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


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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.

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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!

 

“Empire Of The Dead” #4 : George Romero Continues Playing The Long Game


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There’s no doubt about it at this point — the entirety of the first five-issue arc in George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead is pure set-up. Consider : with one more installment  to go in the opening “act” (the official numbering here being George A. Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act One #4) we’re finally getting our first sustained glimpse at a character called Dixie Peach, somebody who, from all I’ve read about this series, is slated to play a pivotal role in the proceedings. Who exactly she is and what her motivations are remain a mystery — she and her crew have just come up to New York from Georgia and seem to be intent on causing mayhem as, I guess, a sort of “payback” for the Civil War, and get off to a pretty good start by killing a border crossing guard and shooting out a security camera — but nevertheless, four chapters into his story Romero finally seems to have all his chess pieces in place.

Not that we see all of them this time around, mind you. Mayor Chandrake’s nephew, Billy, is notable for his absence  (in fact the Mayor himself only makes the briefest of appearances here, when he attempts his “vampire seduction” act on Dr. Penny Jones before being cock-blocked — or maybe that should be neck– blocked — by Paul Barnum, who’s finally given something semi-meaningful to do in this issue), as is Zombie super-fighter Zanzibar, but there’s only so much you can cram into 20 pages, I guess.

Former SWAT cop-turned-zombie Xavier has the biggest part to play here in number four, as she befriends a homeless young girl and seems to adapt quickly to her new role as the child’s protector, further continuing Romero’s theme of “humanizing” the undead. That could prove to be an interesting relationship down the road. And the vampire power structure is laid out in more detail as we learn just how thoroughly their “curse” has penetrated every level of the city’s administration and political infrastructure. Plus, we get to learn what happens to vampires when they — get this — die (and yes, they do die under the rules Romero is establishing/expanding upon).

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With the second-to-last issue of the opening series being this heavy on the (sometimes clumsily-scripted, it has to be said) exposition, then, it’s fair to say that act one of Empire has laid its cards on the table : don’t expect a self-contained narrative here that can be read on its own apart from its forthcoming sequels. Romero’s following the “long game” strategy so fashionable at Marvel of late, probably best exemplified by Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man, which has essentially turned out to be a 31-issue mini-series setting the stage for Peter Parker’s return next week in the (yawn) new Amazing Spider-Man #1.

Not that I expect our guy George to take it quite that far, mind you — by the time we get through all five planned “acts” of Empire Of The Dead, I do believe —or at least hope — that we’ll have a fully-functional, start-to-finish, epic zombie story. But he’s building things very slowly, methodically, and carefully. If this were the work of somebody knew to the genre, I’d probably be a little more cautious about how little narrative progress had been made by this point, but you know how it goes with Romero : sooner or later every one of his plot threads ties together and we end up with a story that says more about “us” (humans) than it does about “them” (zombies).

Alex Maleev’s art is enough to keep me coming back for more, as well (his main cover, and Arthur Suydam’s variant, being reproduced above, respectively,  for your edification). He’s just plain hitting it out of the park here, and seems to be gaining more confidence, and a better handle on the grim world he’s depicting, with each issue. I dare say he may even be surpassing the lofty standard he set for himself on  his legendary Daredevil run here. 21 more issues of images as flat-out awesome as those he’s giving us isn’t something I’m going to complain about in the least, and I’m sincerely hoping that the breaks between acts one and two will be a very short one indeed.

“Empire Of The Dead” #3 Shambles Back In The Right Direction


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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.

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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.

Treading Water And Sucking Blood : “Empire Of The Dead” #2


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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.

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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.

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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.

 

“Empire Of The Dead” : George Romero Brings His Newest Zombie Epic To The Printed Page


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Normally I’m not one for hype, but Marvel’s advertising tagline describing their new series from the father of the modern zombie genre, George A. Romero, as a “comics event” actually strikes me as being a fairly accurate one. I mean, when the guy who gave us Night Of The Living DeadDawn Of The Dead, and Day Of The Dead eschews the silver screen to tell his newest “living dead” story in the comic book format, that’s big news, right?

And from the word “go,” issue #1 of Empire Of The Dead (okay, fair enough, its complete title, according to the copyright indicia,  is George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act One, Number 1) has a suitably “big” feel to it, and even though artist Alex Maleev approaches his work in a sketchy, rough, “stripped-down” style — which is flat-out gorgeous, by the way — the overall tone here is much more, if you’ll forgive the term, “epic,” than certainly Romero’s last two (very much under-appreciated) film efforts, Diary Of The Dead and Survival Of The Dead, were.

The setting is New York City, five years after the dead began to walk, and things are, as you’d expect, a mess. Corrupt Mayor Chandrake and his creepy nephew hold the city in their thrall by providing Roman Gladiator-style “Zombie Fights” in Yankee stadium that serve to distract a weary populace from the fact that all the resources — well, all the resources that remain, at any rate — are flowing right to the top. A moneyed elite lives in luxury while the populace starves. Sound familiar?

Our two main points of audience identification in the midst of this neo-feudalistic dystopia are Columbia University research scientist Dr. Penny Jones, who’s looking for a zombie with the potential to be, if not educated, at least domesticated, and her guide through the undead part of town, a privateer of sorts who captures zombies for use in the arena named Paul Barnum, whose main claim to fame is having “discovered” current champion fighter Zanzibar.

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Obviously, even at this early stage (Act One is slated to run five issues, with further mini-series to follow) parallels to previous Romero works abound. Penny shares the same research obsessions as Richard Liberty’s Dr. Logan character from Day Of The Dead, while Barnum is essentially a stand-in for Simon Baker’s Riley Denbo from Land Of The Dead. There’s a flashback sequence that intimates strongly that this story takes place in the same fictional “universe” as Night Of The Living Dead, and the economic set-up is, again, essentially the same 1%-vs.-99% scenario that the more-seemingly-prescient-by-the-day Land offered up, with Mayor Chandrake filling the role of Dennis Hopper’s Kaufman. Meanwhile  Zanzibar, for his part, seems to be being groomed for a role not too dissimilar from that of Bub in Day.

Don’t think it’s all re-hash, though — for one thing, moving things from Pittsburgh and its immediate environs to the Big Apple ups the scale quite a bit, the text blocks Romero employs to flesh out how the zombies “think” provide intriguing new insight into the workings of their rudimentary “consciousness,” the martial-law-type scenario that pervades on the streets adds a new , thematically-relevant wrinkle, and the surprising climax to issue one shows — and I sincerely hope that I’m not giving too much away here — that zombies aren’t the only ghouls in town.

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So, yeah — there’s enough “newness” here to imbue the proceedings with a reasonably fresh take on things, but for those of us who are old-school Romero die-hards, the story is chock-full of enough familiar themes and tropes to keep us both smiling and anxious for more. The set-up is inherently and immediately topical and politically charged (Occupy The Living Dead, anyone?), and, like all of the maestro’s best work, Empire promises to use its zombies as a stand-in for ourselves, and to utilize its post- apocalyptic sworld to shine some welcome light on uncomfortable, but essential, truths about our own current socio-economic predicament.

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For my part, I’m all in on this one, despite having numerous ethical qualms about spending so much as a single dollar (not to mention a hefty $3.99 per issue) on any Marvel product. I think we’re looking at another Romero classic-in-the-making here, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.