By Warren Ellis, Gerardo Zaffino, and Dan Brown
It’s an undeniable fact that Marvel has become one of the most dominant cultural forces on the planet. Their films are some of the biggest blockbusters of every year, they’ve latched themselves to the emerging story of streaming and Netflix, they’ve made great strides for diversity, and their shared universe has spread successfully into the realms of TV, Movies, and Streaming. Now, to celebrate Marvel’s coronation to the level of pop culture kings, they’ve relaunched their entire universe, resetting all comics back to zero and restructuring all their ongoing comics. Aside from creating an easy jumping on point for new readers the bigger reasoning behind this was to better transform the Marvel comics into essentially the extended universe of the films, emphasizing the importance of key characters while downplaying the relevance of properties Marvel no longer owns the film rights to like the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. Those two properties are key to today’s subject as Marvel has sought to more or less create a group of mutants/X-Men mark 2 with the Inhumans, a relatively minor secret race of super beings from the Fantastic Four mythos. While Karnak doesn’t fall too much into this trend, that fact hovers over the comic like the specter of troublesome corporate meddling and misused characterization.
Karnak is about Karnak, logically enough, a former advisor and spiritual leader to the Inhuman royal family who has become a philosopher hermit and recluse after returning from the dead. The comic proper doesn’t have much plot beyond Karnak as a force of unstoppable and nihilistic destruction that ends up embroiled into tangentially related affairs. In particular he’s brought in by Phil Coulson, making his obligatory cameo to instill that Marvel Cinematic Universe branding, to fight an AIM off-shoot that’s been kidnapping people who’ve recently become Inhumans. As far as plots go this one is exactly what it needs to be; simple and supportive, existing more to prop up Karnak as a force of nature and warrior philosopher instead of trying to draw us in with intricate detail and nuanced plotting. It’s similar to the approach author Warren Ellis took with Moon Knight when he relaunched the character as part of the Marvel NOW! branding initiative that preceded the All-New, All-Different Marvel.
As a character, Karnak is pretty enjoyable if not also a serious jerk. That’s to be relatively expected from Ellis’ style, he has a bit of a reputation for being a charming curmudgeonly bastard in real life and that works its way into his characters. This would normally leave Karnak stranded in the “jerk genius” zone inhabited by the likes of Dr. House or BBC’s Sherlock Holmes, but thankfully there’s a bit more going on here. Unlike the other characters mentioned, Karnak isn’t a jerk because he looks down on everyone for not being as smart as he is, but rather because he’s a nihilist, or rather he wants to be. Even though Karnak is always putting forth a nihilistic philosophy about the unimportance of the individual on the universal scale, his statements are undercut by his actions. If he was truly a nihilist, truly felt the individual experience was unimportant, he wouldn’t dedicate so much of his life to those he views as damaged by the Terrigen mists of the Inhumans. In that respect, he’s most reminiscent of Rust Cohle from True Detective, in that his nihilistic affectations are simply a projection of how he’d like the world to see him; though in Karnak’s case it seems he hides his desire to help people because he thinks it’d be viewed as weakness.
Art wise Gerardo Zaffino does a phenomenal job. His art style is very sketchy and somewhat angular in a way that really works for the subject matter. Karnak has always been one of the most gifted martial artists in the Marvel Universe so the all the sketchy lines here just add to the sense of movement and energy within the comic. The only downside to this is that he has a bad habit of letting the backgrounds go, either using a handful of wall lines or relying on block colors. The block color approach can work, especially when accentuated with those energizing lines, but other times it just sort of sits there statically. Dan Brown is on color duty and he does a fine job. His major strength is finding a way to keep the comic dynamic and engaging while also washing out the colors to a kind of muted drabness. It’s a thin tight rope to walk but Brown manages it quite well. The only downside to the artwork is Karnak’s costume redesign. It’s not a terrible look it just doesn’t go with his new identity. He’s supposed to be this warrior, hermit, philosopher who lives in a freaky stone tower in the middle of nowhere, but he looks like he’s dressed in whatever was behind the Goodwill that day. Some heroes can make the plain clothes look work like Superman, but Karnak is not one of them, he needs to be more ceremonial. However, the design of having his eyes as glowing and blank white is incredibly freaky and well used.
So far the All-New All-Different Marvel has been generally passable but passionless and felt more like business as usual than anything different but Karnak is legitimately new and legitimately great.. The Inhumans have always felt out of place in the X-Men’s shoes because they lack the same breadth of mythos, there are no Inhuman philosophies or allegorical issues and authors seems stringently opposed to creating them. Karnak is the first time a comic has made the effort to expand the Inhuman mythos in a meaningful way that will help it fill the role Marvel keeps forcing upon it. So far the All-New, All-Different Marvel has been generally passable, but passionless and felt more like business as usual than anything different, but Karnak is the real deal: All-New, All-Different, and All-Quality.