their many advancements.

Inhumans (1998 series) #1 page by Jae Lee.
Inhumans (1998 series) #1 page by Jae Lee.

The comic reminds readers of Black Bolt’s powers early in the series. The character, who’s king due to being the most powerful, has an interesting power set. Any sound that comes out of his mouth would level a mountain. As a result, he’s completely silent. It’s a power that needs to be used with discretion – a last resort. The script reflects this mentality, with Black Bolt’s perceived inaction during the bleakest moments. It becomes a mediation of leadership and power. Where inaction is required, even if there is immense power, when action would create greater consequences. It’s driven home even further through a quick sequence that explores when Winston Churchill was required to not act for the greater good during World War II.

Inhumans (1998 series) #6 page by Jae Lee.
Inhumans (1998 series) #6 page by Jae Lee.

For the most part, Black Bolt doesn’t telegraph how he’s feeling or thinking. He’s a blank slate, with Jae Lee drawing him with a stoic look. It adds to the story’s drama, where readers have no idea what will happen or if Black Bolt has a plan. Has he lost it? Or is there a larger plan that we’re not privy to? You’ll only really know when the story is ready to tell you.

Jae Lee’s art is in an interesting transitional period when he was working on this Inhumans series. While his work earlier in the decade has more Simon Bisley and Bill Sienkiewicz high-contrast griminess to it, this is more chiselled. It’s dominated by spot-blacks with looser/finer lines that have a roughness to them. (His work today has a more organic flow that maintains heavy blacks.) This might not be everyone’s cup of tea from an aesthetic level, but it certainly creates a mood. There’s a coldness to the Inhuman’s world, especially the dark underbelly, that being covered in blocks of black helps to camouflage. Unfortunately, this also leads to a few overdone or harsh facial expressions that take time to get used to.

Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee’s Marvel Knights Inhumans series is a great self-contained story. Instead of the regular superpowered dramas, it’s a political chess game that explores leadership and society. At the same time, it shines a light on how the Inhumans can be used in a solo capacity while still being captivating, if flawed, beings.

Inhuman (1998 series) #1-12 has been collected in trade paperback and can be found at all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, and Amazon/Kindle.

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