It’s the second issue of writer, Christopher Priest, and artist, Phil Noto’s fantastic foray into the past of the Inhuman Royal Family. A whole lot goes down in this issue with plot lines converging and diverging in surprising directions. Before going into the story, however, a quick note about just how well Priest and Noto work together. It is pretty amazing that these two creators have not worked alongside one another before. Right off the bat they have achieved a synchronicity as though they have been making comics together for decades. There are many characters in play, with multiple plot-lines, bouncing back and forth. It’s a testament to Priest and Noto’s skill that the story doesn’t feel jumbled or disjointed. Indeed it runs smooth, unfolding like a keenly directed movie or television show (cough).
I don’t possess anywhere near the skill of narration Mr. Priest demonstrates and would be hopelessly lost trying to relay the storyline as it unfolds int he issue. Instead, I’ll just describe the different plot-lines one at a time.
Last issue saw teenage versions of Black Bolt, Maximus and Medusa flee Attilan in fear of being unjustly accused of plotting against the stewardship king, a powerful Inhuman known only as The Living Terrigen. The former king, Black Bolt and Maximus’s father, Agon, had recently died and The Living Terrigen had assumed the throne temporarily until Black Bolt was ready to rule.
A mysterious character called Elisha had orchestrated a revolt among the slave caste Alpha Primitives and an assassination attempt on The Living Terrigen. Young Black Bolt interceded, using his molecular-disrupting voice to put down the revolt and save The Living Terrigen’s life. Elisha later sought out Black Bolt and Maximus and warned them that their actions had put them at risk. Black Bolt had saved the Living Terrigen, but also embarrassed him and Elisha convinced the two lads that the stewardship king would use this all as an opportunity to make his rulership permeant.
Earlier, Maximus had been boasting over how wonderful their cousin Medusa is and how she would make a fine queen. Moved by these words, The Living Terrigen called upon Medusa and informed her that she was to become his wife.
With the aid of a puppy-aged Lockjaw, Elisha, Black Bolt, Maximus and Medusa all fled Attilan, teleporting to downtown Manhattan.
The young Royals are each rather taken aback by the human world. Medusa in particular is aghast by the terrible air pollution. Somehow, the trio has procured a new wardrobe that allows them to blend in with the humans of New York.
Sitting at an outdoor cafe, Maximus ruminates over the past. He thinks back to his being diagnosed as suffering from some sort of mental disorder. A flashback shows him meeting with a physician who prescribes medication, noting that Maximus must take these pills once a day every day or else his ‘madness’ would return. A second flashback shows Maximus’ memories of sifting through the wreckage of the Royal Retreat where his parents had been killed. He and his brother had had an argument; they both used their powers and it caused a Kree spacecraft to crash into thew retreat. Both were responsible for the death of their parents, but Maximus could not tolerate this truth. We see him grapple with the cognitive dissonance in accepting the responsibility; and he bends to it. He refuses to accept his role in the tragedy and instead blames it all on his brother. Once more he sees the doctor reminding him to take his medication.
Taking these meds entails remaining lucid, being aware of his role in his parents’ deaths. As such there is a great draw to not take them, to allow the madness to overwhelm him so that he may push away his guilt and refuse responsibility. Back in the present, Maximus looks at the pills in his hand, contemplating whether or not to take them or cast them aside.
A police officer approaches, telling the youths that they have to clean up the mess Lockjaw had left on the street. Quite suddenly, a crane mounted on a construction site breaks free and starts to fall on the pedestrians bellow. Black Bolt takes action, flying up and using his voice to shatter the crane into thousands of pieces that fall harmlessly to the street.
Maximus then uses his mental powers to pull a ‘Jedi mind trick’ on the police officer making her forget all that she had seen.
The crane falling was likely orchestrated by Bentley Whitman, as a means of locating Elisha and the young Royals. Fans of The Fantastic Four will likely recall Whitman as the scientist who will go on to become the super villain known as The Wizard. It turns out that Whitman had provided Elisha with the power dampening arrows that were used in the revolt and botched assassination attempt on the Living Terrigen.
Whitman brings The Royals and Elisha back to his laboratory. There it is explained that Elisha was an Alpha Primitive whom unnamed Inhumans had taught to read. These Inhumans were punished for their actions, but Elisha escaped to the human world. There he continued his education, ultimately graduating from Empire State University.
Whitman had befriended Elisha and learned his origins. As such he learned of the threat The Inhumans’ slave engine posed against the human world. Whitman provided Elisha with weapons in the hopes that killing The Living Terrigen and destroying the slave engine would keep the human world safe.
Medusa does not trust Whitman and warns Black Bolt not to trust him either. Whether to not Black Bolt does or does not trust Whitman remains unrevealed, but he is willing to team up with him, use his weapons to take out The Living Terrigen and do away with he slave engine.
Meanwhile, back on Attilan, The Living Terrigen considers all that has transpired. He blames this mysterious Alpha Primitive for misleading the young Royals. He dispatches his Seeker, Kadlec, to travel to the human world and bring back the Royals, assigning young Karnak to accompany him.
