Karnak #5: The Flaw In All Things (Part 5)
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Roland Boschi
Color Artist: Dan Brown
Letterer: VC’s Clayton Cowles
Cover Artist: David Aja
Review By: Nate Mondschein (@33andMoonshine)
–Decently Sizeable SPOILER Warning for Karnak #5–
When Warren Ellis and Gerardo Zaffino’s Karnak #1 snuck its way into my pull list back in November 2015 (largely on the back of the author’s past Moon Knight and Iron Man credits, Marvel Zombie that I am), my expectations were relatively straightforward: nuanced yet irreverent prose; biting humor; a dark, cerebral anti-hero dancing his way through a semi-comprehensible plot. The Ellis Trinity, if you will.
What I had not expected, given my lack of familiarity with his work, was just how captivating Zaffino’s visual storytelling would be. All of the predicted (and expertly delivered) trappings of a traditional Ellis comic were suddenly amplified by a dizzying onslaught of frenetic pseudo-realism, somehow so brutally true to life while simultaneously disregarding all laws of nature. The emotional impact of these depictions, coupled with Ellis’ wry-yet-foreboding tone imbued our protagonist with a depth of humanity and relatability never previously achieved; all of which made it all the more unfortunate when, after only two issues, Zaffino departed from the series, citing personal concerns.
And this is where we return to expectations: were he not following on the heels of such a gifted, albeit short-lived performance, Roland Boschi’s art would more than likely prove compelling. But when taken in contrast to his predecessor (as unfair a comparison as it is an unavoidable one), and augmented by excessive shipping delays, it becomes impossible to appreciate purely on its own terms.
As a result, the primary draw pulling us into “The Flaw In All Things (Part 5)” is Ellis’ prose, which remains as evocative as it is untethered. Conversations serve as a vehicle for a whirlwind of meandering philosophy and gritty takes on societal ills, (both real-real and comic-real). And there is plenty of conversation to be had in Karnak #5, which centers almost entirely around everyone’s favorite Terrigenless-Inhuman and his interrogation of Russoff the Painter. The latter (introduced for the first time here) is a compelling, if not familiar character: your friendly neighborhood omniscient grandfather figure, complete with a nightgown borrowed straight off Clarence’s It’s A Wonderful Life costume rack and a “shocking” tortured past.
Despite the ensured payoff of multiple “WTF” moments each time a fight breaks out, Karnak’s most engaging battles are those fought in the mind. What begins as a typical examination quickly takes a turn as Russoff reveals himself to be a much more formidable opponent, pulling the Inhuman into a dream-like, location-leaping verbal conflict (later revealed in a brilliant cut scene to be entirely internal, as on-looking S.H.I.E.L.D agents watch the two men sit motionless inside the interrogation room, hypothesizing that “Maybe Karnak’s trying to psych the guy out.”)
One of Ellis’ greatest gifts is his ability to sell even the most grandiose phrases without loosing substance in the wording: “You have the sheer luck to be born into self-reflective consciousness on a world filled with beauty and you think it would be egotistical to appreciate it?” Russoff retorts after one of Karnak’s cold deflections, and the statement lands, as much with us as with the Magister. Despite Russoff’s tendency for heavy-handed, “doesn’t this make me sound tortured” dialogue and Karnak’s occasional lapse into teen-angst mode, their back and forth effectively drives the issue towards it’s climax.
Boschi’s work throughout this issue give Karnak a more unhinged, maniacal appearance than in earlier installments, which may be appropriate given the Magister’s descent into aggressive instability. But such a rendition also distances us from the character, and makes his moments of insecurity seem not like relatable character flaws, but the product of an unreasonable, detestable pride. If the objective of “The Flaw In All Things” is to gradually turn us against our protagonist (and I’m not ruling this out), then Ellis and Boschi are succeeding. But if the objective is to bring him to this low point as a means to expose his own inadiquacies before returning as a character changed for the better, then they’ve left themselves with a long way to climb.
Oh, AND ALSO KARNAK EXPLODES RUSSOF WITH HIS BARE HANDS.
At least that’s the way it looks. His conversation with the surrounding, clearly traumatized S.H.I.E.LD agents suggests the explosion may have been the acolytes own doing. Before we can dig deeper, Ellis’ brings us to a close, still enveloped by the ambiguity. Is the Magister of the Tower of Wisdom loosing his way? Or has he simply lived up to his name, and seen the flaws that remain invisible even to his audience? The answer will have to wait (because #spoilers, another delay) until November, and at this point, it’s getting a little difficult to justify hanging around.
Trade-Wait: With only one issue left to go, it may be too late for anyone who’s been following thus far, but if you’ve managed (like many people) to avoid this series so far, keep doing what you’re doing. I’m not sure how much of my frustration here is the delays and how much is a rapidly devolving plot, but this issue just doesn’t give enough to warrant buying independently. I have plenty of faith in Ellis’ ability to tie things together and make good on the promise of a phenomenal start, but it just doesn’t feel worthwhile following along through the whole process in real time.