The Inhumans have always represented everything that’s wild, fantastic, confusing and frustrating about Marvel’s comics. They are at once larger than life in the very best way, but also sort of absurd and ridiculous in a way that can at times make them difficult to take all that seriously.
Writer Christopher Priest and artist Phil Noto have an intimate understanding of that dichotomy, and in their new series, Inhumans: Once and Future Kings, they’re setting out to unpack over 50 years’ worth of the Inhumans’ collective baggage by retelling the origins of the Royal Family.
Though they have gone to war with the X-Men and and fought the Fantastic Four in the past, the Inhumans have always been their own greatest and most threatening enemies. In particular, Maximus, king Black Bolt’s traditionally insane brother, has been the source of the the royal family’s larger problems, and Once and Future Kings begins by highlighting just how far back Maximus’ treachery goes.
As the eldest son of the royal bloodline, Black Bolt was always fated to become king of the Inhuman capital Attilan despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that his Terrigen-induced abilities force him to refrain from speaking.
Maximus, who was gifted with with the power to take over the minds of others and a genius intellect of his own, has never made a point of hiding his resentment for the protocol of succession. But as Once and Future Kings opens, we see that, once upon a time, Maximus believed that he could outshine his brother by proving his own worthiness instead of simply trying to kill him.
While a young Black Bolt and Maximus survey the kingdom they’re destined to inherit from the current king — who will go on to become the villain known as the Unspoken — the trio are suddenly attacked by a group of hostile Alpha Primitives.
In Marvel’s books, the Alpha Primitives are an enslaved class of humans who were transformed into the perfect workers by a Slave Engine that severely impairs their mental development, renders them asexual, and shortens their lifespan down to a few decades. In Attilan, Alpha Primitives serve as the docile working class that maintain the Inhumans’ infrastructure while enjoying none of the city’s wonders for themselves.
It comes as a shock, then, when the Alpha Primitives ambush the Royals with technologically-advanced arrows that temporarily rob them of their powers. That the Alpha Primitives desire to assassinate the king, their enslaver, is readily apparent — and while Maximus is game to take them on with his fists, Black Bolt reasons that it would be smarter for them to move far enough away from the power-dampening technology for their powers to be restored. Unable to agree, the two brothers go their own respective ways, and within seconds Black Bolt’s choice is revealed to have been the better one.
With a single scream, Black Bolt takes out the Alpha Primitives and, much to Maximus’ confusion, the Inhuman King congratulates him, despite the fact that it was Maximus who technically stood his ground. The King acknowledges that Black Bolt will one day be king and we see what is perhaps the beginning of Maximus’ deep hatred for his older brother.
While all of this is happening, there is also a fascinating subplot playing out largely in Black Bolt’s mind about the morality of the Inhumans’ enslavement of the Alpha Primitives.
It’s clear that the Alpha Primitives themselves are not responsible for setting into motion the plan to kill the Inhuman King — how could they, given the nature of their servitude? But even as there are calls for their murder, Black Bolt grapples with the fact that his society was literally built upon the backs of sentient beings stripped of their humanity. Black Bolt’s are the sort of thoughts one would want from a king, introspective and considerate of all the ways in which his kingdom has failed its people in the past and how it might do better by them in the future.
Unfortunately, Black Bolt’s preoccupation with morality is also his greatest weakness, as he’s too distracted to perceive that something is off about the Alpha Primitive attack on the King. Where could they have gotten that kind of technology from? Who instructed them to attack the king? These are all questions that Black Bolt and Maximus should be asking themselves, but it isn’t until a mysterious Inhuman named Elisha points this out to the future kings that they realise someone might be plotting to kill them. Note: Presumably, Once and Future Kings takes place in the distant past, given how young Black Bolt, Maximus and puppy Lockjaw are, but Elisha’s headphones suggest that he’s probably from Marvel’s present.
Elisha aside, the only person with any sense about what a dangerous and complicated game of thrones the future royal family is playing is Medusa, here illustrated in all her glory in a way that only Noto could manage.
Unsurprisingly, Medusa’s younger self is brilliant, shrewd, and very much aware that the current king and her two cousins all see her as the ideal queen to sit beside them as Atillan’s monarchs. But Medusa also knows that becoming a queen to any of them comes with almost unimaginable dangers to her own life as well as the freedom and agency that she understandably loves.
The Shakespearean grandeur of Once and Future Kings is exactly how you tell a story about a royal family of super beings who see themselves as the rightful rulers of the world. Though this first issue primarily takes place on a remote island, you get the distinct sense that the Inhumans’ world is vast and that their power means something very important in terms of how the world’s landscape is being formed. This makes sense when you remember that the Inhumans have had an established civilisation of their own for centuries in Marvel’s comics.
Once and Future Kings is also exactly the kind of story that you use to introduce people to the Inhuman Royal Family, which is what makes it both a fantastic comic and a not-so-subtle reminder of how concerning early footage of the Inhumans ABC series has been.
Every moment that Once and Future Kings perfectly captures something about the Inhumans, such as the magnificence of Medusa’s hair or the unmistakable tension of a centuries-old royal power struggle, it’s like there’s a small voice saying, “Now this is an Inhumans story. How could you ever pull this off on a TV budget?”
Epic television dramas about families jockeying for power and dominance have been worked in the past, and Inhumans could very well become the Game of Thrones of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe — heaven knows that would be wonderful. But, even if the MCU Inhumans end up being comparatively lacklustre, Once and Future Kings will definitely go down as one of the more fantastic Inhumans comics in Marvel’s history.