Marvel’s Inhumans: Inbreeding! Fatalism! Slavery!
Travis Hedge Coke
What’s the deal with the Inhumans? Most importantly, the Inhumans in Marvel’s cinema and television properties does not have to have anything much to do with how they are in the comics. What those Inhumans will be all about, I’ll have to wait like most of you for future movies and episodes, from Age of Ultron to Agents of SHIELD.
The Inhumans as they’ve appeared in, and been used in comics, that I can talk about.
Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the Inhumans are a genetically-modified subspecies of humanity, who live in a hidden city-state called Attilan that is ruled by an unbroken genetic line of royals that dates back beyond conventional human history. Often, they have a simpleminded slave class of near-identical Alpha Primitives to work their public utilities, occasionally they are all the slaves of the star-faring aliens called the Kree, who you may remember from Guardians of the Galaxy, and once in blue moon there’s a sort of “we’re all free now!” story, but that never sticks. Attilan, itself, is portable with dramatic effort, and has been relocated to the Himalayas, the luna surface, over Manhattan, in the the ruins of Atlantis, and was even shrunk into a jar for a bit. “Currently,” in Marvel Comics, there is no Attilan and the Inhumans are spread in hiding or chaos around the Earth.
While we have met Inhumans of all classes, the royal family is what is generally focused on: the king, Black Bolt, his brother, Maximus, and wife, Medusa, her sister, Crystal, and their cousins (royalty keeps it in the family), Gorgon, and the brothers, Triton and Karnak.
Why the focus on the royals? For one, they were introduced first, as they were out in New York City, looking for the wayward and amnesiac Medusa. But, also, focusing on the royals helps us forget that they are royals, that they are a ruling class in a slave-using society. I think it’s safe to say, a lot of fans like to take the approach that the Alpha Primitives are happy to slave away, despite the fact that mostly when we see them, it’s either for a “know your place” story, or to criticize slavery or oppression (as seen, especially, in the Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee Inhumans). marvel.wikia.com states, “For all the successive millennia, [they] have been working without any complaint,” without emphasizing that they’ve been surgically lobotomized and never presented with a chance of freedom, and without connecting this sentiment to the examples of rebellion that immediately follow.
The most interesting aspects of the Inhumans, for me, are the parts that many fans would prefer to leave unaddressed, including this slavery - that they deliberately hobble these slaves’ intellectual capacity and then pat themselves on the back as four thousand years of unchanged benefitting from slavery is judicious of them. The incestuousness of the Inhumans also fascinates me, and the familial infighting. Thousand and thousands of years of no out-of-family coups, alone, is gonzo stuff, though a late-addition genetic council of elders can make, at times, this unbroken line of kings seem a little lip-servicey. And, the Inhumans are politically, religiously, and socially so fatalistic!
A zillion and five years ago, the Kree came to Earth, found some cavemonkeys, and made them Inhumans for the lulz (and because they could collect them later, when they finished genetic-baking, as excellent space-slaves and space-soldiers). When they come of age (with different criteria judging the appropriate age for the individual Inhuman), each Inhuman is subjected to a chemical compound called terrigen mist, and undergoes an unpredictable mutation. Medusa can control her hair. Black Bolt can rearrange atoms with his mind, punch real hard, and his whispers level mountains. Marilla, a nanny, is just ugly. Karnak can see the cracks or soft spots in anything, be they physical, psychological, social or engineering flaws. Since “flaws,” in this sense, is almost entirely a collection of disparate elements unified on a metaphorical level, this means he basically has like twenty-seven different perceptual or tactical superpowers. So there’s no telling. Some fly. Some run. Some think. Some have twenty-seven powers instead of just one. One guy just looks a bit like a lion and generally holds a weapon in his hands, possibly to compensate for not getting atom-rearranging fire-hair.
And, with all that randomness, the Inhumans still believe everything has a reason, that there’s an implicit plan. You find me the religious leader of any massively hierarchical religious system on Earth, from the Catholic Church to the NRA, and you introduce to their life that their neighbor might randomly have spider-legs explode from his face, or that their eyes might one night melt away, and their faith in the system is going to be shaken. But, this unpredictableness, for the Inhumans, is the system. We do not, in general, question our own systems, unless we are fractured, ourselves, from that system, by experiencing outside societies. While fans may not want to dwell on the morality of a lobotomized slave class, the Inhumans, themselves, probably don’t often even register that the systemic oppression is there. Slaves and royals, for the Inhumans, like their faith in an implicit engineering and elevated status to their people, is the natural order.
When the Alpha Primitives rebel, it’s part of the plan, things will return to normal. When the Kree come back and try to destroy the Inhumans or enslave them, it’s part of the plan, things will return to normal. When King Blackbolt renounces his crown to go into hiding amongst the humans, it’s part of the plan, things will return to normal. A young girl’s skin detonates with lightning. An Inhuman begs for a second exposure to terrigen. Maximus declares himself king, it’s… It’s always part of the plan.
At some point, they do discover that while unpredictable, the mutations are not random and do somehow manage a social stabilization despite all the rigidness of Inhuman politics and the inbreeding and isolation and such. This doesn’t explain how the mutant, Quicksilver, could have lived with the Inhumans, marrying into the royal family and heading their army for awhile, but then, why the Inhumans need an army when they don’t generally interact with anyone is also a bit up in the air. Presumably, they have a standing military because one simply ought to. It’s either pro forma and for the future, or both pro forma and in case they need one down the line a few thousand years. Still, it’s an army so lackadaisically arranged, that you cannot easily tell who, of the Inhumans, is in the military, unless it’s everyone who isn't a maid or a tattoo artist. In Jenkins and Lee’s Inhumans, almost all of the youths are sent to military training. In Pacheco, Marin, and Lucas’ followup miniseries, also titled, Inhumans, and currently published as Fantastic Four: Inhumans, the entire society is weaponized by the Kree, the alien empire who way back when started the ball rolling. And, whenever the city of Attilan is attacked, pretty much every single Inhuman joins the fray. So, maybe they are all in the military, meaning Quicksilver was in charge of nearly everyone and still no one noticed he isn’t really a mutant human, but a secret Inhuman, as per a recent revelation.
Inhuman policy appears to be, simply, “Don’t think about it too hard.” Faith-based in a very sincere and dramatic fashion that, when we examine in contrast with the outside world, or even we look close at any individual Inhuman's private life, we see as a manufactured lie resting precariously and ready to tip.
To Be Continued… as we learn more about the Inhumans and their supporting characters, from Queen Medusa to the Follower, the Pursuer, Eelak, the one who looks like a tree but is not Groot, and Thanos, the madman of Titan, who is the same Thanos from Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers!
Then, To Be Continued Again… when we explore some of the biggest Inhumans stories! From Jack Kirby to Jae Lee! The Himalayas to Manhattan to the Moon and beyond! Atlantis Rising to Inhumanity!