Title: Empty Zone Volume 1: Conversations With the Dead
Publisher: Image Comics
Writer/Artist: Jason Shawn Alexander
Colorist: Luis NCT
Letterer: Sherard Jackson
Story Contributions: Christopher A. Taylor and Dinora Walcott
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. Read at your own risk!
In Empty Zone, Jason Shawn Alexander and his collaborators blend Blade Runner’s grimy futurism with the fluidity of David Mack and Bill Sienkiewicz, then add a dash of H.R. Giger. While its plot is interesting, it needs some space to build momentum. Fortunately, the art is more than strong enough to carry a significant portion of the storytelling.
I found chapter one, the first issue of Empty Zone, to be something of a rough read. It comes out swinging with a two-page spread of a man lying on a tile floor among splinters of a wooden door. Blood spatter spreads from his head as first-person captions describe him as the narrator’s best friend, Hank. It looks like a painting, and the violence of it is an immediate, striking sign of what’s to come. After this, the next page incongruously snaps backward in time to when our protagonist woke up that morning. This is Corinne, a white-haired woman with black stripes tattooed on her face and a mechanical prosthetic right arm. Though we get some sense of her as a hard-drinking, pill-popping type with a traumatic past, that’s all I really got of Corinne by the end of issue 1. There’s a hook of possibly hallucinated ghosts, one of which takes the shape of a dead lover, but it was hard for me to get a handle on what that meant to her. It’s also difficult to figure out what exactly Corrine does – she works for a man named 8 and with a man named Hank, and there’s a distinct, deliberate noir vibe, but she’s clearly not any kind of investigator. There’s a hint Corinne has some kind of tactile control over machinery, but only the barest hint, without any indication of what exactly it is or how she uses it in her work.
I don’t mean to say a writer needs to lay everything out for the reader from jump. That’s what makes a sci-fi or fantasy story compelling: a desire to find out what’s happening and learn the rules of a new, different world. But it helps to explain something, and Empty Zone offers very little until the beginning of issue 2. This is where I feel Empty Zone makes a strong turnaround. In the first few pages, captions from Corinne explain what’s changed in the future in the time since our present, primarily that years of solar storms caused a long blackout on Earth, causing widespread societal collapse and changing the face of technology. Nearly everyone in the world has cybernetic augmentations, and a surveillance state gives them cause to keep their information in their bodies, spreading it from person to person rather than through unsecure lines. This is Corinne’s job, to obtain and transfer data with her tactile technopathy. With these pieces of exposition clicked into place, the story goes much more smoothly, and I feel there may have been a point during issue 1 when these details could have been filled in.
With that said, once the worldbuilding begins and the narrative becomes a little more cohesive, Alexander shows us some great ideas that either pull back the curtain on the world or plant seeds for later use. For example, a timestamp describes one part of Pittsburgh as “the 99th Ward,” which is neon high-rises with the headquarters of at least one business. The visuals say this is clearly a rich part of town, and the term “99th Ward” says the Pittsburgh of the future is a place much, much bigger than the Pittsburgh of the present. This information doesn’t need to be explained in dialogue or caption boxes, a testament to Alexander’s skill.
The environments in Empty Zone are cluttered, claustrophobic, an urban sprawl encroaching on itself. High tech exists with low, such as in Corinne’s apartment, where she has a screen the size of a bathroom mirror for a home phone existing with beat-up cabinets, worn tile, and cracked drywall. Her cybernetic arm is obvious, but looks deliberately constructed rather than slapdash. It’s a contrast to sleeker vehicles and buildings, but it’s similar to a hostile robot with visible hydraulics that putters around like the Giger-inspired cyborg zombies. They’re shambling gray corpses, off-balance and creepy, leaking ethereal black matter and lost souls. What is perhaps most interesting about Alexander’s art, though, is the fluidity of style. Sometimes the linework is solid, sometimes it’s faded, others it has the painted bleed of Mack and Sienkiewicz. The real achievement of this experiment is that nothing feels incongruous with anything else.
Luis NTC’s colors really drive home the aesthetic, especially when the colors leak outside the lines. The light of machinery is omnipresent, and a sterile machinery workshop is contrasted with its owners, the Chois, green-and-purple Willy Wonkas of the underground cyborg enhancement market. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize a unique lettering device Sherard Jackson uses in Corinne’s inner monologue. Occasionally, a red word or phrase will appear in a box within the caption, set apart from the rest, a more brutally honest word than the one in the usual black, e.g. “stubborn” instead of “tenacious.”
If I may make one last nitpick at Empty Zone, it’s that I’m not sure what the title refers to. Corinne makes a passing reference to a “Zone” in her past, but other than that, I found nothing. Presumably, it will be expounded upon later in the series, but until then, I’ll be wondering. I’m curious where Empty Zone will go, because the end of Conversations with the Dead gave me no indication of the series’ future direction. If Alexander’s art continues to be of the same caliber as it is in Volume 1, readers are in for a treat.