Sep 5, 2017

They Own Slaves! The Uncomfortable Politics of the Inhumans

They Own Slaves!
The Uncomfortable Politics of The Inhumans
Travis Hedge Coke

I love the Inhumans. As a concept, individual characters, the designs, and many, many of the comics in which they feature.

And, that love has inured me to some very damning things that we need to keep loud, and to keep at the fore of our attention.


The Inhumans live in a slave state. Their lifestyle and culture, without slavery, falls apart. There are the “too dumb to be left on their own” lazy, yet workaholic Alpha Primitives, who are explicitly a slave caste. And, we cannot pretend that isn’t exactly how black slaves were coded for ages in American rhetoric, and that it still is used to slide racism along in conversations and politics. But, the whole shebang is a serf state. They’re all slaves. It’s set up that way. And, it is sustained and reified by nearly every Inhumans story.

All great Inhumans stories are actually about slavery. The Doug Moench 70s series is about the Kree trying to enslave the Inhumans and Black Bolt’s absolute dominance of his subjects’ lives. The Ann Nocenti oneshot from the 80s is about eugenicist control and dominance, a council that rules even their king’s life, from birth to death. Jenkins and Lee has a slave uprising right in the middle, and explicitly addresses the unfairness - the repetitious unfairness - of the forms of slavery and that the entire political structure hinges on faith in a king not to abuse the slaves and serfs. Pacheco and Marin? The Alpha Primitives have to be prevented from rioting while the Inhumans are enslaved by the Kree and impressed into military service.

True Princes

Which leads us to another horrifying point: In order for the Inhumans to be really good, really non-confrontationally enjoyable, we and they have to believe in Black Bolt’s role as a true prince, as a benevolent ruler who really, always, knows best. We can fear, for awhile, that he does not, but each storyline eventually reifies his position as Father Knows Best. It has to, or the thing falls apart and you have diaspora and ongoing flux, and Marvel’s not in that business. Structures must stand.

Why is this a problem? It’s just a story, right? Only stories. Why can’t Black Bolt be that guy, that heroic true prince who knows what is best for everyone and acts out of that patrician benefaction?

Because, when we start to accept that in fiction, we get used to it. We get inured.

And, because, like getting inured to slavery, we don’t just do it with fiction. We — and I mean we — do it with real life. Quietly, without conflict.

Knowing Your Place

Because we know our place. We know where we feel we stack up in any social or societal equation. Nobody who wants to travel back in time or east on the globe, until they arrive at a feudal state wants to because they’d like to try being a serf for a bit. Nobody would ever get in a time machine or walk through a magic veil hoping on the other side of the wardrobe mirror there’s a reality where they have to do exactly what their owner tells them or they’ll be beaten, castrated, or just starved to compliance.

Inhuman society is based on strict, hard-to-navigate caste structures, and babies are frequently impressed into lines of work. Babies. Others are assigned duties after puberty or after terrigenesis, the ritual of maturation and mutation that marks Inhumans as visibly different than humans.

And, it’s always right. At least by the “end,” every role stacks in nicely to make a lattice of workability. The royals are royal, the slaves are slaves, this guy has to be a priest, this girl must be a soldier. They tell you. And, who they? The betters. The only people who ever escape these betters, and then always only temporarily, are the royals. The kings and princesses are the only people who can even transiently sidestep these chains, because the Inhumans believe aggressively and insistently in manifest destiny and class ennui.

And, if we get too used to it working for them, so, too, do we end up believing, or at least, not questioning enough to be on guard.

It only works in these stories because they are stories. It only ends up right and workable, because the ends are as invented by the authors as the beginnings and middles. The life of an Alpha Primitive is not dictated by causality, but by a desire in an author to make something pleasing, and the desire of a company to sell you issues and t-shirts and eventually TV and movie spinoffs.

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