Today, Shelby and Ryan D. are discussing Empress 1, originally released April 6th, 2016.
Shelby: First issues of comics can be tricky to talk about, especially indie books that aren’t about a character we already know backwards and forwards. We’re faced with a completely new universe about which we know nothing, characters we haven’t met, and situations we don’t fully understand. I find myself thinking more about the potential I see in the issue than the issue itself. What sort of seeds is the creative team sowing, here? Where can this story go from this point? Most importantly, am I even interested enough in the world being created to want to see what happens next?
Meet King Morax.
He’s telling everyone to sit because it’s time to watch three peasants be executed for not beating a friend to death for complaining about being overworked. All they did was turn him in to be executed himself, the selfish bastards. So naturally, Morax has them torn to pieces by a T-Rex, all for his lovely wife Emporia.
Despite the sweet bone hat, Emporia is actually not on board with her husband’s wanton cruelty. She, with the help of her bodyguard Dane, grab her daughter Aine and sons Adam and Puck, and they all hop in a ship and get the hell out of Dodge, which in this instance is the planet Er (actually Earth, but we’ll get to that in a minute). After briefly hijacking a nicer ship to take advantage of its hyper-space drive, Emporia sets a course for her sister’s place and presumed (but probably not actual) safety.
Oh man, did I find this book to be boring. Mark Millar is a talented writer, but there just wasn’t anything interesting happening here. The story feels stitched together out of tropes and gimmicks; let’s start with the setting, which is Earth, but billions of years ago. That’s right, an extremely advanced civilization, with faster-than-lightspeed travel and multiple occupied planets, sharing Earth with the dinosaurs. What is supposed to feel like a poignant commentary on how insignificant the human race is in comparison to all of time and space comes off as an excuse to pair dinosaurs with tech, because that’s cool.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me dino-based nonsense; let us not forget dinosaur-punching Hulk in Indestructible Hulk 12. The problem is, Empress doesn’t have any of that nonsense in it. This book takes itself way too seriously for me to get excited about dinosaurs and future tech paired together. Instead of coming across as fun and weird, it just feels like a gimmick, a ploy to convince people the story is interesting; it has to be, right? There’s a guy in Halo armor riding a dinosaur, isn’t that neat??
Every character and plot point in the story feels like, well, every character and plot point. I mean, Emporia was a waitress at a club when Morax met her and subsequently whisked her away to a life of luxury and murder. A woman down on her luck who thinks she’s found an easy way to a better life, but it turns out the price is too high and she wants out: how novel. Even better: she’s not leaving for her own sake, but for her kids’ sakes. I mean, I’ve having trouble writing about how boring I find this story because I’m so bored by it. When I first looked at this issue’s cover and read the synopsis, I saw Emporia in her horned headress and Dane looking like a regular guy and thought HE was escaping HER tyrannical rule with their kids in tow, and I was super intrigued by this gender role reversal. What a disappointment to discover I was mistaken. It even feels like Millar is using tropes in ways that don’t actually make sense. Emporia’s daughter Aine is supposed to be the Rebellious Teen, but the execution of it feels clumsy at best.
I understand what Millar is getting at here, but I don’t buy it for a second. We’re talking about a man who just ordered three people executed for incitement to disobedience because they turned a man in for complaining when they should have “beat him to death with [their] bare hands and fought [their] friends for the privilege of doing so,” and Aine’s argument is “but he’s my dad and I love him”? I just can’t quite swallow it; using the Rebellious Teen to advocate for a sociopath feels out of line, like forcing a trope into a story where it doesn’t fit. Maybe Millar should have gone with Creepy Loner or Overpowering Bully, either might have been a little more convincing.
I read a lot of first issues this week, and so far this one has been the most disappointing. What is supposed to inspire awe and wonder instead feels like a cheap ploy to hook readers, and the characters are very one-note, and a flat note at that. Clearly Millar has a very big story he wants to tell, one that spans time and space all while occurring on our very own home, but the shortcuts he’s taking to get there leave me bored and uninterested. Maybe a seven-issue mini isn’t the best format for this particular story. Ryan, what did you think? Were you more intrigued than this story than I was? Is there something I’m missing here that makes this book way more interesting?
Ryan D.: Shelby, I tried really hard to skim something poignant and understated hiding just underneath the slick surface of this comic, but I confess to have come up empty-handed. This confuses me, as a writer and illustrator duo with this much street cred could end up with something special; instead, I find myself in the same position as you, asking questions about the seemingly arbitrary or generic choices the creative team made. But you already asked those, so I’ll leave the dinosaurs and the thus-far arbitrary use of setting aside and try to say something…nice.
Not everything in this title is bad, thanks to Stuart Immonen. It appears to me that Immonen did the bulk of the leg work on this comic. His art, as always, gives our eyes a very stylized yet clean, imaginative, and differentiated storyboard to follow, forgiving the fact that the page composition does not try anything worth writing home about. While some of the character design comes across quite Planet Hulk-esque, they are delivered with that smooth, sci-fi taste one can expect from an artist of his caliber and consistency. I particularly enjoyed his rendering of Capt. Dane Havelak, the protectorate to Emporia.
I admit to being a sucker for attention to detail in regards to hair style, but you must admit that it looks great — almost enough so to forgive the fact that his character isn’t much more than a praetorian cypher of Jorah Mormont, and honestly, a pretty boring one at that.
The worst transgression of character two-dimensionality, however, is that of King Morax. As yet another totalitarian dictator in a dystopian past obsessed with maintaining his power via spectacle and death, Morax come across as yet another footfall upon well-trodden territory. I can see only one potentially redeeming quality which I can see pulling him out of the mire of generics, which is hinted at in the penultimate panel:
It is paramount that Morax be compelling, because even though it is Emporia who drives the story, it is the King around whom the world is built. Consider something as small as the fact that he is extremely physically powerful — strong enough to crack that table with his fingers. This intimates that he is, ostensibly, one of perhaps several superpowered individuals, or at least different species who have superhuman abilities. This is an important note for establishing this universe. Keeping in mind also that, historically, dictators come into power due to a volatile mix of their own personal power base and a deep fear in the heart of the masses towards something unknown and alien, one can ask: what is everyone afraid of? If you answer “King Morax”, then I would contend that the incredibly advanced technology shared throughout his kingdom provides the populous the means to violently overthrow this maniacal red tyrant should their voices be united. Perhaps next issue Millar will tip his hand about what is going bump in the night that is keeping everyone under the thumb of this autocrat.
Or, of course, I am overthinking a fairly pedestrian set-up, but I am really trying to dig deep here, Shelby. A metaphor came to mind when I was describing Empress 1 to a friend: it’s like a good-looking sports car with a powerful engine which is left in the driveway unused all year round. By this I mean that this comic looks good and has the backing of an all-star creative team, but really does not go anywhere or do anything. The cynic in me thinks that maybe Millar is writing this comic to be adapted to screenplay, now that he has found commercial cinematic success. While this is conjecture, and I try not to end-game a comic from the first issue, I, like you, worry about the narrative potential left after this bland start, featuring a universe which does not seem innovative, characters who I do not care about, and stakes which are scary-low due to the previous two items mentioned. I will give the next issue a read — just to see whether the creative team had something special in store for us after all — but if conditions do not improve, it may be time that Millar stops giving me false hope about the revitalization of the dino-fiction genre.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?