If you’ll recall — and, hell, it remains true even if you don’t — the second issue of Marvel’s “event” mini-series Empire Of The Dead left me feeling decidedly unenthusiastic about this book”s future, given that all it really managed to do was tread water for 20 pages and then stop. But hey — maybe I’ve been a little too quick to judge. It’s been known to happen before.
I’m not here to tell you that Empire Of The Dead #3 (or, to be true to the copyright indicia, George A. Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act One, #3) regains all the momentum we lost after a really solid first issue, but it does go some way toward explaining a few head-scratching things left over from last time around, like what all those rat slaughterhouses all over town are about (rat blood is provided as nourishment for the vampires who can’t afford the real, human stuff) and why certain factions of the city council are, shall we say, less than taken with Mayor Chandrake’s leadership (turns out they’re all fucking vamps and feel he might be hoarding all the choicest — supplies, shall we say — for himself and his family), and actually does manage, in the midst of all this palace intrigue (some of which, in fairness, is dialogued in incredibly clumsy fashion) to propel the main narrative forward in some interseting new directions, which is a heck of a lot more than the second installment was able to do.
As predicted by anyone and everyone who knows anything about Romero, the relationship between Dr. Penny Jones and former-SWAT-officer-turned-zombie Frances Xavier has quickly become the central focus of this series, since questions of “how different are they from us, anyway?” have been foremost on the father of the modern zombie mythos’ mind at least since he introduced the world to Bub in Day Of The Dead, if not earlier (recall the “this place must have been important to them” line as the undead make their leisurely way through the mall in Dawn for perhaps the first verbalization of this obsession), and it turns out that Xavier is probably even more advanced than we already thought, given that she actually gets bored with some of her less-challenging training exercises/tests and decides she’d rather play some basketball instead (hence that awesome cover art shown at the top of this post).
Things get a little out of hand, though, when — well, that would be telling. Suffice to say this issue ends on a nice cliffhanger that sufficiently whets the appetite for next month’s installment and definitely leaves the reader with a pleasant-enough “hey, maybe things are back on the right track here after all” feeling.
As far as the art goes, I’ve got no cause for complaint whatsoever. Alex Maleev’s “rough sketch” style continues to grow on me, and it’s nice to see a world this un-stylized depicted in such an honest, non-flashy, “warts and all” fashion. Everybody looks as worn down by life (or unlife, as the case may be) as they ought to, and every panel of every page oozes a kind of post-apocalyptic “we’re doing the best we can, but shit, it’s getting tiresome” feel. I dig it a lot — and I dig the heck out of Arthur Suydam’s variant cover (shown directly above) as well — as, I assume, anyone with working eyeballs will.
So yeah — my optimism about this series has returned, and with two issues to go in the opening five-part “act,” it’s safe to say I’ll be on board for both to see how things play out. Some of the major characters — specifically Paul Barnum — still seem under-utilized, but hopefully they’ll get some more to do soon, as well. All in all I have to confess that I should have known better than to doubt The Master — I have renewed faith that, wherever he’s taking us, the trip will be worth it.