Looking at things in strictly structural terms, second issues are often a tricky wicket in the comic book racket. In today’s marketplace, especially, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re going to lose nearly half your readership (at the very least) between the first and second installments of any given book simply because cover prices are so fucking high (the going rate for the series under discussion here today, Empire Of The Dead, or as it’s known to Marvel Comics’ legal department, George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act One, is $3.99 per 28-page issue, with only 20 of those pages devoted to actual story and art) that a title has to be seriously flawless right out of the gate in order for everybody to shell out their hard-earned cash for a second serving. So you’d better give the diminished-yet-loyal cadre who have showed up for the second round good reason to keep coming back for more — a nifty plot twist or two never hurts — and you’ve also gotta put in some serious work on fleshing out the world you showed in only the broadest strokes in the series’ debut installment.
With those two admittedly impromptu standards in mind, it’s safe to say that Empire whiffs on the first — badly, in fact — but connects rather nicely on the second, and therefore the end result is a decidedly mixed bag indeed.
Nothing much happens here in terms of plot progression, with Romero choosing instead to paint a more complete picture of his zombie-and-vampire-infested future New York City. We learn that the devious Mayor Chandrake, his even more devious nephew Bill, and their ghoulish entourage live, appropriately enough, at the infamous Dakota apartment building, and that Bill is a bit reckless in terms of his procurement methods for new flesh (and blood). We learn that SWAT-officer-turned-zombie Francis Xavier is displaying even greater signs of intelligence (or at least more successfully mimicking learned behaviors, as she proves when she arrests a criminal) than previously thought. We learn that uber-zombie Zanzibar is an even bigger bad-ass in the coliseum than we figured by way of a particularly gruesome fight sequence. And we learn that Dr. Penny Jones can be somewhat ruthless in pursuit of her research goals, even going so far as to enlist her feminine wiles to aid her cause.
But that’s about as far as things go here. There is some impressively Bacchanalian excess going on in the Chandrake suites, with carnal blood-letting taking up most of the issue, and there’s some political “court intrigue” introduced in the New York city council, but there’s no real story advancement taking place in the traditional sense, with Romero apparently being content to take this opportunity to merely expound upon his characters and their various situations a bit more fully (except for poor Paul Barnum, who’s scarcely given anything to do). That might work reasonably well for one issue, I suppose, but we’re going to need more the next time around — a lot more, in fact, especially given that part three will mark the more-than-halfway-point of this initial five-issue arc. I’m not ready to say this second issue was a failure so much as a missed opportunity, but it all hinges on what happens (or doesn’t) next.
At least the art doesn’t let the side down, though. Alex Maleev’s rough. sketchy illustrations are rich with atmosphere and convey a genuine sense of both brutality and foreboding, while the variant covers (by Maleev, Arthur Suydam, and Greg Horn, respectively, as shown) are all pretty goddamn cool in their own way. Now it’s just up to “Mr. Zombie” himself, George A. Romero, to give his artist some more interesting things to draw. I’m down for another issue, but the go-nowhere nature of this one has tempered my initial enthusiasm for this series quite a bit.
The ball’s in your court, George. You haven’t let me down yet (as mentioned in my review of issue one I was even a fan of Diary Of The Dead), but this is a new format for you with new demands — and new possibilities. I’ve still got exactly $3.99 worth of faith that you won’t disappoint me now, either.