By Steve Morris
Marvel’s great Inhumans exploration has been, to be kind, a very strange expedition indeed. With the X-Men TV/film rights held with FOX seemingly forever, the X-Men comics have an invisible leash held around them. Create a new concept in those comics? FOX get the right to bring it to the big screen, possibly in the process helping them retain the film rights for a few additional years. There’s a reduced room for expansion, because any growth given to the characters or franchise is seen as putting money not in the hands of Marvel Studios, but in their rivals. As a result, the X-Men comics have been considered by fans to largely be reduced in importance and creativity across the last decade or so.
Which, if you choose to believe that, leaves a space in the publishing schedule. It’s largely believed that the Inhumans were revisited by Marvel as a direct result of their need for some kind of X-Men replacement – and you can see why. The Inhumans are a team, many of them directly a family to each other, of superpowered individuals who hold at their core an adaptable metaphor for minority issues. Just as many readers can latch to a particular X-Men character, team, or storyline and find something which resonates with their personal journey; so the Inhumans should be rights hold that same capacity. And they also live on the Moon.
Yet since launching with a big push (led by Matt Fraction and Joe Mad, the first creative team to touch the characters as part of Marvel’s Inhumans initiative), results have been somewhat mixed. The new characters haven’t caught on with readers whilst the stories don’t seem to have made the impact that people would have hoped for. Some comics have sold more strongly than others, but overall the Inhumans line – adjusting for reader inflation as fewer people buy physical copies year-on-year – has not kicked itself into place as a top-tier franchise.
The stories have roughly reflected the X-Men narrative, but in a hugely condensed form. To start with, the Inhumans were unknown and secretive, but then were revealed properly to the world. Their numbers swelled and swelled until a recent point where their point of origin, a transformative mist called ‘Terrigen’, was destroyed. Now no more Inhumans can enter the Universe, leaving them a dying race. It’s a direct version of the journey the X-Men underwent over the years, and which left that franchise struggling for direction as the characters were whittled down and killed off. The X-Men’s journey was one of survival, and eventually the odds go so bleak that it became hard to see where the books could go next.
On the other hand, the ‘decimation’ of Terrigen has offered the Inhumans the complete reverse: it’s given them a purpose. The new series from Al Ewing and Jonboy Meyers, Royals, comes at a very interesting time, then. The Inhumans comics have run the gauntlet of the mutant narrative, and now they’re looking to push themselves in a completely new direction. There’s a feeling as though the creative teams only now have an opportunity to do something new with the characters – to bring back that original idiosyncratic distance which marked their original appearances.
To do so, the book essentially cuts ties with Earth and with the wider stories of the last few years. One of the opening scenes here shows most of the Inhumans dealing with the last ‘awakening’ of one of their kind on Earth, during which they calmly and efficiently save the day together. A subsequent two-page spread, once six of the characters decide to go on a new mission into space, sees each of them receive two panels which wraps up their prior storyline beats. Gorgon and Crystal say farewell to their children; Swain and Flint leave behind their love interests. The message is made clear: the past is the past, and the Inhumans are moving on.
That move comes as part of a push from Marvel Boy, who comes fresh from a revitalisation in the page of McKelvie and Gillen’s Young Avengers series. He comes from the Kree race, which created the Inhumans to begin with, and offers the characters chance to save their race. Their decision to take it is a desperate one, and shows them at their lowest point in history: that Ewing repeatedly reminds the reader that the characters are considered royalty is a deliberate choice. The characters do not fit into the narrative of hopeful, desperate explorers, but that’s exactly why this is the most interesting direction to take them in. A late line has Medusa refer to herself as “Queen of nothing”, which emphasises a perhaps more empathetic character than she was even a year ago, when she was apparently advocating for the advancement of Inhumans at the expense of the X-Men.
Now, however, it feels as though that exact comparison between the two groups of characters is finally one which will aid the Inhumans rather than leave them in the shadow of the stronger franchise. By embracing the characters and concept as an underdog – rather than the dominant royals whose ascension apparently threatened the X-Men both in storyline and in publishing – there’s a sense of purpose and irony in the plight of the team. This first issue is very interested in legacy, starting with a look at the future before recapping the past, and seems intent on drawing a line between the two.
That’s why the team has four of the original Inhumans amongst its number but also two of the newest, in the form of Swain and Flint. This is something which matters to all Inhumans, and it’s compelling to see both old and new character struggle to find the same sense of purpose. They’re connected by their struggle, and Royals as a whole benefits from having a clear mission statement. The past is the past and the future is coming, but the present is the mystery which intrigues most. By moving beyond the themes of the X-Men and finding their own place in the Universe, it looks as though the Inhumans characters may finally be able to create something unique and different.
Writer: Al Ewing
Pencils: Jonboy Meyers
Colors: Ryan Kinnaird
Letters: Clayton Cowles
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.