It’s the yellow mask.
That - more than anything else - made it hard for me to take Empire seriously. People often make similar comments about superhero comics (or movies) - that the brightly-colored spandex and capes look silly - and I guess I’m conditioned enough for that not to bother me. But Mark Waid’s and Barry Kitson’s supervillain story suffered from it.
Which is a shame, because it’s a pretty good piece of drama… if you can get past the bright yellow mask worn by Golgoth, the protagonist.
Empire is a “high concept” story, putting a twist on the cliché of the supervillain who tries to take over the world: This one already has. The question this book takes on is: What then?
Actually that’s not entirely accurate, though, because at the time the story begins, Golgoth’s empire hasn’t quite taken over the whole world. But the remaining holdouts - a ragtag coalition of soldiers from an unlikely assortment of nationalities, the afterthought territory of Greenland, some street-level vandals - aren’t exactly the sort of thing a super-powered emperor needs to worry too much abouth.
But he does have things to worry about, and they’re mostly in the “court” of his top-level ministers. That’s where most of the action of the story occurs, in the maneuverings and machinations of the emperor’s captains. And just a bit in the emperor’s own soul.
The bright yellow mask almost completely obscures Golgoth from both his world and the readers. He’s less a character than a caricature, like a Darth Vader without the fashion sense. The lack of any explanation for the mask - except a comment that indicates he used to take it off more often - strains suspension of disbelief a bit. The glimpses of his private life beg the question of how it can be so normal (at least superficially) given his single-minded quest for power.
The supporting cast are effectively the central characters of an ensemble drama. They’re generally interesting at the same time as Golgoth is simply perplexing. And the fact that this is a creator-owned piece of fiction gives Waid the freedom to do with them as he sees fit, so there’s a real sense of tension and surprise. For example, when one of these ministers is revealed to be betraying the emperor, you have to seriously wonder whether that’s going to prove fatal… and to whom.
The creator’s comments in the book explain joyfully that creating Empire was a very fluid and organic process for them, which is perhaps a nice way of saying that they made up some of it as they went along. The plot is more structured and coherent than that makes it sound, but it does feel like it could have used once-over-from-the-top review to make sure it held together.
Waid intended Empire to be an ongoing series, so the “limited series” reprinted in the paperback collection is a bit lacking in closure, leaving several plot threads - including the big surprise of the next-to-last-issue - dangling. (To enumerate them would spoil their development.) Neither the original Image-published effort nor the DC-published run took the world as effectively as Golgoth did, so odds are this is going to be it. That’s too bad, because the story here really is more interesting than might be assumed from the premise of the world-dominating supervillain.
In a bright yellow mask.