Having read the first issue of Irredeemable and the first couple trades of Incorruptible over the past couple of months, I recently dug out my Empire trade paperback for a reread.
The first two issues of Empire were originally released under the short-lived Gorilla Comics imprint via Image Comics back in 2000. I guess Gorilla Comics didn’t do too well (most of their books were eventually published by other companies), and eventually the rest of Empire was published by DC Comics in 2003.
In the introduction to the trade paperback, writer Mark Waid talks about the genesis of the story. Basically, he woke up on the morning of his twenty-ninth birthday and realized that he had accomplished everything he had ever dreamed of doing before he was even thirty. It was a sobering and frightening moment for him. Faced with an unknown tomorrow, he could only ask himself, “Now what?”
That really encapsulates at least half of what Empire is all about. It’s a man known as Golgoth, a technologically-savvy dictator in a suit of armor he never takes off (think Dr. Doom), who manages to defeat or kill every superhero in his path and subjugate virtually every civilized nation on the planet.
In most superhero comics, villains rarely triumph; usually, even when they do win, it tends to be either temporary (where you know the heroes will regroup and the villains will get their due comeuppance), or a Pyrrhic victory. Even in a hero’s defeat, you know he usually at least gets the moral victory. At best, supervillains can win a battle but lose the war.
So if half of what Empire is about is the question, “Now what?” then the other half is the bleak idea that evil very well can ultimately triumph. Golgoth’s rule is absolute. He’s killed all of the enemies who were powerful enough to be a threat to him. Moral victories don’t matter to him because he’s accomplished the goals he set out to accomplish. There are only one or two significant pockets of human resistance on the entire planet, and they know it’s all futile. Every other vestige of humanity is under Golgoth’s dominion. His weapons are might and fear. With his technological prowess, his weaponry is unstoppable. He even has technology that allows him to teleport. There really is no escape from Golgoth, and Empire establishes a dreadful sense of hopelessness amongst the common man.
Through a minimal amount of dialogue from Golgoth himself, Waid establishes that this despot is fearsome and authoritative, and, to some degree, he even has the right to be somewhat arrogant. Even though he has armies who destroy his enemies, he’s not above entering a fray and sullying his own armored gauntlets with the blood of his opposition. He seems to revel in butchering the soldiers of freedom, and he slaughters people left and right with a sort of mechanical precision. Though he doesn’t gloat like a traditional comic book supervillain madman, and he isn’t prone to bombastic monologues, it’s clear that Golgoth is capable of extreme cruelty and callousness.
Perhaps the only shred of humanity left in him is displayed through the care and attention he pays his teenage daughter, whom he basically treats like a princess locked in a high tower. (Her mother, Golgoth’s wife, died under mysterious conditions years ago.)
Golgoth is a menace, but there’s no one left who has a chance against him. Although he has no real enemies, there’s still a great deal of tension and conflict in the plot. The story of Empire focuses not only Golgoth and his work in conquering the remaining pockets of resistance on Earth, but also on his political and military cabinet. His cabinet consists of a variety of perverse, twisted, and sadistic individuals, though they’re all highly talented at their tasks. Some of them are loyal, but some of them have their own motivations and intentions. Golgoth keeps his cabinet subject to his will by controlling their addiction to the Eucharist, which is a drug that triples one’s strength and speed. (In the middle of the book, there’s a great story about the origin of the drug, which I’ll get to in a bit.)
Waid takes Golgoth, his daughter, and these disparate cabinet members. Waid uses these characters to tell a story about what sort of world it’d be if evil had its ultimate triumph and good men were powerless to resist. Even Golgoth’s antagonists, whether it’s the last few remaining leaders of the resistance or his own scheming and conniving cabinet members, come off as rather impotent. No matter how hard they try or how well they think they’ve planned ahead, Golgoth always seems to be one step ahead.
One of the chapters of the book, “This Time,” is a microcosm of Empire as a whole. This particular chapter takes a break from the overall plot, and focuses on a superhero named Endymion, who seems like your basic Superman analogue. Years ago, after pretty much killing all the other superheroes, Golgoth defeated Endymion, the last superhuman who could stand against him. Though Endymion was thought to be killed, the truth is that he’s been imprisoned in a room, connected to machinery that constantly weakens him and drains his blood to be converted into the Eucharist.
It’s a tale of despair, as Golgoth has a conversation with Endymion, and Endymion recounts the story of Golgoth’s rise to power. What makes this particular chapter stand out is how powerless and impotent the superhero is. In just about any other superhero comic, the hero would somehow find a way. He’d gather the strength to break free. He’d use mind games to mess with the villain’s head. He’d have friends who would bust him out.
