Kyle Garret: Karnak #1 is a Warren Ellis comic.
I should preface this by saying I’m a big Warren Ellis fan. I recently re-read a lot of his comics and it reminded me just how much I love his work, from the crazy-yet-always-based-in-reality sci-fi aspects, to the snarky, new wave tough guy dialogue, I love what he does. He has a specific style, one which has been imitated, but never duplicated.
But there are times, particularly when he’s working on corporate owned characters, when it feels like he just dropped the concept into a Ellis-izer and spit it out. That’s how Karnak felt to me. It felt like Ellis out autopilot. Karnak is grim and serious and says blunt yet clever things about how grim and serious he is. He’s also ridiculously powerful (he cuts a bullet in half as it’s coming towards him) and rather depressing.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate this new take on a C-list character, because I do. The idea that he sees the flaw in all things is rife with potential and would surely cause him to be the most depressed person in the universe. But it turns into a kind of Hellblazer style depression, not so much full of emotion as it is full of super cool bravado — and that’s a character I feel like I’ve seen an awful lot in comics.
I’ll be honest, though, I don’t know what you do with Karnak or any of the Inhumans to make them stand out from every other comic book out there. Marvel sure does seem determine to make them a thing, though.
Jamil Scalese: I’m pretty much on board with ya, Kyle. I’m also a little unsure about the Age of Inhumans, not to due to any resistance to the concept, it just such an *ahem* uncanny development it’s kind of being like a puppy placed on your doorstep. What do I do with this?
That’s how I felt when I first read the solicit for Karnak. I have a general rule about Warren Ellis: always give dude a shot. In some ways he might be comics’ most under-appreciated talent. He delivers more consistently than most and his track record at Marvel is well above average. But Karnak? I barely recognized the name, and in a blind test I may have guessed he was a New God.
After reading some press I knew I had to check this out and I’m glad I did. The script is straight-forward, serious, witty and extremely Ellis-ish. I have to agree the writer didn’t take many risks. Much of allure leans on Karnak’s otherness and the sexy ability to effectively break anything. The characterization is chilly and lethal. Interesting, but a little expected. A personal element would help, outside of those noble stones, of course.
In many ways I really felt like this comic is that first true attempt to make the Inhuman brand stand out. Marvel is clearly trying to elevate them to X-Menian level but they might be forgetting that the X-Men are also a set of awesome singular personalities. Where’s the Black Bolt solo ongoing? Medusa? Crystal? Lockjaw? This book gives credence to the movement.
Jason Sacks: Damn, I loved Warren Ellis’s Moon Knight. That comic was the hit of 2014. It was packed full of smart, thoughtful scene setting and brilliant action, with a thoughtful approach to its material. That Ellis/Declan Shalvey run reminded us all why we loved Ellis’s work so much. Moon Knight played the perfect magic act of being both exactly like everything else on the stands and very different from everything else on the stands. But as we all know, that run only lasted a handful of issues, never to be replaced…
…Until, that is, until this first issue of Karnak. At least that’s what Marvel hoped for.
But it isn’t 2014 anymore and this isn’t Moon Knight. And Gerardo Zaffino is no Declan Shalvey.
It’s appropriate that the first image in Karnak #1 is a tower in the middle of nowhere. That lonely image is a perfect symbol of this comic. Karnak takes place way off in its own world, with artwork that distances everything from the story being told. Characters are drawn too closely, or too shadowy, or just too indistinct for us to get a completely clear image of them. SHIELD agent Coulson is a major character here, but as drawn he could literally be anybody. There’s nothing to make him stand out as an individual or reflect his real identity. He’s a virtual non-entity despite his patter in this book.
When the action scenes happen in this book, as well, everything seems vague and indistinct. In the scene that Kyle mentions above, where Karnak slices a bullet in half, the moment keys off of a threat that this Inhuman senses from a SHIELD agent. But the scene lacks any impact because the agent was never seen nor even implied at any other point in the story, in clear defiance of the principle of Checkhov’s gun.
This is a pale shadow of Warren Ellis at his best. Karnak is all attitude and vague art wrapped around a character with some potential. Sounds like we all felt the same sort of vague frustration with this one.
Kyle: Yes, yes, yes to the bullet scene. I had no idea anyone else was even at the base, let alone someone who was working against them.
And let’s connect the dots on two of the things you guys mentioned. There’s Marvel’s desire to turn the Inhumans into the new X-Men, as Jamil mentioned, then there’s the use of Agent Coulson, which Jason mentioned. Well, Marvel wants to replace the X-Men with the Inhumans so they can use them in movies and on TV (they’ve already shown up in the latter). And Agent Coulson is a movie/TV character incorporated into the comic book universe. This comic is buried under influences that have nothing to do with comic books.
That didn’t help.
And, yes, Ellis’ Moon Knight run was fantastic, but you could see that he had a clear idea of what he wanted to do with that character. You kind of get the feeling that he’s still trying to figure Karnak out in this issue.
Also, if Ellis has a major flaw as a writer, it’s his endings, or at least the endings to individual issues. The end to this issue is bizarre. It’s not a surprise that they’re fighting, so why is it framed that way? None of the other characters are recognizable, so there’s nothing particularly thrilling about that. How would this entice someone to come back for more?
It gives you the impression that there isn’t anything more, that Karnak hunting a terrorist organization is the extent of this concept. And that’s not really something I care to read about.
Jamil: The ending is so odd I somewhat dig it. A sequence like that normally shows up at the beginning or middle of a debut comic, but that might be Ellis messing with us based on that “plot” line by Karnak. It’s a run-of-the-mill action scene, however that last page is pretty brutal. Don’t keep your weak point in your neck, fellas!
Waxing nostalgic about that breathtaking six-issue Moon Knight run hits on the problem with Karnak — good but ultimately unsuccessful art. Zaffino creates a superb look for this series, an aptly harsh and empty affect to go with the character’s deposition, but the action is indistinct and jagged. That bullet chopping scene? I had no idea what the hell was going on in the key panel; I literally hard to flip the comic around because my brain could not decipher what was being depicted in that fourth frame. Moreover, it’s a damn crime not to draw Agent Gemma Simmons in all her gorgeous splendor.
Both the story and art are purposefully off-putting, not repugnant but isolated, weird and saturnine. Still, I liked it. There’s a bit of risk-taking here mixed with corporate synergy and a fertile concept. Even if things are rocky in the debut issue I think the character and creative team are sturdy enough to rectify mistakes quickly. Also, given the career pattern of Warren Ellis this run will probably only last six to eight issues before the baton is shunted to another writer. I’d bet by then we’ll look back on this series a touch more fondly.
Jason: Absolutely, Jamil. Give Marvel and Ellis points for trying something unique here. This is a very different comic from the rest of the Marvel line, miles away from the bold and bright work delivered in Sam Wilson Captain America or Amazing Spider-Man. It would be just like Ellis to using the distance and vagueness of this first issue as important story building elements that give the ultimate payoff real power. We have no idea what the arc will be for Karnak in his series, and it’s intriguing to wonder how these events will change him.
This may all be intentional… or it may not. What a vague way of ending this essay. Gents, shall we reconvene in six months to see how we feel about Karnak then?