Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Empire by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson - A Comic Book Review

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.


  1. NICE TO SEE that there was an ending(somewhat expected)with a villain such as Golgoth in the center ring conducting the circus performers. All in all I'd like to find the other 5 issues that I missed,AFTER.. after Gorilla comics went under, and the continuing story that Waid & Kitson finished with the "DC" Comics imprint.
    Nice Blog....
    Comics fan since 1971
    Joseph m.

    1. Thanks for checking out the blog, Joseph! Yeah, you should track down the other issues or the TPB if you can.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Why are uncensored swearwords a problem please?!?! Would you rather have these goofy non-swear words like Marvel and DC used up until the late '80-ies/mid '90-ies (like shouting 'dimwitted broad' rather than 'stupid bitch' or some such) when Image finally broke with this stupid tradition of the comics code authority?
    About swearwords in ANY KIND of comic: If you don't wanna use them, then don't write stories where people get hurt, tortured, their friends or families getting taken hostage or getting hurt or killed, where one person tries to kill another or a whole cityscape or stretch of land gets pulverized. In such awful and destructive scenarios it's veeeery unplausible someone wouldn't use the most hurtful and insulting words they know or rather break forth from their anguish (because that's what swearwords do in such situations. You got no control over your emotional outbreak, that's why it is called an outbreak. D-UH!)
    I would go further even and show the deathtoll and the broken bodies which inevitably must follow your regular superhero/supervillain-bout, especially in overblown scenarios nowadays like 'Age of Ultron' or any Hulk-looses-it-scenario since the inception of the jade giant.
    Btw. Judge Dredd-stories kinda censored themselves with inventing future swearwords, like 'drokking' instead of 'fucking'. It fits their anal-retentive police state lawcode and reminds us (today with the tv-terror of beeped-over swearwords in u.s.-television more than ever) of the culture which came up with the lawful fascim of his world (american urban eastcoast that is). But the great thing is, that most of his heated exchanges with his adversaries still come across as angry and spiteful (much more so and much more down-to-earth than the useless pompuous monologues and childish never-used-in-any-era-of-human-history swearwords of most supervillains we know from DC or Marvel).

    1. Thanks for checking out my blog. (One day, I'd like to update it, I promise!)

      In regards to the swearing thing, I didn't mean to imply that they were a problem in Empire. I was saying that it was weird that they were censored in the first half and then uncensored in the second half. It's a weird shift in tone when reading the entire story as a whole.

      It's not a matter of realism to me, but a matter of storytelling. I've read plenty of superhero comics where there was massive, city-wide destruction, yet there was minimal gore and not much swearing. It doesn't really lessen the impact of the story that's being told. Throwing in more gore or "mature language" doesn't necessarily make the story better - it just makes it different. One thing that comes to mind is The Authority. Compare the original Ellis/Hitch run to the stuff that Robbie Morrison and Dwayne Turner did. Morrison and Turner had free reign to unleash all the violence, sex, and cussing they wanted, but that doesn't make their comics better than the Ellis/Hitch Authority.

      I don't mind if a story has swearing (or sex, nudity, gory violence, etc.) if it's got a purpose to it. I do agree that it's ridiculous whenever they do a story about the Hulk where he loses it and smashes everything in sight, and the story tells us that no one got hurt or whatever - that's kind of silly. But I think for the most part, a lot of the deaths are implied, and I think that's fine when it comes to the Hulk or other mainstream Marvel/DC properties. It is what it is.

      It's like, I'm not gonna hate on an X-Men cartoon just because Wolverine doesn't slash people's heads off or spill their entrails with his claws. It's a cartoon aimed at kids - what do I expect? (I try to find better reasons than that to hate on X-Men cartoons.)

