Writer: Warren Ellis
Art: Gerardo Zaffino & Dan Brown
James R: Sometimes it is very nice to be proved wrong. A few months ago, as Marvel announced the titles that would make up the post-Secret Wars reboot, we PCGers discussed which books we would be adding to our pull-lists. My friends were slightly surprised when I said "Ehh, I'm not too bothered..." over the release of Karnak. My fear wasn't over the obvious talents of Warren Ellis, but more over the subject matter. I've never been a big fan of the Inhumans, and despite Marvel's best efforts to get us to think of them as 'X-Men 2000', I've never read a book that's overcome my ambivalence towards them. (The closest was Earth X, but that's a story for another day...) However, the combined arguments of my friends made me realise that I really should take a punt of Karnak - and I'm incredibly pleased I did.
There's something amazingly 'Year Zero' about the book - regardless of the machinations of Secret Wars, having just a scant knowledge of the Marvel Universe is all that's required to get fully on board with the issue. Karnak has left his post as advisor to the throne of Attilan, and has established himself as a philosopher and teacher in the mysterious Tower of Wisdom. That's it! From here, Warren Ellis and Gerardo Zaffino immerse us in a world that's both recognisable and yet seeped in mystery. Phil Coulson comes to Karnak with a mystery to solve - a recently-transformed Inhuman boy has been kidnapped by a splinter group of A.I.M. and it's up to Karnak to track him down.
Written like that, the comic almost sounds like a police procedural, and indeed, there are elements to the book that make it feel like one; large chunks are taken up with Karnak's questioning - and then interrogation - of various parties. However, it's way more than that thanks to the skill of Ellis. The dialogue is razor-sharp, and in Karnak, he's re-booting the formerly be-hatted Inhuman into something fascinating. The Jack Kirby Collector magazine described Karnak as "A philosophical Karate expert with nominal personality", and that may have been the case in the past, but Ellis is giving him real depth. Karnak is an 'outsider' in the sense that Colin Wilson would have described in his seminal book of the same name. He saw an outsider as someone who is dislocated, and at odds with society, and that's just how our eponymous lead is in this first issue. Karnak doesn't particularly come across as liking the human world - or anyone in it - and yet he cannot resist the mystery placed before him.
It's fantastically Warren Ellis stuff of course, but I'm amazed what a perfect fit this is. Ellis is great at writing sharp-tongued characters at odds with the world around them, and he's made Karnak a natural successor to Elijah Snow and Richard Fell. It's a treat for the eyes too - Zaffino's work has aspects of both Sam Keith and Sean Murphy to it, but it's incredibly distinctive, and Dan Brown's moody palette suits the book perfectly.
As a man who spends a large part of his day teaching philosophy, I'm loving that Marvel have let Warren Ellis turn Karnak into philosopher and teacher - and from out of nowhere, I feel like I have a new favourite book. As an undergraduate studying philosophy, I was taught something that's stayed with me over the years: it's easy to criticise and find weakness in an idea; it's much harder to create something that stands up to scrutiny. Reading Karnak, I felt this creative team have managed to do both - introduce us to a character who can find the weakness in any system via a tale that's rock solid. 9/10