Reviewing the Eisner Awards and Orange is the new Black…Bolt?
Well, here we are. The summer is beginning to wind down. The hustle and bustle of activities, cookouts, vacations, and conventions are finally fizzling out and soon enough, we’ll all be back to some sense of normalcy. Or…whatever it is that my life is usually.
One of the things I like to pay attention to during the summer convention season is the Eisner Awards. They’re an industry award for comic bookery that starts with a panel of rotating panel of judges from around the world of comic books–sometimes they are retailers, sometimes creators, librarians, media members, etc. They set the nominations, and then the industry votes for their choices that are ultimately revealed at San Diego Comic Con. The nominations generally expand far outside what I normally pick up at the comic shop, but they also will touch on plenty of books from Marvel, DC, and Image, too. Check out the list of nominations and the list of winners.
It’s like the Oscars, only if the Oscars went out of their way to try and at least acknowledge the mainstream a little bit. I guess that might be a thing that’s changing with the Oscars moving forward–we’ll see. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind an industry celebrating excellence in that particular field, but popularity should not exclude the merit of the work. Too many times, the most popular and memorable movies from a year get relegated to awards for Best Set Design instead of the biggies. I will admit that I am one of those people who scramble to see a handful of the best picture nominees each year, but just once, it would be nice to say, “Oh, Black Panther–already saw that one when it came out.” “Robert Downey, Jr. is being rewarded for his decade of Iron Man work. Awesome!” or, “whoever cast J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson gets all the awards, and deservedly so! Bravo!”
I’m veering wildly off course here, but if Jonah appears in these new Marvel Spider-man movies and it’s not J.K., that is a serious misstep. I think J.K. Simmons/J.Jonah Jameson should be in all the Marvel movies. It could only make them better.
Back on track, the Eisners are great because they give me another chance to recognize some titles that I may have skipped over. I know Monstress (Best Continuing Series) and My Favorite Thing Is Monsters (Best Graphic Album–New) were not on my to-read list, but now that they’re big award winners, I will pick them up, given the opportunity and give them a shot. X-Men: Grand Design was a nominee for Best Limited Series I read, reviewed, and enjoyed, and I know Rock Candy Mountain (Best Humor Publication) is something Andy has lined up for a read pile for the podcast, coming soon. This year also cemented just about anything by Tom King and Mitch Gerards as quality stuff. I still have a copy of Sheriff of Babylon I need to get to from a few years back, but it’s nice to see The Vision wasn’t a fluke. Apparently, I’m going to have to dig through the King Batman (Best Writer) run just as soon as I get through the Snyder run, but both of those will wait in line behind the Mr. Miracle book (Best Limited Series Nominee/Best Writer/Best Penciler/Inker) that I’ll be reading once the whole kit and caboodle is finished. Maybe I should start buying Batman in issues. Lee Weeks’s art on Batman looks like he leveled up somehow in the recent preview pages I’ve seen. Anyway, the Eisners help to put quality books on my radar, and that’s always a good thing. Maybe I’ll even finally read that Black Hammer (Best Continuing Series Nominee) Andy’s been telling me about for years.
So, if step one is getting books on the radar, step two is finding them affordably enough that my wife won’t notice. This is where other conventions come into play. Most recently, at the Steel City Con, I was able to do the thing I usually do while on breaks as an employee of the Steel City Con–shop for affordable trade paperbacks. If the SDCC is where I find out what I should read, Steel City is where I find what I can read without breaking the budget. If you’re a comic fan and not participating in the convention experience, I encourage you to get out there and give it a try, if not for the community aspect, then at least for the great deals on cool stuff. This year, I was able to pick up Hawkeye (Best Continuing Series Nominee), Black Panther: World of Wakanda (Best Limited Series), and the book I’m going to review today, Black Bolt (Best New Series), all for the cost of a couple of cups of coffee apiece.
Black Bolt, for those unfamiliar, is the King and ruler of the Inhumans. His voice is so powerful that when he speaks, he destroys everything in sight, a la a nuclear explosion. He doesn’t talk much. He has a cool looking costume that also has a tuning fork on his head. I don’t question it. I’m usually good for one Inhumans story every other year or so before I get bored and move on.
Recently, I read and enjoyed the Karnak mini-series by Warren Ellis, and I thought that would do it for the Inhumans and me for a bit. (Side note: Karnak’s ability to find the flaw in everything is one of those great power sets that keeps me up at night hoping I don’t have it. I did study literary criticism and I write for a blog. I want to be happy in life, but that critical eye is always there. Except when it comes to shoes. Crocs are cool, in my opinion. I don’t know why everybody is so critical. They’re so comfy and versatile. Sure, they’re ridiculous, but all shoes are ridiculous when you think about it).
