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!