  4. I guess it's like with Sex, something else where american society likes to display superhypocrisy. Either you like dirty sex or not. If you think you have to marry a sexually unimaginative wife, but you still have the urge for kinky sex, than talk to your wife about it or get a divorce! Instead some gentlemen (especially in the u.s., where liking exciting, passionate and unfetterd sex is always seen as a sinful horrible character trait) go to prostitutes to get their good sex. Then they hate themselves for being weak and following that they hate and have to mistreat, kidnap, torture, rape and murder young women for leading them into temptation or not giving them honest admiration. IT'S NO FAULT OF THE PROSTITUTES! So if you need kinky sex in your life but can't reconcile it with the picture of yourself as a good citizen, you better KILL YOURSELF instead of becoming either a highly corrupt, hypocritical, societal or religious leader who starts spewing hatred and justifications over your surroundings or worse, before you become a serial killer or 'just' a thug mistreating or abusing women.
    I know that example is a little harsh and some would say not exactly fitting the topic, since as an author you (should) have control over your writing and their is no 'urge' to put swearwords in, but if you depict a fight-to-the-death between 2 adversaries, who have gone to some lengths already to spite and hurt themselves, the situation 'calls for' the vocal equivalent of the turmoil they feel. And thus, one or two (even 3 or 5!) heavy swearwords (like 'Fuck' and 'goddamned') can find their way into your writing. OTHERWISE YOU SUSPEND THE SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF for all of us grown-up readers who want to enjoy the full spectrum of human emotion in any kind of story-medium and -context and don't need to use fiction as a means of state/society-prescribed education.
    I know kids read these comics. If you are worried, talk with them about it and EDUCATE THEM, as is your job as a parent. Or don't allow them such comics. Buy Mickey Mouse-comics for them. But at a certain age you will have no control over what their friends are reading. And if your kids go to their friends and read stuff, which can also be read by grown ups than it'd be rather better that you know what's going on and you know how to sit down and talk with your kids about critical traits of the human condition, instead of being overwhelmed by it, antagonizing your child by forbidding everything their friends do or try to attack the comic industry. Your kids aren't their responsibility, they are yours. If you can't handle that, or don't find the time in your life to handle it, DON'T HAVE KIDS!

  5. Another thing altogether: I own the first 3 issues of 'Empire'. Back then I was excited to see Golgoth start his revolution in Australia with tribes of aborigines. I thought: 'Yeah, well he is a supervillain, but he is a genius and extremist and probably got fed up with the stupidity, ignorance and destructive shortsightedness of today's globalized society and so he starts a war to bring a unified global empire earth into existence and to elevate human kind to the next level.
    That'd be a motive and put him in the shoes of warlords/rulers/dictators like Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan or Napoleon.
    We got Silch.
    I never did stumble across any rational motives for his rule. Only the symptoms of his lust for power and his hold on power and an overall unforgiving and scheming character of his.
    I wanted to ask you if the whole story reveals any such motives and if our society's shortcomings are maybe reflected in some of the enemies/nations he beat in the past?
    To say it clearly: I expected a story which was promised by the big bad Batman himself in the very last pages of 'The Dark Knight Returns' so long ago. In the story Batman confirmed in front of a congressional hearing on superheroes and vigilantes, which broke apart the superhuman society years before the actual story kicks off, that 'of course we (the superheroes) have to act outside the law. How else should we get to corrupt individuals who use the law as their shield and who see themselves as untouchable?' Subsequently superheroes where outlawed and state-commissioned teams disbanded.
    At the end of the book after he beat Superman and faked his death Bruce Wayne promises to take on more than mafias, street thugs and (super)villains. Namely crooked politicians, businessmen, dictators, terrorists a.s.o.
    Until this day DK2 and DK3 have not delivered on that promise.
    And even worse, when Mark Millar published his 'Nemesis' I expected at first a true brutal vigilante who is fed up about how things are going globally and who is rich and determined enough, technologically gifted and sociopathically inclined to take on the most powerful and corrupt individuals/groups (for example the american president and his cronies). Instead we got a selfserving bastard just following the premise: What if the Joker was (a slightly different) Batman and used his skills and gimmicks to cause mayhem?
    Why would anyone read such a story nearly 20 years after Spawn, especially because Spawn did the things I mentioned earlier above?

