Not only is Blackagar Boltagon part of the Inhumans’ Royal Family, he has a voice that can level mountains, so he’s used to being one of the most influential figures in the Marvel Universe. That all changes this May with the launch of “Black Bolt,” a new ongoing series by sci-fi and fantasy novelist Saladin Ahmed and artist Christian Ward which finds the titular character locked down in a mysterious cosmic prison.
What turn of events led him there? Who is serving time alongside him? And how will he communicate with his captors and inmates? For the answers to these questions and more, CBR spoke with first time comic writer Ahmed about penning a series that’s both new reader friendly and offers some payout to longtime fans of the title character. And then there's perhaps the biggest question of all: how did the Absorbing Man come to have a large supporting role in the series?
CBR: You're picking up Black Bolt after what's been a pretty eventful couple of years for the character. So what's your sense of your protagonist? Which aspects of his personality are you especially interested in exploring?
Saladin Ahmed: Despite the fact that he's been around 50 years we've really almost always seen Black Bolt reflected in others. He's sort of this blank slate to a degree because he doesn't talk and because he has this kind of imperious distance as a king. So part of the challenge is getting in his head at all and starting to think about how with this being a solo title he's always been defined by his place in the Inhuman Royal Family.
This book is a chance to think about his personality and ask what is Black Bolt like on his own? Just even beginning to ask that question has been both fun and a challenge.
As far as the past few years go, I've been walking a tight rope with this book. Marvel came to me as a science fiction/fantasy writer. This is my first comics project. I'm interested in bringing in some new readers; ones who don't necessarily know who Black Bolt is or know a ton about the amazing past few years of the Inhumans comics. I've really loved reading those issues, but the mythology is thick. There's a lot of material there with the history and the crossover events.
On the one hand, I wanted to take Black Bolt away from all of that and just strip him down to some essential questions about his character and this unique thing of his power being something that's always in check. It's kind of this curse and blessing, but mostly a curse. So there's these thematic threads that I'd be weaving through a novel and now I'm doing the same thing with a comic. We're dealing with this question of being silenced, not being able to talk, and silencing yourself.
There's all these kind of abstract things that this character brings out and I'm trying to make those accessible and interesting to both to long time readers and readers who are new to Marvel Comics. I want to take a look at this almost god like figure who's been humbled and examine what that means.
I also wanted to say that those who have had questions about or outrage over Black Bolt’s machinations from the past few years should find this to be a satisfying series. Lingering questions about his unleashing the Terrigen Cloud and [his relationship with] his son definitely do get answered. So I think there's going to be some satisfying examination of some of the decisions that Black Bolt has had to make, especially for people who have been reading Inhumans comics over the past few years. Ultimately though I want this to be a book that's open to new readers.
What's it like writing a character like Black Bolt, where you can't really have him communicate with dialogue? Will you use other techniques for the character, like an internal monologue?
I don't want to say too much about the exact technique because both myself as a writer and Christian Ward as an artist are going to employ some neat tricks to get in there. Giving readers a chance to discover those things on their own will be part of the fun of the book, but there will be a cerebral edge to the series. So we will occasionally get into Black Bolt's head via captions the same way that Stan Lee did some 50 years ago.
Part of what I'm trying to do, stylistically, is to do an updated version of that. The Inhumans are these epic sets of characters like the Asgardians. They're one of the places where Lee and Kirby came closest to almost doing illustrated books. There's this real kind of mythical sense to them. I haven't looked at things like word count, but if you looked at an issue of the “Fantastic Four” where the Inhumans appeared versus say an issue of “Spider-Man,” I'd guess that the word counts would be higher.
So there's this prose quality about the Inhumans as opposed to some of the other characters. I'm trying to take that into the 21st century with “Black Bolt.”
In “Black Bolt” you're taking your character to a location that I don't believe he's spent much time in: prison. And what's it like for a former monarch to suddenly find himself behind bars?
That's the thematic core of the first arc of the book. Black Bolt is kind of a mysterious guy, but he's also kind of arrogant. We'll see him humbled -- but it's not a story about humiliation so much as becoming less sure of the pecking order of things as he interacts with his fellow prisoners.
