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.

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