  6. I'm still waiting on the vigilante superhero/-villain who has a score to settle with the world and justifiably so.
    Or the story how the MC1 judges cleanse todays global society and put down low the assholes leading our world into destruction. Since Judge Dredd's world is partially wasted by the time him and Rico start their judicial service at the (forcegrown) physical age of 12 and attack the White House they would have had ample justification. Not that the fascist judge system is so much better. It isn't. It's unfair, devious, holding on to power no matter the cost, brutal, unforgiving and selfserving. But they stabilized human progress, took the insane headless dynamic out of it. At the same time alien contact was established and regulated and humanity put on the next technological level. Or some levels ahead even, when you look at the tech stuff they have: Antigrav, selfaware machines, FTL-drive, highly advanced genetic technology a.s.o.
    Alien tech-influence is also responsible for that.
    But I am still waiting on the story where the old power mongers of today get what's coming for them and the judges struggle to implement laws for all kinds of stuff. Binding, harsh, even brutal laws against massive pollution, exploitation of whole peoples, socially critical constellation a.s.o., while at the same time they set up their system so as to how it might best promote their own power. Laws for AIs and how First Contact in Dredd's world was handled (I guess Tek-Judges have been founded during these circumstances) would also be nice.
    But we don't get that. Sigh! I guess I have to start writing comics myself if I ever wanna see stuff like that.

  7. I'm also waiting on the Superman story where he is no villain (like in '√úbermensch') and looses his cool with humanity (like he does a little in 'Kingdom Come') and destroys every weapon, fighting plane, warship a.s.o. (with the help of Flash and other very powerful heroes) but does not kill the wielders of these weapons.
    Supes and some of his friends could actually do this. Imagine the trillions of lost money if during the course of, let's say 4 weeks Supes and friends would tirelessly scour the globe for weapons, take them from their owners (no matter if they are army bases of a sovereign state or terrorist groups) and push them in the sun or drop them on the moon rather, for later extraction and recycling of the million tons of metal in those weapons.
    It would force humanity to take a break and look at itself and the heroes could sit them ignorant all-grown-up-but-even-less-the-wiser assholes of todays leading elites on a table and solve some real and pressing problems.
    Of course to make the story believable, you'd have to consider that Supes and friends would probably get the weapons most easily found first, i.e. military bases, nuclear silos, weapons factories (which they'd have to smash and thus also destroy jobs - not nice, but necessary and better than to kill people) a.s.o. and then you could spin off a beautiful side story of how individuals owning guns privately come together or try to get influence through their weapons in a 'toothless' world and how people like Batman start hunting them down. Or how rich entrepeneurs like Lex Luthor try to get at the weapons stashed on the moon before the vacuum ablates them totally. Of course the nukes would be thrown in the sun in any scenario.
    Besides, why did no one ever complain about the fact that the worlds of DC and Marvel shouldn't have trouble with climate change at all, because they can put up hundred times more nuclear power plants (of the ecologically worrysome fast breeder type) and hundred times less coal plants, because they just have to pay people like Shazam, Superman, Wonder Woman, Thor, Quasar a.o. to lift their nuclear waste and throw it in the sun. Or even better, use some superhuman with earth-moving/transmogrifying powers or with gravitational skills to push it deep beneath the planetary crust in the molten mantle to give nuclear material back to the mineral cycle of earth, so that future generations have some nuclear ores to dig up again (after the movement of the inner earth has brought them close to the surface again after some centuries/millennia).
    And they have nearly continuous unbroken contact with advanced alien species all the time in DC's and Marvel's universes and they never get the idea to maybe incorporate that tech or ask all those denizens of other worlds living on earth to give it to humanity?