Tell ya what, friends — Boom! Studios is a publisher that’s been on an absolute roll lately. Suicide Risk is the best monthly comic that no one’s talking about (and honestly one of the top five series being published today), new ongoing monthlies Dead Letters, The Woods, and Evil Empire are all off to incredibly promising starts, zombie four-parter The Returning just concluded its uneven but intriguing run, and the six-part revisionist superhero story Translucid is flat-out blowing my mind. Image had better be watching its back, because Boom! is muscling in on their niche market for intelligent, well-constructed indie books produced by ambitious, upstart creators with a vengeance. It’s getting to the point where I’m ready to add every first issue with their logo on it to my pull list, and i’m not exactly known for my brand loyalty.
Continuing that strong trend is writer Cullen Bunn and artist Vanesa R. Del Rey’s The Empty Man, which debuted this past Wednesday and is positively brimming with the kind of tense, foreboding atmosphere that fans of horror comics love. It’s not without its flaws, sure — the cliffhanger ending seems to sort of thrust itself into the proceedings out of nowhere and it’s not even entirely clear just what the fuck it’s even portraying, for instance — but on the whole my gripes with the book are small and pale in significance when compared with what Bunn and Del Rey get right. If it sounds like I’m hopelessly hooked already, that’s because I am.
Like any good mystery, the opening salvo of this six-issue series begins with a lot of disparate elements that we assume will come together by the time all is said and done, we’re just not sure how that’s going to happen yet. We’ve got a scene featuring an obscure fire-and-brimstone religious sect meeting in an old gas station for Sunday services that incorporates elements of both tried-and-true Christian holy-rollerism (check the preacher’s sermon in the page reproduced above) and new age-y symbolism (what’s that weird triangular logo they display all over the place about, exactly?) to kick things off, but before you know it we’re five years down the road, and that little fringe evangelical sect ain’t so little anymore : they’re all over the TV, preaching the kind of “end is nigh” message with which we’re all so depressingly familiar. The damn thing is, though, they just might be right : that’s because there’s a new plague sweeping our fair land, one dubbed the “empty man disease” by the media, that features, among other attractive symptoms : violent fits of rage, suicidal dementia, incredibly vivid and horrific hallucinations, and gripping panic attacks — all followed by either death or a catatonic, “empty,” comatose state of near-lifelessness.
I know, I know — it sounds like a shitload of fun, and I’d love to figure out how to sign up myself, but the causes of the syndrome remain entirely unknown despite the best efforts of the joint FBI/CDC investigation team tasked with getting to the bottom of things. Far all the time, effort, and resources expended on “empty man,” the simple fact remains that no one knows where or when it’s going to strike next. One thing’s for sure, though — wherever and whenever it does, you can bet that some annoying member of one of the “murder cults” that have sprung up in the wake of the outbreak will be there, genuflecting at the altar of the epidemic and telling all of us poor, lost heathens about how “empty man” has been sent by God to usher in his glorious return. Or something like that.
What connection, if any, these disease-worshipers have with that first cult from page one has yet to be explained — as does the rise of that initial group in conjunction with the disease itself — but the questions are posed in a subtle yet compelling fashion in Bunn’s understated, eerily effective script that does a crackerjack job of setting an admittedly unfamiliar stage. He’s more about the task of putting us all in the right frame of mind with this first chapter, and even though the bulk of the issue is concerned with the kind of police procedural that often becomes a bit too cut-and-dried once he introduces us to our main protagonists (who are, as you might expect, partners on the task force investigating the outbreak), to his credit things never become dull or overly bogged down in “shop talk.” Events move along at a brisk and steady clip and the work of our erstwhile “disease cops” becomes increasingly immersive with each page.
Del Rey’s art complements the story without completely stealing the show — but damn, it does come close, especially toward the end, when events take a turn for — wait, that would be telling! Like a lot of horror comics today, there’s something of an Alex Maleev influence that’s readily apparent in this book’s sketchy, heavily-textured style, but there’s also plenty of individual identity on display here, certainly more than enough to give this series a look that can be safely classified as “all its own.” It’s a dark and uneasy world we’re shown here, fleshed out with dark and uneasy imagery, and you’ve gotta tip your cap and say the writer/artist pairing on this one is just plain perfect for the sort of material that they’re dealing with.
Last but not least, Bunn has come up with a terrific little tag-line for the book — at the scene of every murder/suicide/mass slaughter/take your pick related to the disease, the phrase “The Empty Man Made Me Do It” has been found scrawled on a wall (it also appears on this issue’s back cover, as well). It may seem like a small thing, but snappy little catch-phrases like that can go a long way toward building a kind of instant audience identification with a fictional world — after all, aren’t we all still asking “Who Watches The Watchmen?” some 30 years later? Do not underestimate the power of a pithy turn of phrase, my friends.
And whaddaya know? It’s a meme that’s spread from the printed page to the real world in no time flat, because “The Empty Man” has made me want in for the full six issues already.