A Few Thoughts About Empyre

By | Thursday, August 13, 2020 Leave a Comment
Empyre #0
Let me start with a little personal background, in case you don't know me. I started reading Fantastic Four back in 1983, and I was quickly hooked. I read the book continuously until shortly after the Civil War storyline in 2007; I found that approach Marvel was taking with its characters generally and with the FF in particular no longer to my liking. The book had been canceled in 2015 and I later started digging through discount bins to pick up all of the back issues I'd missed (I ended up paying only about a third of what all those issues would have cost me if I had been buying them new!) and got myself caught up just about in time for the current series to start.

As a long-time FF fan, I also quite liked the Skrulls as villains. Back when I was running my FF fan site -- before Wikipedia was a thing -- I wrote a pretty comprehensive, heavily researched article about them. (That link goes to an Internet Archives page. I think it's still a good article, but it's over a decade out of date now.)

So while I have been getting Fantastic Four regularly, that's been pretty much the only Marvel title in my pull list. Until I heard about Empyre and I thought, "Well, the FF are heavily involved anyway and I still kind of dig the Skrulls..." So I opted to start picking that series up. Just the main one, though, not all the secondary and tertiary titles. However, given that I use a subscription service and don't get my comics from an in-person store for the most part, I only just this week got any of the Empyre issues.

In case you're not reading it, the basic gist of the story is that the Skrull and Kree races, who have been at each others' throats for eons, have made peace to team up against a third alien race, the Cotati. The Cotati have targeted Earth because of the Vibranium deposits in Wakanda, and both the Skrulls and Kree are completely open to nuking the entire solar system by blowing up the sun in order to stop the Cotati. Needless to say, none of Earth's heroes are happy about this.

Conceptually, I like the story. I think that, if you're going to do a mega-crossover event, the general structure here makes sense. You've got one overarching plot (the Kree/Skrull/Cotati war) but you can still farm out smaller stories to separate heroes that provide depth in different venues. That is, you don't have to have ALL the heroes together for one giant, confusing Avengers: End Game style climax, but you can split up the groups to fight individul battles on different fronts. In Empyre for example, you've got some heroes defending Wakanda, you've got another contingent trying to stop address the squadron of alien starships orbiting the planet, and you've got a smaller crew tending to the wounded on their home turf. There are a variety of stories that can be told within the overall plot structure.

I started by cracking open Fantastic Four #21, the first crossover issue of that title. I had no idea how/where this might fall into place with the broader story and so I scanned the issue initially to see if they had listed some kind of reading order. Sure enough, at the end of the book, there's a two-page spread listing out all of the separate issues the story crosses over into and an order of how they should be read. So I put my books in order and started reading. But then I noticed something when I got to Empyre #1 (actually the second issue of the title).

The issue opens with a kind of roster page. Just a simple listing of all the main characters and what group they're affiliated with. Next is a two-page title spread; it includes a three paragraph summary of "the story so far" and all the creative credits for the issue. Then there's the story itself (occasionally interupted with some house ads) followed by two pages of character/design sketches by series artist Valerio Schiti. Then there's the two-page checklist again, and the final page is a full-page promotion for the next issue. The remaining issues all follow the same format.

What I find striking about this is that they've devoted five whole pages to just explaining the series (the roster, the title page summary, and the checklist). My first thought is that, if you need to take five pages every issue just to explain what's going on, maybe the periodical format isn't the best venue for this story. I mean, I get why the checklist would be necessary and maybe the summary, but two pages each? I mean, I get that they're clearly not shooting for a casual audience here -- Marvel seems to have given that up years ago in order to focus on existing die-hard Marvelites -- but if you have to include that much for heavy-duty fans, maybe you're making it way too complex. I seem to recall that was one of the huge drawbacks to the "Inferno" story back in the '80s; it was just too hard for most people to figure out what the hell they even needed to read to follow along!

But this other thought occurs to me about this, too. If you combined the summary and checklist to one page -- it would be tight, but doable, I think -- you could remove an entire signature from the book! And if a single page would've been too tight, you could still repurpose one or both of the character/design sketch pages. A single signature might not seem like much, but over, say, 100,000 copies time six issues (possibly more, if they do something similar in the various "epilogue" type one-shots) that's a good chunk of change!

The story isn't bad, I don't think (it's not great either, but it's not bad) but I don't know that it's being served well by the periodical format. I know writer Dan Slott is more than capable of telling good stories in the periodical format, so I don't think we're looking at a talent issue here. I really think it boils down to just not having the whole thing as a single volume. I've seen plenty of comics before where it was clear the creators were wrestling between writing to the periodical and trade paperback formats simultaneously. Although the issue endings end on decent enough story beats, the overall tale seems like it's being written more for the book market.

Whether or not that was a directive given to the creative team, I don't know, but I have to wonder if that points to plans in Marvel's future that might mimic DC's apparent weighting themselves more towards the bookstore market.
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