Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Review - Inhumans

Written by Paul Jenkins; Art by Jae Lee
1999 Eisner Winner for Best New Series

When I was much younger and "growing up" to the point that I wanted to nit pick anything that came long I would tear into any perceived flaw in what I was reading or watch. "I can't stand this; the interstellar craft make sound in space!" I would say. I've mellowed since then and have built a structure for my suspension of disbelief. A gallows of disbelief, I suppose. It starts from the idea that I have to allow the central conceit of the story and genre conventions though I may not like them. So I can, for example, accept for the sake of a story that there is an isolated society of people who look human but determine their cultural worth by distorting themselves. And I can accept that they will have superpowers and there will be a dastardly villain and heroes in brightly colored outfits. I can even enjoy it when the solution to life's problems is hitting someone until they fall over while acknowledging that if another reader was not as accepting of the simple morality presented that they would not like the same thing.

When it comes to Inhumans I handed out a fair level of suspension of disbelief to begin with. And then the story asked for more and I gave it that too. And then a bit more had to be given. By the time I was halfway through my patience had run out. I understood what Jenkins was doing with the story but it required far too many conceits from me as a reader especially when it came to the plans within plans plotting which required that everyone ignore the massive plot holes and coincidences that allowed everyone in the story to function. It's a story based on a high minded idea that lost the thread half way through and then collapsed into a messy conclusion.

The Inhumans are a group of beings who live in isolation behind an impenetrable shield. When they come of age they are exposed to something that transforms their bodies into strange forms. Sometimes superhuman powers accompany these transformations and the ones with the greatest power due to their genetic heritage rule their city. They live on an island which has been recently exposed to the outside world and they are carefully watched from outside their shield by the world's nations.

A dramatic upheaval occurs when one of the young adults undergoing his transformation becomes one of the slave caste that they used. He becomes a pawn in plan by an insane prince to take control of the city by handing an army of mercenaries outside the shield the key to breaching it. And as chaos starts to overwhelm the Inhumans their all powerful leader refuses to take any action against any of those involved.

Early on Jenkins seems interested in exploring the nature of Inhuman society and I can understand why since there's a lot of challenging concepts in a society that is built upon genetic superiority. It's something that should be uncomfortably messy and distort their worldview in interesting ways. Jenkins drops that concept quickly and Inhuman society becomes essentially modern day Americans once you're eighty pages into the book. They may have a king who can turn an invading army to salt and warp their bodies but they behave exactly the same as your typical American. It left me wondering what was the point of telling their story if he spent the first portion telling me how different they were and then spent the rest of the story showing me that they act exactly the same.

Jenkins relies far too much on readers already being familiar with the characters instead of developing them on his own. These are new versions using old names and while I was familiar with them I was also accutely aware that most of the characters are never given anything more than the most enigmatic touch. This is especially noticeable with the new characters since I didn't know them going in and I knew little about them coming out but Jenkins depends on an emotional connection to them that he never establishes. I should have cared about the person who was thrown out of their society for reminding of them of their great shame except I'm never given a reason to care.

Then there's the plotting. Inhumans has the problem that it's the plot is about a supergenius coming up an intricate plan. A good author can make that work, a bad author just has the story run on the events they decided had to happen and then have the plotter declare that it was their plan the entire time. It was their plan that a kid would on his own sneak into a maximum security prison. It was their plan that he would develop the exact superpowers that were required the next day. It was their plan that world leaders would turn a blind eye to a mercenary army attacking a technologically advanced city that they have their own eyes on obtaining. It was their plan that their enemy would react exactly the way that was necessary despite the story repeatedly demonstrating how unpredictable they could be. It was their plan that the bomb that explicitly could not be teleported and thus required intricate planning to get into the city would be given to an ambassador who got it into the city (by teleporting as it turns out but Jenkins apparently forgot that was why he was setting up the needlessly complicated plan at that point and it still worked). This was a poorly plotted mess that didn't make sense to begin with and got worse from there.

There's only one way to describe Jae Lee's art on Inhumans: dark. This book must have cost a fortune to print since they use so much black ink. Lee's improved in the years since this book but here he's still in the overly lined, spilling his ink bottle on the page phase which defined his work in the 90's. This is a muddy looking book that gives the appearance that everything was drowned in an oil slick and it's completely wrong for the tone of the book.

So obviously I did not like Inhumans at all. I take comfort in the fact that it won the Eisner for best new series and if that award was handed out when there were only four issues available I could see the justification. The first two were pretty good and the problems only became fully evident as the series completed. It ended so poorly that I had to go back and reevaluate my initial opinion. It was a good concept that was completely wasted and left me more and more annoyed as I got further into it.