Review: Black Bolt by Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward

NOTE: This is the second of 5 commissions I took after my wife was in the hospital.

It’s time to praise Marvel for what they get yelled at a lot. They churn out a lot of books out. There’s lots of 6-12 issue titles. Miniseries or limited series not sold as such. Now they’re getting better at selling minis as such but still, this is a thing for them.

And I love it. I love it because there are so many wild swings they take. They try. Do they pull off every effort? Not really. It results in a lot of Solos and Slapsticks. But it also results in Ms. Marvel, the biggest thing to come out of Marvel in 20 years at least, and it results in Squirrel Girl’s epic run.

It also results in truly great 6-15 issue titles that are very appealing to casual readers at bookstores. A massive series with tons of volumes terrifies but a great complete series looks incredible at Barnes and Noble. God help someone trying to figure out Thor but I can easily say read Al Ewing’s Loki which has one good thick trade.

That’s where we are today. A nice tight 12 issue run. Black Bolt, by Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward, is a good simple title to sell to readers. A man who was once a king with the power to level cities with a word finds himself powerless in jail. He has to escape. He has to confront his mistakes in life. He does so. The book is a complete done in two trade epic. It can easily be read in a day.

Of course like all comics of its ilk it isn’t THAT simple. This book came in the midst of the Inhumans over X-Men push that was planned for the MCU but only made it to the divorced from canon Agents of SHIELD. This was towards the end when I think it was clear that wasn’t working with fans. We are back to no Inhuman books and the X-Men at the core.

I confess I wasn’t at all onboard with the Inhuman push, a fact the commissioner of this review knew. And that’s why I was an ideal reviewer for this book. I’m aware of the characters but neutral to negative. If this book made sense to me and worked, then it had to be good. And that’s all fully true so let’s see why it worked so hard.

The book works largely because it gets in and tells its story without a great need to understand what’s going on in other books. In fact Blackagar Boltagon, our hero, is honestly in that position. He’s isolated from his people. A bit of exposition here and there covers the gaps. And we move along. What counts is we get what’s going on and we do.

The story we get is as simple as I laid it out at the top. Black Bolt is falsely imprisoned by his brother and fights to escape. Along the way he picks up a crew, the primary members of which are an alien child named Blinky and the Absorbing Man. I gotta pause here. The Absorbing Man being written into a Black Bolt book, becoming his best friend? It’s a wild choice. Black Bolt is as his name suggests a cold, sterile, inhuman royal. Carl “Crusher” Creel is a streetwise brawler. They are complete opposites. And their friendship is a blast to experience. Other characters are great too and the grand villain of the book, the Jailer, is terrifying.

On the surface, this is a good old fashioned escape and stop the threat book. But there’s something deeper here and I suspect it’s why Ahmed became a Marvel regular. This is a book about regret and grief and as the book makes clear Black Bolt has it. He wasn’t a good king. He loved his wife but he was a flawed husband. He was a complete failure as a father. He’s broken. By contrast, The Absorbing Man might be a criminal and a monster in other stories but he’s a remarkably kind, pleasant man. Ahmed draws hard on his Secret Wars interpretation and all you want is him going home to Titania.

The idea of a book about escaping prison only to find you can’t escape you is genius. Indeed we’re out by the end of the first half. But the walls can’t escape BB. That’s a great concept and in the second half or trade, I read on Marvel Unlimited, it dominates. All of his sins are revisited. It hurts. This is not a light, fun read. But it’s the kind of brilliant I love from comics.

This is a fascinating read. I won’t call it a good beginner read though. You need to have a good background in dense cosmic stories to know the storytelling at play. Wikipedia helps on this book in the second half. Yes, I’m contradicting what I said but there’s a difference between needing to have every issue the weeks these came out and knowing who aliens are.

I also wonder if the art by Christian Ward is for everyone. It’s weird stuff. Now I think it’s genius, in the style of artists like Phil Noto and Frazer Irving (who even fills in here), but it’s different. You need to be ready for that. It’s a lot of watercolors and oblique faces. What’s going on is a study at times. But I loved it.

The beauty of Black Bolt is the ideal of the Marvel churn. It’s a good story that’s complete. I may not have been the biggest Inhuman fan but this is a fantastic example of a great story well told. All I ask for.

The Glory of Cathy

NOTE: This is the first of 5 commissions I took after my wife was in the hospital.

Why is Cathy so acceptable to hate?

I ask this because it’s a strip that’s been unusually targeted. 30 Rock mocked it. So did SNL. Pearls Before Swine, a strip known for sharp blows, was even crueler than the norm. And most of the jokes all strike the same blow. It’s a comic about a frenzied miserable ugly woman who does nothing but whine. Cathy is the safest target on Earth.

But is it the worst comic ever? Of course not. We know there’s much worse. A medium that produced The Duplex or the soulless Garfield can’t have this as the standard bearer for the worst. Still this is treated as a bad comic.

And not only is that not true, it erases one of the most important comic strips of the 80s and 90s. Cathy by Cathy Guisewite is to women’s issues what Doonesbury is to politics. It charted the important moments with a sharp level of commentary. Guisewite saw a world talking about promising women more while abusing them on every level.

That it’s been reduced to a strip about shopping and food isn’t shocking. Pop culture has a way of reducing art to the thinnest version possible. And that’s especially true when the people commenting on the art didn’t take it seriously or in the case of 30 Rock needed to throw it under the bus to make it look good. Well that’s not how I roll. So yes, a burly bearded guy from Arkansas is going to explain this strip’s value.

