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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Marvel's Inhumans, explained

Their appearance on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is just one small part of Marvel's grand plan.

The Inhuman Royal Family.
The Inhuman Royal Family.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On the last season of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., audiences were left with a promise of more Inhumans this season, as the Terrigen Crystals — the material that changes ordinary humans into potential superheroes with fantastic powers — fell into the ocean and slowly but surely trickled into the lives of Inhumans around the world. The show constantly teased these new beings, and tonight's season premiere feels like a definitive pulling of the trigger. The first five minutes of "Laws of Nature" are a kinetic display of special effects and amazing powers as we follow a man who can't control his newfound ability to melt solid matter.

But the premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is just the tip of a complex, 50-year-old iceberg that began with the legendary Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. The two created some of the weirdest characters seen in comics, and delved into science fiction, caste systems, and the peculiar insanity of a race of people playing with eugenics. Today, the Inhumans have the potential to tell some of Marvel's most complex stories, and represent something far weirder and more interesting than what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has shown (so far).

What is an Inhuman?

The Inhumans are a race of superpowered beings that were created when an alien race called the Kree experimented on Earth's early, primitive humans. (Ronan the Accuser, the main villain in Guardians of the Galaxy, is a Kree.) Their official first appearance was in Marvel's Fantastic Four Nos. 44 through 46 (Medusa, a member of the Inhumans, had appeared earlier but did not identify as Inhuman), and they were created by comics artist Jack Kirby and Stan Lee:

Fantastic Four No. 45. (Marvel)

The Fantastic Four at the time were Marvel's premier superhero team. What made them so popular wasn't just their superpowers, but rather the family dynamic among the members — they bickered, they fought, they weren't always as earnest or virtuous as superheroes could be.

The Fantastic Four also capitalized on the Thing (a.k.a. Ben Grimm) and his heartbreaking heroism. At the time, the Fantastic Four were seen as a counter to the Justice League — a group of handsome, mostly white superheroes who looked like humans (even though Superman is an alien and Wonder Woman is an Amazon). Grimm looked like a monster but had the heart of a hero.

Kirby and Lee took both these elements and injected them into the Inhumans. In that first appearance, there's a pronounced effort to make the Inhumans a really weird-looking mess of a family:

Fantastic Four No. 45. (Marvel)

Their strangeness would be amplified as different artists took on the team. The man in the picture above is named Gorgon, and though you can't tell in this issue, he has powerful hooves where his feet should be. Triton looks like a purple sphincter, and there's something not quite right about Medusa (the redhead).

These weird appearances are tied into the bigger Inhuman origin story. The story, told in Thor Nos. 146 to 149, starts with the idea that Inhumans are actually humans who have undergone Kree experimentation, which speeds up their evolution and advancement.

As part of this advancement, the Inhumans eventually figure out that exposing themselves to a substance called Terrigen Mist can grant them powers. After being in contact with this substance, they gain new abilities. Radnac, a monarch, explains how the mist could save the world but also could be a deadly plague:

Thor No. 146. (Marvel)

The risk Radnac is talking about comes to fruition as many Inhumans develop deformities when they're exposed to the mist. But those deformities are often the source of their powers (see: Gorgon's hooves and Medusa's hair). The Inhuman origin story is a story about beginnings, but also an inspection of eugenics (Lee and Kirby were of Jewish descent, and no strangers to the idea of eugenics in World War II), and of mitigating the damage of these experiments and creating the most powerful Inhumans possible. It's a both cynical and wondrous look at science and the political fallout of WWII, as well as a deeper foray into science fiction for Kirby and Lee.

Inhumans are, in a sense, like the mutants who would go on to become X-Men, in that all Inhumans have a common origin story or a common link that makes them Inhuman. The most notable Inhumans are the Inhuman Royal Family (more on them in a bit), who have their own strange dynamic, which includes an evil brother named Maximus the Mad. While the Inhumans are their own race and have their own story, you can see how Kirby, Lee, and Marvel tried to re-create some of the Fantastic Four magic.

