Publisher: IDW Publishing
Writer: Mark Waid
Artist: Barry Kitson
Inker: James Pascoe
Colorist: Alex Bleyaert and Chris Sotomayor
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
Although Mark Waid is one of my all-time favorite writers, I must admit that I can’t remember knowing about Empire before its fairly recent revival on Waid’s comics website, Thrillbent. I was the poorer for it. Originally released under Waid and Kurt Busiek’s ill-fated Gorilla Comics for two issues, DC allowed Waid and penciler Barry Kitson to release a six-issue miniseries to complete the story. This new volume from IDW collects the full arc, and what an arc it is.
In Empire, an armored supervillain named Golgoth has conquered nearly all of the Earth, with a few countries holding out pockets of resistance. We know the stakes and the tone from the very beginning. The cover for the first chapter shows Golgoth’s helmet reflecting his ministers, blood running down his raised index finger in the extreme foreground. The story kicks off with a two-page spread of newspaper clippings imposed over a cityscape and the Earth in flames. Immediately following this spread, a second gives the reader the title with a picture of Golgoth holding the fiery Earth. The corner of the very page itself is drawn to look like it’s burning away. Waid and Kitson know how to open a comic. The newspapers describe Golgoth’s rise to power and systematic victory over the rest of the world in broad strokes that are just enough to establish the setting without lifting the mystique from Golgoth and his past, which I feel is of crucial importance to the story they want to tell. The image of Golgoth holding Earth is striking, especially given Golgoth’s emotionless, uncaring eyes.
For me, the strongest aspect of Empire is the characterization. Not just of Golgoth, but of every character. All of his supervillain ministers look, sound, and feel unique, like the gleeful sadism of Tumbril, Golgoth’s master torturer, or flubbed attempts at high-minded vocabulary by Lucullan, his minister of war. But naturally, Golgoth is where the characterization really shines. Technically, he’s the main character, but whenever he’s in a scene, even if he’s alone, it only rarely feels as though we’re reading it from his perspective. Though there are a few flashbacks that ostensibly offer this, we never have the chance to read his thoughts, a chance we’re given with a few other characters around him. He often says far more with silence than he does with anything he speaks aloud, which demonstrates the exquisite synergy between Waid and Kitson. Comics artists need to make characters “act” when they draw, and Kitson is exceptional at this. A close-up of Golgoth’s fist tightening in anger is more effective than him losing his temper, and the quiet, subdued nature of his anger makes it all the more terrifying. His emotions are tightly controlled, other than in private. Though his real eyes can be seen through the eyes of his helmet, they give nothing away.
Golgoth is alien, distant. He hides his body behind his powerful, imposing gold armor, and it modifies his voice in such a way that his speech is represented by white text in a black balloon. Usually this effect is reserved for characters who are themselves black and white, like Venom, or characters associated with darkness, like Mr. Dark from Fables. No other character in Empire speaks in such a way. The one humanizing aspect of Golgoth is his relationship to his daughter and late wife. He feels heavy loss from his wife’s death, and she is spoken of very little among his associates. Golgoth clearly has a great love and affection for his daughter Delfi, even if his expression of it is as cold as he usually seems. He does his best to keep her isolated from the grisly truths of his rule, but he doesn’t necessarily keep her naïve.
There’s an overwhelming presence of God imagery surrounding Golgoth that is executed magnificently. He never refers to himself as a god, never explicitly demands worship like that shown to a divinity, but he has absolutely constructed the parallels. Like God, Golgoth is an absolute ruler of the world. Sayings like “Blessed are those who serve” appear among the populace. His name is derived from Golgotha, a name for the hill on which Jesus was crucified, often translated as “the place of the skull.” And to control his ministers, Golgoth gives them a drug called Eucharist in a monthly ritual. It increases their natural abilities, its withdrawal symptoms are extreme, and only Golgoth knows its source. It ensures their loyalty and elevates Golgoth above them.
The God imagery is just one example of the adroit worldbuilding of Empire, which is often more about what remains unseen than what we’re shown. It’s clear that superheroes existed in the world before, but Golgoth killed them all during his rise to power, including a Superman-like hero named Endymion who proved to be his greatest enemy. However, that’s more or less all we know about the superheroes before – that they existed. We know nothing of Golgoth’s supervillain origin, if he was the first supervillain, if he fought Endymion before enacting his meticulous plan to take control of the world. His ministers are coded as supervillains, but it’s unknown if they were before joining him. But I never felt the story was lacking without that information. What matters is that Golgoth rules the world in the now, and that he was strong enough to slay a Superman-level hero. Beyond just the ministers, the vast majority of Golgoth’s functionaries and soldiers wear clothing with super-costume flair, a nice touch by Kitson. Additionally, his layouts and framing often leave acts of gory violence to the imagination, even if the blood and entrails are present: the next panel covers a man getting shot in the head; blood floods from beneath doorways; Tumbril uses a clawed gauntlet to disembowel someone just off-panel.
Empire is a masterwork by some of comics’ master storytellers. The content is dark, despite the shining color palette, but Empire absolutely should not be missed by any fan of superhero comics, especially not fans of either Waid or Kitson. People who loved Waid’s Irredeemable should feel the same about Empire.