Karnak was one of those characters you'd always ignore. A team-up between the Inhumans and the Fantastic Four? There he'd be, off to the side while flashier heroes got center-frame placement and big friendly smiles. Now he's the star of a great series that's pretty much giving the finger to every happening at Marvel.
Let's start by talking about the Inhumans. In recent years, Marvel has been increasing the profile of this group of characters, which counts Karnak as one of their own. Often referred to as a separate race altogether, they're really an offshoot of humanity that were genetically manipulated by aliens centuries ago. Inhumans start out looking like normal humans, but then got radically altered and empowered by exposure to a mutagen called Terrigen Mist. Exposure to the mist is a near-mandatory rite of passage, kind of like a space bar mitzvah. The Inhumans first appeared in the Fantastic Four series in 1965 and have been part of the landscape of the Marvel universe ever since.
As someone who grew up reading stories where Black Bolt and crew were dreary guest stars, I've got a bit of resentment at how Marvel's trying to make the Inhumans a thing. The Inhumans always came across like a try-hard freakshow, and storylines premised on them read as an attempt to marry the shunned outsider vibe of the X-Men with the cosmic portent of the Fantastic Four. Sure, there's some interesting subtext about familial and societal dysfunction in a civilisation built on hardwired hierarchical notions, but the premise was never able to capture an ongoing series or sustain interest.
That's because Inhumans were meant to be the ultimate outsiders: an alien-tinkered-DNA branch of mankind that sequestered itself from the rest of the planet and shattered those ties even more by subjecting itself to cosmic mutagens. The Terrigen Mist rite of passage is essentially their society's way of saying "screw off, normals; we're going to get even freakier on your asses." Great stories have been told with Inhuman drama as the focal point, but you always knew the Inhumans would retreat in the background again. Unlike mutants, they have never wanted to be accepted as equal members of Earth's homo sapiens family.
Karnak was the most outre member within the Inhuman elite because he hadn't undergone Terrigenesis. His parents refused to subject him to Terrigenesis, choosing instead to have him train at the Tower of Wisdom, where he learned to see and exploit weaknesses in anyone or anything. Karnak has never been drawn as handsome; he's never had passionate romantic entanglements like his cousins. As a member of the race's royal family, the oval-headed martial artist often showed up in plotlines where the Inhumans were involved. I generally liked the idea of a super-arch, one-hit-kill martial artist, but Karnak never had the sex appeal of Black Bolt, the impressive visuals of Medusa or the flashy energy powers of Crystal. His ability took precedence in stories, leaving him with a bland personality that saw very little development except for a few recent dramatic spikes.
So it was a shock to have a character who always stood at a remove be part of Marvel's ambitious All-New, All-Different relaunch. When teaser images went out last summer, many fans thought that the green-hooded figure later revealed to be Karnak was some sort re-imagined Doctor Doom. In the new Karnak series — written by Warren Ellis, with art by Jorge Zaffino, Antonio Fuso, Dan Brown, Clayton Cowles and Joe Caramagna — the title character isn't just aloof and detached. He's presented as a massive jerk.
The storyline in the series' first two issues has Karnak on the trail of a boy who's been kidnapped after experiencing Terrigenesis. His new status quo is a reclusive monastic existence in the Tower of Wisdom and his intermittent engagement with human affairs comes via services rendered to SHIELD. He's already getting a million dollars for his work but requests a different sort of fee from the boy's parents.
In a way, Karnak's turn to the jerk side is totally appropriate for Marvel's present moment. The House of Ideas is pushing the Inhumans hard now, because they own the multimedia rights to the genetically altered offshoot of humanity outright. Because Marvel can totally control the TV and movie destinies of Inhuman-sourced characters, they have been using that particular mythos as the wellspring for new superhero characters like Ms. Marvel. As for mutants, Marvel's killing them off en masse with the same Terrigen mist cloud that's creating new Inhumans. To add insult to injury, the publisher is also making the remaining mutant survivors sterile. As with the absence of the Fantastic Four, business interests seem to be steering editorial direction.
Ellis' writing folds in a brilliant metatextual conceit to Karnak's new personality. It's as if the character's mentally broken the fourth wall, surveyed the changes in Marvel's Hollywood dealings and smirked in response to getting a solo title. "Oh, now, you need me," his attitude seems to say.
So far, the Karnak series is hitting plot beats that align with Marvel's portfolio development priorities. His entry back to the spotlight comes via SHIELD — yes, the same SHIELD that has a Disney-owned ABC network TV show where Inhuman plotlines have been a big deal in recent seasons. Yes, his handler is Agent Coulson, the everyman spy whose appearances in multiple Marvel movies helped stitch the company's cinematic universe together. And like I said before, it's almost as if Karnak knows all of this.
There are similarities between Karnak's engagement with the Marvel Universe and Warren Ellis' work with Marvel as a publisher. Ellis does very little superhero work now after having made a splash with well-regarded work in series like The Authority, Iron Man and Doctor Strange. He'll touch down in Marvel-land every few years to pull up the profiles in obscure characters in sharply executed runs. Before Karnak, Ellis made a handful of neglected characters in a cult-favourite team in Nextwave. Then he re-invigorated Moon Knight with a moody, sardonic take on Marvel's b-list Batman analogue. Neither of those titles had lengthy runs, either because the sales numbers weren't there or because Ellis had simply fulfilled the terms of his contract and decided to return to his own creator-owned work. Like Karnak, he comes in, analyses a character to reveals intriguing and uncomfortable truths and stalks off the stage with his money. There's no condescension in this dynamic, merely an unsentimental understanding of the way things are.
Karnak has a solo series because he's an Inhuman and Marvel wants people to love the Inhumans. Warren Ellis is writing it because he's great at sharpening weird, outlier superhero concepts to a cutting edge. Past patterns point to Karnak having a too-short, much acclaimed run. Not necessarily because of sales or Ellis' contractual obligations, but because it is simply what will happen now, as happened before. This book is a cherry blossom, meant to be appreciated in a life preordained to be fleeting. Savour Karnak while you can, but don't insult it by smiling at it. It knows why it's here and what it's supposed to do.