We are also introduced to young Gorgon, whom we see in the midst of a violent training session. Gorgon is a bruiser with a short temper but tremendous ability. He is also the first cousin to the future king, Black Bolt, and someone The Living Terrigen identifies as an important ally. He approaches Gorgon and names him his new viceroy. Gorgon is honored by the responsibility.
Whatever ulterior motivations The Living Terrigen may have, he is keeping them close to the vest. Outwardly, he remains magnanimous, stating to Gorgon his belief that the young Royals are innocent and have merely been led astray by outside forces.
Later, the scene switches to Kadlec and Karnak on their mission to locate the Royals. They have tracked them to Manhattan and we see the two riding the subway. The human passengers don’t pay much heed to Kadlec’s wild outfit, whereas Karnak, kneeling in meditation is mistaken for a Hare Krishna beggar and offered some spare change.
Kadlec voices his views to young Karnak. He possesses an ardent view on Inhuman society, one in which the caste system is mediated by the gifts Terrigenesis has to offer. Those who are granted powerful and useful gifts are afforded higher status and Kaldec believes that this is just, how it should be. And to this end, someone like Karnak represents the lowest of the low. Karnak has been spared Terrigenesis. His older brother, Triton, had gone through the mists and was transformed in a highly unfavorable fashion. So unfortunate was Triton’s Terrigenesis that his brother was allowed to forgo Terrigenesis and instead enter into study with the gnostic monks of the Tower of Wisdom.
The basic tenants of the philosophy of these monks is one of clarity through abject nihilism. Karnak has accepted that he is meaningless, that all is meaningless and somehow this belief has afforded him enhanced awareness… the abilities to see things with greater clarity. And it is through this clarity that Karnak has refined his ability to perceive the base flaws in any given object or thing.
Karnak’s self-effacing nihilism rings true to Kadlec. He sees Karnak as lowly and worthless; having foregone Terrigenesis, Kadlec see Karnak as being on the lowest of tiers of The Inhuman social hierarchy. Karnak puts up with Kadlec’s insults until it is no longer necessary to do so. It turns out that Karnak has plans of his own. He demonstrates for Kadlec his ability to utilize his fault-finding perception in conjunction with an esoteric brand of martial art. He strikes Kadlec at a precise point of weakness, sending the seeker crashing through the window of the subway car.
Karnak then leaps from the subway and run off into the tunnels, calling out to his brother that he is coming to rescue him.
And the scene switches once more to some sort of government research facility. There it is shown that Triton has been captured and mistaken for an alien being. The researchers have been attempting to ascertain his origins, but have all but given up. How Triton had come to be captured and whether or not his brother will be successful in rescuing him will have to wait until next issue, fore it is with this cliffhanger that the installment comes to an end.
See what I mean? A whole lot goes down in this issue. And while my retelling of it all may seem jumbled, it’s all inter spliced and unfolds seamlessly through Priest and Noto’s combined effort.
While the plot is complex and multilayered, the real heart of the book is the characters. Even the minor players, like The Seeker and Bentley Whitman, are fleshed out and compelling. No one is black and white, necessarily good or evil. We know that Maximus, The Wizard and The Unspoken will all go on to become villains, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are villainous in this story.
The Once and Future Kings is essentially a prequel, we already know what the future holds for these characters. Which makes it especially impressive that Priest and Noto can weave a tale that keeps us guessing; a narrative for which I’ve no idea how it’s all going to unfold.
Maximus is especially handled well. He’s teetering between madness and sanity, the deciding factors going to be whether or not he can accept his own guilt over the death of his parents. We already know that his sanity will lose this battle, that he’s destined to become ‘Maximus The Mad.’ Yet knowing this doesn’t at all detract from his character arc being totally fascinating.
Elisha, the one new character introduced in this tale, is equally fascinating. I love this idea that the ‘slave engine’ can devolve a human’s body, but not necessarily their mind. Elisha had been a slave as a child but he learned to read. He escaped and achieved an education at one of the human world’s most prestigious universities. And he has proven himself just as smart, capable and crafty as any Inhuman.
Even The Unspoken, a character I’ve previously found to be rather one-dimensional in the past is pretty interesting. We don’t know if his concern for the young Royals is genuine or if he is secretly planning a coup that will depose the Royals and allow him to retain his throne. Again, I know where the story is going, but have no idea how it is going to get there and that is pretty cool.
My only complaint is that Medusa, who shined so brightly in the first issue, doesn’t get much to do in this second issue. Although this likely has more to do with the economy of panel space in the issue. What we miss out with in terms of Medusa, we gain through the introduction of Karnak and Gorgon to the tale.
What goes without saying is that the art is just tremendous.
And if that weren’t enough, the issue also includes a quick Lockjaw bonus story from Ryan North and Jim Campbell that is an instant classic. Lockjaw and Wolverine join forces to defeat the PsychoMan with the aid of thousands of kittens plucked from the Kitty Dimension. Need I say more?
This as good as it gets. A mathematically impossible six out of five Lockjaws.