“Empire Of The Dead” #5 : George Romero’s Grand Chessboard Finally Comes Into Focus


If it seems like it’s been awhile since we looked at a new issue of Empire Of The Dead around these parts, that’s because it has — the fifth and final segment of the first arc in George Romero’s printed-page zombie epic (officially titled in the copyright indicia as George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act One #5) is a good few weeks late in maintaining its purportedly monthly schedule, but now that it’s finally here, let’s not waste any more time, shall we?

I’ve remarked previously about how this first arc seems more and more like pure set-up the longer it goes on, and I’ve wondered aloud about just how the father of the modern zombie genre was going to bring all the disparate subplots he was working on together in time for at least something resembling a decent climax by the time this issue was over, but I also stated that I still had an innate trust in our guy George’s storytelling ability and reiterated each time I felt like things were headed at least slightly off the rails that I was still reasonably certain that he’d find some sensible way connect all his metaphorical dots before the sand ran out in his equally metaphorical hourglass. As it happens, it seems my faith was not misplaced, because Empire #5 does exactly what you want all good “season-ending” stories to do : brings the overall picture into much clearer view while simultaneously whetting your appetite for the next new episode — and the TV “season” analogy probably isn’t a bad one here given that Romero and artist Alex Maleev (how ’bout that awesome cover he’s cooked up for this one, huh? Arthur Suydam’s “NYC variant,” as they’re known,  is reproduced a couple of paragraphs below) will be returning for their second five-issue “act” in September, right around the same time most television series begin their new episodic runs.

But damn — I don’t really wanna wait that long, ya know? Romero opens the action here in issue number five by delivering Xavier and her makeshift army of “smart” zombies right into the hands of Dr. Penny Jones and “trainer” Paul Barnum, and leaves us with one of his trademark ethical quandaries : will the marginally-more-intelligent undead horde be better off as lab rats, or fodder for coliseum death matches? Either outcome seems grim, and Romero seems to be taking the editorial stance we’ve grown accustomed to from him over the years : the real “monsters” here are the humans, and the zombies can’t win either way unless and until we butt out and leave them the fuck alone.

Palace intrigue is the other major order of the day here, and without giving too much away I’ll just say that the vampiric Mayor Chandrake’s sloppy-ass nephew, Billy, finally screws the pooch here and sees his recklessness get him cut off from the “family business.” Not to worry, though : unbeknownst to all, including Billy himself, this blood-drinking version of Fredo Corelone has friends in high places, who are distinctly unhappy with how his uncle is running the show and think it might be time for some new leadership in New York.

And speaking of friends in high places, it turns out that Southern hell-raiser Dixie Peach and her motley crew of social deviants and hell-raisers might just have some, as well — and they’ve got guns. Lots and lots of guns. And tanks. And bazookas. And grenades. And everything else an ambitious young sociopath might require for a fun night on the town. They’ve also got one thing Dixie herself doesn’t seem to possess — an agenda, and how she fits into that (as well as for how long) remains something of an open question as their siege gets underway on this issue’s climactic final page.


If it seems like I’m pretty stoked at this point for act two, you’re absolutely right. My only real “beefs”  with this issue — and they’re comparatively small ones — are that Maleev’s art does, in fact, look a little bit rushed in some spots, and Romero’s dialogue veers into ever-clunkier territory as things progress. Don’t get me wrong : on the whole the visuals are still quite striking and perfectly suited to the story, but especially for a book that a good 3 or 4 weeks late, I’d expect more consistently-good-looking panels, and Maleev looks like he was cranking it out in order to meet his deadline (not that he made it) in several places here. The dialogue thing is both more excusable and less : obviously Romero had to get a lot done in a short amount of time here, so overly-expository “info-dumps” are to be expected, but if he’d paced himself a bit better earlier on (remember what a complete waste of time, story-wise, the second issue, in particular, was?) he might not find himself as hard up against the wall as he does here.

Overall, though, I can’t claim that these two factors, important as they are, detracted too much from my overall enjoyment of this issue. Nine out of ten of Maleev’s images still look amazing, and events in the story aren’t just moving at this point, they’re flat-out steamrolling. I would expect that Marvel will be issuing a trade paperback collection of this initial run sometime fairly soon in the weeks ahead, and this will probably prove to be an even stronger and more cohesive read in that format, so if you haven’t been following this series in its monthly (-ish) installments, that will give you a good opportunity to get caught up before the next series gets rolling.

Bring on September already!



11 responses to ““Empire Of The Dead” #5 : George Romero’s Grand Chessboard Finally Comes Into Focus

  1. My issue still needs to be picked up, but I think I was on-board from the moment I read the first issue.

    Unlike in films or tv, I don’t mind overly-expository infodumps on the comics page or in a novel. They tend to fit better in those types of media.


    • It’s certainly not the end of the world, and very few comics published by the “Big Two” have anything like “natural”-sounding dialogue — certainly writers of the caliber of Moore and Milligan, etc. can pull it off, but not too many others. The dialogue in this book has been getting a little clunkier as it goes along and more things have been happening, but if it’s in service of a good story, as it is in this case, then I don’t mind so much.


      • I’ve never seen Romero as being a great writer of dialogue. Not saying he’s bad, but his strength leans more towards building up the world and setting up the scenes and themes of the story. When I look back at all his Dead films the dialogue arrive more like hammerheads to the skull than anything subtle. Mamet he’s not but for the type of stories he’s telling it works. Though I will admit that his writing and dialogue for this comic book series has been a major step up from Diary and Survival.

        Diary was so heavy-handed with pointing out the underlying themes of the film. Survival was just hammy with how the dialogue turned out right up to and including the heavy-Irish as I like to call the two family leaders. In Empire of the Dead the dialogue, while exposition heavy at times, still seem to come off as natural. Then again comics tend to keep things from rambling on with it’s limited amount of space.


        • I think Romero’s ear for dialogue had gotten more tone-deaf as the years go by. Apart from having to explain what a shopping mall is, “Dawn” has pretty solid dialogue throughout, as does “Night.” It gets a little clunkier by the time we get to “Day,” rebounds a bit in “Land,” and then yeah, “Diary” is about as clunky as it gets. I still love all of ’em, though (yes, even “Diary”) for various reasons, most of which you point out, but I would generally agree that “realistic” dialogue has become more and more rare in Romero films as the years go by. Mind you, most of the dialogue here in “Empire” isn’t too bad, but it’s gotten more expository as the issues go by.


          • I liked Diary too, but not so much I could forgive the dialogue. I think with Day the dialogue became so much noise with everyone just constantly screaming and shouting at each other. Though Dr. Logan’s dialogue still remains pretty good even now.

            I just saw that Act 2 of Empire of the Dead will not have Alex Maleev doing the internal art but done by Dalibor Talajic instead. I just looked at samples of his work and it’s going to be quite a change from Maleev’s more rough style.


          • Yeah, I just saw that yesterday myself. Talajic has been doing the “Dexter” comics for Marvel, but I think those are coming to an end sometime soon because sales have been pretty abysmal. I like his art okay, but it’s going to be a jarring change, and it’s too bad because Maleev is perfect for this book, but he’s also known to have trouble keeping a monthly deadline, and really hasn’t been called on to do so since his days on “Daredevil.” I can only hope that maybe he’s taking a breather to get geared up for act three, but who knows?


          • Maybe that’s what they’ll do. It wouldn’t surprise me. I dunno, I really think Maleev’s style is perfect for this book, so I’m hoping he’ll be back, but let’s remember — this is still Marvel, maybe Maleev’s page rates are getting too high.


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