Karnak sets out to save Inhumanity, one weak spot at a time.
Karnak #1Publisher: Marvel
Length: 32 pages
Contributors: Gerardo Zaffino (illustrator)
Author: Warren Ellis
Publication Date: 2015-12
Of late, celebrated comic writer Warren Ellis has shown a talent for reimagining classic comic book characters and telling their stories in a new, stylized light. His work on the most recent volume of Moon Knight has defined the character since, giving the book a new look and personality as a collection of single-shot, horror-crime stories. Ellis has done so again with an even more c-list character: Karnak, the philosophical martial arts master of the Inhumans. Fashioning the book in the manner of a spiritual martial arts tale, Ellis creatively explores Karnak’s Inhuman ability to detect weakness and refashions the character’s philosophy and personality to create a fun, intriguing story.
The issue begins with Karnak stationed at the Tower of Wisdom, an isolated structure in the desert. Here, Karnak and his followers live solitary, spartan lives (even referring to the one telephone in the building as “the infernal device".) Karnak receives a call saying he’s needed, and he leaves the Tower to be picked up by a quinjet. Before leaving, he turns to his followers and reminds them of their creed.
“Consider the stone cairns,” he says, “in a hundred generations of human life, they only grow more perfect. The stones matter more to the universe than you do.”
In redesigning Karnak, Ellis makes the intriguing choice of bestowing him with a particularly pessimistic outlook. This would understandably be the viewpoint of an individual with the superhuman ability to see the weakness and flaws in everything, seeing the world and its inhabitants as just that: weak and flawed. Karnak blatantly observes what is feeble and wrong with the people and world around him, and his personality and philosophy reflect this.
This characterization is an interesting continuation of Marvel’s recent exploration of the Inhumans, both in the comics and in the current season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, as more cursed than blessed by their abilities. Despite being an amplification and transformation of human potential, superpowers have always represented a realignment of human perception and cognition, and often one that may be hard to acclimate to (just imagine Charles Xavier coming to terms with telepathy). In this regard, superpowers represent an interesting speculative look at human psychological struggle and adaptation as well as enhanced potential, and Ellis’ use of these themes in Karnak is both clever and compelling.
Karnak arrives in the jet at a SHIELD outpost in the arctic, where he is met by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’s Phil Coulson and Jemma Simmons. He is taken inside and informed that he has been brought in to consult on a family’s kidnapped son, who has recently undergone the Terrigenesis process of becoming an Inhuman. But instead of developing powers, the boy seems to have simply gotten healthier, losing his allergy of nuts. At the same time, however, he’s become depressed and violent.
Coulson asks Karnak to help mentor the boy through his transformation, to which Karnak agrees in exchange for a very peculiar request: that the parents provide him with the single thing that allows them to believe in a just and beautiful universe. Coulson, appalled, brings Karnak out into the hallway to chastise him. Karnak’s only response is that he’s a teacher, and is hence trying to teach them. “Love is for less disciplined minds that need to believe in a softer world,” he says. Karnak’s pessimism therefore borders on, or very much inhabits, nihilism.
The nihilistic superhero has shown up a handful of times in the genre’s history. Like characters such as Watchmen’s Rorschach, it does beg the question of why the hell would one bother being a superhero, or even do good, given such an outlook? The fact that Karnak chooses to do so, and his ultimate motivations for doing so, provide the seeds of an interesting character arc, and hopefully one that will be explored further as the series progresses.
Coulson informs Karnak that the boy has been kidnapped by a terrorist group called the International Data Integration Control (IDIC), a division of A.I.M. Karnak then disappears back into the room to catch a IDIC agent taking out a gun. The agent fires at Karnak, who swiftly breaks the bullet in two with one hand. Karnak then proceeds to torture the agent via calculated touches that rupture his liver and break his leg, finally retrieving a confession of the name for the place the boy is being held: The Berlin Cell. The issue ends with Karnak breaking into the facility and making some quick work of the guards inside with his unparalleled martial arts skills.
Karnak #1 proves to be an thoughtful character study for a lesser-known Inhuman, as well as a fun and engaging action tale. The moody, shadowed artwork by Gerardo Zaffino adds a mystical, ethereal element to both the story and Karnak’s very presence, and effectively depicts his “warrior monk” aura. And Karnak is an action comic fan’s dream. Hopefully the series will continue to be equal parts introspective and extrospective (mostly through breaking things) as it continues.