The comic book takes place in a space jail with aliens and super villains, but I think the story of what happens when we lock people up, having had family locked up myself, is an important set of questions. So this is very much a cosmic sci-fi comic, but the chance to occasionally examine some of those questions is why we started here.
Will readers immediately know why Black Bolt is behind bars?
You'll get an immediate answer, but there is a much deeper answer that will be revealed over the course of the arc.
What can you tell us about the prison that Black Bolt is incarcerated in? Is this an established Marvel facility? Or something you created for this story?
It's something new, and that's all I can say about it right now.
Fair Enough. Let's talk a little bit about some of the other inmates then. We know this is a cosmic story which suggests the jail would be populated with alien inmates. I was surprised and intrigued, then, to learn that Carl “Crusher” Creel, aka the Absorbing Man, would be one of the convicts incarcerated there.
Yes! He is going to be the only other Earthling in the prison, so he and Black Bolt immediately have a kind of weird connection. Crusher is very much the co-star of at least this first arc of the book. There's almost a buddy picture feel to it. It's been a lot of fun playing this king off of a lifelong con.
The Absorbing Man and Black Bolt are a very unlikely pairing. What made you want to bring Creel into the book?
The fun part of this book was that I originally had developed some of the pitch as a mini-series around Crusher. Just around the time I was getting ready to pitch it to Marvel, editor Wil Moss came to me and said that since I have a background in science fiction and fantasy he was thinking about me for “Black Bolt.” I said, “It's funny, because I have this back pocket pitch that I was going to send you.”
Then when we bounced these things off of each other they just immediately meshed. That's where this story came from. So Crusher predates Black Bolt as far as Marvel characters I've wanted to write about. He's a hero to me, even if he's a villain. [Laughs]
Who are some of the new supporting characters you're introducing in “Black Bolt?”
One inmate is a teenage kid named Blinky. She is an alien psychic and an ex-pickpocket. She ended up in this story because the aspect of the incarceration question where we lock up kids kept coming up in my mind. She then became this really important character.
Another cellmate is a woman named Raava. She's a Skrull, but not like the Skrulls we've seen. She's a kind of anarchist pirate.
There are some more supporting characters that will be revealed. Some are ones I’ve created and there are also a number of obscure Marvel characters in the book. I'll leave those cameos for readers to discover.
What else can you tell us about the action and tone of “Black Bolt?”
I like good fight scenes, and Christian is amazing at drawing fight scenes. That may not have been one of my strengths in scripting, but that's one of the wonders of collaboration. People can strengthen your weaknesses. So Christian's fights have an almost French style manga edge to them. Characters are flying off the page.
“Black Bolt” is not a slugfest book, but there are absolutely some big action scenes. There's a meditative tone to the book as well though. It is about incarceration in a social sense and in an existential almost Kafka sense. Some times the art will reflect that.
So Christian can do these amazing fights, but there will also be this dark, bleak tone from time to time that people won't be used to seeing from him. He mostly does really psychedelic, colorful, cosmic stuff and he's perfect for the book because of that. He's quite good though too when things get grungy.
Besides the action and social commentary I always try and put jokes in my books. Readers have to laugh sometimes. So we'll try and include a laugh at least once per issue. [Laughs] Plus, Crusher is a great source for that kind of stuff. He's really good at deflating Black Bolt's serious balloon with some Bronx-style snark.
I understand you want your books to stand on their own, but “Black Bolt” launches one month after Al Ewing's “The Royals,” where your title character heads into space on a mission with his family. Will there be some connective tissue between your two books for people who read both?
I believe that over the next year or so there will be some light connective tissue between all of the Inhumans books. It may look like there's a paradox happening in the first issue of “Royals” and “Black Bolt.” We will provide an explanation, though, of how he can be in both books.
Finally, your work on “Black Bolt” is bound to make some readers curious about your work as a novelist. What would you like curious readers to know about your prose work?
The best thing they can do is check out first my novel “Throne of the Crescent Moon,” which is an epic fantasy with a sort of Middle Eastern flair. People like George R.R. Martin have said nice things about it. [Laughs] So if they enjoy the epic scope and weirdness of the Inhumans. I think they'll enjoy the book.