On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: Who Are The Inhumans And Why Should I Care?
Posted on February 4, 2015
The Inhumans created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee
February 4, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield
On Wednesdays We Wear Ink is a weekly column about comics and comics culture. For past columns, click here.
This week we’re going to be talking about the Inhumans; who they are, what makes them unique, and why Marvel are giving them a big push in the near future.
Like most of the best ideas in the Marvel Universe, the Inhumans first appeared in Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s legendary run on Fantastic Four, in December 1965’s issue #45. Over the intervening fifty years, they’ve developed into one of the most peculiar and brilliant areas of the Marvel pantheon.
Third paragraph, and we still haven’t got to who they are? Sorry, my bad. Those of you who saw the Guardians of the Galaxy movie will remember the Kree Empire, the (usually) blue-skinned alien bunch with a martial culture and a tendency toward gnarly space fascism. That lad Ronan, with the daft hammer and the confused response to a simple dance-off? Kree.
Anyway, the Kree have been at war on and off with the Skrulls for millions of years, and way back when they were looking for new weapons to chuck at their enemies, when they happened across Earth, and specifically, the fledgling human race. The Kree, rather than do something sensible like, say, negotiate for peace with the Skrull Empire, started doing experiments on cavemen instead, eventually creating the Inhumans. This new sub-species of humanity look normal enough to begin with, but when members are exposed to the incredible rare terrigen crystals, they go into great lumpy cocoons, and when they emerge they’ve got wild-ass super powers, usually an external reflection of some key aspect of their personality.
You might be wondering what the Kree did with their new biological weapons. They didn’t do much of anything, they just buggered off and left a new race of hyper-advanced superhumans to get on with their lives alongside the rest of us were still working out how to crack nuts open with rocks.
The Inhumans went into seclusion from the rest of the human race at this point, which is an entirely rational response when your closest evolutionary cousins live in caves, eat raw meat, and fling their own shite at each other. Skip forward to the ever-shifting present of the Marvel universe, and the Inhumans have their own history, culture, and beliefs, starkly different to humanity at large in some respects, but in many others, all too familiar. And just recently, it emerged that lost tribes of Inhumans spread out into the wider human populace, and have been quietly breeding away for millenia untold. This has left pockets of Inhumans living as regular humans, completely unaware of their genetic potential, until the detonation of a terrigen bomb over New York caused these lost Inhumans to transform into their true forms the world over.
So far, so bizarre, right? They’re called the Inhumans for a reason, you know.
The Inhumans have a giant teleporting dog called Lockjaw. Because anarchy.
But why, almost half a century since they debuted, are the Inhumans about to become household names? To understand that, we have to look at the real world history of Marvel comics, particularly the last twenty or so years.
In the mid-1990s, things were not looking good for the American comics industry. The spectator boom of the early ‘90s (where millions of non-readers bought stacks of comics with a view to one day selling them and buying a yacht made out of cocaine and swans – 1991’s X-men #1 sold 8.1 million, and your local comic shop probably has a couple of thousand out the back) had given way to inevitable collapse, as spectators realised that, in actuality, they’d pissed their money away on multiple copies of comics only proper comics readers cared to own, and we already had copies, so theirs weren’t worth a gnat’s fart. Hundreds of comic shops, and loads of publishers went under, and in 1996, Marvel comics, far and away the biggest comics publisher in the anglophone world, filed for bankruptcy.
X-men #1 by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee: hamster bedding
It’s in the aftermath of this collapse that the decisions were made that began to reshape popular culture as we know it. The consensus in Hollywood, following the Batman & Robin movie, was that superhero movies didn’t sell anymore, so when Marvel started selling movie rights, they got what we, in the glorious superhero obsessed world of 2015, would consider pretty shitty deals. Remember, they’d recently gone bankrupt, and were not in the best position to negotiate terms. This led to Fox picking up the movie rights to the X-men, the success of which is understood to have led to a slightly better deal for the Spider-man rights, at about which time Marvel started to shuffle this money away to start making its own movies.We all know how that went, but it all started with them selling off the film rights to what were, at the time, their most popular characters.
