Is it just me, or has the second act of George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead positively flown right by? I mean, here we are with only one issue left to go, and it feels like it was just the other day that the series started up again after the conclusion of the hiatus that followed its first arc. I have no doubt the book lost a fair amount of readers during the break — in fact, like most comics it probably lost a good half of its initial readership right after the first issue — but for those of us who’ve stuck with this thing, the payoff in the form of a big “fireworks” finale does seem to be approaching, albeit slowly. Remember, if all goes according to plan we’ve still got two more five-part acts to go following next month’s wrap-up of the current one, but there seems to be a steady flow to the story that’s been established here in the second chapter that wasn’t there in the first, with its sometimes-fitful starts and stops.
All that being said, though, it’s not like that better overall narrative hasn’t come at a price. George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act Two has been plagued with some seriously forced and unnatural dialogue at times — a flaw more apparent than ever in this fourth issue since Romero seems to have fallen back on dropping a whole lot of “—“s into his sentences in order to impart them with some cheap n’ easy pseudo-gravitas, and hey, I’m not ashamed to admit that I still miss Alex Maleev’s art, despite the continued improvement of Dalibor Talajic as he’s grown more comfortable and confident with horror-themed material (the addition of Rick Magyar on inks beginning with issue 3 also helped, as he’s given the imagery a darker, more subdued tone, a trend that I’m pleased to say continues this month).
The biggest qualm that many of us readers have, though, is that eight issues into this sprawling zombie saga, we still don’t know — or didn’t know, at any rate, since that seems about to change — who the hero of the story is supposed to be. There are various points of identification that the average reader can clearly see with a number of the characters, sure, but no clear-cut “good guy,” a la Ben in Night Of The Living Dead, has stepped forward.
And that’s where the often-neglected “zombie wrangler” Paul Barnum enters the picture here. There have been a number of issues where he’s been given precious little — if anything — to do, but now that the “love triangle” between himself, Dr. Penny Jones, and Mayor Chandrake seems to be evaporating — with no one in a position to “get the girl” (and that’s all that I’ll be saying about that due to the internet’s penchant for breeding self-appointed “spoiler police” around every digital corner) — our guy Paul seems to be out to bring the whole vampire cabal running post-zombie-apocalypse New York down. Mess with the girl he’s sweet on, and you’ve messed with him, I guess.
The only other significant story developments in this issue focus on the machinations to replace Chandrake with Chilly Dobbs now that nephew Billy is out of the way and the oncoming aerial-and-land assault being planned for the city by the militaristic forces using Dixie Peach and her southern hell-raisers as their ostensible (and quickly disposable, should the need arise) front. A common theme in both of these plot threads — which do, in fact, intersect in the pages of the comic itself and not just thematically — is that the devil we don’t know is often worse than the one we do, and that “leaders” of various movements — whether in the halls of government or out on the streets — are perfectly interchangeable pawns in the hands of the power brokers who really pull the strings, so that seems to be where Romero is aiming his always-present social commentary in his latest zombie epic.
All in all, then, shaky dialogue and an uncharacteristically impressionistic (and not, I might add, succesfully impressionistic) cover from the otherwise-reliable-to-this-point Alexander Lozano aside, issue four of Empire Of The Dead Act Two is an intriguing piece that Romero has moved into position on his grand chessboard. The focus of the story is tightening, events are coalescing with a kind of subtle yet undeniable force, and I think we’re headed for a bang-up conclusion to the second arc in 30 days or so.