Who are the Inhumans?

There's a gulf of difference between the Inhumans' lush comic book universe and the Inhumans that appear in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Of course, the comics have some 50 years of source material on the TV show.

But the Inhumans never really played a major role in Marvel's comic books the way teams like the X-Men or the Fantastic Four did. Until recently, the Inhumans were a bit like a satellite crew. They would chime in during major arcs, but never commanded (and to this day, still don't) a major following.

The main characters of the comic books are a group of beings known as the Inhuman Royal Family. They're the family in that first appearance, and are built like a traditional super team, with members possessing powers like super strength, the command over nature, and mind control.

From left: Triton, Gorgon, Karnak, Black Bolt, Medusa, and Crystal. (Marvel)

  • Black Bolt is the king. He emits large amounts of energy and force through his voice. If he's not careful, he can level cities by speaking. In order to get around his power, he has developed a telepathic bond with his wife.
  • Medusa is queen of the Inhumans. Medusa's power is in her enhanced hair (unsurprisingly), which she can mentally command to do anything she wishes, like lift heavy objects, protect her from harm, whip her enemies, or subdue them.
  • Crystal is Medusa's younger sister. She has the power to manipulate the four elements — earth, air, fire, and water — and mix them together if she wishes.
  • Gorgon is Black Bolt's cousin. He's the muscle of the Royal Family and has bull's legs, a mutation caused by the mists. He creates earthquakes by stomping.
  • Karnak is a freaky little dude with face tattoos who's also one of Black Bolt's cousins. He has the power to find a weak point in any object, plan, or person. Do not mess with Karnak.
  • Triton is still another of Black Bolt's cousins. He's green. He looks like a fish and can breathe underwater. He also has super strength.
  • Maximus the Mad. Black Bolt's brother, he's basically the Loki of the Inhumans. You shouldn't trust him, as he's always looking out for his best interests. He has mind-control powers.
  • Lockjaw is an alien bulldog and the royal pet of the Inhumans. He has the power of teleportation.

On S.H.I.E.L.D., the Inhuman storyline is massively different. During last season's winter finale, a member of the team, Skye, was exposed to a Terrigen Crystal and developed powers that allow her to control earthquakes. The character existed, with a different name, in comic books before the television series (Quake was created in 2004), but it wasn't until after this development that a comic book (S.H.I.E.L.D. No. 7) explained/retconned that she is Inhuman:

S.H.I.E.L.D. No. 7. (Marvel)

S.H.I.E.L.D. is now teasing the creation of more Inhumans this season, as the traces of crystals have begun altering latent Inhumans into beings with powers.

What's interesting is that we're now seeing Marvel try to repackage or rewrite the Inhumans into something that will hook audiences. S.H.I.E.L.D., like Marvel's movies, is geared more toward a casual audience, and that audience might not appreciate the complex backstory of a caste system, a royal family, and a freaky little man named Karnak.

I'm not sure the comics-reading audience even appreciates them. The Inhumans were some of the last characters Kirby introduced before he left the company for DC Comics in 1970. They were finally given their own book in 1975, which ended in 1977. They appeared in limited series in 1998, 2000, 2003, and again in 2007.

The Inhumans haven't had the longevity or loyal fan base that characters like the X-Men, the Avengers, or DC's Justice League enjoyed. And the Inhuman comic book — which debuted in April to decent sales and cracked the top 20 of comics sold in North America — saw a 48 percent drop by its October issue.

What's the best Inhumans story out there right now?

The most critically acclaimed Inhumans story in comics right now isn't about the Inhuman Royal Family, but rather the story of Ms. Marvel, a.k.a. Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl who is a latent Inhuman. After being exposed to the Terrigen Mists, she finds herself with shape-shifting powers. But it's more than just the powers that define Kamala's journey: Ms. Marvel also explores questions of identity, family, race, religion, and assimilation in modern-day America — five decades after we first saw many of the same ideas in the Fantastic Four (and yes, the Inhumans):

Ms. Marvel No. 1. (Marvel)

Written by G. Willow Wilson and drawn by Adrian Alphona, Kamala's story evokes this generation's Peter Parker. It's fresh and honest. The art carries the same kind of emotions that Hayao Miyazaki films do. And there's an effortless joy in the comic's bones and in Kamala's spirit.

