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What is the deal with Marvel’s Inhumans?

A brief primer

Medusa and Maximus ABC/Marvel
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

The Inhumans may not have the greatest buzz surrounding it. In fact, it may have the exact opposite of buzz. And that might leave you wondering.

Why did Marvel think that these weird characters were worth making TV show about? (Or, once, a whole movie?) And is there a way to find out who the heck these obscure Marvel comics characters are, without watching what looks to be a lackluster, eight-week television event?

Yes, there is.

What were the Inhumans supposed to be?

The Inhumans and Black Panther in Fantastic Four Annual #5 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Fantastic Four Annual #5
Jack Kirby/Marvel Comics

What you need to know about the place of the Inhumans in the Marvel universe is that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were really into the idea of powerful alien forces crafting offshoots of early humanity. And Kirby in particular was really into the idea of furnishing superhero universes with superhero-y explanations for ancient religions and legends. The Inhumans, who were genetically altered by the ancient Kree to have an accelerated evolutionary curve compared to pre-historic man, are an early example of this creative inclination.

Inhumans developed high technology while humanity was still chucking rocks and crude spears, and developed the use of Terrigen Mist to give most (but not all) Inhumans a unique superpower. They found that when they attempted to interact with humans, they were regarded as fearful demonic creatures, and so decided to peacefully isolate themselves from humanity in their hidden city of Attilan (which has had a few different locations, including the Moon).

Like “mutants,” “The Inhumans” is a name for a specific genetic offshoot of humanity. And like “X-Men,” it’s also a name for the editorially linked central characters of stories about Inhumans. Those characters typically include:

The carefully mute Black Bolt — whose voice is so powerful he can destroy with a whisper — rules in the Inhumans’ moonbase home of Attilan, beside his queen, Medusa — with her yards and yards of prehensile hair. Then there’s Karnak, whose power is to see and exploit the weak point in all things; Triton, with general aquatic powers; Gorgon, who has, uh, powerful stomping abilities; and Crystal, Medusa’s little sister, who has power over the four elements and a long romantic history with Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. Rounding out the cast is Maximus, who is Black Bolt’s younger, power-hungry brother and the Inhumans’ original antagonist.

So what have the Inhumans turned out to be?

A last-ditch X-Men substitute.

OK, that’s a simplification.

In practice, the Inhumans never reached the cache of Kirby’s other deific work — fictional settings like Asgard and Apokalips and New Genesis. Their presence in the Marvel Universe has been ... intermittent. The first Inhumans series ran from 1975 to 1977, followed a lengthy 11 years later by a graphic novel, and a limited series a decade after that. They’ve seen relatively more exposure in the comics world since the start of the ’00s, but they’ve never been a comics juggernaut.

And without a lot of people clamoring for Inhumans stories (although I hear good things about Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward’s Black Bolt, currently running), they settled as a concept that simply shared far too many qualities with their more popular sibling — the X-Men.

Both present a suite of characters born with with wildly different innate abilities because of the same genetic source. Both groups live as an insular society, feared by humankind. Both have certain members whose actions are sewn throughout the centuries of human history. But where the X-Men derive much of their relatableness from being a diverse, found family of (often teenaged) misfits, the core story framework of the Inhumans is the regal melodrama of the Inhuman royal family.

More recently, in Marvel Comics, Inhumans and mutants have been pitted directly against each other, when it was discovered that roving clouds of Terrigen Mist — the gaseous substance that awakens superpowers in humans with Inhuman ancestry — were deadly to mutants. The X-Men sought to eliminate the unpredictable Mist, while Inhuman leaders saw the Mist’s destruction as a threat to the waves of “NuHumans” they wished to welcome into the fold of their society.

So why has Marvel Entertainment decided Inhumans are so hot right now?

Because they don’t have the film rights to the X-Men.

The same qualities that made the Inhumans kind of redundant to the Marvel Comics universe has made them valuable to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the absence of mutants and the X-Men, they’re a go-to feared and hated underclass of humanity born with infinitely variable superpowers that derive from a unifying narrative explanation.

The metaphor of the X-Men is one of the most powerful and efficient superhero fiction ideas to come out of the Marvel Universe, if not the most. It’s no wonder that Marvel Entertainment is trying to find a way to put it into its film universe with the Inhumans. A Marvel Universe without the mutant metaphor is missing a big chunk of itself.

That said, Marvel Entertainment (and here it’s important to remember that Marvel Entertainment’s decisions and Marvel Comics’ decisions may not have the most direct causations) was banking on that metaphor being compelling enough without the inclusion of, well, any recognizable main characters. The most famous Inhuman at the moment is, arguably, Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel, who will not be appearing in the show.

Ok but WHAT is with the DOG?

Crystal (left) and Lockjaw ABC/Marvel

Oh, that’s Lockjaw.

There’s got to be more

He’s a giant lovable dog with a tuning fork on his head. He has the ability to teleport and serves the Attilan royal family as a means of conveyance and a guard. He is also an Inhuman.

...but he’s a dog

He’s an “Inhuman dog,” and I really think it’s best that we not ask more about precisely how Lockjaw fits into Inhuman society on a genetic level.