Ok I’m not actually an unlikely person. I grew up on the strip as it was the only strip in the Conway library to read. I inhaled it though. I found it funny. Did I get all the references? No. But it was a guide to understanding the culture. Much of my understanding of that age starts here. It’s like all good documents of a time. It preserved it perfectly.

The basics. The strip was written and drawn by Cathy Guisewite between 1976 and 2010 with occasional single panels running online starting in 2018. The strip focuses on the eponymous character and her issues with food, love, her mother and her job. There’s ample time to focus on shopping and friends and all manner of hell too.

Indeed this is a strip of shocking diversity in its topics but I’d argue the central theme of the strip is stress. Cathy is perpetually on edge, worried about trying to be perfect in a world actively against her. And she can’t win. No wonder she cries “aack!” There’s a deeply relatable sisyphean hell to her life.

But let’s break those groups down. Food would seem to be a cliched tired trope but Guisewite elevates diet humor to an art. Indeed there isn’t one diet unreferenced in the strip making it arguably the equal of FoxTrot in culture logging. We see over and over the desperation diets induce and the guilt bred by breaking them. It’s hard not to eventually wonder what the point is. And you could slide in any topic societal norms have focused unneeded guilt on here. It’s all the same.

Work is a dark and frustrating topic here. Cathy works an anonymous yet eminently familiar job at Product Testing, Inc. What she does doesn’t matter. She’s a drone working for a company without any appreciation for all she gives to it. She’s underpaid and only noticed when she’s needed. Calling her plight relatable is an understatement.

Her relationship with her mom is one of the richest, most honest threads. She loves her mom. She wants her out of her life. Logical given that her mom obsessively butts in. She means well but she’s exhausting. Again, this goes beyond relatable.

But it’s with men I think the knife starts to gleam. There’s two ways. The first is the endless stream of terrible men that parade through the strip. Is there a facet of bad men left out? I don’t think so. We see sexists galore. We see egotists like few others. The nice guys are weak and useless and often just as cruel. All are funny.

But all of them are represented by one man. Irving. He is the embodiment of the flawed man. He has his good traits—she does marry him and it is a win—but he’s an asshole. And that he’s the winner reflects both how all men are broken but also that that’s ok. After all Cathy is a mess. She wouldn’t be happy without another mess.

And then there’s shopping. If those are the guilt group, this is the rage group. It’s where Cathy endlessly fights against a system that hates her. It doesn’t matter what store she goes to, she will be abused by one woman, the vicious Mabel who will force her into the latest trends. Shopping is where Cathy vents and these strips are often catharsis.

All of that is fun stuff and I can’t stress how funny this strip is. It’s one of the best strips for wit on the page. It’s often laugh out loud in the art too. Guisewite is a true cartoonist. The strip is a blast to binge.

But as I’ve been building to, it has something on its mind. The strip is often aggressive in its political perspective yet that gets overlooked. This is despite Guisewite doing a series on the good Michael Dukakis would have done as President. Make no mistake, this is a feminist strip.

And that’s fascinating in the era covered. The strip started in the age of Carter and quickly ran into the conservative settling down of the 1980s. Cathy hit an era where being a strong independent woman wasn’t the ideal it was. That wasn’t ignored by the strip. Cathy was caught between her need to be loved and her want to stand on her own and the conflict of it.

The strip also looked bluntly at how much it was impossible to succeed as a woman. Cathy’s friend Andrea lost her job after having her child and the strip captured the way business throws women away. Sadly it would keep on this theme. Over and over Cathy would see the inequity of the workplace and the wage gap came up a lot in the strip.

The strip also stood apart by looking at interests women had and took them seriously. How many strips treated movies like The Big Chill, a cultural event, seriously? Dallas scored nods. The music, the gossip, things that matter to 80s pop culture far more than the modern touchstones all got preserved here.

I also strongly love that the strip looked at the dating scene as it was in this age. It’s a topic you’d think came up often but Cathy was the rare place to truly show it. The dawn of internet dating was here. Speed dating. Going to “classes.” Singles bars. The strip feels lived in on this front.

Let me stress that while the strip hasn’t had much impact with a mere one book in the last 21 years that wasn’t a reprint of older material even with 11 years of content to use, it was big in the 80s. Part of that was because Guisewite is a master self promoter, acutely aware she is, unlike her character, a boldly confident, conventionally attractive woman. She was a big talk show guest. The strip had merchandise.

It even had three brilliant animated specials! These three manage to hit one everything you’d expect from the strip in its prime. Kathleen Wilhoite (Pepper Ann) played Cathy while Rob Paulsen (all of animation for the last 40 years) was Irving. Guisewite wrote all 3 and they’re worth watching.

But as I noted, it’s now reduced to a shout of AACK. That’s all we know culturally. That and the memetic unfunny status.

Here’s the bitter truth about comic strips. They always outlast their moment. Peanuts was in the past when I was a kid. Garfield didn’t reach theaters until long after his. Unless you’re Bill Watterson or Gary Larson you’re going to keep going after you shone. It’s the nature of art that churns daily.

Cathy was explicitly about the moment it ran in. But unlike Doonesbury or Bloom County, it wasn’t about what the culture deems important to revisit. It’s seen as dated now. Jokes about dating services seem alien now.

But I won’t go along with the idea that means it should be tossed away. There’s profound value to the strip. Not just as a record of the world but as a brilliant study of life with anxiety in a hostile world. Cathy struggles and though the superficial elements change nothing else does. Her fight is ours.

AACK indeed.