When Marvel Comics announces that Warren Ellis will be writing an ongoing series, it is always a cause to pay attention. Ellis has delivered consistently excellent work over the past decade on series like Nextwave, Moon Knight, and Secret Avengers, and he has collaborated with great established and rising artists each time. The announcement of Ellis and Gerardo Zaffino on Karnak transformed a comic about a supporting character on a B-list team (if we’re being charitable) from an oddity to a highlight of the All-New, All-Different relaunch. The debut of Karnak #1 this week goes to show that all of this attention was well deserved.
The first issue works to both introduce Karnak to an audience that may be entirely unfamiliar with his powers and personality, and to provide a unique hook to the comic. Ellis embeds the exposition within his script well enough that it is never too noticeable. Phil Coulson acts as a reader’s guide dropping knowledge on fellow SHIELD agent Simmons about Karnak’s resurrection and his place in the world. Some of his back-and-forth with Karnak reads as an obvious aside for the audience’s benefit, but the snarky attitude of the inhuman martial arts master makes even this go down easier.
Karnak fills a familiar model within Ellis’ oeuvre, the sharp edged, angry master. Much like Elijah Snow in Planetary or Spider Jerusalem in Transmetropolitan, he is capably cold, cruel, and completely comfortable dispensing his own wisdom. There’s even a sick sense of humor that always lurks beneath his edges, telling students to clean the latrines and making excellent use of a small smile.
He is not a carbon copy of these other character, as they are not replicas of one another. They all fit a similar tone and feel, but Karnak is undoubtedly unique even based solely on these 20 pages. Karnak is an inversion of Ellis and Declan Shalvey’s Moon Knight. Whereas Moon Knight was a force of nature bound by the constraints of simply being a man, Karnak is a man with the ability to move like a force of nature. His worldview is without compassion and he dispenses his “lessons” without passion or concern. There is a sense that Karnak is something born from the rage of comments on Reddit or 4Chan, capably pointing out facts, but lacking any sense of humanity or empathy. He is knowledge unchecked by connection to anyone besides himself; the result is an interesting, albeit unappealing character.
Zaffino captures Karnak’s personality within his artwork. He connects the Inhuman’s clinical approach to the world with his movement and posture. When shown alone in the Tower of Wisdom, Karnak’s back and neck are perfectly straight and his movements are like that of a yoga master. He operates his body like a machine, carefully and precisely. It’s this control present even in small facial gestures that makes the action sequences even more impressive.
There is an understanding within the artwork of what made this Jack Kirby creation visually appealing. Karnak uses the smallest of movements to great physical effect, exploding walls and bodies with simple gestures. The juxtaposition of fluid action and brutal reaction creates a potent recognition of the power found in each fiber of Karnak’s being. All of the muddied backgrounds and roughly drawn characters surrounding Karnak only serve to further emphasize his own mastery of his body and actions.
Dan Brown’s dirty colors serve both Zaffino’s inky action and glaring static panels well. His earthen tones that enhances the base humanity that belie Karnak’s supposed enlightenment and make the violence of his actions and cruelty of his words even louder. The use of a classic CMYK printing effect leaving sections of panel stippled with dots fails to connect on an artistic or thematic level though. It looks fine on David Aja’s cover, but within the comic only serves to distract ever so slightly from the narrative.
Karnak #1 is instantly engaging and reads briskly before reaching an ending that is neither cliffhanger nor stopping point. It’s a jerking halt to the issue that reveals Karnak to be a story that is designed without issue breaks in mind, much like Ellis’ other ongoing work on Trees and Injection. There is more than enough good to be found in this first installment though, that it’s easy to forgive Karnak #1 for failing to cohere as an issue. Ellis and Zaffino deliver an interesting hook for this reinvention, one that is equal parts character study and brutal action comic with plenty of style throughout.