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How long can you go without talking?

It doesn’t sound like much of a superpower, but Black Bolt holds the record in comic books. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created him back in 1965 (Fantastic Four #45), and aside from a few mountain-splitting whispers, the guy has barely parted his lips.

For Supreme Court Justices, the verbal self-restraint prize goes to Clearance Thomas.
 

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“One of the abiding mysteries at the Supreme Court,” writes Adam Liptak for The New York Times, “is why Justice Clarence Thomas has failed to say a word in almost seven years of arguments.” Theories include self-consciousness (Thomas was teased about his Georgia accent growing up), intimidation (he didn’t speak in his Yale law school classes either), and courtesy (to his fellow Justices whose noise level he likens to Family Feud).

Black Bolt is less of a mystery. My wife gave me Men and Cartoons for Christmas, so I’ll invite Jonathan Lethem to the lectern:

Black Bolt wasn’t a villain or a hero. Black Bolt was part of an outcast band of mutant characters known as the Inhumans, the noblest among them. He was their leader, but he never spoke. His only demonstrated power was flight, but the whole point of Black Bolt was the power he restrained himself from using: speech. The sound of his voice was cataclysmic, an unusual weapon, like an atomic bomb. If Black Bolt ever uttered a syllable the world would crack in two.

 

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Black Bolt grew up in a sound-proof chamber, not rural Georgia, but he is also a member of the Illuminati, the closest thing in the Marvel universe to the Supreme Court. Thomas shares his bench with eight Justices; Black Bolt only five (Reed Richards, Dr. Strange, Professor X, Tony Stark, and Namor), but both supergroups are the endpoint of an ultimate check-and-balance system.

They always get the last word.
 

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Black Bolt even passes judgment on U.S. legislation. He rejected the Superhuman Registration Act (AKA the Patriot Act) in 2006 (also the year Thomas last spoke in court) and refused to get involved in the ensuing “Civil War,” monitoring it from afar instead. As Lethem explains, “Black Bolt was leader in absentia much of the time—he had a tendency to exile himself from the scene, to wander distant mountain tops contemplating . . . What? His curse? The things he would say if he could safely speak?”

Aside from a few whispered remarks audible only to Breyer and Scalia seated beside him, Thomas has gone seven years without a single word. Until this winter. During a discussion of the qualifications of a Harvard-trained defense attorney, the Black Bolt of the Supreme Court leaned forward and said into his microphone:

“Well — he did not — .”

The earth did not split in two.

But opinion did. Some witnesses say he was making a joke, a reference to whether a degree from Harvard could be considered proof of incompetence. Or was he referring to his own alma mater, Yale? Either way, court transcripts indicate laughter followed. Seven years of silence and then a one-liner. But if it was just a joke, why did the lawyer at the lectern try to refute his point? Whatever that point may have been? And since the broader issue was the minimum qualifications for a death penalty defense lawyer, who exactly was laughing?

When Black Bolt breaks his vow of silence, the results are usually much louder. Remember when he used his voice to free the Inhuman’s city of Attilan from the Negative Zone? Or stunned Spider-Man’s alien Venom costume after it merged with Thor, allowing Black Cat to kill it in revenge for Peter Parker’s death? (Though, okay, that’s from What If?, so technically it never happened.)

We never know exactly what Black Bolt says in his super-speeches. Maybe he just likes to crack jokes. If so, no microphone can record them. But the last time Thomas deployed his nation-splitting voice, every network in the country televised it.

Remember how he pronounced the L-bomb, declaring his 1991 confirmation hearing a “high-tech lynching,” and categorically denied Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment? Remember the joke he cracked to her about the pubic hair on his Coke can? Now THAT was funny.

Of course the Senate confirmed him, so technically that didn’t happen either.

So let’s hear it for judicious self-restraint.Like Black Bolt, the Justice understands his own destructive vocal power and so has learned to hold his super-tongue. If he stays on schedule, we won’t hear another joke till 2020.

‘Nuff said.
 

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