Audiences have clearly responded: Last October, Ms. Marvel No. 1 went into a seventh reprinting — a rare marker of success in comic books.

Why do the Inhumans matter?

This is sort of complicated, but it starts with the idea that Marvel has invested a lot into the Inhumans and ends with the potential reasons for why it's poured so much into the franchise.

In 2013, Marvel introduced a major comic book crossover event called "Infinity," where Black Bolt detonated a Terrigen Mist bomb and spread the substance all over Earth, creating countless numbers of Inhumans. (There's a similar storyline going on in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s third season.) This increases the potential for different kinds of characters (they are sometimes called Nuhumans) and new storylines.

The fallout over the Infinity arc, dubbed "Inhumanity," sees the Inhuman Royal Family beginning to live on Earth after their homeland, Attilan, is destroyed. This increases their interactions with the Avengers and events on Earth. All of this means that the Inhumans are no longer a satellite team, and have played major roles in Marvel's subsequent crossovers like "Axis" and "Secret Wars."

The Inhumans' higher profile in the comic books, combined with their pronounced television presence on this season on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., indicates that Marvel is gearing up for the 2019 Inhumans movie. By then, if this all works out, the Inhumans will be a more recognizable team. A cameo or two in the 2017 Guardians sequel could also help lay the foundation for something bigger for the Inhumans and further build out Marvel's cosmic universe.

Additionally, Marvel saw an epic rise in sales of Guardians of the Galaxy comics when it confirmed it was working on a movie, and it probably wouldn't mind seeing a similar boost for the Inhumans' comics.

But then there's the question of why Marvel invested in the first place.

Marvel's Inhumans and "kill the X-Men" conspiracy plot, explained

For the past few years, there's been a looming conspiracy that Marvel is downplaying the X-Men because of their film rights agreement with Fox. The theory goes: Marvel doesn't own the X-Men's films, and therefore isn't as interested in investing resources as it would be for other books whose film rights it does own. You can get lost in forums and threads where this theory is discussed, rehashed, and sliced up several different ways, but Marvel has never officially said anything about it.

So here's where the Inhumans come in. The Inhumans are very similar to the mutants — they're feared, they're considered weird, they have superpowers that don't come from magic or computers — and they could, if Marvel wanted, be a way to write mutant stories without actually giving Fox source material. They're also, according to some critics, benefiting from the ground the X-Men broke.

"Building up the Inhumans theoretically allows Marvel to retain the value of mutants without paying Fox a tithe. The Inhumans are mutant sucralose," Andrew Wheeler at Comics Alliance wrote. "The Inhumans are new neighbors, flush with capital, edging out the unwanted residents that built this community, and eroding the vibrant culture that made that neighborhood so special."

Because of the X-Men's popularity and the Inhumans' lack thereof (the ones not named Kamala Khan, anyway), it's hard to fathom a world where someone would freeze out the X-Men. The numbers simply aren't there. But that doesn't change the fact that it would be in Marvel's best interest to keep trying different ways to get people excited about the Inhumans.

So what's next?

The Inhumans won't be getting a movie until 2019, and no one knows what direction that film will go in. For now, the Inhuman stories being told on television are wildly different from the ones that are being and have been told in comics, with the television storylines being more popular. If things remain the same, and this third season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is popular while interest in the dramas surrounding the Inhuman Royal Family remain lukewarm, it wouldn't be surprising if Marvel incorporated elements that are more in line with the television show. It did, after all, ignore the comic book origins to bring us the Avengers Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch.

The third season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premieres Tuesday at 9 pm on ABC.

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