A strain of bitter cynicism flows through all of Warren Ellis’ work for Marvel. Usually this manifests as characters openly mocking superhero conventions while expressing their friendly contempt for their comrades-in-tights. When done right, this can enliven familiar setups as seen in “Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.” Applied incorrectly and you get a strained superhero bitch-fest like “Avengers: Endless Wartime” that makes you wonder how these people can function as a team at all. Ellis “Karnak” miniseries is probably the first time this bitter cynicism has been the whole point of the exercise. We’re introduced to the Inhuman who trained himself to see the flaw in all things contemplating a stone cube and telling his students at the Tower of Wisdom that they are no better than these stones before he’s whisked off to a S.H.I.E.L.D. outpost in the North Atlantic. It turns out that a teenager who has recently undergone terrigenesis was kidnapped by an A.I.M. splinter group. Karnak agrees to get the kid back for a million-dollar fee from S.H.I.E.L.D. and, from the parents, the single thing which allows them to believe that the universe is a kind and wonderful place.
That should give you a pretty good idea of the kind of person we’re dealing with here. Ellis paints a picture of a man who was born without any gifts, denied the chance to change through terrigenesis, and then spent the rest of his life learning how to break things and bring everyone down to his level. Make no mistake, this is a vicious and mean-spirited book to read but that actually makes it feel somewhat refreshing compared to most other Marvel comics. It works because that approach fits with the character of Karnak as established here and isn’t just doing these things for the sake of doing them. The writer’s approach is also distractingly on-the-nose at some points, though his random bits of nastiness don’t feel as out-of-place as they have in his previous Marvel work. Gerardo Zaffino and Roland Boschi provide some effectively warped artwork that further makes this not a book for everyone, but one that I found to be an interesting portrait of a person who exploits the flaws in others because he doesn’t want a better life for himself than that.