Anyway, Black Bolt is not a character I’m usually that interested in because he doesn’t talk. Well, he rarely talks, because when he does talk, stuff blows up. I also haven’t followed the recent push (and de-push) of the Inhumans, so I was slightly wary of picking this book up. I’m glad I did. Be forewarned, spoilers ahead.
Black Bolt, Volume 1: Hard Time by Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward (with Frazier Irving on issue 5) contains the first six issue of this series that picks up with Black Bolt in jail–with a muzzle. In my head, I was already skeptical. I worried that continuity shenanigans (the Inhumans were the replacement X-Men for a time, and X-men are as shenanigany as the get!) and a silent lead were going to turn me off the book. It turns out that how he got into jail isn’t all that important and the muzzle thing is just for show–he gets to talk due to power dampeners! Yay!
Black Bolt is joined in prison by Crusher Creel, the Absorbing Man; an alien telepath named Blinky; Molyb, the Metal Master; Raava, the Skrull; and one or two others along the way. Their main antagonists include the big bad, the Jailer, who tortures and kills and reanimates his prisoners all to feed off their pain, and Spyder, an inmate who works for the Jailer in exchange for favors.
Just like any good prison story, you can’t be too sure who is a friend or foe, especially in the beginning, and even after friendships are established, there’s always the element of the double-cross waiting to happen. In most prison stories, the theme of the jailers feeding off of the pain and suffering of others is present, here it’s just a little less metaphorical. There are other tropes of prison tales–testing one another, humanizing your supposed enemies, the dehumanization of the prison system, and then the wacky breakout plots–they’re all here. Just like the Marvel movies for the past decade have been genre movies-with super-heroes, this is a solid prison story–with super-heroes. And super-villains. And a teleporting dog.
The most recent analogy I can make is Orange is the New Black, a show I’m surprised my wife lets me watch. At its best, OITNB is a serialized anthology series. You get your main plot that advances your current storyline, but in each episode, they choose a character to highlight. They’ll tell you about when Red wasn’t such a bad@$$ and how her life choices and circumstances brought her to the point she is now, all in time to have some impact on that episode’s main plot. The same thing happens in this book, especially with Crusher Creel. As much as Black Bolt is humanized by finally being able to talk, Creel gets to shine by being alternatingly menacing, funny, capable, and a seemingly decent human being while maintaining all the rough edges that make him a solid super villain.
Ahmed does masterful work with a character I’ve always known to be a guy who shows up and gets hit a lot. Here, even though it’s Black Bolt’s book, Creel is the star of the show. He gets his OITNB episode even during issue 4 while he and Black Bolt are tied up waiting for their oxygen to run out. He flashes back to his mom who doesn’t make it, his abusive dad, his boxing career, meeting Loki, all of it–and then he gets to Secret Wars where he met –and fell in love with– Titania. Ahmed does such a good job of helping the audience to empathize with this super-villain–you almost know things aren’t going to end well for him.
I won’t go into specifics, but I will say this series is packed with fun and drama and craziness. I will spoil that Lockjaw does show up, because why wouldn’t you want to buy a book with Lockjaw? Imagine the Weratedogs entry for that guy!
I’ve praised Saladin Ahmed for writing a fun prison breakout story, but I haven’t brought up the artist, Christian Ward yet.
He handles the dark, depressing prison scenes well. The jailer is especially menacing. He handles the warmth needed for the emotional punch of the flashback scenes. The faces of the characters do so much acting, and it always fits the scene, whether it’s joyful, humorous, sad, or intense.
Then, there are the solid action scenes or the M.C. Esher-like setting of the prison. There’s a line he walks that can be disorienting but not unclear, and then he’ll throw in a splash page with a flourish of color that makes you really appreciate this story as a comic book. I don’t think you could achieve what he does in any other visual medium. He’s really good. The blurb on the back of my copy describes his art as “mind-bending.” That’s about right.
In closing, I can see why Black Bolt took home Best New Series. I wasn’t familiar with either Saladin Ahmed or Christian Ward, but now, both names will be on my radar. If you are a fan of out-there art, solid characterization, prison break stories, or just something new and unique, I’d recommend giving Black Bolt a try. You don’t need to be an Inhuman fan to know or care about what’s going on in the story, so don’t let that hold you back. Final Grade: A
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Until next time, my friends,
My blogs will be the ones with the silent power and the pet teleporting dog!