Not here. Here, Endymion does his best to use psychological warfare on Golgoth (he tries to sell Golgoth on the idea that Golgoth’s wife didn’t commit suicide, but was murdered), all to no avail. He has no hope of breaking free of his prison. All of his friends and allies are dead; even if they weren’t, the entire planet already thinks he’s dead. In the end, Endymion can’t get free and it’s all he can do to retreat into his own mind to futilely try and escape the pain of the machinery. Golgoth has crushed the spirit of the superheroic ideal.
And that, right there, really sums up Empire to me. It’s a superhero comic where the superheroes have utterly failed. It’s about being so consumed and obsessed with one’s own goals that perception of reality itself is diminished. This is evident in Endymion’s hope to be set free one day so he can avenge himself, his comrades, and the world. Yet it’s a despairing shred of hope because in his dreams he can’t imagine a better tomorrow; all he can do is revisit the past over and over in his own mind, and think about how things could have been different. In his own way, Golgoth himself is so consumed with conquering everything in his way that he isn’t willing to believe Endymion’s theory that Golgoth’s wife was actually murdered all those years ago.
After Endymion lays out his credibly logical theory on why Golgoth’s wife was murdered, he offers to find her killer if Golgoth will set him free. There’s this great sequence of panel-to-panel storytelling where Golgoth just kinda sits there for a while, glaring at Endymion, pondering his words. It sounds plausible that Endymion is absolutely correct. But after thinking it over a bit, Golgoth just says, “You would say anything to be free.” He then gets up, turns away, and teleports out of the room, leaving Endymion trapped and alone. He can’t do anything except hate his enemy so fiercely that he cries.
I love how “This Time” ends on such a downbeat note. It’s weirdly poetic.
The rest of Empire has some good stuff with Golgoth finishing off the rest of the human resistance, the machinations of his cabinet members, and a plot twist involving how his wife really died. I don’t think I’ll spoil the ending too much by stating that the whole thing ends with a little bit more despair than hope. There’s a tragedy in the proceedings, but Golgoth only seems colder than ever. If the typical superhero comic ends with the hero walking into the sunset with more hope in the human condition, or life in general, than ever before, maybe the typical supervillain comic is meant to end with the villain walking into the sunset with more bitterness in his heart than he did at the beginning of the story.
Mark Waid writes some excellent supervillains. There’s been a lot of buzz around Irredeemable and Incorruptible and those comics just reminded me that, in Empire, he’s already written one superb story about a Dr. Doom-like supervillain who stomps all over the world.
I know I haven’t said a whole lot about Barry Kitson’s art. He’s a well-respected artist, and rightly so, especially by Waid himself. I like Kitson’s work for the most part. I think his style can be a bit bland at points, but in terms of craft, it’s hard to really fault him. His panel-to-panel storytelling is clear and conveys all the information you need to know. His facial expressions and his characters’ body language are both well-done. He’s excellent at illustrating action, but he’s also more than capable of depicting the quieter moments and simple conversations.
The design for Golgoth himself is really inspired, capturing the cruelty and the regality of the despot of the world. Some of the designs for the other characters don’t really stand out, and I think some of the uniforms for Golgoth’s new world order are kinda fruity, especially the colors people wear. (Could just be a trope of the superhero genre in general, but I still don’t think the colors look good.) Kitson’s a reliably good artist. He’s nowhere near my list of favorites, but he’s certainly above average and you could do a whole lot worse than him. I’m glad he and Waid have a great rapport, because Empire is better because of his contributions.
Kitson’s overall style is sort of your typical superhero fare, which I think is an interesting choice. Empire is such a dark book that it sort of feels like something is amiss because the art looks like a standard superhero comic. A part of me does wonder how Empire would read if the art were suitably grim, but I do appreciate how Kitson’s art gives the comic a subversive sense of style. It certainly isn’t what it looks like at first glance.
Probably the only thing that really threw me off was how a couple of the later issues contain some uncensored swear words. Some earlier issues had some dialogue where you could tell that a swear word was heavily implied, only to get cut off. It makes me wonder if Waid had more freedom to write once DC picked up the book. Still, it’s a minor tonal shift in the latter half of the book that is noticeable, though it’s not really anything that hinders my enjoyment of the comic as a whole.
I think I’ve read interviews with Waid where he’s stated that he and Kitson, at some point in the future, would like to continue with a sequel to Empire. I’d definitely be interested in seeing how he can take this supervillain tale further. He and Kitson left themselves a few loose ends that I could see leading into a second big story. Still, on its own, Empire does have a satisfying ending, one that feels inevitable but is surprising nonetheless.