Fast forward to the last couple of years, and since being taken over by Disney, Marvel has been, as one would expect, keen to make as much money as possible from the characters it controls. While they can still make a ton of money from X-men comics, and Spider-man comics and cartoons, they’re tending to focus on the characters they have total control over more and more. Why would they promote the X-men to non-comics readers only for Fox to reap the benefits of greater brand recognition?
While the X-men continue to be a big chunk of Marvel’s comics focus, their cross-media properties are a different matter, so when it came time to find a concept to fill the huge X-men-shaped gap in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and the plethora of toys, games, costumes, and cartoons that come with it), the Inhumans were the obvious choice.
Highly evolved sub-species of humanity? Check!
Feared and hated by those who don’t understand them? Check!
No way of telling who is one till their powers kick in? Check!
Based on a sweet Jack Kirby/Stan Lee concept? Check and check!
It would be foolish to consider the Inhumans some kind of mutant stand in, though. For a start, the Inhumans have their own shared history and centuries-old culture, and their own Kingdom, Attilan. (Don’t ask me why a highly advanced species that’s supposed to be millenia ahead of the rest of us uses monarchy as a political system. I still can’t work out why there’s an inbred old woman on all my banknotes.) While nods toward a shared mutant culture have emerged in the X-men mythos (most notably during the concurrent runs of Grant Morrison and Joe Casey), and mutant nation states pop up and collapse/get smooshed with alarming regularity, there isn’t a consistent thread spanning successive generations.
It’s this backdrop of a wider history and culture that makes the Inhumans so compelling. They are closely related to humanity, but in their outlooks and ways of doing things, often alarmingly other. In many ways, they are a homegrown alien culture, with all the scope for misunderstanding, fraught diplomacy, and culture shock that implies.
Attilan: the Inhuman city. Once it was on the moon. For realsies.
Then you’ve got the lost Inhumans, newly discovering their powers, but more importantly, their heritage. Marvel has established a global Inhuman diaspora, and the scope for stories about young Inhumans exploring, embracing, or rejecting their heritage, and the ways and reasons different characters might do that is colossal. While the X-men remain, in many ways, an excellent allegory for prejudice and understanding, the metaphor only goes so far. The Inhumans are a race of people where a significant number have been alienated, physically and historically, from their ancestral home and cultural heritage. It doesn’t take a genius to find dozens of real world parallels for that.
Basically, the Inhumans are coming, and they’re just about weird enough to work.
Anyway, it’s gone midnight, and I want to go to sleep, so here are a bunch of Inhumans stories I heartily recommend.
Inhumans by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee
This self-contained series focuses on the internal relationships and intrigues of the Inhuman royal court. Led by King Black Bolt and Queen Medusa, the royal family attempt to guide their already diplomatic precarious civilisation through various intrigues, as betrayal and war come knocking. While Black Bolt is very much the monarch, Medusa performs most of the day to day tasks of ruling, in large part because every time Black Bolt speaks, even in a whisper, he unleashes a power that can destroy a mountain range. You don’t get that in Game of Thrones, do ya?
Jenkins’ sharp wit, coupled with Lee’s otherworldly art makes this an absolutely fascinating tale of a world we cannot hope to understand, filled with flawed and broken people we can relate to all too well.
Young Inhumans by Sean McKeever et al
Young Inhumans focuses on a group of Inhuman teenagers who, shortly after exposure to the terrigen mists turned them into their true forms, are sent to Earth as part of an exchange programme to attempt to foster greater understanding between the branches of humanity. A classic tale of adolescent alienation, following a group of outwardly extraordinary, but all too relatable young people, as they try to find their place in a world they barely understand.
Short-lived, but a gem while it lasted.
Inhuman by Charles Soule and Joe Madureira (subsequently replaced by Ryan Stegman)
Inhuman is the recent ongoing series following a group of new Inhumans as they come to terms with their powers, and try to find out where they belong. Mistrustful of the Inhuman establishment in Attilan, and courted by a sinister figure from one of the lost Inhuman tribes, these Nuhumans must figure out where they stand, and fast, because, after centuries of isolation, the Inhumans are now living right next door to New York City, and not everyone is pleased to see them.
If you want to catch up with everything that’s going on right now, this is definitely the place to start, but if you’re after self-contained stories, the other two are your best bets.
Have an awesome week, and enjoy your comics.